Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Masculinity in the Movies

Manly men in 'The Magnificent Seven'
“We’re men! We’re manly men!”

This year has seen a lot of long-overdue discussion of (and action against) sexual harassment, and with it a focus on the “toxic masculinity” that underlies it and other societal ills. In some ways, the world has almost always skewed toward the patriarchy, but there are some elements of the culture that are actually fairly recent developments, which a look back through recent history will serve to illustrate. We’ll start with my central thesis: the modern American model of masculine and feminine roles is a post-World War II invention.

First, let’s define terms: “toxic masculinity” does not mean that masculinity is itself toxic; the term refers to the collection of societal expectations imposed on men and boys that are harmful to themselves and to women – “men don’t cry”; “boys will be boys”; “men fight for what they want and boldly take it”; and hundreds of other cliches about what men are supposed to do and be and what is forbidden to them. There is a similar collection of myths about what girls and women are required to do and be and tolerate, but “toxic femininity” is more self-destructive.

In the Victorian Era, women were treated (and largely saw themselves) as delicate fragile creatures who would faint at the slightest offense. (The fact that they couldn’t draw a decent breath or walk 50 yards due to the corset, bustle, high collars, and high-button shoes might have had something to do with that.) Women needed to be treated gently and indulged; men had to be genteel and unfailingly polite or be labeled a cad, masher, scoundrel. Later, the flappers of the Roaring Twenties proved that women could be as bold, adventurous, and sexually aggressive as men, and new relationship rules had to evolve. Then the Depression hit, and women had to work as hard as men to keep their families alive; a hard-nosed practicality evolved, and for a while there was something approaching the beginnings of egalitarianism and equality in some areas, which is illustrated in classic ’30s films like It Happened One Night, Destry Rides Again, Red Dust, and the Thin Man movies, where Claudette Colbert, Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich and Myrna Loy are every bit the equals of Gable, Stewart, and Powell, and the men readily concede the point.

Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in 'It Happened One Night.'
Claudette Colbert lets Clark Gable know who’s boss in ‘It Happened One Night.’

During WWII men enlisted and were drafted in the military in unprecedented numbers; by the time the war ended, over 12 percent of the US population was in uniform, the overwhelming majority of them men. This represented a major drain on the workforce, and women were encouraged to go to work to fill the gap. When men returned from the war, they found that their wives were working in manufacturing, welding and using heavy equipment, doing “man’s work”; they were good at it and a lot of them liked it.

Immediately, there was a concerted societal push to get women to leave the work force and return to the domestic bliss of marriage and family. Forty years earlier, women had been told that “the fairer sex” could not do the kind of manual labor and heavy lifting that men did. After the war, the new message was that of course women could do these things, but “real women” wouldn’t want to; their happiness was to be found in changing diapers and cleaning things with Pine-Sol. Katharine Hepburn gave way to June Cleaver.

Comics historian Sydney Heifler documents the role of romance comics and “true confession” magazines in shaping women’s attitudes and behavior:

Cold War scholar Paul Hirsch argues that the United States government controlled the production of most comic books during World War II through the Writers’ War Board (WWB). Though technically not a government agency, the government funded the WWB and determined 85 percent of its production to engender the American people’s support for government policies.

In 1943, for example, the WWB initiated the use of comic books as propaganda to shape Americans’ perceptions of race and ethnicity to correspond with the war efforts against Germany and Japan. This influence lasted until 1948, when the war was over and the government decided the WWB was no longer needed to achieve citizen support. Maureen Honey argues that the WWB shaped popular fiction first to drive women into the workforce during WWII and then to transition them back into their homes at the end of the war.

Hired out to steamy romance confession magazines popular amongst women readers, writers from the WWB’s Confessions Committee created stories to sway American women’s behavior. For instance, in these stories, working-class women who supported the war effort found true love. Middle-class women who would not get out and work failed in love. As the war headed to its end, these magazines began to focus on the importance of transitioning women back home. Themes of feminine values, the sanctity and fulfillment of marriage, and the importance of being a stay-at-home wife and mother began to proliferate in confession magazines.

Simon and Kirby’s Young Romance mirrored this teaching effort and established comic book social-role instruction for women.

A good example of this mindset is found in the Silver Age Wonder Woman comics; Princess Diana, despite being almost as strong as Superman, and on a mission as an ambassador, wants nothing more than to settle down with Steve Trevor in domestic bliss, but because Steve doesn’t believe her, it will never happen.

At the same time, male role models in film underwent a similar transition. Prior to the war, men in the movies were gentle and emotional. Look at Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, William Powell; even Clark Gable had a soft side. Samuel Goldwyn once told Hedda Hopper “When Clark Gable comes on the screen, you can hear his balls clanking together.” And yet, this manliest of men, in his most famous movie roles, shows sensitivity and vulnerability in ways that were not tolerated after 1945. In Angels With Dirty Faces, Jimmy Cagney, playing a tough-as-nails gangster, in an act of redemption that destroys his reputation, cries and begs for mercy on his way to his execution, things no “real man” would ever do in a post-WWII film.

Following the war, there was a distinct shift in the type of heroes, and by extension, the ideal of masculinity, portrayed on film. The new stars were strong and stoic loners who showed little emotion; John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, and many more. What happened?

Gary Cooper in 'High Noon."
“Sometimes a man has to walk alone.”

I believe that the more rigid and demanding definition of what it means to be a man in the postwar era was an ancillary effect of the deliberate redefining of what is expected of women. As women were pushed to return to being the submissive and fragile housewives of the Victorian era, men had to draw a more stark contrast in order to assert their superiority. And it all starts with this, the single most terrifying image of the twentieth century:

WWII "We Can Do It" poster
The poster that struck terror in the hearts of insecure men.

Since everybody now knew that women were not the delicate flowers they once were seen as, men had to raise the bar for masculinity in order to re-establish the necessary gap and protect the Patriarchy. Where previously it was common for men to have close and deep emotional bonds with other men, and non-sexual friendships with women, both in real life and on the movie screen, the new reality demanded that the only permissible displays of male emotion had to be either violent or erotic. It was acceptable to grieve for a fallen comrade, as long as the grief was expressed as a desire for revenge. Any positive emotions had to be reserved for the woman you loved; any other display of kindness or affection would be tagged as weakness or homosexuality. Treating women as equals or being interested in (or even mildly appreciative of) “girl stuff” was proof that a man was obviously gay.

Despite the centuries of religious condemnation of homosexuality, gay men, as long as they were discreet about it and “didn’t do it in the street and scare the horses,” as the saying went, generally warranted a disinterested shrug prior to 1941. Violation of the public standards of decency was a sin for both gay and straight people; everyone had to adopt the same posture of diffidence and public asexual persona, regardless of their orientation, but most of the laws against homosexual acts were generally ignored unless somebody made a point of calling attention to themselves. Many gay actors were popular in the early days of cinema, such as Ramon Navarro and Clifton Webb; it wasn’t until after the war that strident crusaders of decency like the Knights of Columbus began actively promoting homophobia. I think this was because homosexuality was linked to femininity, in that both were seen as weakness and had to be condemned. A man who cross-dressed or behaved in a way that was considered feminine was choosing a lower rung in the patriarchal hierarchy and had to be punished for it. Women who cross-dressed faced a lesser stigma, because “acting like a man” was seen as trying to climb the ladder, and ambition is admirable. Also, some men found women in men’s clothing sexy (see Judy Garland in Summer Stock, Marlene Deitrich in anything, Diane Keaton in Annie Hall).

Humphrey Bogart might serve as the transitional character between the pre- and post-war ideals of masculinity. In The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, both pre-war films, his character is more more vulnerable and sensitive than in later films like To Have and Have Not and The African Queen. The New York Times praised his performance in Sabrina, saying he displayed “a manly way of melting” when he fell in love with the title character.

Humphrey Bogart in 'Casablanca'.
Bogie could be heartbroken in a manly way.

Later, in the ’50s and beyond, some of these absurd manufactured stereotypes were occasionally challenged, as for example, in Rebel Without a Cause, where James Dean struggles with the demands of masculinity and its role in the social structure, caught between the macho posturing of Dennis Hopper and the infatuation of an emotionally needy Sal Mineo. The point is hammered home by his emasculated father, who not only does “women’s work” at home, but wears a frilly apron while doing it. “Traditional” masculinity barely triumphs, but a price is paid. Cracks in the facade were beginning to show.

James Dean and Jim Backus in 'Rebel Without a Cause.'
Jim Backus disgraces his son (James Dean) by doing “unmanly” housework and wearing a frilly apron, in ‘Rebel Without a Cause.’

For the next 40 years, the movies vacillated between “sensitive” (read “unmanly”) actors like Dustin Hoffman, Richard Dreyfuss, Adrien Brody, and Michael Cera, and hyper-masculine heroes like Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. It seems at times like only Harrison Ford was comfortable in the middle between these two extremes.

And now today we’ve gotten to the point that many roles previously played by straight white men are being given to women, or to men who aren’t white, challenging the notion that men should be at the center of every story.

Today, the generation that imposed these impossibly rigid gender boundaries on us is mostly dead, but the three generations that followed them are still dealing with the fallout, often in weird and unexpected ways. Originally, computer programming was “women’s work,” pioneered by Grace Hopper and others. Once men started to enter the field, it became “man’s work,” and within less than a decade, it was a generally-accepted “truth” that women couldn’t do it as well. Of course that was nonsense, but the male ego is fragile.

Grace Hopper
Grace Hopper did programming before it was “man’s work.”

Today, when nerds run the world, one would expect that they, the group of men most negatively affected by decades of toxic masculinity, would eagerly throw off the chains of oppression. Having been routinely assaulted and harassed for being “egghead poindexter sissies” and told that everything about them was unmanly, nerds should be, and many are, leading the charge to eradicate the absurd and arbitrary rules about what man are and are not supposed to be like. Today, Biff Tannen is utterly dependent on George McFly for tech support, and knows it, and “geek” has become a praise instead of an insult, but nonetheless, cis-het-honky masculine arrogance has become more strident and ugly than ever before, with a noisy segment of the nerd world eagerly joining the wrong side. With the gradual acceptance of smart men, gay men, artistic men, and other former targets, a certain subset of threatened men are resorting to the old standby; if we can’t elevate our own status, we can drag everyone else down and create the illusion that we belong on top of the pile. This is seen in the recent explosion of outrage against women, people of color, pretty much anyone who is not a straight white male.

All of this plays out in sexual politics. Men are socialized from childhood to treat sex as a contest; you have to figure out some way to talk, cajole, or manipulate a girl into giving up and doing what you want. Women are supposed to resist until they have to surrender, but never actually come right out and directly reject a guy; they have to “let him down gently” unless they want to be tagged with an insulting and misogynistic epithet (or possibly assaulted). This, and the underlying male entitlement that drives it (men are the contestants, women are the prizes), turn toxic pretty quickly, both for the women who fail to give a man his earned reward and the men who have no hope of ever beating the game. Every once in a while, one of them snaps and shoots up a college campus, enraged that the girls failed to validate his “nice guy” act.

John Cusack in 'Say Anything.'
Doing this is not okay.

A lot of this dynamic is driven by movies, particularly romantic comedies. Lloyd Dobler standing in Ione Skye’s front yard with a boom box is not romantic, it’s creepy and stalkery. Grand romantic gestures are only grand and romantic if the person they are aimed at is already in love with you; they will not win anyone over. All over the internet, there are videos of people staging their own version of the “cue cards” scene from Love Actually, wherein creepy stalker Mark (Andrew Lincoln) confesses his love for Juliet (Kiera Knightly) at the front door while she’s supposed to pretend she’s listening to Christmas carolers. These people overlook the obvious: Mark is using the cards and boom box so that his (supposed) best friend will not hear him, because he knows that everything he’s doing is wrong and awful and he doesn’t want to get caught. Juliet should have turned to her new husband, said “it’s for you” and then walked away from the door.

Andrew Lincoln in 'Love, Actually.'
Creepy stalker sees himself as “a nice guy.” Too many people think this kind of harassment is “romantic.”

Trolls on the internet rage against diversity because it threatens their very identity as men. Attempts to tear down the barriers and liberate both men and women are seen as an attack on men. They can’t even see the ways that repressive patriarchal demands have negatively impacted their lives. The door to the cage is open, but they see it as a threat to their security and rush to close it from the inside. There’s an old saying, supposedly from Goethe: “There are no people more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.” If somebody can convince you that your chains are jewelry, you’ll show them off proudly. And that’s where we are today. The cartoonishly absurd MRAs are happily constructing their own cages in the emotionally comforting but utterly false belief that denigrating others somehow elevates them, and that attacking women and people of color somehow makes them more manly, and thus more acceptable to the people who tormented them in adolescence. Instead of rejoicing that the old oppression which punished them for being who they were is gone, they have instead decided that the correct response is “now it’s OUR turn!” And so it goes.


  1. Jazzbo

    Very well done and thought provoking article.

    I do think that one influence on the post-war change to the strong silent type hero that you didn’t mention is the fact that a huge number of people, specifically young men, were suffering from PTSD to some degree and had no idea how to deal with it. As there wasn’t really any outlet for them to deal with what they had gone through, a lot of returning vets did their best to ignore it or bottle it up, which then led to prevalence of the stoic, rather emotionless type. And since WWII vets were pretty much the epitome of what a “man” should be, this then became the portrayal in media.

    Granted, this may be a bit of a chicken or the egg type thing, where maybe the media portrayal influenced the returning vets on how they should deal with their feelings. But I do think that the PTSD so many were experiencing but had no real way to deal with played a part in what was considered manly for the next few decades.

    1. That is a smart observation, and one I had not considered. It definitely makes sense that young men suffering PTSD would be drawn to movie heroes who were examples of the strong, silent, stoic image they were trying to project, which in turn causes studios to produce more movies featuring such characters, which reinforces the social expectation, and so on, like a snake swallowing its tail.

  2. Edo Bosnar

    Yeah, great piece, thanks for posting this. You actually put in one place a lot of my own similar but more disparate thoughts on some of these same matters.
    One point I’m glad you brought up, albeit briefly, was the concept that at some point it was decided that women and men couldn’t have non-sexual friendships. In real life, of course, such friendships seem quite common, but for some reason in movies – and often on TV – it’s always implied that when a man and a woman are ‘just friends’ there’s some seething sexual tension bubbling under the surface, or the guy is gay. It’s such a common concept that there’s a even a basically derogatory term for it, the ‘friend zone,’ which inspired an eponymous movie apparently (haven’t seen it). What I find completely ridiculous is that periodically more or less serious articles in magazines or online appear with titles like “Can men and women really be just friends?” (If I were writing the article, it would be the shortest ever, because it would consist of a single word: yes.)

    By the way, this: ‘Juliet should have turned to her new husband, said “it’s for you” and then walked away from the door.’ Brilliant!

  3. “A good example of this mindset is found in the Silver Age Wonder Woman comics; Princess Diana, despite being almost as strong as Superman, and on a mission as an ambassador, wants nothing more than to settle down with Steve Trevor in domestic bliss, but because Steve doesn’t believe her, it will never happen.”

    Eh? Diana’s always clear that she can’t settle down because she has to wipe out evil and crime first (Steve in one story realizes that’s basically “never.”). For most of the Silver Age it comes off more like a guy patronizing his sweetie — “Aw, honey, you know I want to marry you, but dang it, I gotta go beat up evildoers.” It’s only as the 1960s progresses that Diana gets more possessive and more mushy (Jacqueline Nodell has made a good argument that WW and Supergirl both imported romance-comics tropes to hopefully boost readership).

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