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

By Gerald Butters Jr.

Masculinity and Genre

Recent work analyzing the relationship between cinematic masculinity and film genre is plentiful.  Barry Keith Grant’s Shadows of Doubt is a good starting point for those interested in this relationship.  The clear strength of this volume is the author’s all-encompassing knowledge of film theory and history, which allows him to deal with a wide-ranging group of films.  Among the genres Grant considers are melodrama (D. W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms), comedy (the work of W. C. Fields and Groucho Marx), Westerns (Howard Hawks’s Red River), science fiction (2001: A Space Odyssey), and horror (Night of the Living Dead).  Grant’s ability to connect the dots across these genres is remarkable, and he approaches theory in a way that is understandable to readers.  Shadows of Doubt is an ambitious volume; few film scholars would be willing to take on multiple genres in one study.

Far more common are works on specific genres of film and how masculinity is constructed within each cinematic category.  Mark Gallagher takes on action-adventure films in his Action Figures: Men, Action Films, and Contemporary Adventure Narratives.  Gallagher deals with both cinematic and literary works, and he illustrates how such texts “employ numerous strategies to define particular spaces and environments as settings for action and male agency, to reestablish men’s privileged position in active space, and to code a range of activities as inherently masculine.”  Rather than focus on classical Hollywood film, he addresses cinema after 1965, when action films became one of the largest moneymaking genres for filmmakers in the United States.  Gallagher argues that “popular narratives of male heroism often demarcate the boundaries of active masculinity.”  Perhaps in no other genre is male heroism such an active component of the logic of the narrative.  Gallagher delivers close textual analysis of seminal action films such as Point Break, The Omega Man, and The Getaway, all of which have (or will soon have) multiple cinematic versions, illustrating the popularity of the genre and the need to constantly redefine or signify appropriate standards of masculinity.

The war film has also received recent scholarly attention.  In Armed Forces: Masculinity and Sexuality in the American War Film, Robert Eberwein constructs a paradigm in which relationships between men in war evolve into either men loving men or men killing men.  Yet, the author contends, it is the violence that is sexualized while homosocial (or homosexual?) love is de-eroticized.  The phallic possibilities regarding war weaponry are endless within war films, as Eberwein aptly demonstrates.

Two recent works on the so-called King of the Jungle, Tarzan, illustrate how masculine ideals can be reworked within the action-adventure genre.  Alex Vernon’s profane take on Tarzan in On Tarzan is so thoughtful and daring that the author breaks new ground in cultural studies.  In eight interlocking chapters, Vernon considers the role of the jungle hero in relationship to nature/civilization, his paramour Jane, his pal Cheetah, and the continent of Africa.  Both Vernon’s study and Global Perspectives on Tarzan: From King of the Jungle to International Icon, edited by Annette Wannamaker and Michelle Ann Abate, demonstrate that Tarzan is an international icon but has specific nationalist meanings in relationship to masculinity and sociohistorical context.  This volume contextualizes Tarzan in relationship to audiences in western Canada, France, Israel, and India.

Perhaps one of the most overanalyzed cinematic genres in relationship to masculinity is the Western.  Yet, surprisingly, refreshing new titles continue to emerge, titles that inform not only the specific genre but also the field of masculinity studies as a whole.  Roderick McGillis’s He Was Some Kind of a Man: Masculinities in the B Western is one such example.  The author focuses on the inexpensively made Westerns featuring Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, the fictional Hopalong Cassidy, et al. during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.  McGillis comments on masculinity’s relationship to capitalism and consumerism, nature, race and ethnicity, and romance.  Though B Westerns would seem to be a minor body of film, He Was Some Kind of a Man demonstrates how narrow studies of a particular topic can make contributions that often transcend their particular topic.  In their edited volume Hollywood’s West: The American Frontier in Film, Television and History, Peter Rollins and John O’Connor demonstrate the ongoing political appeal of the Western genre and the way in which Westerns continue to define gender roles.

The classic movie musical (1943-65) has also received a great deal of attention by scholars interested in the construction of masculinity.  In Destabilizing the Hollywood Musical: Music, Masculinity and Mayhem, Kelly Kessler examines the post-Sound of Music era (1966-83).  She claims that in this period the idealism that was so prevalent in classic musicals withered away, and the genre began to reflect the social unrest of the era.  Kessler devotes considerable attention to the changing role of men in musicals in this era.  In the concluding chapter, she also examines the post-1983 musical and the impact of marketing, style, and televisual innovation on the genre.

Mike Chopra-Gant explores film noir—a genre much discussed in relationship to masculinity—in Hollywood Genres and Postwar America: Masculinity, Family and Nation in Popular Movies and Film Noir.  In this revisionist text, the author reexamines classic noir films such as Gilda and Scarlet Street.  The author considers the role of the absent father, the buddy group, the hero, and male friendship within the noir genre.  Some recent studies of masculinity on film emphasize the physical body and its relationship to masochism.  In Lady Chatterley’s Legacy in the Movies: Sex, Brains, and Body Guys, Peter Lehman, a significant contributor to the field of cinematic masculinity studies, and Susan Hunt examine American films that feature the “body guy.”  The authors argue that the “body guy” subgenre of films emphasizes the aggressive, athletic lovemaking prowess of the well-endowed male.  This figure is in opposition to the “mind guy,” whose cerebral nature and small penis make him an unfulfilling lover to women.  The authors cover films from the mid-1980s to the present, including Two Moon Junction, Any Given Sunday, and Sideways.  Lehman and Hunt attribute the origins of this male type to the character of Parkin in D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  Among the outstanding discussions in this volume are thought-provoking analyses of Jewish male sexuality in cinema and of how Holocaust imagery of the flaccid male Holocaust victim makes such bodies into a “very public failed masculinity.”

Works Cited