Thursday, April 2, 2009

Masculinity in the Modern Mainstream Cinema

The way masculinity has been portrayed in film has changed a lot over the years. HopkinsCinemAddicts takes a look at this issue from a film buff's perspective. Part of what they examine is the gulf between the tough guy action hero and the softer, more sensitive man.

Obviously, there needs to be more reality and a middle way, rather than the extremes at either end of the spectrum, and I look at that a little below the quotes.

Masculinity in the Modern Mainstream Cinema

A few years ago, no one had even heard of Judd Apatow, Meg Ryan chick flicks dominated the mainstream audiences and Bruce Willis was the definition of the American hero. Today, things are different. Apatow's films are wildly popular, I Love You, Man, a rated R comedy, opens to critical acclaim and 300 dudes killing people is a pop culture icon. Hollywood's vision of the modern man is confusing to say the least. There are two, polarizing visions: one is that guys have become softer as seen in the many romantic comedies flooding mainstream cinema. Gone is the cocky, robust bad boys of the past. Instead, the modern man has become schlubblier for lack of a better word: for example, Seth Rogen's character in any movie he's been in or Vince Vaugh's character in Wedding Crashers. The modern male protagonist is an emotional one, a lazy one, a hedonistic one. He is, for lack of a better word, an imperfect one who fights with his mind rather than with his hands. On the other hand, there is a definite demand for the hyper-masculine as seen in action movies; heroes who do what have to be done at any cost. The bulging beasts of men in 300. The James Bond who spends more time topless than the Bond girls. However, these two polarizing visions do serve a purpose. Comedy is all about relatability and the schlubby man succeeds in getting the audience to empathize with them. Action movies, to some extent, are our modern mythology where men are larger than life and their deeds to echo throughout eternity. Their viciousness is celebrated because they do things that any normal person wouldn't.

The opening scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall typifies the shows one aspect of the emotional man: he is schlubby. Here is the set up: The main character, played by Jason Siegel, is preparing to meet his highly successful actress girlfriend, Sarah Marhsall, played by Kristen Bell, for dinner. He is walking around in a towel about to get into the shower. Sarah Marshall comes back and promptly breaks up with him. In his shock, he lets go of the towel and his entire figure can be seen in the frame. It becomes painfully apparent the audience that it that Jason Siegel does not have the body of a body builder. Not even close. His figure looks looks more like a potato than Michelangelo's David. His character even cries later during the scene. It's brutally honest and pathetic. But, as pathetic as we may think he is, we empathize with him. Any man in the movie going audience could be Siegel's character, schlubby and emotional. Siegel's physique is a testament to the YouTube generation: he is successful because he looks like one of us. We empathize with him because he does go through everyday tragedies like we do. The initial scene can be any one of the stories on or a similar website. Today, mean talk about their feelings all the time and to some extent, have been emasculated. We like him because he is like us.

Another aspect of the emotional man is how utterly logical he is. Very few secrets are kept between himself and the film and the audience can easily project themselves upon the character. Take, for example, Owen Wilson's character in Wedding Crashers. Even his name, John Beckwith, sounds generic but that may be the point. The reason why the movie is so funny is because he reacts the way any one of us would react. For example, the scene where his love interests mother asks him to feel her breasts, he acts like any one of us would act. First his fame fills us with disbelief and then disgust, not at the breasts, but perhaps at himself for being in the situation and going along with a madwoman's wishes. A neat touch is that the frame is set behind the woman and we actually never see her breasts; we only see John's expression because the breasts are not the point. The point is is his reaction because it reflects the audience's reaction to the situation. He is definitely relatable.

A final aspect of the modern man is how he always has a best friend. "Bro-mances" as a genre is picking up steam: Wedding Crashers, I Love You, Man, Superbad are all films about the strange relationship to men have between one another that oddly resembles a romantic relationship. In Superbad, for example, there is a scene near the end of the movie where both male leads literally proclaim their love for each other after a wild night with of trying (but failing) to have sex with girls. Its an odd experience to watch but perhaps typical in any American setting. Which boy hasn't grown up with the one best friend? It emasculating because it implies that men do really care and need each other. Men are not senseless sex-filled beasts, but ones that have feelings and hearts that are as fragile as any woman's. Its sad, but honest expression of friendship that audiences can relate to.

Go read the whole article.

This quote comes a little further down and looks at the other extreme - the hyper-masculine man best exemplified in 300.
On the other hand, there is a definite rise in hyper-masculinity in action films. Our heroes are lean mean, killing machines. Its an open secret that set designers in the '60s used to make the doors slightly smaller so when the protagonists make their dramatic entrance, they seem bigger than life. Today, set designers don't need to do that. We have CGI, lighting and actors willing to push their physical limits. 300 used a variety of CGI, artful lighting and a masochistic training regimen to sell the audience that these 300 men could really go against a million. Their skill at killing people is celebrated: there is a point in the movie where Zack Snyder, the director, slows down an action sequence so the audience can satiate itself with every bloody moment. The camera pans along slowly as King Leonidas, played by Gerard Butler, hacks down a line of any soldiers mercilessly and the shot ends with his abs rippling. Another example would be in Casino Royale, the reboot of the James Bond franchise, starts with Bond in a gritty fight sequence where he eventually over powers a poor soul. The film further celebrates his masculinity with gratuitous shots of him shirtless even mimicking the body out of water shot popularized by the earlier James Bond film Octopussy and Die Another Day, even though that was with a the female leads. In Crank, the male lead bashes and thrashes his way through the movie and not even a few thousand mile drop into the middle of the city can stop him (as seen with the release of Crank 2 in a few days). Crank's Chev Chelios is an angry, sociopathic murderer and his mastery of bloody comic book violence is embraced. Our heroes, today, are angry, muscular bad-asses.

On one hand, this alienates any sense of empathy the audience has for the heroes. No, there is no way any man can get that big (unless he is part of the LAX team). No, there is absolutely no way any movie going audience can kill a billion guys without feeling a touch of remorse. Our society now is one that condemns violence even in video games and suppresses even the vaguest inklings of anger. Maybe that's why there is rise of masculinity in mainstream cinema.

These two extremes are not overly realistic to most men's experience. But that may be part of why they are appealing to so many guys seeking an identity (especially younger men, who seem to be the main audience for these films).

On the one hand, the soft guy shows men it is OK to have feelings, to have close male friends, and to care a women as more than a sex toy. On the other hand, the hyper-masculine image reminds young men that testosterone seeks expression of strength and likes a challenge. This is how the authors sum it up:
Masculinity in today's mainstream cinema is a two faced: on one hand, romantic comedies deflate the male mythos. The romantic leads are a reflection of today's audiences, they are the ones who we empathize with and feel for. If it has happened to us, we are more likely to laugh. On the other hand, our action movies have injected testosterone into our heroes. Our heroes now are strong, violent and Machiavellian. They are who we secretly want to be. They are physical perfection. These two projections of what it means to be a man are a product of society interweaving with each other and I can only wonder what tomorrow's heroes will be like.
The obvious need is to have these two extremes more wedded into a mature masculine image - but that is more likely to be found in indie films than in mainstream movies, if it is to be found at all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Is that what a real man looks like?" "Even a souffle looks pumped." - Tyler Durden

Feminism has as much to do with masculinity as it does with femininity it seems...

We wish to be who we are, not the roles that are constructed for us.

On the one hand, we have a reaction to hyper-masculinity, the metrosexual or emotive type. Which is still, just a reaction and not a constructive criticism...

It is a frustrating and troubling thing to come to terms with ideas of masculinity it seems these days.

Yeah, this is a male speaking from experience...