“I was a princess trapped in a tower by a wicked queen. And then suddenly this knight on a white horse with these colors flying would come charging up and draw his sword. And I would wave. And he would climb up the tower and rescue me.” (Vivian, Pretty Woman)
Of every leading man on screen, the one that pulls our heartstrings the hardest is the knight in shining armor. As children we watch cartoons of actual knights braving curses and dragons and witches to rescue the princess. These stories speak to use on a primal level: women want to be loved by a man who will fight to the death to win her, and men want to make that effort for a woman who loves him more than anything on earth.
Oh—but these are just fairy tales? Real life isn’t that simple?
You’re right. But in many relationships we can see this pattern of woman-loves-man, man-protects-woman. In fact, it is often in the most imperfect relationships that we see it the clearest. Vivian was a hooker, and to win her Edward had to overcome public opinion and the deadlier enemy of his own vanity. Prince Eric battled a real monster to save a girl who had grown up underwater. Menelaus launched a thousand ships to retrieve a wayward wife.
Lesson 1: There is always something the Knight has to overcome…
It could be external, like an obese octopus-woman with a penchant for maritime domination. Or it could be internal, like a propensity to act before thinking, or to act like a jerk. Like this guy.
Logan Echolls (Veronica Mars) is his high school’s “obligatory psychotic jackass,” according to the girl that will soon fall in, then out, then back in love with him (now multiply that by three). He is sarcastic and a bit of a jerk (“Nice car. God, it must have been a huge cereal box.”), has no respect for authority (the principal wants a word: “Anthropomorphic,” says Logan), and doesn’t really think about how his actions affect others (like when he sleeps with then off-again Veronica’s arch enemy).
And he has never been loved: his mother jumped off a bridge after an overdose of prescription drugs and despair. His (adopted) sister is the illegitimate child of the principal and a deaf lunch lady and cares only for fame and money. His father had an affair with and then murdered Logan’s high-school girlfriend. Can you say “daddy issues.”
But he is the one who tells Veronica, “You know who I am. And you’re constantly expecting me to change. And even right now as you’re thinking, ‘Crap, he’s got a point,’ you still think you’re ultimately right. I love you, Veronica. I love you. Do you love me?”
He is the one who will deck Veronica’s would-be kidnapper (really an undercover ATF agent), attack her boyfriend Piz for leaking an indiscreet tape (he didn’t), and bash in a cop’s windshield just to get sent to prison. Oh. To beat up someone who actually had attacked Veronica.
Essentially, he will do anything to protect her. Essentially, he loves her.
Lesson 2: and no matter what it is, the Knight will protect her.
When he doesn’t have personal demons to battle, he will take on actual monsters.
While James “Sawyer” Ford (Lost) isn’t perfect—he is sarcastic, deceptive, greedy, and hotheaded—he has real monsters to deal with, like this thing.
On first impression, Sawyer is simply a handsome jerk. He hoards all the junk from the plane crash and then barters it to people who are just trying to survive. He almost beats a fellow survivor for setting fire to an escape raft, and later he reveals (his crush) Kate’s criminal past to make sure he gets the free seat.
But it soon becomes clear that he is also a man who will use himself as a shield between the innocent and evil. He takes a bullet trying to protect another man’s son. He is held captive and beaten viciously, and he does not resist—to save Kate from similar torture by their captors. When several survivors get on a helicopter in a last-ditch attempt to return to the real world and the load is too heavy, Sawyer jumps out into the middle of the ocean to give everyone else a chance.
This instinct to defend, to sacrifice himself for others, is branded on Sawyer’s heart as clearly as the letter he carries that says I am going to find you. As a child, Sawyer watches his father kill his mother and then himself after a con man had ruined their family. Unable to protect his parents at the time, eight-year-old Sawyer vows revenge and dedicates his life to finding and killing the man responsible for his parents’ death.
It is this purpose that makes him so attuned to injustice. It is this history that drives his responses in a crisis. It is what makes him put others first when it counts, what makes him protect the woman he loves with every weapon available (and when those fail, with sheer will). It is what makes him fight, no matter what the danger to himself, no matter how terrible the monster.
Lesson 3: His armor might not exactly be shining.
What do each of these leading men have in common? Imperfection. It’s a sine qua non. Without his own faults, Logan would hardly be worrying about those of others and how they might affect his Veronica. Sawyer defends the innocent because he knows what it is like to be powerless and without help in the face of evil. The knight in shining armor rescues the princess not because he is some sort of god among men, but because he is a man among men and knows what he is up against.
To put it another way: knights in shining armor are normal guys. They are any man who has gone to war, or any man who has gone to work, for his family. They are dads who rock their babies asleep. Brothers who make sure their sisters’ boyfriends are good guys. Friends who offer you a ride home after dark. The guy who makes sure you are safe, who would rather undergo anything than have something bad happen to you. They are the man who saves you rather than himself. That is a leading man.