Masculinity in Films and Filmmaking
What is the ultimate chick-flick? The ultimate chick-flick is not the romantic When Harry Met Sally. It is Predator, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and a group of body-building, handsome, virile men who face the forces of a deadly alien predator in the jungles of South America. Included amongst the young and buff, was a former wrestling icon who went on to become governor of Minnesota, Jesse “The Body” Ventura. It is the image of the masculine, hard body tackling the forces evil that women fantasize about. Prince Charming is not as fairy tales present him: the tall, slim, pampered prince whose responsibility it is to breed. Prince Charming is the man who is capable of bending over strong and willowy trees to make traps to catch a deadly alien predator (Predator. There is a reason that, first, actor Charlton Heston, and then actor Mark Wahlberg spent most of the sixty minutes or more in Planet of the Apes exposed from the waist up: because women wanted to see the total package. Women, on the other hand look to see their ideal man epitomized on the big screen.
Looking at leading men over the years of filmmaking, we get more an idea of the image of women’s ideal man, rather than the most entertaining or best choice of actor for a leading role. Masculinity portrayed on screen, by the men who portray them in the characters they depict in film, and whom, as actors, draw from the well of their own sensitivities, their own experiences, their own personas, and their interpretations of life as they observe it in their male bastions of camaraderie to bring the characters to life on film; are a documentary of where the female perspective is at that point in time as regards men at that point in history.
Susan Jeffords, in her essay, “The Big Switch: Hollywood Masculinity in the Nineties,” understands the nature of the documented history of masculinity in film (Collins, Jim, Radner, Hillary, and Collins, Ava Preacher, 1993). Jeffords writes: “Both parody and satire depends on the sophistication of the viewer, and on some familiarity with the satiric or parodic target (p. 321).” The female film audience is sophisticated as a gender in their perspective of the ideal man, and not only does marketing, advertising, print media, help to form the female perspective on men, these different levels of media target that perspective, which is familiar to them, and to filmmakers, because they helped to create that perspective.
We need not go far back in history to gain the sense of the changing female perspective on the ideal man, but only to that point where men were first depicted on the silver screen, and follow it into the present. It began with the silent films, with film stars like Rudolph Valentino, whose real acting genius is that without the spoken word, Valentino was able to convey the sense of strength, virility, and masculinity to women by emoting those traits by facial expressions, and the persona of character that he projected on screen. The plot of the films moved the action forward on the structure of the storyline, but Valentino was the magnet that drew men, for the action, and women, because Valentino was the larger than life (big screen) depiction of the ideal man.
Consider for a moment the 1926 film, the Son of the Sheik (Fitzmaurice, George (dir), 1926, motion picture). In this film, Valentino portrays the character, Ahmed, son of a sheik, who is virile, handsome, and elusive: in short, masculine. In scene after scene, Valentino is depicted holding the beautiful woman (Vilma Banky) in his arms, shielding her from the forces that would cause her to bend against her own will (Fitzmaurice, motion picture).
Fast forward in time and film to the 1940s. We find that the ideal man has taken on a new persona from that of Valentino’s Sheik. In the 1940s, the ideal man has a voice, and, because he has a voice, there is a greater focus on the male masculinity. The films rely less on emoting, and more on drama, and the visual and spoken relationship. Nowhere is masculinity portrayed in greater does of testosterone than in the films featuring the leading actor Humphrey Bogart. Beginning in the 1940s, Bogart oozed the masculinity that drew the lucrative female audience to film. His films had the structure of storyline action or suspense to construct the context within which the masculinity is conveyed, and around which the female viewer can relate to, while at the same time providing the action to draw the female male companion or romantic interest around whom she needs the aura of Bogart’s masculinity to envelope for her fantastical attraction to play out in a romantic sense.
Great directors like John Houston were able to direct Bogart to acting success to the delight of audiences. For women, in film’s like Beat the Devil (Houston, John (dir), 1953, motion picture), Bogart portrayed the character Billy Dannreuther, stars with beautiful actresses Jennifer Jones and Gina Lollibrigida, who serve as the feminine models of what women (at the time) wanted to aspire to as regarded their appearances. Billy is smart, able to figure out the ulterior motives of his nemesis in the opening scenes of the film, while Lollibrigida exemplifies the sensual and sexual women that are drawn to the stereotypical bad boys. In film, the bad boys are often the ones who have challenges to overcome, emotions to realize, and, in the end, are success and also get the girl.
For women, beginning in the 1940s, and until Bogart’s death, he was the epitome of the bad boy with potential – all it took was the right woman to set him right, who could then appreciate and capitalize on his masculinity (Jennifer Jones in Beat the Devil). Even today, Bogart’s widow, the revered actress Lauren Bacall, is held with great public, affection because of her marriage to Bacall. A song title Boggie & Bacall, memorializes the love that, most notably, women held for the romantic bad boy, Hmphrey Bogart.
Once again, fast forward to the 1960s, and perhaps even just before that date, when Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns became the symbol of masculinity. Eastwood, famous for the Italian-made westerns under the direction of Sergio Leone in the western classic Fistful of Dollars, the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966, motion picture film), and others; was the . In all of Clintwood’s starring roles in Leone’s westerns, Eastwood personifies the unattainable, yet desirable, strong, masculine, capable in any situation, rescue man-machine. single-handedly, Eastwood’s characters take out scores of bad guys who are usually under the supervision of stars such as Eli Wallach, and, with Eastwood, render unforgettable and classic Hollywood spaghetti (another word for the Italian stereotypical testosterone overload) westerns.
Eastwood successfully transitioned from the , to the higher budget, and higher salaried Hollywood modern version of his cowboy parallel in the Dirty Harry series (Siegel, Don (dir), 1971, motion picture film) in the 1970s. As Dirty Harry, Eastwood became an American icon, forever imprinting upon the minds of Americans that phrase which is so much a part of the American lexicon today: “Go ahead, make my day.” Once an actor has come to represent a piece of the American lexicon, it forever seals that actor’s place in the memories and minds of the American people, beyond and above the recognition that they receive from their peers in the Screen Actors’ Guild.
What remains even more amazing about Eastwood is that he was able to subsequent to his spaghetti westerns, move to contemporary screen characters, like the 1971 classic that he directed and starred in as the radio personality Dave; in Play Misty for Me. This film was the original fatal attraction, even before Michael Douglas (another famous bad boy), starred along side the talented actress Glen Close, in the film titled Fatal Attraction (Lyne, Adrian, 1987, motion picture film). In Play Misty for Me, Eastwood remains the aloof, independent, strong, sexy man that women love, but he is wearing jeans, a jacket, and is a modern player (womanizer). Unattainable, his costar, Jessica Walter, becomes so obsessed in her attraction to Dave, and frustrated that she cannot win his affection, that she engages in self-mutilation in order to trap Dave into spending time with her – and it works, because Dave sits and holds her from night, until dawn, and beyond until noon. The cameras hone in on close-ups of Eastwood holding Walter’s character, Evelyn, as she sleeps. We see in Eastwood’s character the face of a man trapped, an underlying anger, but no ability to escape his situation because, as is the case in every character Eastwood has ever played, his character has honor and dignity. Frustrated by his encounter with the psychotic Evelyn, Dave is forced to hold Evelyn while he stands up the real love of his life (Eastwood (dir), 1971).
Jeffords says that the 1980s, when Play Misty for Me was made, was a transitional period from “focusing upon women and women’s issues to the study of gender, in particular, a shift toward including studies of men and masculinity (Jeffords, Collins, Radner, Collins (ed), p. 196).” This is what we see during the 1980s to throughout the 1990s cinema with films like Fatal Attraction (Lyne, motion picture film), Predator (McTiernan, John (dir), 1987, motion picture film), the Terminator film and sequels (Cameron, James (dir), 1984, 1991, and 2003, motion picture film), the Mad Max (Miller, George (dir),1979, 1981, and 1985, motion picture) series, and the Lethal Weapon (Donner, Richard (dir), 1987, 1989, 1992, and 1998, motion picture film) series. There is a shift away from the female leading character in film, to the masculine characters, or what Susan Jeffords calls the “hard body” films, or the leading man who woos the women viewers, kills them with kindness, and the focus of the film is all about male masculinity and the male body (Ayers, Drew, 2008, 41).
The hard body films, and ultimately the focus of the feminine perspective is what Carl Plantinga calls hypermasculinity, and it is satirized using a fictional band called Spinal Tap in a fictionalized documentary (Grant, Barry Keith, and Sloniowski, Jeanette, 1998, p. 318). The satire to which Plantanga is referring to surrounds the male genitalia, which becomes the focus of the satirical joke in the film, but, as Jeffords said, it would take a sophisticated viewer to make the connection between the way in which masculinity was being portrayed in film and This is Spinal Tap’s depiction of a cucumber in one of the rock star’s pants. The selection of the rock video to make this satirical was no coincidence, and Plantanga quotes Lisa Lewis as arguing that,.”.. that rock videos draw on ideologies of adolescence and masculinity, creating a “male preferred address” which supports a social system of male privilege (35) (Plantanga, p. 319).”
The insights offered by Jeffords and Plantanga only serve to summarize what is evidenced by these films. They, like This is Spinal Tap, become the documentary of the evolution of masculinity in film. Only rarely, as is the case of actress Sigourney Weaver’s character in Alien, Aliens, and Alien 3 (Scott, Ridley (dir), 1979, 1986, and 2007, motion picture film) do we see a lead female portraying herself as emotionally strong, capable, and possessing and demonstrating an IQ greater than her bra size. That Weaver’s character is surrounded by men, and hard bodied men, does not go unnoticed; but Weaver’s character, Ripley, is 1) unmoved by the masculinity, 2) the equal of the male characters portrayed in that she can handle weapons, and even a large mechanical loader (Aliens), and, 3) she is the problem solver even when the task of solving the problems initially rests with her male counterpart.
Even with the outstanding traits displayed by Weaver’s character, and the storyline that is tightly wrapped around Ripley, it is the male presence that makes these films a great success beyond the initial box office. It is no coincidence that actor Michael Biehn, from John Cameron’s Terminator films is Ripley’s mental and physical counterpart. All of the women in supporting roles in these films are, like Ripley, strong, capable, and free from the fantastical relationship that is so often portrayed when there are women inserted into masculine storylines: there is no physical affair. That is, until the third installment, when Ripley’s space craft crashes onto an all male prison planet. Unfortunately, it is there that the writers finally give in to what was perhaps pressure to deal with Ripley’s physicality, and the character has a sexual relationship with an inmate; and then he dies as one of the earliest victims of the alien predator that has become by the third film Ripley’s nemesis in a big way.
These are just three films in the many films produced since the 1980s, and into the present where the female character has a very different role, a leading role, and she is either equal to, or superior to her male counterparts, of which there is a large number of male counterparts with whom she must compete and contend with. What we find is that in many ways the character Ripley is no just an equal or superior to the men in the films, but that she is a mirror image of the masculinity portrayed in films since the 1970s. Ripley is in many ways the female Clint Eastwood of alien encounters. This is why she had to work along side Biehn, who had the approval of the viewers of being strong, yet emotionally secure enough to have loved the Terminator’s heroine, Sarah Conners. Sarah Conners, in sequels, takes on the persona of Biehn’s character who is killed in the first Terminator film as developing strong, capable, instinctual abilities, which viewers understand she manifests because of her relationship with Biehn’s character.
For more than three decades now, it is the masculinity factor that has dominated films, and they have been successful because women are the target audience. These films are reflection of the female perspective, the ideal man, and, once again, demonstrate the evolution of the female perspective since the beginning of cinema.
Ayers, Drew. “Bodies, Bullets, and Bad Guys: Elements of the Hardbody Film.” Film Criticism 32.3 (2008): 41+. Questia. 12 Mar. 2009 http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5027623685.
Cameron, John (dir), the Terminator (and series) 1984, 1991, and 2003, motion picture film, Hemdale Film, USA.
Donner, Richard (dir), Lethal Weapon (and series), Lethal Weapon (and series) 1979, 1981, and 1985, motion picture, Silver Pictures, USA.
Eastwood, Clint (dir), Play Misty for Me, 1971, motion picture film, Universal Pictures, USA.
Grant, Barry Keith, and Sloniowski, Jeanette, Documenting the Documentary: Close
Readings of Documentary Film and Video (Wayne State University Press, Michigan, 1998).
Jeffords, Susan, ‘The Big Switch: Hollywood Masculinity in the Nineties’ in Film Theory
Goes to the Movies, ed. Jim Collins, Hilary Radner and Ava Preacher Collins (New York: Routledge, 1993).
Lyne, Adrian (dir), Fatal Attraction, 1987, motion picture film, Paramount Pictures,
McTiernan, John (dir), Predator, 1987, motion picture film, Amercent Films, USA.
Miller, George (dir), Mad Max, 1979 (and sequels), motion picture film, Kennedy Miller
Scott, Ridley (dir), Alien (and sequels), 1979, 1986, 2007, motion picture film,
Brandywine Productions, USA.