Of all the stereotypical identities I might be represented by in popular culture, one common feature between those I considered continued to stand out. Of all the different kinds of people there are, and that one can identify with, one trait I shared with so many has a stereotype of its own. Being a man.
It is true that sometimes men are depicted in movies as smart, feeling, charismatic individuals with ethical behavior. However, the typical male portrayal in films, are depictions in simple terms of men as immoral, weaponized idiots, or they are otherwise likely presented as timid, sometimes impotent geniuses.
The popular culture stereotype of male identity seems damaging to society because boys may grow up to value and emulate or dehumanize and loathe these behaviors -and may act out the fantasies of these films in their drive to identify as a man.
In my research, I explored the male characters of the three movies, The Change-Up, Full Metal Jacket, and Iron Man for reflections of my American male identity. The movies are of different genres and the male leads of each are dissimilar in character than the next.
In The Change-Up, The unmarried male friend of the protagonist is portrayed as an actor of tampon commercials and lorno (light porno). The quintessential pot-smoking underachiever – with questionable ethical judgement. A sport car driving, barely post-adolescent -who’s a Lothario without any compunctions about having sex with his best friend’s wife.
“It’s kind of like were switching rides! (…) I’m going to wreck her!” – Mitch Planko, Jr.
The married character, conversely, is passive, arguably weak by comparison, but a successful lawyer. He’s not the unsophisticated, boorish idiot that his old high school friend is, and careful to project a neutered image.
“Before making any decision in your life, no matter how small, call your wife first. Think of yourself as a brain-damaged mule, lost in a desert, helpless, dumb, and in constant need of direction. Never take the initiative, never strike out on your own, and never deviate from the plan. Why? Because you’re a brain-damaged mule and you’re lost in the damn desert!”
– Dave Lockwood
Neither personality seems tenable to a rational man. The archetypes are admittedly larger than life.
In the unmarried character’s earliest appearance, he boasts that on the previous night he “had to fight a bum” over a discard futon, so some hesitation to apply violence is suggested. Later, however, the same character -speaking from his married friend’s body, advises the young daughter to always solve her problems with violence. It is excellent comedy in how it breaks convention this way, and consistent with framing masculine men as instigators of violence.
Another extremely insightful collection of data comes from Full-Metal-Jacketing, or Masculinity in the Making, where one finds explanation of an effort to “re-masculinize America”, in its analysis of books about the cultural conditioning of those who fought the Vietnam war. It discusses an examination of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket as “an unmasking of patriarchy’s true meaning and motivation.”
The story of Full Metal Jacket, says Paula Willoquet-Maricondi in her book, accomplishes the reinstatement of a clarified rejection of the feminine -and restitution of the masculine by ultimately killing the female sniper – a purified masculine silencing the “castrating female”.
This relates to the binary of men presented in popular culture -viewed as either virile, successful hunters, or impotent, sensitive, weaklings. When weak, men are not man enough and are killed or not selected, and when men are strong, they do the selecting and the killing.
Men are frequently also denied their subjectivity in movies. It is not just the narratives – or stories – of the movies that communicate these messages, but also the visual techniques that producers employ. Who men are in film, is important, but how men in movies are filmed is also subject to this narrow character framing. By examining how men are framed by the camera, we gain insight into the stories about masculinity that are being told. In Iron Man, Tony Stark boldly squares off against dozens of hostile men with incendiary and automatic weapons, who are killing some people and enslaving others. The protagonist enters a sovereign nation and wreaks especially violent acts in the process of violating multiple international treaties.
When even good guys are so violent, is it possible to be strong, masculine, and sexually viable, but not be aggressive and violent?
In the documentary, Tough Guise, created by Jason Katz, especially valuable insights are provided on male identity and how it is formed, which can help answer that question.
The Tough Guise film systematically examines the relationship between pop-cultural imagery and the social construction of masculine identities in the U.S. at the dawn of the 21st century. The full movie helps to substantiate the premise of men being disproportionately portrayed in popular culture as violent criminals frequently seeking to rape and murder, as a means of reinforcing the image of a man as a tough, insensitive, unfeeling, stupid, sexually deviant and necessarily violent being.
Jackson Katz argues that widespread violence needs to be understood as part of an ongoing crisis in masculinity. In addition to the full length video, there is an accompanying study guide for instructors, here: http://www.mediaed.org/assets/products/237/studyguide_237.pdf
If the default framing of the American male identity in popular culture is as a sexually aggressive, mindless idiot that equates sex with violence, and violence with masculinity, then could this near-ubiquitous depiction have a negative effect on those exposed to these images?
Focusing on the male capacity for violence keeps us from thinking of them as real, and as compassionate, feeling people who are unique, thoughtful individuals. There is nothing inherently wrong with these types of filmic techniques. In the real world, both men and women alike are violent, sexually aggressive and idiotic. The problem is that in the world of movies, and in so many other parts of our media culture, this is the primary way that men are represented. Boys who grow up surrounded by these images may become trapped in a notion of male identity that is not their own.
There are other scholarly works besides Tough Guise to support that premise, albeit from the perspective of feminist studies.
In Violent Love: Hunting, Heterosexuality, and the Erotics of Men’s Predation http://www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.pdx.edu/stable/3178583, Brian Luke draws parallels between sex and hunting. He compares the state of heterosexual male desire to predatory killing instinct, and his study equates the sexual satisfaction resulting from orgasm to (male) hunters’ desired satisfying result of killing. Brian Luke’s exploration of the relationship between socially encouraged forms of violence and killing, like hunting, with pursuit of women by the heterosexual male, is consistent with popular culture’s linkages between men’s predation in sex and propensity for violence.
Young people may internalize these ideas about men, and violence, and sex, and come to accept them as natural. They view their own identities and their own sexuality through the prism of movies we produce as an exploration of society’s anxiety, fears, and hopes -and act out the fantasies that recur in these films of popular culture. It behooves us to provide alternate, and realistic images of non-violent masculinity in films, alongside the spectacularly fantastic, and brutally real depictions we make for fun, of the violent animal called man.
Through this course I learned the perspectives of dozens of new individuals, each of whom brought their views, and their truths, to share. I also learned new functionality of the wordpress creative tools, and will be integrating much of this into the MartianMade® dot com website, including a discussion forum you are all welcome to participate in.
What do you think?
Poll not scientific. For non-violent entertainment purposes, only.
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The Change-Up (2011) Universal, Directed by David Dobkin, starring Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds, with Olivia Wilde and featuring Alan Arkin http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1488555/
Full Metal Jacket (1987) Warner, Dir. Kubrick. Matthew Modine,Vincent D’Onofrio. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093058/
Iron Man (2008) Marvel, Dir. Jon Favreau. Robert Downey, Jr. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0371746/
Full-Metal-Jacketing, or Masculinity in the Making
Paula Willoquet-Maricondi, Cinema Journal
Tough Guise: Violence, Media & the Crisis in Masculinity, Jason Katz
Violent Love: Hunting, Heterosexuality, and the Erotics of Men’s Predation
Brian Luke, Feminist Studies http://www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.pdx.edu/stable/3178583