This is a guest post I wrote for the wonderful, perceptive and engaging blogger Rachel Rabbit White, about men in popular culture:
Remember that review by Lindy West last year, of Sex In The City II? Where she inquired:
“What is the lubrication level of Samantha Jones’s 52-year-old vagina? Has the change of life dulled its sparkle? Do its aged and withered depths finally chafe from the endless pounding, pounding, pounding—cruel phallic penance demanded by the emotionally barren sexual compulsive from which it hangs?”
Apart from the fact the young Seattle journalist was able to employ misogyny in order to criticise the misogyny of a Hollywood film and get away with it, I was struck by how her article was one of so many. Not just one of so many that criticised Sex In The City II, but also one of so many articles that focus on representations of women in popular culture.
Lindy West became a symbol for me, a symbol of feminist media and cultural criticism that completely ignores men, or belittles and demonises them whilst going on and on about “sexist” portrayals of women in film and television. Lindy West and other feminists caused me to ask a question I am now known for asking: no, seriously, what about the men?
A feminist who has actually turned her attention to men and masculinity in popular culture, is Hannah Rosin. But I’m particularly unhappy with her treatment of the subject. Rosin recently wrote in The Atlantic, that the many of examples of ‘loser’ men characters on current TV shows represent her theory that we are now witnessing The End Of Men.
“They all feature men who are unemployed or underemployed, love to play video games, and are desperately in need of a makeover. ‘Life is a big jerk and punches you in the face over and over again,’ complains Bert Lansing, a lughead personal trainer in ABC’s How to Be a Gentleman, played by Kevin Dillon from Entourage. Now that I have actually seen them… I worry that maybe I have helped to unleash a race of genetic mutants onto the population–diseased and dysfunctional men ranging from placid to sad to furious, fumbling around in the office, the supermarket, or the bedroom while the rest of America laughs.”
I could add to the list of programmes featuring ‘loser’ male characters, The King Of Queens, Two And A Half Men, Everybody Loves Raymond and Family Guy.
If Rosin was a feminist woman commenting on negative representations of women in TV programmes you can be sure that, like Lindy West did in her SATC review, she’d be crying ‘stereotypes’! and ‘sexism’! and ‘misogyny!’ But no, comparing these shows to some others, she writes: ‘The loser-men sitcoms, by contrast, are fairly heavy on the realism’.
So Rosin is saying programmes like Two and A Half Men, featuring an alcoholic, workshy womaniser, are ‘realistic’ depictions of how men are in general. Misandry, much?
Charlie Sheen is a good example of how feminists, and others, conflate fictional male characters with their real life creators/actors. When Sheen had his ‘breakdown’ recently, journalists rushed to make the connection between the behaviour and personality of the character and the actor who played him. They have also done this with directors such as Woody Allen, drawing parallels with his marriage to Sun Yi and his films about older men and younger women, and Roman Polanski, who has been convicted of rape, and who makes quite violent films. This does not happen to the same degree with women actors and directors, I don’t think.
Is Kathryn Bigelow’s interest in violent men in film, linked to any of her lifestyle choices? Does Kim Cattrell get accused of being a ‘prostitute’ in real life? I think the feminist blogosphere has something to answer for here, with its preoccupation with ‘smearing’ the characters of men in the public eye, or at least emphasising their bad points ad nauseum.
Feminist critics can sometimes seem to only ever judge film and television by how it deals with women and women characters. The Bechedel Test is a classic example. Devised by a lesbian comedian, it asks people to list films which ‘pass’ the test, the criteria being, the films must contain at least two women characters who talk to each other, about something other than men.
I understand the motivations for this, as many Hollywood films especially, are very male-focussed, and women are often playing ‘token’ roles as wives or mothers or ‘sex interest’. But this crude test ignores the qualities of some of my favourite films, such as Paris Texas, Taxi Driver, Hard Candy and Out Of Sight, all of which include brilliant performances by women. It also ignores films I love which are almost completely man-oriented such as Mean Streets, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? and My Own Private Idaho.
Whilst ostensibly criticising Hollywood for only considering women in relation to men, The Bechedel Test also seems to be criticising film makers for making movies which consider men not in relation to women. How very dare they? But, as the popularity of slash fiction shows, actually lots of women are fascinated by stories about men relating to men. Feminism has some catching up to do.
Someone who is interested in men in their own right, is the British author and journalist Mark Simpson. And, in addition to examining men and masculinity in popular culture, Simpson has also noted the misandry of many films and TV shows in recent years. He terms misandry ‘the acceptable prejudice’, because, ‘unlike misogyny, misandry is not monitored because it is considered morally and legally acceptable’.
Unlike feminist critics, who seem to have got stuck in the groove of watching TV and movies simply in order to cry ‘misogyny’! Simpson takes the more positive stance, not of ignoring misandry or misogyny in popular culture, but of examining cultural products for how they deal with masculinity and men, and coming up with original and refreshing conclusions.
In his 1994 classic, Male Impersonators, for example, Simpson takes popular culture as his main theme and exposes masculinity’s ‘performance’ within it. Male strippers and drag artists, ‘macho’ body builders, pornography, sport, The War Movie, reality television, the ‘men’s movement’, rock and roll. They all reveal, as examined by Simpson, the complexities and subtexts of modern masculinities. And, specifically, they reveal the homosexual subtexts and tensions that form a major component of men’s relationships with each other.
These homosexual subtexts are shown to be quite obvious, if you look at them through Simpson’s eyes. In the 1980s blockbuster Top Gun for example, he explains how the conflict between the two pilots – Iceman and Maverick (Tom Cruise) could be seen as a substitute for homosex:
‘In the air the struggle/courtship with the Iceman continues. Significantly the sex scenes are in fact less ‘sexy’ than the fight sequences, and the music used for these scenes – ‘Take My Breath Away’ underlines this irony. It is the flying that ‘takes your breath away’. Competition, the desire after desire, lust without consummation, is where the excitement is, and the competition in the air is real: it is between two men, Iceman and Maverick, both determined to be ‘top’ – neither wants to take the ‘feminine’ position’.
In 2011, Top Gun has been outed as a ‘gay movie’, but back in 1994 Simpson’s analysis was radical. As was his consideration of the 1986 ‘boys’ own’ film, Stand By Me:‘And just as war provides a pretext for evading women and seeking out the company of men, something to ‘do’ with other boys, so Stand By Me offers a common task for the boys: a journey to see the corpse of a young boy they have heard is lying by a railway line. The plotline is in fact the very distillation of the Buddy War Film theme, leaving home and ‘the feminine’ behind to be with your buddies and look death in the face’.
It is interesting to see how a film that would totally flunk feminists’ precious Bechedel Test, and be considered an example of ‘misogyny’, is shown by Simpson to be a tender portrayal of a very common theme in men’s psychology – the evasion of ‘the feminine’. A theme that is exaggerated by war, and by Hollywood war movies. Isn’t that something worth considering as an aspect of masculinity rather than dismissing outright?
Body building, another area of popular culture, that tends to be considered as ‘macho’ and ‘sexist’, in Simpson’s hands is shown to be a very ‘feminine’ display. Even Arnie, that archetypal macho man, demonstrates signs of caring sensitivity through his muscle-bound character in the Terminator movies:
‘By the beginning of the 1980s, the ‘out’ body builder was so acceptable as a role model that the killer/warrior disavowal was no longer necessary. Thus Schwarzenneger played a guardian angel role in Terminator II, protecting a mother and her child, in contrast to his original 1984 bad guy role.’
Male Impersonators has been released as an e-book and provides a brilliant introduction to the ‘lost’ subject of men and masculinity in culture, erased and appropriated as it has been by feminist theory and criticism. Mark Simpson has been continuing to analyse men’s portrayals in movies and TV ever since, and his blog brings us right up to date, with a discussion of the recent film Warrior:
‘Essentially Warrior is one of those movies about ‘brothers’ that isn’t really about brothers at all. It’s a movie about how ‘real’ brothers are usually no match for those that men call brothers. The way that “I love you like a brother, man” is something of a lie, because most boys and men don’t love their brothers that way. As in this movie, sibling rivalry, age differences and family stuff tends to get in the way. It’s the ‘brothers’ you choose to love that you really love’.
I would love to see more women working as directors and screenwriters and producers in Hollywood. And I am all for juicy parts being written for men and women actors (including trans men and women). But I am not prepared to join feminists in using popular culture to trash men and to claim that we live in a sexist, meaning misogynous, society. I love men, and I have found Mark Simpson’s work to be a revelation in its uniquely rigorous and joyful appreciation of them. The sisterhood can have Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Café – I’ve got Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid!