Men and Masculinity in Film

What is it about men? This week’s discussion topic is the portrayal of masculinity in films, whose understanding has slowly shifted towards more realistic and nuanced interpretations. Men in films have increasingly been removed from the crude categories of heroes and villains. Charged with emotions and inner struggles, vulnerability penetrates through their masculinity, which makes them more real and more interesting than ever before.


Despite the special insights that the audience might gain from more complex characters, there is still a curious interest in films about the hyper-masculine, “depersonalised” men. Take Jason Statham, whose contribution to the film industry is “tough [and] uncompromising”, as Adam Gabbatt notes. His presence on screen already announces a particular film genre, from which you can confidently predict a few elements: violence, aggressive looks and a tint of arrogance. “Directed by Guy Ritchie” screams Statham and still has a wild success, with striking Box Office rewards. From time to time, it must be exciting and refreshing to watch an unapologetic and unbothered model of hypermasculinity unfolding right in front of you. Social order, financial constraints, law, and ethics simply can’t exist around such a manly presence, so perhaps watching a film with Clint Eastwood or Tom Cruise is a way to let loose and live a lawless life for a little while.


Out of all things in this world, there is nothing more annoying than perfection. We are intrigued by contradictions and confusion: we can’t stand watching James Bond for too long. His moral code becomes dull after a few films, his sense of duty makes him predictable, and, in the end, everything goes his way. Perfection lacks personality and a certain humanly quelque chose. Over time, it starts to bore us. The Bond films would become uninteresting, were it not for other distractions. The exciting parties, variation of crooked villains, pretty surroundings, or film alternatives ensure that the perfect story of the all-dominating masculine Bond doesn’t appear as limited and repetitive as it is. The Spaghetti Western masculine figures do not spark as much excitement as they used to, do they?


Patrick Bateman is a much more cinematically interesting subject: a high functioning broker who likes to spend his spare time with self-improvement and killing people. Despite him being the perfect representation of an alpha-man: right looks, a career in finance, a successful relationship, and a secured high social status, he is also amoral and a criminal. You might like Patrick because he could be many things but dull and his appearances are empty, providing no meaningful information about himself, which is interesting. Similarly, Toni Montana’s “possessions” (his suits, his house, his empire, Elvira) make him look like the perfect hyper-masculine prototype. Scarface is a self-made drug-lord who emanates a reckless masculine energy that makes anyone know when he’s around. Toni’s interest in the finer things in life and extreme vulgarity stems from an obsession of power, which constitutes his weakness. He is arrogant, reckless, and aggressive, yet his struggle, stubbornness, and ambition create a strange sense of respect which transcends the screen. As his power increases, the way he exercises his masculinity seems contextually explicable. His violence, disrespect, and megalomaniac tendencies are realistic because they are driven by a self-preservation instinct in the anarchic drug-dealing state of nature. Everyone I talk to likes Toni.


On the other side of the spectrum, La Haine or Hate, a classic banlieue movie about the social and political discrimination against minorities in France, has a realistic and less grandiose approach towards masculinity, oftentimes resembling a documentary film. The nuanced, flowing performances have been carefully documented: the cast and crew spent six months in the Paris suburbs before filming, to capture the reality of those marginalized as accurately as possible. The slang, the aggressive dialogue, the frowning foreheads betray a constant state of anger, fear and insecurity which are foaming under everything. The three main characters: Vincent Cassel, Hubert Koundé and SaÏd Taghmaoui play themselves in a different socio-economic context. A Jewish man, a Black man, and an Arabic man are fighting against a system of injustice, but not in the happy ending way that Hollywood movies like to portray. They struggle for survival and their extreme masculinity is the only coping mechanism that makes sense in the streets. Vulnerability seems senseless and out of discussion from La Haine, whose universe is inherently aggressive and predatory, because it is the only way to survive.

Additional film recommendations: Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Whiplash, Phantom Thread, Fight Club, Vers la Tendresse, Top Boy, The Lion King.

There are so many things to be said about masculinity in films. Each character is built different, and categories or stages of masculinity are hard to be defined. The most accurate way of capturing these insights is thinking about cinematic masculinity as a spectrum moved by a general tendency towards complexity, looking inwards. The most cinematically interesting characters endure harsh battles with themselves and display masculine behaviours despite their deep-rooted desire for serenity and perhaps vulnerability. What do you guys think?


Image by: Johann Walter Bantz via Unsplash.


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