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Masculinity in Film: The Emergence of a New Literature (February 2014): Masculinity, Race, and Ethnicity

By Gerald Butters Jr.

Masculinity, Race, and Ethnicity

In considerations of race and cinematic masculinity, studies that concern African American men (who tend to be racialized) have been the most prevalent.  In Pretty People: Movie Stars of the 1990s, edited by Anna Everett, Melvin Donaldson’s essay “Denzel Washington: A Revisionist Black Masculinity” delivers a formidable analysis of Washington’s cinematic roles and his “good guy” persona before his Academy Award-winning turn in Training Day.  Keith Harris’s Boys, Boyz, Bois: An Ethics of Black Masculinity in Film and Popular Media promotes an ethics of masculinity in regard to race in popular culture.  Mel Watkins’s Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry is a long-overdue but flawed work on one of the most recognized African American actors of the first half of the twentieth century.  Though at times Watkins’s defense of the comedian is strident, he successfully balances the demonization of Fetchit within black cultural studies with a more complete understanding of the institutional limits that the actor was working under.

Three critically well-received recent volumes have focused on Asian or Asian American masculinity in film.  Celine Parreñas Shimizu’s Straitjacket Sexualities: Unbinding Asian American Manhoods in the Movies is unique.  The vast majority of studies on racialized masculinity have been theoretical and descriptive, rather than prescriptive, as this work attempts to be.  Shimizu argues for cinematic representations, establishing “relations that form the basis of an ethical manhood that cares for self and others.”  Conscious of the asexual/effeminate/homosexual paradigm that restrains depictions of Asian American manhood (the “straightjacket sexualities”), the author calls not for a cinematic reconstruction that replaces these stereotypes with tropes of masculine, heterosexual domination but instead for one that accepts “lack” as strength.  Shimizu deals with a broad range of subject matter, including stars (Bruce Lee and Jason Scott Lee) and the institutional “genres” of independent, pornographic, and Hollywood films.

In Celluloid Comrades: Representations of Male Homosexuality in Contemporary Chinese Cinemas, Song Hwee Lim explores representations of male homosexuality in contemporary Chinese cinema.  Lim introduces readers to a range of recent Chinese films and provides in-depth analysis of each.  The author does not offer the book as a survey of gay representation in Chinese cinema; instead, he poses a number of provocative questions to consider when approaching this subject.  In a sense, he is laying the groundwork for the next generation of scholars in this field.  Lim challenges Western constructions of “homosexuality” and “Chineseness,” thus problematizing the parameters of gender theory and nationality.  Lim’s seemingly limitless knowledge of scholarship on his subject gives him remarkable authority when considering such films as The Wedding Banquet, Farewell My Concubine, and Happy Together.  Thus, Lim demonstrates how concepts of nationhood, gender, and sexual orientation are inseparable, particularly when discussing cinematic masculinity.   Kin-Yan Szeto examines the work of three important transnational Chinese directors in The Martial Arts Cinema of the Chinese Diaspora: Ang Lee, John Woo, and Jackie Chan in Hollywood.  These men enjoy international appeal, and Szeto is interested in concepts of identity, arguing that the men reflect “cosmopolitan consciousness” yet also “Chineseness.”

Works Cited