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

By Gerald Butters Jr.

Masculinity and Sexual Identity

Though much important work on queer individuals and cinema has been completed recently, perhaps some of the most interesting research has been on the traditional icon of American cinema—the white heterosexual man.  In Extra-Ordinary Men: White Heterosexual Masculinity in Contemporary Popular Cinema, Nicola Rehling contemplates a number of significant issues in relationship to white heterosexual masculinity in film, including the white male body, cyber-fantasy, cross-dressing, “wiggers” (i.e., white males emulating black hip-hop culture), and serial killers.  She argues that such fare is far more complex than it is given credit for, and their ability to “indicate collective anxieties and desires, as well as ideological conflict” make them important texts to interrogate.  Her discussion of Quentin Tarantino takes the director to task, and her take on his gangster films and their incorporation of black masculinity stands as some of the finest work on the filmmaker.  The volume’s major strength derives from Rehling’s remarkable knowledge of the theory and debates among those working in cultural studies.  She argues that “white heterosexual masculinity continues to be the dominant identity,” but that it is also haunted by the anxiety that it is a vacuous identity.  Rehling’s use of Judith Butler, queer theory, critical race theory, whiteness studies, and masculinity theory in conjunction with contemporary, popular Hollywood cinema makes this an important volume.

The notion of “queerness” within studies of cinematic masculinity is a point of contention among film scholars, and this is clearly evident in Scott Balcerzak’s Buffoon Men: Classic Hollywood Comedians and Queered Masculinity.  Masculinity and gender studies scholars and some queer theory scholars have taken the notion of “queer” to reflect non-normative, anti-hegemonic notions of masculinity.  Unfortunately, this term has been broadened to the extent that it also simply means “different.”  Buffoon Men is a brilliant study of non-normative comedians in the period from 1930 to 1945, but the term “queered” is problematic in describing characters and actions that are far removed from any notion of homosexuality or non-normative masculine ideals.

Because white straight males have been the protagonists in the vast majority of American motion pictures, in the identity politics culture of the late twentieth century, they remained largely ignored in film studies except as victimizers.  Hetero: Queering Representations of Straightness, edited by Sean Griffin, gathers essays from a number of  respected film theorists who attempt to take queer theory and apply it to cinematic heterosexuality.  The book’s diverse contributions include observations on star images (William Haines, Ben Stiller), national cinemas (Swedish, Indian, Yiddish American), and individual films (Home from the Hill, A Free Soul).  Griffin and fellow contributors David Gerstner, Michael DeAngelis, and Harry Benshoff (among other prominent scholars) prove that the analytical tools of queer theory are substantial and revelatory, and should not be ghettoized to films that feature gay or transgender characters.  They demonstrate that the “overlaps and contradictions” of heterosexuality and heteronormativity are “not straightforward and simple” and thus are “a contested terrain.”

Hetero: Queering Representations of Straightness, edited by Sean Griffin, shows that there is no clear line of demarcation between gender studies, queer studies, whiteness studies, and a number of other critical cultural studies paradigms that have emerged in the past thirty years.  This is quite apparent in Roger Hallas’s Reframing Bodies: AIDS, Bearing Witness, and the Queer Moving Image.  In this intriguing book, Hallas successfully accomplishes two goals.  First, he introduces the reader to a body of AIDS activist videos (as distinguished from mainstream Hollywood productions such as Philadelphia) produced from the mid-1980s to the early 2000s; second, he applies contemporary film theory to these films in a sophisticated yet relatable manner.  The author contextualizes films influenced by organizations like ACT UP (for example, Voices from the Front; Fight Back, Fight AIDS) and directed by independent, experimental filmmakers and activists (e.g., John Greyson’s Zero Patience) in the “historical trauma” of the 1980s-90s and demonstrates how they were used to “bear witness,” utilized for mourning and calls for militancy.  Masculinity, homosexuality, activism, and “responsible behavior” were all constructions of behavioral anxiety in relationship to AIDS, and Hallas’s attempt to demonstrate “the crisis of representation” that was engendered by AIDS through documentary work is groundbreaking.


Those working in cinema studies have witnessed an outpouring of challenging, interesting work on masculinity and film in the past decade.  Those volumes that are most successful incorporate theory and methodological tools from a variety of disciplines yet remain both relevant and readable.  What “doomed” much work in the late twentieth century were books in which the author spoke only to a narrow body of those working in the field who “talked the talk” but refused to leave the narrow confines of their theoretical schools.  The fresh new studies that have emerged demonstrate that much new work needs to be completed on star personages, emerging subgenres, nationalist (and perhaps global) cinemas, and YouTube culture.  Technology has rapidly changed how motion pictures are delivered.  There have also been two divergent trends in regard to distribution and reception: the increasing importance of globalization to the overall market, and the emergence of regional production and distribution networks (for example, Bollywood and Nollywood).  The impact of these trends on depictions of cinematic masculinity needs to be addressed by those working in the field.  The talent is certainly out there.

Works Cited