In recent film there are many common themes that depict what it means to be a "masculine" man. The man who can balance being an excellent fighter, a family man, and a lover will always come out the hero in today's films, while the antagonist is depicted as a ruthless fighter who can not have real loving relations with other women. Parallels are drawn between the antagonist and homosexuality, which does not fit the conception of "masculine." Whether the film is a comedy or action drama, the male characters face a preset standard of what it is to be a masculine man. These standards cause pressure on the character who is looking to be a masculine member of society, and so alter egos are formed that battle society's preconceived notion of what it means to be a man. The battle can ultimately make or break the character.
In teen comedies, masculine behavior is displayed during their transformation from boy to man, which allows the young man to excuse immature behavior as a passage to manhood. In the Journal of American & Comparative Cultures, Terry Lee explains what society expects of a "real man": he's supposed to keep his emotions in check and focus all of his sexual, emotional, and violent energy on work and climbing the corporate ladder (418). Society's standards are evident in movies such as Rob Roy and Braveheart. Both movies depict a strong, focused, dirty, manly man or society's version of a man. Throughout these two movies there is a battle between the manly man and the antagonist who is the exact opposite. James Keller, a professor at Mississippi University for Women, explains in his article "Masculinity and Marginality in Rob Roy and Braveheart," "Wallace and Roy . . . are the stereotypical males who have to beat the evil, proper, higher powers of the land. Both Wallace and Roy are fighting for what's rightfully theirs" -- their land, their women, and their families and clans (146). It is socially acceptable for Wallace and Roy to fight against injustices that have been done to them.
Elizabeth Abele explains in her article "Assuming A True Identity" that what makes an American male hero is his ability to stay focused on his goals. "It's their duty" to stay committed to toughing out whatever gets in their way, "a man gotta do what a man gotta do" (447). Keller points out a scene in Rob Roy where Roy is teaching his sons some of these traditional stereotypes of a good will male. Roy tells his sons "never mistreat a woman or malign a man." Meanwhile Roy's nemesis Archie Cunningham is having bastard children and there are also hints of child molestation on his behalf (146).
Men trying to measure up may suffer from "gender strain." This is when men can not follow or live up to social standards of masculinity. Many of society's standards contradict one another. Lee elaborates some of these contradictions:
Lee uses the story of Hamlet to show an extreme case of gender strain. Hamlet becomes suicidal when he is faced with a decision between two masculine roles, his love for Ophelia and the love for his father. What is a real man to do? Hamlet is torn between leading an intellectual loving domestic life and avenging his father's death. Hamlet knows what he wants in life. He wants a wife and he wants to continue leading his successful life. When Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his father (which is really the voice of society telling him to avenge his father's wrongful death), Hamlet can no longer handle the pressure of living up to these competing models of manhood (418). Hamlet's story shows how a man will destroy himself if he tries to live up to all of society's expectations.
- displaying their natural superiority over women and treating them like sex objects and empowering women and treating them as equals;
- demonstrating their pity and disdain for homosexuality and empowering gay men and treating them equals;
- proving their manliness with physical labor and demonstrating their rational and intellectual abilities;
- not showing emotion, bucking up (only women and sissies cry) and being the compassionate house husband, sharing the emotional burden of the family;
- being a Boy Scout or an athlete, demonstrating their muscular masculinity and being a clergyman or thinker, probing the spiritual and meditating on the afterlife (418);
Another example of society's pressure on male masculinity can be found in the movie The Graduate. Basically what The Graduate boils down to is a movie that shows a young man trapped in a world that has become one of young vs. old. Ben has cut himself off, not just from the elders who are telling him what to do, but also from the younger generation as well. Louisiana State University professor Robert Beuka stresses that Ben has isolated himself and there are many hints throughout the movie that show Ben's isolation toward the world. The theme of Ben not being able to associate with either young or old is repeated throughout the movie, with Ben stuck in a generation gap (12).
With all the stereotypical standards that men have to live up to, and the confusion between what is masculine or not, many characters create and battle alter egos that represent the extreme opposite behavior of what they are accustomed to. In most of these cases, the character leads a completely secret and separate life from the one that people are accustomed to seeing from that character. Elizabeth Abele explains that the characters' desires override their natural identity and this is most evident when characters have separate names for their identities. Some examples are Clark Kent/Supennan, Bruce Wayne/Batman, Peter Parker/Spiderman, Dr. Jones/Indiana Jones, and Anaquin Skywalker/Darth Vader (447). These examples show the characters' alter-ego taking over in such away that they live a whole other life, completely separate from their original identities. Abele notes that this formation into an alter-ego was very popular in a number of body switching movies during the 1980s, such as Like Father Like Son, Vice Versa, 18 Again, and Big. in these films adult male characters learn something from living life in the more simplistic way of a child (447). Abele explains that the mature male body is a root that causes male problems by "presenting a barrier to the emotional growth and intimacy that is positioned as essential in contemporary society" (447).
In these movies the characters also learn to get in touch with their emotional sides. An extreme case is the motion picture Fight Club, where the character Jack (and his alter-ego Tyler) faces a number of conflicting situations which ultimately drive him crazy. Movies where the characters take on alter-egos offer a way for the character to deal with what's going on in his life, or to be the assertive person that he is not. In "The Romance of Competence," Wendy Peek, a professor of English at Stonehill College, argues that the two personalities play off of one another, which yields a better combined personality for the character to live his life when he is returned to society as himself (206). One must go to the dark side and come back to start a new life, as did Jack when he learned that the only way to stop Tyler was to kill himself.
A male hero can not be homosexual. In the films Rob Roy and Braveheart, there are comparisons made between the behavior of straight heroes Rob and William, and the homosexual behavior of their antagonists Archie and Prince Edward. According to Abele, the hero must stand for all that is good and righteous. The hero must be strong, tough, and reflect society's notion of a masculine man (447). Rob and William are both directly what society would call from a man. Both are strong, rough, and athletic men. James Keller describes both characters as being "kilt wearing Scotsmen who are often dirty, and are the ideal of athletic masculinity: large and powerful, both capable of enduring pain" (146). Both men are fighting for what society would agree with. Rob fights for his family and clan, as William fights for his countrymen. Both men also share an ulterior motive in avenging their wives: William's wife is killed shortly after they are married, and Rob's wife is also murdered by their antagonist. Both men are honest and trustworthy, and this is what both antagonists use to trick them.
Keller points to the fact that the two antagonists, Archie and Edward, are depicted as soft and feminine. Even though both Archie and Edward are heterosexuals by choice their behaviors are stereotypes of a twentieth century gay man. In contrast to Rob and William, both Archie and Edward are always proper and clean. Archie wears powder, makeup, wigs, and fancy clothes, his movements when he fights are slow and dainty (but effective), and he holds his wrist limp (146). Keller also notes how Edward is depicted in the same manner, posing and modeling his new clothes in front of a number of mirrors that surround him. In The Explicator, Joan Ray notes that in 1995, GLAAD (a gay rights organization) had even protested Braveheart for its portrayal of Prince Edward as a gay man (15). What is being displayed for society is the fact that a gay man and men who may act in so-called gay ways will never prevail over the socially acceptible version of a man; even though Archie and Edward held the power, that is not enough as long as they hold to their vainly material ways. In these films, the outcome with always be defeat for the "nonmasculine" man.
This theme of masculinity appears even in popular teen movies. David Greven, professor of American literature and film at Simmons College, notes that in the newest wave of teen films (such as American Pie, Dude Wears My Car, and Saving Silverman), teen males are shown in a transitional state between boys and men (14). The characters are beginning to realize that this is going to be their last chance to get the boy out; in turn, these movies portray a semi- immature life style, which always consists of gigantic house parties. According to Greven, many teen movies celebrate sexual antics and immature behavior as a last escape of social unruliness before entering into the real world and taking on adult responsibilities. If one were to look a little closer, there is much more going on than just bad or immature behavior. The latest wave of teen movies does indeed reflect the fasciations, ideas, and movements, such as gay rights and feminism (Greven 14).
One of the most significant parts of teen movie portrayals is the redefinition of gender roles in sexuality and in becoming a man. Throughout most of the latest teen movies, the males stick together and support one another. The females are there only as part of the males' mission of getting laid, which is the only area that allows females to be seen as counterparts. Even though the males seem to exclude females from their core groups, the females actually play the power role. The males may not see this for themselves, but the females are the cause for most of the male problems, considering the females have what the males ultimately want. Another constant throughout the latest teen movies is the fact the casts are all white, and the males are in a self-contained world where there is no outside threat (Greven 14).
Society's standards of a masculine man weight heavy in American film making, and films will be made to satisfy the mass public image of a masculine man. These characteristics embody the traditional belief that a true masculine man is willing and able to defend himself, family, and country, which is the only accepectable means for violence. These men can achieve success over enemies who are more powerful than themselves, through sheer masculinity and brawn. The image of a strong, capable, dirty, and hard working man will always be the stereotype for a masculine man. Meanwhile the image of a clean, dainty, superficial persona of a man will invite comparison to homosexuality and will be the down-fall of the character, unless the character can make a transformation through an experience from dainty to brawny.
Abele, Elizabeth. "Assuming a true identity: Re-/De-constructing Hollywood heroes." Journal of American & Compgative Cultures (Fall-Winter 2002): 447.
Beuka, Robert. "Just One Word: PLASTICS." Journal of Popular Film and Television 28.1 (Spring 2000):12.
Greven, David. "Dude, where's my gender? Contemporary teen comedies and new forms of American masculinity." Cineatse 27.3 (Summer 2002):14.
Keller, James. "Masculinity and marginality in Rob Roy and Braveheart." Journal of Popular Film and Television 24.4 (Winter 1997):146.
Lee, Terry. "Virtual violence in Fight Club: this is what transformation of masculine ego feels like." Journal of American & Comparative Cultures (Fall- Winter 2002): 418.
Peek, Wendy. "The romance of competence: rethinking masculinity in the Western." Journal of Popular Film and Television 30.4 (Winter 2003):206.
Ray, Joan. "Sense and Sensibility." The Explicator 60.1 (Fall 200):15.
Tincknell, Estella and Chamber, Deborah. "Performing the crisis: Fathering, gender, and representation in two 1990s films." Journal of Popular Film and Television 29.4 (Winter 2002):146.