Tag Archives: masculinity

First Man(liness)

I’m a little tired of manly manliness in cinema. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll always have a soft spot Predator, Die Hard, or a good Spaghetti Westerns. But it’s 2018 and I’m kinda tired of that being the MO for male characters, especially manliness for the sake of manliness, like that 50s stoic, silent masculinity. In short, I’m really tired of ‘traditional’ masculinity, especially when it’s idolized and unquestioned.

Which leads me to First Man, the new movie by Damien Chazelle, director of Whiplash (excellent!) and La La Land (ehhhhh). First Man centers on one of my favorite topics: space exploration, particularly the effort to put a person on the moon, hence, y’know, the title. I like space. I think the Apollo Missions were terribly exciting, always have — I was one of those kids who absolutely consumed space stuff. That love of space was enough to beat out my trepidation about watching another Chazelle movie after La La Land.

Now, First Man is a very well made movie. It makes space travel terrifying in the best way possible, it’s claustrophobic and there is so little under your control. The movie really makes you feel that terror, and oh, it’s such a thrill. It’s such a shame, then, that square in the middle of that is Ryan Gosling’s Neil Armstrong.

I don’t know much about Armstrong as a person; I haven’t read biographies and I only know him for his role in space exploration. I don’t purport to really know what he’s like as a person. I do know, however, that I found Gosling’s portrayal to be very frustrating. See, in First Man Armstrong is a very stoic character. We see him crack once or twice — in the aftermath of his daughter’s death, for example — but beyond that he’s borderline emotionless. Maybe there’s a world of emotion going on behind his face, but we’re never afforded a glance inside.

Throughout the film, Armstrong’s stoicism is portrayed to the point of blandness, he doesn’t really seem to feel much (which again, could be argued away as being due to his daughter’s death, but we’re never really allowed to know) and instead his main quality is that he is a driven, quiet man. While other astronauts are bantering about space he is silently committed to getting to the moon. He’ll take part in some family stuff, but at the end of the day, he is Quiet and Manly, focused on going to space. Other astronauts dying just makes him more committed, in addition to having Manly Fear so we know he’s scared (but not too scared). Gosling’s Armstrong is the epitome of that silent, stoic, 50s masculinity, and, as far as the movie is concerned, all the better for it.

First Man doesn’t say much of anything about Gosling’s version of masculinity, aside from extolling it (the other astronauts don’t have the right attitude, his wife [like all of Chazelle’s female characters] just doesn’t understand). Because, as the movie implicitly argues, Armstrong did such great things, and because he embodied this brand of masculinity, clearly it’s great. Underlying the movie is an adoration of his stoicism and drive.

And I am so damn sick of that brand of masculinity. I’d be fine with Armstrong in First Man being a selfish prick if he got called out on it and it was recognized as being a flaw; but instead the movie loves him for it. I’d be okay if we saw some more self-doubt behind that heroic facade, but he is constantly in the zone, never weak, never emotional, always masculine. There’s no real antagonist for that masculinity to butt heads with; no warring factions for Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name to outdo in A Fistful of Dollars, no equally over-the-top villains for John Matrix to vie against in Commando. Rather the doubts raised by his wife and friends fall like the words of a straw man on Armstrong’s manly, too-determined-to-listen ears. It’s frustrating, especially when recognized as the predecessor to the modern toxic masculinity that’s so problematic today.

And it’s 2018, for crying out loud! Masculinity doesn’t have to be so narrowly defined! Consider Chris Evan’s Captain America/Steve Rogers. There’s no doubt that he’s a Manly Man; dude’s jacked, he fights for AMERICA! and is a superhero. He’s also the nicest, sweetest member of the Avengers, the one who sees the best in everyone and supports those around him. He has his doubts and questions; he’s weak at times, but he presses on. His strength isn’t so much his muscles and physicality, but his gentle heart and belief in others. Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed in Creed is a boxer and the inheritor to both his father and Rocky’s legacies. But for all the machismo you’d expect in a boxing movie, we also see him doubt ridden, trying to make relationships work, and being called out on his masculine bullshit. In my beloved Pacific Rim, is Raleigh, a male main character whose primary role is providing the emotional support so other characters (particularly the Japanese woman Mako) can reach their full potential. None of these characters are any less ‘manly’ for these traits, rather in them we see a more complex, fuller, and more welcoming depiction of masculinity.

In the same way that a feminist approach to storytelling challenges the teller to create narratives where women are given agency and allowed to appear in a variety of roles, so too does it desire an allowance for male characters to take on more interesting dimensions. If Neil Armstrong was the embodiment of that style of stoic, selfish masculinity, couldn’t First Man have explored what was beneath that outer shell? Was he a husk of a man so bound by his need to be in control? Or was there genuine, painful emotion behind it? Could the narrative have questioned whether having all that to get to the Moon was worth it, rather than ending with him and his wife reconnecting? We’ve gotta get over this old-fashioned, idealized sort of manliness. It’s 2018, there’s more than one way to be a man.

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Masculinity in Age of Ultron

I saw Age of Ultron Thursday night and I have thoughts. There’s the obvious nerd-out factor of the film, and it’s really cool and does a lot of things right (and, arguably, does indeed go smaller than the first Avengers), but those are essays rants for another day.

So let’s talk about how the movie portrays the idea of masculinity. Because it’s actually really interesting.

Age of Ultron, like The Avengers before it and probably every Marvel movie until I get my friggin’ Captain Marvel movie, is very male dominated. But that doesn’t stop it from portraying a variety of roles for the men to take on. Macho men being manly all the time this is not, rather the Avengers portray different shades of masculinity.

Bruce Banner may be the most obvious. His ‘alter-ego’ is inherently violent and destructive, a stark contrast to his more mild-mannered usual self. He’s a violent man who eschews violence. Here’s a man who would rather that problems not be solved by punching.

This serves as something of an antithesis to Thor, who delights in battle (and tries to comfort Bruce at one point by telling him how well he fought). That said, when Thor competes with Tony, it’s not over who’s the better fighter. Instead they’re boasting of the impressive accomplishments of their significant others. Implicit here is that these two who embody traditionally masculine traits (Thor’s the fighter, Tony is characteristically bawdy) are both with accomplished and important women, and both are okay with it. Being ‘manly’ doesn’t mean downplaying the accomplishments of others and sometimes it means deferring to that as the true measure by which they measure themselves.

It’s Steven Rogers, though, who as Captain America is in some regards the paragon of masculinity: he’s brave, physically fit, honorable, a leader, and so on. But at the same time he’s also humble, he hopes for the best in people, is willing to be vulnerable, and knows he can’t always do it alone. He’s a lot like Captain Awesome from Chuck, in that he embodies a sort of ideal masculinity, but without a lot of the toxicity that goes with it.

Which brings me to Hawkeye, who gets a vastly expanded role in this film. Not only do we get a deeper look into his inner life, but we also see his role as a part of the team. Clint is, not unlike his comics counterpart, effectively the most normal of the Avengers. More than that, though, he’s the one with the most normal and fulfilled personal life, making him also the most stable; the least ‘manly’ of the Avengers is also the one who’s got it the most together. Furthermore, within Age of Ultron he carries much of the film’s emotional weight; he may not be the hardest hitter but he is the heart. In many other stories this position is usually occupied by a woman, or the most feminine one if there are multiple (think Katara from Avatar and Kaylee from Firefly). Clint isn’t seen as less capable for it; he, like Raleigh in Pacific Rim, portrays a form of masculinity that’s supportive in nature.

The male action hero has been somewhat pigeonholed over the years. There’s an immense focus on the John McLane, John Matrix, and Indiana Jones type, that is the swaggering, self-reliant, gun toting, never backing down sort. Compare The Expendables, an ensemble cast of very traditionally manly action heroes, to Age of Ultron. The former are all cut from the same hyper-masculine cloth, whereas the male Avengers are more nuanced. None of them are seen as lesser for not being as much of a brawler as Thor or as brave as Captain America. Rather, the film acknowledges that masculinity comes in different forms and that’s perfectly okay.

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