November 14, 2010

Masculinities in Hollywood—Are We in the Middle of a Transition?

In researching an essay for one of my psych classes, I came across an article posted at Big Hollywood, an Andrew Breitbart property (for those not familiar, he is an extreme right winger intent on creating a conservative empire to rival Huffington Post).  While the article is too inane to be useful for an academic article, it did prompt the following response, which originally appeared, in a vaguely different form, at The Masculine Heart.

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Ben Shapiro blogs at the Andrew Breitbart blog Big Hollywood, which offers a far right perspective on Hollywood and the entertainment industry (as you might guess, they’re not often fans). He likes his leading men to be manly men, not metrosexuals like Johnny Depp.

In his recent article, America Loves Manly Men Not Metrosexual Emos Shapiro laments the decline of traditionally masculine men in Hollywood films and as stars in the film industry. He refers to the current crop of male stars as “douchefaces” (an insult which he qualifies by adding, “in Greg Gutfeld’s terminology” – nice cop-out). Among those he singles out are Johnny Depp, Taylor Lautner, Jude Law, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Zach Braff. He says that Hollywood now prefers male leads who look like women.

Interestingly, he blames two of the most successful and influential actors of the last thirty years – Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson – for the decline in testosterone-fueled male leads.

He looks fondly back to manly men like John Wayne (of course), Clint Eastwood, Errol Flynn, and Marlon Brando (while also acknowledging Christian Bale and Russell Crowe as current manly men). He’s also a fan of now-past-their-prime actions stars like Sylvester Stallone (whose 60+ year old muscles are powered by growth hormone and probably anabolic steroids), Bruce Willis, Liam Neeson, and Harrison Ford.

His reasoning that these guys are still cool despite their advancing age, besides the obvious fact of their talent, is this:

It’s not because they’re old. It’s because they’re dudes. Men want to be them. Women want to be with them. They kick ass, take names, and don’t shave their chests.


But the new crop of male leads are the guys that young women swoon over, to use a phrase that may reveal my advancing age. That skinny kids from the New Moon films, Robert Pattinson, is one of the hottest properties in Hollywood – the girls love him and even their mothers think he’s hot.

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Part of the real issue Shapiro raises in this post is a political disagreement – he begins the post by singling out yet another attempt to relaunch the Superman franchise, this time with a 20-something, angst-ridden Superman who spouts postmodern political views:

According to the New York Post, the Man of Steel will now be “a conflicted 20-year-old who’s trying to find his way in the world … He wears hoodies, has smoldering eyes and, as a lanky Clark Kent, wears low-cut pants and hipster skinny ties.” Even more disturbingly, according to CNSNews.com, the new Superman will be an emissary of the international way which presumably will be more in line with multicultural norms and practices. “I was raised in this country. I believe in this country,” Supermetroman will say. “Does it have its flaws? Yes. Does it have its moments of greatness? Yes. Bottom line is, it’s my home and I’ll always carry those values around with me. But if I do what I can do just for the U.S., it’s going to destabilize the whole world. It could even lead to war.” Yeah, that has best-seller written all-over it.

But that’s the way our culture has been moving in terms of its heroes. Our movie stars are now metrosexual rather than men’s men.

So now we get to the crux of his problem – he’s a right-wing conservative (remember: this is a Andrew Breitbart blog, the internet’s version of Fox News) and these new male stars represent the end of conservative, traditional masculinity. The new masculinities represent a post-modern social construction of gender roles rather than the pre-modern God-given version, or the essentialist modern version. To people like Shapiro, this transition is both sacrilegious and threatening to their own sense of gender identity.

Metrosexuals (as only one example – all men who are not overtly gay and yet transgress the accepted norm are included) represent the shifting gender roles of men in the culture away from the safety of the traditional model – aggressive, dominating, emotionally distant, old-school masculinity is in decline. While Shapiro might blame Hollywood for this trend, it would be more accurate to suggest that they are following the trend. Often, by the time Hollywood jumps on a trend it is already on its way out. As most magazine readers are aware, metrosexualism is in decline and retrosexualism is ascendant, but Hollywood is not onto that trend yet.

Still, men are evolving their identities to include the better parts of the traditional model – honor, courage, loyalty – with the traits once considered feminine – empathy, community, emotional intelligence. This is good – and this is what women have been asking of men over the past 30-40 years. It has taken us a while, and many men are refusing to shift away from what is safe and comfortable, but the younger men are doing this even while remaining religiously inclined and more politically conservative than their parents.

In the space between the old school manliness of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood and the omega men style masculinity of Ben Stiller and Zach Braff there is Leonardo Dicaprio, Edward Norton, and Johnny Depp. DiCaprio, Norton, and Depp are masculine, but they are also emotionally complex (as long as we ignore Depp’s recent roles in the Pirates movies and other two-dimensional roles).

Since Depp tends to choose strange roles in his recent films, it seems DiCaprio, along with Daniel Day-Lewis and Edward Norton are the best representatives of the new masculinity in film. They are masculine (now that DiCaprio has finally stopped looking like a teenager), they are capable of displaying depth of emotions, and they can kick some ass when needed – and usually in defense of some virtue or belief.

It will be interesting to see how masculinity in culture and film develops over the next 20 years.

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