I have an ongoing argument with a friend of mine about the place of masculinity in pop culture. He thinks it unfortunate that it no longer has much of one, as women artists are starting to garner a lot of cultural interest. I am more agnostic on the issue, as I think there’s over a century of celebrated work on the struggles on men that you’re all free to draw on. And I also think we get very excited, sometimes, talking about “the End of Men,” when we shouldn’t.
A piece over at Salon, by one Ryan Leas, tries to present the decline of masculinity as a new trend in film. He uses a strange sample, relying on films like Mud, The Place Beyond the Pines, and Out of the Furnace. None of those movies grossed more than $30 million at the box office, and fewer drew the kind of cultish attention that suggested strong followings. (Mud, maybe.) But not only is this not particularly new — it also certainly has very little to do with the small movies only critics and movie nerds watch. And ultimately, it may not matter at all, in terms of addressing actual gender issues in Hollywood.
A few observations, to that end:
1. There is still a considerable market for action movies, for one thing, which by definition star tough-guy men — without them Mark Wahlberg would have no career left. Movie executives will still tell you that big guns and property damage can sell like hotcakes. My anecdotal sense is that most people go to that sort of blockbusters these days out of a sense of rote obligation, a need to relax to the sound of things blowing up. The appeal isn’t about the moments in the film when Wahlberg stops, looks around, and does the actorly equivalent of beating his chest with both fists. That said: it’s been a long time since the ascendancy of Schwarzenegger, Steven Seagal, and Jean-Claude Van Damme. The last of those dudes has been reduced to doing splits in truck commercials.
2. Even within the action market, those alpha-male movies have been largely overtaken by quasi-ironic, nerd-friendly adaptations of comic books, in the vein of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies also broke somewhat with that trend, in that Christian Bale cracked only deceptive smiles in them. But generally, earnest, do-gooding alpha-men at most give you something like a Man of Steel: a movie that did very well on its first few weekends, and then was basically never spoken of again.
3. The comic book movies sit atop the box office with the assorted progeny of Judd Apatow, whose slacker comedies don’t make much room for chest-beating either. Considering how many of the scenes involve people sitting around on couches staring off into the middle distance, it’s not exactly a take-charge-and-beat-them genre.
4. In this year’s crop of critically beloved, Oscar-bait movies, there have been a lot of slackers, too: Inside Llewyn Davis follows a cranky loser, Her a sad loser, Nebraska a man out of sorts trying to find his way back through a single-minded dad. I happen to think that this is a highbrow reflection of how many (straight, white) men really relate to the Judd Apatow type but find his movies shallow.
5. The Oscar-type movies that don’t deal in these loser types are pretty explicit in their critiques of masculinity: Dallas Buyers Club explicitly challenges its main character’s homophobia in the text of the script. Even something that looks as alpha-male as The Wolf of Wall Street throws a lot of shade at masculinity along the way. It’s at least trying to hold up the behavior depicted for our acid contempt. The men in American Hustle are wandering around wearing hairpieces and hot curlers.
6. All of this being the case, the aggregate result is pretty depressing to me. Here I have traced a pretty robust selection of male archetypes currently available in movies. Most, though not all, of the movies I have listed are directed and written by men. It is not surprising that men are interested in their own lives. It is not even something worth getting angry about. The explanation, in large part, is simply who gets money. But it is deeply strange to see people claim that their absolute dominance, in every sense, of the film industry is on the wane. It isn’t. If anything, it’s likely we’re getting a richer swath of male archetypes because their grip is tightening.