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Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen (2024) is the latest series to reimagine the age-old trope with which it shares its name.

So what exactly is a ‘gentleman’? And why has this trope remained so pervasive throughout history, both off and onscreen? Psychology provides some answers.

The term comes from Middle English, spoken in England from about 1100 to 1500. It relates to the English gentry, which was the class below nobility but above farmers, and is a direct translation of the earlier French term gentilz hom, denoting a man of high status.

Studies of linguistic psychology from the 1980s found the word “gentleman” is associated with higher competence and warmth, and rated as having more positive connotations, including of goodness and morality, than just “man”.

Today, the concept of the gentleman remains ingrained in Western culture and is widely reflected in film and television.

We’ve seen countless gentlemen characters feature in popular shows such as Suits, Mad Men, Sherlock, Highlander and Downton Abbey, to name a few. And all of these characters share the common trait of having some form of power – whether it be physical, political, economic or social.

Onscreen gentlemen show us real power is restrained. In the first episode of The Gentlemen, although Eddie (Theo James) is combat-trained, he restrains himself from violence, even when mugged or threatened by thugs. This portrayal is rooted in the historical notion of the “gent” as a man of authority whom others ask for help.

Physical restraint requires emotional restraint, or avoiding extreme emotional reactivity in adverse situations. Psychology studies indicate men who demonstrate emotional restraint are viewed as more intelligent and competent. Restrained power fits neatly into the gentleman trope and is considered a positive value in Western culture.

Other examples are Mycroft Holmes from Sherlock, Aziraphale from Good Omens and Raymond Reddington from The Blacklist.

Another trait shared by gentleman characters is ‘honour’. Cultural psychology has defined honour as maintaining reputational status through “integrity, honesty, being true to one’s principles […] not tolerating disrespect and insults, and protecting oneself and one’s family, group or clan from face loss and reputational harm”.

This is exemplified in Jamie Fraser from Outlander (2014–ongoing), who is consistently loyal to his family. He also embodies physical strength and political authority as the lard (chief) when fighting for Scotland and his clan. John Watson from Sherlock, Jim Halpert from The Office (US) and Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs from NCIS also come to mind.

A third quality of the gentleman is that of mastery or cleverness. In the new series Shōgun (2024), a Japanese feudal lord called Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada) shows great cleverness in evading his enemies. Early on in the series, he says: “A leader must write clearly and beautifully. He must be the very best in all things.”

This demonstrates one aspect of our cultural understanding of the ‘gentleman’, wherein we associate competence and intelligence with power.

We don’t have to delve far into psychology to understand why intelligence is a likeable trait. It helps us learn from experience, solve problems and adapt to new situations, benefiting both us and the people we associate with.

The gentleman can be considered an archetypal figure: an ideal example of a certain kind of person that we can all recognise. The reason for our universal recognition of such archetypes comes from psychologist Carl Jung’s (1875-1961) idea of the “collective unconscious”.

Jung theorised certain types of characters or concepts represented in images (such as in art or on TV) are innately recognised by humans, rather than consciously learned. These concepts, he said, provide a framework to interpret the world that’s shared across peoples and cultures.

Of the 12 archetypes Jung proposed, the gentleman could be considered an example of ‘the ruler’ – a person driven by their desire to control to somehow help or provide for their clan or community. Others include the ‘trickster/jester’ and ‘the sage’.

Gentleman characters represent an ideal of positive masculine behaviour, embodying honour, strength and cleverness in their actions, which are generally directed at helping others.

And while the class-based roots of this concept can’t be ignored, delving into the underlying psychology at play reminds us we could all learn a thing or two from this trope.

 

is Cognitive Psychology Researcher, The University of Western Australia. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence