Skip to Main Content

Masculinity in Film: The Emergence of a New Literature (February 2014): Home

By Gerald Butters Jr.


This essay first appeared in the February 2014 issue of Choice (volume 51 | number 6).

Abstract and Introduction

In recent years, the subject of masculinity in film has drawn a significant amount of scholarly interest in the broad discipline of film studies.  The literature on the subject has accordingly burgeoned.  This essay identifies a core collection in the making—works relevant to masculinity and film that are both broad treatments of the subject and more focused studies that consider particular areas of interest: genre, national identity, race and ethnicity, stardom, sexual identity.  The innovative treatments of masculinity in film that have appeared to date—many of them discussed here—are just the beginning.  This dynamic literature will continue to grow, as new technologies reveal interesting and unsuspected ways to address this subject in films future, contemporary, and past.

An outpouring of literature on the relationship between film and masculinity has emerged in the past decade.  As the contours of a multiplatform, global cinema emerge in the twenty-first century, numerous scholars have interrogated depictions and constructions of masculinity in film and have related this imagery to larger patterns within contemporary culture.  This essay will examine the major trends in scholarship in cinematic masculinity from 2003 to 2013 and will discuss some of the key works in the field.  This will not be an exhaustive list of all literature on this subject; instead, it will focus on superior scholarship on current trends, with reference to subjects that have yet to be examined.  Appended to the cite list at the end of this feature is a chronological list of films mentioned in this essay.  This list points readers toward at least some of the films that can, and should, be considered in terms of masculinity studies.

If there is one scholar who has been setting the bar in cinematic masculinity studies, it is David Gerstner of CUNY, College of Staten Island.  His two recent volumes, both multidisciplinary, Manly Arts: Masculinity and the Nation in Early American Cinema and Queer Pollen: White Seduction, Black Male Homosexuality, and the Cinematic demonstrate that highly theoretical, complex works can be intriguing, relevant, creative, and bold all at the same time.  In Manly Arts, Gerstner examines the countless intersections between discursive/aesthetic practices and historical lives as they relate to issues of nationalism, masculinity, and the Other in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American culture.  The author does not limit himself to American cinema practices but instead demonstrates the multiplicity of discourses related to gender and aesthetics in American artistic practices in general.  Gerstner is interested in what he describes as the “feasting of the Other,” the way in which American male artists construct their national manhood through the “othering” process.  He demonstrates that this process is complex.  In his epilogue, he argues that the “repetition of discourse and practice that organizes the terms for American masculinism and nationalism by no means augurs a homogeneous ideological culture.”  The author uses a wide variety of cinematic and noncinematic sources to make his point.  What he finds intriguing are the “ironic failings, the peculiar twists and turns, and the over-determined … [in the construction of] masculinist nationalism in American cinematic arts.”

In Queer Pollen, Gerstner examines the work of Richard Bruce Nugent, James Baldwin, and Marlon Riggs, three of the most influential black gay artists of the twentieth century.  Though Riggs was the only filmmaker per se (Baldwin was on the fringes of cinema culture as a screenwriter and film essayist), Gerstner interrogates the impact of this work on homoerotic whiteness, “a decadent cross-pollination between black and white.”  Theorists often privilege the “blackness” over the “gayness” in these three artists’ work; Gerstner demonstrates the messiness of their artistic conceptualization and the multiple influences that inform their oeuvres.  In addition, he demonstrates their use of the “cinematic” (as an aesthetic and as an apparatus).  As Gerstner says of Riggs’s work, “He ably directed his career-long work toward the intricate cross-pollination of cultures that ultimately resisted a definition of identity once and for all.”

Eric Anderson’s ethnographic study of young British men in Inclusive Masculinity: The Changing Nature of Masculinities demonstrates the ways in which media cultures have helped change young men’s values regarding standards of masculinity.  Anderson places the discussion of “homohysteria,” in which homophobia and misogynistic discourse reign, in the context of organized sports and homosocial environments such as fraternities.  He reveals a rapidly changing cultural terrain in which physical intimacy between men is accepted and overt misogyny is condemned.  Such material is invaluable for understanding the twenty-first-century “bromance,” which has reigned over American comedy in the past decade.

Scholars working with film and masculinity have drawn heavily on Freudian and Lacanian psychology in the past; in recent work, feminist and queer theory have played increasingly important roles.  One of the most successful recent studies is Candida Yates’s highly theoretical Masculine Jealousy and Contemporary Cinema.  Although the boom in psychoanalytic film studies (which flourished in the late twentieth century) is over, Yates demonstrates that this approach can still result in important contributions to the field.  The strength of Yates’s argument lies in her refusal to rely solely on psychoanalysis in her critique of contemporary film.  Bringing strategies of cultural studies, close textual analysis, and “star” deconstruction to psychoanalytic theory, Yates delivers a revealing, nuanced work on the nexus between masculinity and the emotive qualities of jealousy in English-language film.  She does close readings of Taxi Driver, A Perfect Murder, The End of the Affair, The Piano, and Unfaithful,and demonstrates her mastery of feminist film criticism.  Her multipronged, multitheoretical approach makes this an intriguing study and demonstrates that cutting-edge theory does not rely on a singular mode of operation.

Male spectatorship has largely been ignored by those working in film studies.  In Love, Tears, and the Male Spectator, Kenneth MacKinnon attempts to rectify this problem.  Since Laura Mulvey’s groundbreaking work on psychoanalytic film theory and modes of gendered spectatorship in the 1970s, there has been an assumption that male and female spectators read films differently, and that film genres are firmly defined by gender.  MacKinnon turns that notion on its head in his fresh readings of classic 1950s films such as The Men, Sunset Boulevard,  A Streetcar Named Desire, From Here to Eternity, and Rear Window, to name just a handful.  MacKinnon considers fantasy, masquerade, and readership; by utilizing queer theory, he questions notions of sexual identity and gender.

Whereas late-twentieth-century studies of cinematic masculinity often focus on the classical era in Hollywood, recent studies have increasingly considered contemporary cinema.  David Greven’s Manhood in Hollywood from Bush to Bush is one of the best-known texts of the genre.  Greven explores themes of narcissism and masochism in relation to American film from 1988 to 2008.  He argues that narcissism is a potentially radical mode of male sexuality, whereas masochism has emerged as the default mode of a traditional, normative masculinity.  Though the book is highly theoretical, and indeed a challenging read, the author does a good job of weaving together classical mythology, psychoanalytic theory, Mulveyan gaze theory, and textual analysis of several key films of the era.  These include Casualties of War, The Silence of the Lambs, The Passion of the Christ, and the two most analyzed films of the past decade in terms of constructions of masculinity, Fight Club and Brokeback Mountain.

Though most contemporary scholars attempt to disavow the “crisis in masculinity” model that dominated late-twentieth-century discussions of the topic, they still often begin with this construct or deliver another version of it.  Donna Peberdy’s brilliant Masculinity and Film Performance studies male angst in contemporary American cinema.  The author demonstrates how performance studies theory can greatly aid those working in masculinity studies in film.  As Peberdy writes in her introduction, “Being a Man,” she considers performance in three main ways: “overall presentation of actions,” specific enactments that present a character, and gendered enactments that are informed by cultural expectations.  The book’s first chapter, “Performance and Masculinity,” is required reading for anyone working in cinema studies.  The author not only sizes up the field, demonstrating her broad knowledge of performance studies, but also illustrates how new questions regarding masculinity in film must be addressed.  Peberdy argues that many of the actors she discusses (Bill Murray, Michael Douglas, Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson) continue to play angst-ridden characters in Hollywood, “underscoring the importance of considering screen persona alongside screen performance.”

The collection has been the dominant literary form in masculinity studies in the past decade.  The key to success in the collection is the skill and direction of the editor.  Those works that embody a common theme prove to be most helpful to the reader.  Those that are a hodgepodge of articles loosely tied by subject matter are less useful.  Krin Gabbard and William Luhr’s edited volume Screening Genders is an example of superior work.  Occasionally the contribution of an individual author to a collection is so exemplary that it deserves recognition.  Screening Genders begins with a seminal article by gender theorist pioneer E. Ann Kaplan titled “A History of Gender Theory in Cinema Studies.”  This lengthy historical and theoretical analysis of gender theory in film should be required reading for anyone working in critical theory.  A second lengthy essay in this volume, Lucy Fischer’s “Theory into Practice: En-Gendering Narrative in Magnolia” demonstrates how the film Magnolia “simultaneously presents and critiques the operations of patriarchy.”  Fischer’s essay demonstrates how theory can “work” and how issues of race, gender, sexuality, and familial relations are inseparable.

A successful collection, in any discipline, hinges on three characteristics: strong editing, a sharp focus, and essays that substantially contribute to the field.  One of the strongest volumes on contemporary cinematic masculinity is Millennial Masculinity: Men in Contemporary American Cinema, edited by Timothy Shary.  The collection includes essays on much-analyzed films such as Fight Club and Brokeback Mountain but also on unexpected subjects such as Philip Seymour Hoffman, Adam Sandler, and neo-retro heist films.  There is not a trivial essay in the entire volume.  One outstanding contribution is Donna Peberdy’s “’Politics Is Theater’: Performance, Sexuality, and Milk,” in which she examines the relationship between performer (Sean Penn) and performance (as Harvey Milk in Milk).  Building on the work of Richard Dyer, Peberdy addresses some crucial and fascinating questions regarding cinematic authenticity and sexual orientation.  Millennial Masculinity is essential for those working in cinematic masculinity studies not only because the essays are provocative but also because it provides helpful supplemental materials that address masculinity (e.g., a list of U.S. films) and an exhaustive bibliography.

Some collections include essays that deal with masculinity but specifically cinematic masculinity.  For example, Lucia Kramer’s article “From Glam Rock to Cock Rock” is among the essays in Performing Masculinity, edited by Rainer Emig and Antony Rowland.  Kramer examines “rock masculinities” in recent feature films such as Rock Star, Almost Famous, Still Crazy, and Velvet Goldmine.  She argues that the first three of these films “rely on and support a construction of rock as a male cosmos streaked by homophobia, misogyny and a gendered conception of fandom.”  Velvet Goldmine is significantly different in that it is marked by ambivalences and uncertainties.  Though Kramer’s is the only essay in this collection to treat film, the volume is valuable for its acknowledgment and consideration of masculinity studies across the disciplines.

The vast majority of studies on contemporary cinematic masculinity emphasize Hollywood or American independent film.  There are significant exceptions to this, though.  The Trouble with Men, edited by Phil Powrie, Ann Davies, and Bruce Babington, focuses on both American and European films, but the European cinema dominates.  The editors divide the contributions into four sections: “Stars,” “Class and Race,” “Fathers,” and “Bodies.”  The essays in the first two sections in particular provide a nice blend of historicism and cultural theory.  Especially noteworthy are discussions of Gene Kelly, Clark Gable, Paco Rabal, and Michael Caine in the first section and, in the second, of Jewishness and masculinity in Yiddish cinema and manhood in post-1995 French banlieue film.  The editors’ introduction provides a useful overview of the state of the field and makes readers aware of other valuable work on masculinity and film.  Most useful to scholars working in cultural theory, this volume demonstrates the rich possibilities for further scholarship on manhood in world cinema.

Gerald Butters Jr. is professor of history at Aurora University.

Works Cited