American Hyper-masculine

Despite a historic fondness for films “critiquing” masculinity, the Oscars are doing little to challenge the gender status quo.


Get ready for the manliest, least diverse Oscar ceremony in years. Not only is this the whitest group of nominees since 1995, but almost all of this year’s Best Picture nominees deal overtly with the process of becoming a man, losing one’s sense of manhood or the persistence of toxic masculinity in modern culture. From Birdman to Boyhood, the Academy voters seem especially moved this year by studies in the lives of white men.

This isn’t shocking given that most Academy voters are also white men and that there is a widely-known dearth of Hollywood films made about women, but the last time not a single Best Picture nominee was centrally about a woman was way back in 2005 — when Crash won— four years before the Academy expanded the category to include more than five nominees.

This year, amongst the eight nominated films, not only does each one star a man, but most are explicit explorations of what it means to be a man. In Whiplash two men push each other towards greatness via increasingly competitive displays of hyper-masculinity. Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, starring Ralph Fiennes, has been described as a new, more “effete” vision of masculinity on screen. And Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is a film filled with so much introspective manliness that the New Yorker says it could have just been called “Manhood.”

All of these films, like Birdman and Boyhood, can be read as “critiques” of masculinity, as none are straightforward celebrations of the kind of virulent male entitlement that continues to plague society. Yet, amidst the overwhelmingly man-tastic world of contemporary cinema, one starts to wonder how many of these “critiques” actually succeed in challenging that plague.

There’s clearly a long history of sexism in Hollywood, as the recent Sony leaks revealing higher pay for men and the fact that fewer women are directing today than were 17 years ago confirm, but it’s also worth questioning the bias that exists in the basic criteria we use to judge “great” films.

How long have we been watching and loving films by men examining masculinity only to arrive in 2015 with a film culture still obsessed with masculinity? Shouldn’t great films actually move the conversation forward somehow?

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in “Birdman.” (Alison Rosa / Fox Searchlight)

This is less about any particular film, and more about an entire industry — which includes the Academy — which apparently didn’t progress much in the nearly 40 years between Taxi Driver and Whiplash. It’s not just that American Sniper snuck into the Best Picture race, but that nearly all the other prestige films which it pushed out — Foxcatcher, Nightcrawler, Interstellar, and A Most Violent Year — were also films about white men and power.

Furthermore, most of these films are ones that people love precisely because they are about masculinity. It would be tempting to credit the influx of introspective “man” films to a rising feminist sensibility in popular culture — one that encourages us to challenge gender roles more directly — yet that would require some more feminist critiques of masculinity, and would also be ignoring the fact that films like American Sniper have been winning these awards for decades.

Wes Anderson or Clint Eastwood certainly didn’t invent the white-patriarch-centered Oscar-nominated film — The Godfather has been studied as a portrayal of masculinity-in-crisis since 1972, and On the Waterfront for twenty years before that. Of course many of these films about being a man are also great works of art, and as Boyhood demonstrates, there are always new ways of looking at the subject, but perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that we might be working with a limited cinematic language if so many of the so-called “best” movies still seem to be variations on the same theme.

Meanwhile, when was the last time a film examining femininity won Best Picture? Clint Eastwood’s own Million Dollar Baby (2004) was the last film starring a woman to win the big prize, and Chicago won two years before that, but we’ve never had a “No Country for Old Women” or any showy historical drama about women’s leadership — in the vein of The King’s Speech, or anything fundamentally about the lives of women of color, that has won.

It’s been said that in order to win, a film needs to be considered “serious,” but does serious automatically mean “about the inner lives of men”? Each year the Academy vaults more male-centered pictures to the top, and a crop of new filmmakers are given the same limited sense of what an esteemed film looks like.

Furthermore, the overwhelming prevalence of “manly” films amongst our “greatest” cinema leads to some important questions. Namely, can critiques of masculinity, made by and about men, actually push men to think differently about gender norms? Can you dismantle patriarchy while centering the lives and stories of men?

2015 Oscar Nominees for Best Director. (YouTube.com)

Regardless, this year’s Oscar nominees would suggest that Hollywood isn’t really into distancing itself from patriarchy anyway. Rather than “men in crisis” films which tackle the intersection of white supremacy and sexism, for instance, we’re still largely dealing with movies that briefly glance at issues of gender stereotypes before ultimately reinforcing them. In its 8th decade of existence, the Oscars are still only tentatively ready to talk about male entitlement, even as their picks seem to repeatedly suggest it is an underlying problem in the world.

For instance, Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game avoids depicting Alan Turing’s relationships with other men and only briefly mentions the oppressively gendered social codes its characters are dealing with. It is on the surface still a film about masculinity and war, but one that does not examine the connections between that violence and the same hyper-masculine culture keeping Turing in hiding. Similarly, The Theory of Everything, which at the very least gives its female lead a substantial story arc and credit in its hero’s growth, is in the end still most concerned with eliciting admiration for Stephen Hawking and his “troubled male” greatness.

The lone outlier amongst this year’s Best Picture nominees — the only one where white men are actively being pushed from the center — is (not surprisingly) directed by a woman of color. Though Ava DuVernay’s Selma was overlooked in the directing category (she would have been the first Black woman nominated), her work is noteworthy as she crafts a film that isn’t just about a “great man,” but one that consistently brings Black women into the story.

It’s not just that DuVernay “humanizes” Martin Luther King Jr., but that she contextualizes his achievements, while breaking free of the hyper-masculine imagery typically associated with biopics (something The Imitation Game and Theory of Everything are less successful at). She often frames characters in tight close-ups, suggesting that no one has the longview of history — that everyone, including King, is looking at the world through their own particular lens. This of course makes King’s ability to see past so many roadblocks even more impressive, but it also leaves audiences with great respect for the others who marched with him — particularly the women — who could potentially see even farther down the road than he did.

One of the most quietly powerful moments in Selma comes in the seconds before the church bombing which killed four Black girls in Birmingham, Alabama. DuVernay lets us hear the conversation the girls are having as they descend the stairs of the church, right before they are murdered. These girls are not talking about Martin Luther King Jr., they are discussing their hair, difficulties in maintaining it, and how much they admire the way Coretta Scott King wears hers.

Later, when Scott King (played by Carmen Ejogo) wonders about her role in the movement, Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint) assures her that she matters more than she can imagine. The scenes DuVernay includes in which Mrs. King supports and motivates her husband, despite his many flaws, only reinforce this truth.

These moments are profound reminders of the many intersecting issues underlying the story in Selma — which persist today, reflected in the lack of diversity at the Academy Awards — particularly the gendered ways in which we define leadership and the limiting representation of Black women and girls in mainstream American culture.

As a result, Dr. King does not emerge from Selma as an idealized patriarch or even your typical “flawed, but great” man on screen. Because DuVernay’s film is not about a man, but a movement. This complicates and expands the traditional cinematic lens used to tell true stories about male leaders, and lays out a framework for future biopics that is not so firmly dependent on celebrating masculinity.

Ava DuVernay directing “Selma,” (Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount Pictures)

It’s similar to what 12 Years a Slave accomplished last year, which, by shifting the point-of-view away from white men, altered the way “prestige” movies could tell the story of slavery. Both movies use the typical building blocks of Oscar-worthy films towards subversive ends.

But outside of Selma, the near uniformity amongst this year’s Oscars— all the nominated films are about men, all the nominated actors are white, all the writers and directors are men — reinforces a patriarchal worldview in which the most interesting, important and meaningful lives are those of white men. The subject matter of films nominated might suggest an interest in challenging toxic masculinity, but the overall voting by the Academy displays timidity and comfort with the status quo.

If the industry really wants to dismantle patriarchy though, we need better films about masculinity — films which have the courage to investigate gender norms beyond a surface which has been well-worn by over 100 years of white straight men making movies about men— but we also need more films about women. One way of encouraging both is to allow fresh perspectives into the pantheon— voices which could slowly help change and expand the language of “great film” itself, to encourage young filmmakers to see cinema as something bigger and more inclusive than what it currently looks like.

But this would mean actively supporting, watching and recognizing films created by women. A seemingly gargantuan task for most in the industry.

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