Masculinity in the Movies
Created | Updated Sep 30, 2005
I've just met a wonderful man. He's fictional - but you can't have everything.
- Celia (Mia Farrow) in The Purple Rose of Cairo, Woody Allen, 1985.
When Jane Austen began Pride and Prejudice with the words 'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,' she could hardly have better encapsulated the essence of the portrayal of masculinity in 20th-Century popular culture. Man, as seen on the silver screen, must, it seems, be in 'possession' of a woman to be truly whole - every Tarzan must have his Jane, every Superman his Lois Lane. The theory goes that cinematic women are merely capital, evidence of a man's wealth, and so a woman is rarely seen as a weakness of the modern man; after all, masculine sexual superiority can only be achieved if there's a woman to be subjugated.
This 'Tarzan Syndrome', this law that a man must have a woman, is rarely challenged in cinema, for it is supported by the very nature of our race - men and women need to get together in order for humanity to survive. But the issue of masculinity as a construct is becoming a contentious issue as we begin to question the extent to which gender is fixed, and what part, if any, popular culture plays in this. This entry examines just a few examples of fictional masculinity to discuss some of the issues evident in mass-market movies.
Nature, Nurture or Nietzsche
Journalist Julie Burchill once pondered whether our adult characters were arrived at as a result of 'nature, nurture or Nietzsche'. Her comment was, of course, intended to be flippant, yet in one particular type of fictional character, the indomitable comic book superhero, we find many references to a division in their ultra-masculine psyches, not least in the progenitor of them all, Superman.
Superman's identity is, from the very beginning, called into question: he is a refugee from the planet Krypton; an orphaned baby adopted by a middle-aged couple in small-town America; a superhero with a secret identity. Almost instantly, he is proving himself to be a man - even as an infant when he lifts a truck above his head with his bare hands, and later when he excels at sports and outruns a locomotive to impress a girl (ironically, a young Lois Lane). For the early part of his life, governed by the examples of traditional American pastoral ethics, young Clark is able to reconcile his amazing powers and his seeming normality thanks to the examples of clean, responsible living presented by his adoptive father (Glen Ford).
When young Clark reaches maturity, however, when his sexuality emerges, it is his mother who is responsible for the division in his gendered identity through the creation of the Superman costume. For now, forced to assume a dual identity, his alter ego, the normal, plain-looking, bespectacled Clark, is forced to be a ten-stone weakling, though he has the security of being able to at least acknowledge his masculinity in his everyday dress - the grey business suit. His public figure on the other hand, a powerful, muscular, sexually-desirable hero is dressed in blue Lycra tights, red briefs and matching boots. Thanks to the cultural changes that have occurred since his first appearance in the comic books, Superman has become a victim of fashion; what was the accepted attire of a circus strongman or acrobat in 1930 is, by 1978, more in keeping with the high-camp New York gay scene - he is cursed to be a figure of ridicule for wearing his underwear on the outside.
Critic Pauline Kael noted this divide in another way, in the way Superman's complex character is perfectly in tune with the desires of the adolescent males who make up the majority of his legion of fans, finding conflict between their emerging sexuality, and the confused notions they have about how their masculinity represents itself:
The divided hero is both a ninety-seven pound weakling and Charles Atlas, but, unlike human beings, with their hope that the clown will grow into the hero, Superman is split forever. He can perform miracles, but he remains frustrated: as Clark Kent, this lonely stranger cannot win the woman he loves - the girl reporter Lois Lane - because she is in love with Superman. Like the Scarlet Pimpernel and a number of other mass-culture heroes, he is his own rival.
In other words, Superman, for all his abilities, is as much a victim of the 'Tarzan Syndrome' as any mere mortal.
Kael also asked whether, in an era of Woody Allen's acknowledgement of the humour and good sense of cowardice, Lois Lane might find herself 'drawn to Clark Kent's non-threatening persona and feel some conflicts in her swooning response to Superman'. Superman's dilemma is one common with many superheroes - how to hold down a full-time job and still get the girl. Batman, as seen in the 1989 film version, has already overcome the problems of his ridiculous, colourful costume, having ditched the pants and tights image for an altogether more sinister, masculine image, a 'brooding mass of muscles and moral concern'. Batman acts as a public persona for the recluse, Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), as Superman did for Clark Kent. Like Kent, Wayne is an orphan, though a considerably wealthier one, allowing for the vulgar excesses that act as compensations for his insecurities: a black rubber suit with pumped-up, artificial muscular detail, a long, sleek, shiny metal torpedo-car, the equally Freudian planes, boats and belt-full of projectile weapons.
Whereas his enemy, the horrifically-scarred Joker (Jack Nicholson) wears a clown-face and dresses in outlandishly garish suits of clashing colours, Batman has an entire closet of identical suits - a parody of the walk-in wardrobes of the 1930s movie stars. He also wears eyeshadow to make his eyes look darker - the dandy Joker's crude sexual innuendo is challenged by a man who hides himself behind a rubber fetish and wears eye make-up. It's small wonder he has trouble identifying with the love interest, Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), and no surprise at all when he appears flustered at her question, 'Are we gonna try to love each other?'
When Batman returns in the imaginatively-titled Batman Returns (1992), he is matched in every way by a new vigilante, Catwoman (Michelle Pfeifer), whose home-made costume is all the more exciting because of the shoddy stitching; using the same techniques as Batman to hide her identity, there is similarly no doubt as to her gender - the fact that it looks as if, unlike Batman's armour, Catwoman's rubber is ready to slide off her at any second, somehow diminishes Batman's artificial and sexless bodysuit. He may have the image of the he-man, but, as Vicki Vale's absence in the sequel testifies, he must be a lousy lover (and if that's the case, then James Bond must be even less impressive, going on his 'repeat rate').
Batman's fight sequences seem to be more about mere display than simple victory; we know that he carries enough weaponry to floor even the most agile of adversaries, yet he feels drawn to play in extended battles with The Joker and Catwoman, as if merely sustaining the battle testifies to his masculinity. This is a common element in many action films as the male characters take time out of the plot merely to prove themselves as men.
These particular superheroes are interesting in that they've appeared in the pages of comic books and graphic novels, in cliffhanger serials, feature films and in both animated and live-action TV series. The light and dark spectrum of the superhero has been played out by these two more than any other.
Steven Spielberg's first film for cinema, Jaws, sets up a 'three men in a boat' situation that further plays with the idea of male characters proving their own masculinity. Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) has to overcome his fear of water to save the island of Amity, the shark representing a challenge to his masculinity. However, this issue takes a back seat once he has embarked upon the shark hunt with Hooper, an ichthyologist (Richard Dreyfuss), and an experienced shark fisherman, Quint (Robert Shaw). The audience soon become aware of the emerging conflict between Quint and the other two men.
In one of the quieter scenes in the film, we gain insight into the dynamics aboard Quint's boat as Quint and Hooper begin to compare their scars. At first, Hooper and Quint seem evenly matched for scar tissue, though Quint gradually reveals that his outnumber Hooper's by some degree. This then prompts Hooper to revert to self-mockery, baring his chest and saying: 'You see that? Right there? That was Mary Ellen Moffit - she broke my heart.' When Brody asks about another scar, Quint tells him it was a removed tattoo, which prompts Hooper to interrupt with 'What did it say? No, don't tell me... "Mother"!' Even something as codedly masculine as a tattoo provides Quint with a further anecdote about his experiences in the war and his first brush with a shark. Hooper's purpose in this scene is to undermine this fake masculinity with humour, to diffuse the conflict that Quint has within him; he needs these two men to help him in his quest for the shark, but he feels uncomfortable being enclosed with two men in such a small space - his homophobia seen to even extend to two (proven) heterosexuals. Spielberg, recognising this thread of 'bare-chested heroism' and identifying with Hooper, deliberately satirises further in the scene where, having witnessed Quint crush a beercan flat with his hands, Hooper mirrors him with a Styrofoam cup, tossing it to the floor in mock cruelty.
Jaws entertains all sorts of notions of the battle of the sexes, especially from a psychoanalytical point of view. At its most basic, the fear of this great white shark's teeth closing around a spare limb or two represents a castration anxiety on the part of the hunters. As the adventurers leave the safety of Amity Harbour, their boat is framed inside a set of shark's teeth, consuming the vanishing boat as it moves further into the distance. When Quint finally dies, the shark's jaws close symbolically around his waist, severing his body in half, a moment that Pauline Kael relished as 'the high point' of the film's humour:
[T]his nut Ahab, with his hyper-masculine basso-profundo speeches, stands in for all the men who have to show they're tougher than anybody. The shark's cavernous jaws demonstrate how little his toughness finally adds up to.
This element of toughness is one which seems to haunt Quint throughout the film, the desire to prove himself as a man, screeching his nails down the blackboard as his introduction, determined to be the one that caught 'the one that got away.' Without the existence of a woman to wheel out as his trophy, Quint substitutes sex for slaughter, obsessive in his quest for the killer shark.
Guns and Grins
The Lethal Weapon films - directed by Richard Donner and starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover - are typical of contemporary cinema's way of employing the traditional images of masculinity in explosive, comic-book style dismissal of realism in favour of heroes for whom no punch is too hard, no cut too deep and no drop too high.
For Riggs (Mel Gibson), displays of masculinity include swinging from gantries, Tarzan-like, 40-feet-plus above the LA sidewalks, leaping to safety as yet another building explodes thanks to his gung-ho bravura, and chasing after speeding cars like a puppy after the postman. Yet, privately, we see him sobbing with grief after the death of his wife (a tragedy which he naturally gets the chance to avenge in the second film). It's OK for a man to cry, just so long as nobody else sees him doing it. Riggs's reluctant partner, Murtaugh (Danny Glover), is governed more by the older man's common sense, yet his masculinity is seldom called into question, as he is a married man with a large family.
Murtaugh and Riggs continue in the vein of many other films of the 'Buddy' genre, in that they openly show affection for each other with reassuring hugs and pats on the back, but diffuse this with homophobic asides and denials. In Lethal Weapon 2, after Riggs has been riddled with bullets in a climactic shoot-out, Murtaugh cradles his partner's head in his arms. Gratefully, Riggs says 'Did anyone ever tell you you're a beautiful man?' but, hearing the car-sirens of their fellow police officers, sends up this display of emotion almost immediately: 'Give us a kiss before they get here.' Similarly, Murtaugh's wearing of a corset for his back ailment provides his partner with much amusement, resulting in Murtaugh reasserting his masculinity, first by insisting 'It's not a woman's corset, it's a man's corset,' finally resorting to the excuse that he hurt his back 'doing weights' that morning.
It is in Lethal Weapon 3 that the masculine image is most threatened - in the form of internal affairs investigator Lorna Cole (Rene Russo), whose clothes are codedly those of a man - though she is undeniably feminine, allowing her long hair to fall loose across her shoulders. She seems only slightly perturbed when Riggs conducts a meeting in the men's room and is more than willing to engage in Riggs's style of sexual innuendo:
Cole: Are you trying to bait me?
Riggs: I'm a master at it!
Cole: You look the type!
The schoolyard banter that ensues between Cole and Riggs ('Careful with her, she's in trousers!') soon becomes competitive, mirroring the similar scene in Jaws. Injured after a raid (in which Cole almost single-handedly kicks and punches her way through a room full of crooks whilst Riggs lies dazed on the floor), Riggs appeals in vain for sympathy - 'I thought you were gonna get all tender and maternal' - leading to a competitive comparison of scars:
Riggs: That a 22?
Cole: It's a 38, Riggs!
Riggs: That's a 38? That's a kind of wimpy 38 - Now this is a 38!
Cole: Yours is bigger than mine?
Riggs: I think so.
The badinage inevitably changes from competitive to sexual, with Riggs once again feeling the need to lighten the mood by underlying the masculine image of his lover:
There could be a serious ethical breach here - I've never made it with another sergeant.
The Lethal Weapon films are not unique in their approach to the subject of masculinity. Pick any film with a former rapper, sportsman or fitness expert in the cast and you'll see the same tricks that reinforce the masculinity of the characters. The action movie genre consists almost entirely of depictions of men as schoolboys playing at soldiers and never really getting hurt. In contemporary film, as in the mould of the early cinema, men are at their most masculine when killing other men or bedding women. As this is played as a natural part of masculinity, in cinema at least, any progression away from the 'Tarzan Syndrome' must therefore be purely for comic effect, while the most lauded radical twists in the genre come when a woman is called upon to play by the same rules.
The boys' games of Cops 'n' Robbers in Lethal Weapon hark back to an earlier exploit - Cowboys and Indians. The Western genre was always about defining masculinity as much as documenting a time. One of the most defining and repeated lines on the subject in movie history is: 'A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.' It's usually attributed to John Wayne in John Ford's Stagecoach (1939), but it's echoed by Gary Cooper in High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952) and Alan Ladd in Shane (George Stevens, 1953).
In John Wayne, moviegoing men had their archetype of a big, brutish figure from Iowa. Six-feet-four and broad, he was every inch a man's man; even his walk became a signature of his screen persona. He was a probable influence on Johnny Cash's song 'A Boy Named Sue', a tough guy whose image as Hollywood's 'Duke' was as much a product of being born Marion Michael Morrison as a reaction against the name.
Wayne was 'all-man', but Alan Ladd managed to pull off the same effect while being nearly a foot shorter than Wayne and a lot prettier. The 5'6" star caused problems for his directors who - concerned that their leading ladies towered over the hero - made the women walk in trenches to reduce their height and elevate Ladd. Ladd's stand-out film, Shane, helped to shape that ideal masculine image of the 'strong, silent type', the kind of man women apparently wanted to be with and men just wanted to be. Shane comes to a small western town on horseback as an example of the mythological man of Westerns; quiet, brave and brimming with self-assurity, he acts as a role model to all of the men in the town but particularly to Joey, a young, impressionable boy. He reminds the boy's protective mother that:
A gun is a tool...no better or no worse than any other tool - an axe, a shovel or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it. Remember that.
The film is also an interesting example of a film that even the toughest of men find deeply sentimental. When this quiet, strong hero leaves the town at the end, it's clear that he's been mortally wounded as he rides slowly away slumped over his horse; his bravery remains even in death, in his not allowing the boy who worships him to see him die. As young Joey sobs 'Come back, Shane - come back,' it's one scene where the entire audience - men and women - can be heard choking back their tears.
We talk of Westerns in the past tense because it's a genre that we rarely see today. But the traditions of the Western have transferred to other genres. John Wayne tried to make the Vietnam War into a Western, with 'interesting' results, while other war movies will often contain a hero who's 'gotta do what he's gotta do'. Science Fiction and fantasy has become the new home of the maverick, the loner and the gruff, brave frontiersman. The difference is that modern science fiction movies are much happier with the idea of a woman as the central heroic figure than Westerns ever were.