Thursday, November 26, 2015

Gendered stories on film: the wax and wane of tradition

Gender and sexuality are in a great state of flux. As our understanding of these concepts expand, we also develop new language (which in turn, will affect other people's experience of themselves and the world around them): how many learned the word cisgender only around the recent transformation of Bruce to Caitlyn Jenner and were, for a moment, brought to feel grateful for the fortune of feeling comfortable in their own skin? Still, social change is slow and traditional representations remain very prevalent in the media. We can decode the underlying stories as another means to understand how society may be changing - and often how people in power feel about those changes. 

Take, for instance, Judd Apatow's films. I loved the 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up. Yet these and even Trainwreck, written by Amy Schumer tend to reinforce notions of traditional courtship and marriage as our ultimate life goal. In Apatow's hands, Schumer's normally raucous, sex positive brand becomes a comedic morality tale which finds her character getting on the wagon and committing to monogamy. In the film poster pictured, her index finger in the foreground means to say "Wait, wait while I take a swig to deal with this monogamy thing!!" but it is as much a finger wag taking women to task: Don't find yourself in the position of being a successful 30-something woman without a ring on your finger - complete with shocked, judgmental guy overlooking the hot mess. (Third meaning: "Watch as I put my true destiny on hold, drinking and shagging myself silly"). Clearly this was not Schumer's ending but Apatow's. Schumer's brand is as shameless and unapologetic as is Lena Dunham's. But Apatow's stories support the goodness of traditionality, precisely because they make us laugh.

But when we think about children's movies, it is not a stretch to say that representations of social life become a more important topic. Movies and media more generally socialize children - they create the cognitive models that kids use to interpret the world throughout their lives. They have a more hungry and intense connection to stories and images. One interesting children's film, How to Train Your Dragon 2, brings up the changing scope of masculinity and legitimates new kinds of masculine challenge and talent for a new generation of kids. 

The protagonist Hiccup is a smallish, uncertain and soul-searching young hero who doesn’t understand his trajectory in the world. He has talent but needs to establish himself independently from his father, Stoick the Vast (boisterous, courageous freewheeling, strong, certain, larger than life). In short, a “lad”. Rather than braun, it is Hiccup's tenderness and technical prowess with dragons, an unusual but highly important skill, that lie at his core. Yet, his talented, sporting and much more confident girlfriend Astrid is unimpressed by his boyish inability to see the obvious path to chiefdom clearly ahead of him. Unsatisfied with the ease of success by birthright, he required a cathartic experience, like all heroes going back to Odysseus, to feel worthy of the honor. He had to look for trouble and earn his way out of it to feel he could lay claim to being chief. He identifies more with his mother when he finds her. She is strong, agile and intelligent, driven by a similar passion for dragons, but she is also tender and rather than particularly “caring” - she did abandon him as a child after all- she could be called “protective”in her relationship to the dragons.

Fergus caricatures tradition masculinity
Many of these traits expand the profile of a “new” or alternative masculinity - an archetype that gives more voice to what was once thought of as a weak man. Rather than brute strength (think Brave's King Fergus - a caricature himself), new men can be talkative, sensitive, quietly intelligent, tender and choose love over war or be indecisive at times. Of course, it isn't that such guys didn't exist before - it is that they are portrayed as legitimate, valid ways of being masculine compared to the past where a "real man" meant not too much more than physical strength - pure corporeality.

Another recent film, Son of a Gun (2015) narrates this shift perfectly as it pits these two pure archetypes against one another: JR, the young protagonist of the film and Brendan (played by Ewan McGregor) who likened the difference between these two models to that between Chimps (forceful, independent) and Bonobos (who just "want to stand in a huddle and fuck"). Guess who triumphs?

He-man and the alternative in Son of a Gun
Well, unsurprisingly, the less aggressive guys do - bonobos can win. The narrative structure is a classic "overcoming the monster", but the cultural content is different. The overall message we're seeing is that Brendan's analogy of two types of guys doesn't hold. Two of the traditionally masculine archetypes , Snotlout and Eret, in the How to Train Your Dragon 2 film, ultimately follow Hiccup's lead, won over by the intelligence of his plan. Most importantly, the underdog who triumphs isn't a grotesque sort of caricature like he once was - as are the nerds in "The Revenge of…” series from the 1980s. This newer model is more complex reflecting different, important competencies in a less war-ridden and less manufacturing based reality. It connects more with young men who will also experience their own questions of identity in a world where economic uncertainty is high, with the soul crushing challenge of no chance for an adventure to prove themselves. These boys might have other forms of intelligence -emotional or technical intelligence- that give them alternative pathways to success. A world where many paths, at least in the West, have been cut off as a result of de-industrialization. Part of what legitimates these new forms of masculinity is not only making the characters more likable, but also handsome, or at least "cute" or physically attractive in any way at all.

The nerds are complete misfits; While you were rooting for them, you could never identify with them. 
One needs to look back only as far as 1999 to observe how these types were contrasted more forcefully (and more brilliantly), as in The Fight Club, for instance where Ed Norton’s character is a drab, exhausted, overly feminized, half-a-man, who is considered a sort of distortion of historical circumstances. Instead, 15 years later, we celebrate Hiccup, who wouldn’t be so rude as to manspread on the subway, yet can recruit an army of dragons.

There are other fascinating undercurrents in the film, for instance the way the differences between self-assured, talented and sporty Astrid is contrasted to Hiccup, reflecting how boys and girls are differently performing in school today; or how the confrontation between Hiccup and Drago seems to presage the revival of Cold War divisions as manifested between Obama and Putin...but enough of that. 

The wax and wane, moving forward while pulling back on the reins of cultural change isn't so surprising. As some people push for change, others resist, sometimes forcefully. Social change tends to be more evolution than revolution.  The results we see little by little. 

Riley - the little ice hockey badass from Inside Out. 
Girls rawk math, drums and skateboards, Thanks ED...


  1. Dear Monique,
    Evolution is achieved, yes, little by little, and as Bruce Springsteen so famously sang, "3 steps forward, 2 steps back". I saw a one man story once that helped me to understand the struggle all men have of allowing ourselves to reveal our own vulnerability to others, and I found it on Youtube for you; it may not be so recent, but I think it still speaks volumes.
    See it here:

  2. Sydney, Thanks for sharing the Carlos Andrés Gómez video. That was a great discovery for me. It shows how the most basic existential challenges are interpreted and altered through masculine expectations. He is doing important work trying to allow guys their emotions.