So. Do you think the theme of masculinity is the cause or effect of men being in lead roles so much more often than women? (Random question I suppose, but it's fun to have these convos with you.)
Ooh! I find that I’m becoming more and more.. prone to siding with the argument that it’s the bigger context of a social phenomenon (like what forces allow movie roles to be male-dominated) that illuminate different patterns/habits within society. That’s a broad statement since I’m still mulling it over, but it follows a structure vs. agency model to studying people’s actions & what causes them. So I think the theme of masculinity is expressed in a lot of different ways by men, artistic or not, because [maybe especially] for western societies it’s been a hugely important dimension in men defining their roles, responsibilities, identities…
Honestly I believe it has deep roots too in imperialism and nation-building with Europe and then the US because the idea of what makes a man (i.e. a white man) was used to subjugate different groups of people and legitimize domination (whether in the colonial sense, extended through to segregated America, or during the cold war when there was an emphasized “us vs. them” mentality). So I think exploring masculinity in art and movies today is a reaction to something that has been a really powerful social tool for centuries. And it still is a really pressing concept today — I’m thinking of how in Breaking Bad when Gus says very slowly to Walt “what does a man do? he provides for his family” and there is no way Walt could argue with him. And that theme of Walt providing for his family is a source of the entire show’s conflict; it’s supposedly his driving motivation since Episode 1. I’m also thinking of like, western movies depicting the lone cowboy, emotionally detached yet brave and captivating and all, and that was probably also a powerful symbol for crafting manhood through the 20th century. (Which makes me realize how genius Brokeback Mountain is.)
But to tie all this back to your original question… I think having so many more lead male roles in Hollywood is a symptom of gender roles put in place through a very long history of political, economic and social power dynamics. This is just my gut reaction and I really want to revisit it/build on it but this is what I got so far. What do you think??
Damn you’re so eloquent. Okay so as far as imperialism and the historical stuff I’m just gonna definitely agree but otherwise I don’t have much to add to that. Narrative and character development - that I can discuss. Going solely with gender roles and stereotypes, I think one of the many reasons men are much more often the protagonist has to do with strength. Men are expected to be strong - definitely physically but often mentally too, at the very least in the sense of being brave - as are the lead characters of stories. (I’m gonna go on a tangent here and mention the Eddie Izzard joke about Scooby & Shaggy and how they’re legendary characters because when else do you root for the cowards? Anyway…) And an important question is: what are women expected to be?
When we learn more about a male character and discover his weaknesses, I feel like we’re supposed to be surprised and/or sympathetic. Like the stoic lone cowboy who befriends a kid - that’s a touching, just-surprising-enough moment. I’m not taking away from that at all - I want complex characters. What I’m leading up to, though, is the problem with some audiences and how they’ve been conditioned to certain types of characters and narratives, a lot of which involve gender roles. A stereotypical comparison (seriously, it’s incredibly cliche, I know) that comes to mind is a character being extremely upset while he/she is alone. What does the male character do? Probably slam his fist down on a table, flip said table, throw things. And the female character? Probably sit alone on the floor or in bed crying. (Have we at least gotten past that sliding down the wall thing?) There are a lot of great characters out there, and they’re still great even if they’ve done these things because they can be a natural reaction. I’m just saying I’ve seen them a lot and I feel like they’re more examples of just-surprising-enough moments.
Audiences are used to surprises in plots, not in characters. The success of Breaking Bad with a lead like Walt (who I don’t think could even be considered an antihero but maybe you’d disagree?) is definitely a breakthrough and hopefully jostled some passive audiences awake, but wasn’t a conversation about BrBa what got us started on this whole masculinity thing anyway?
People are hesitant to invest in things that aren’t tried and true, but the things that “work” are based on an unfair system. I know a lot of people do want to see new things and I’m occasionally optimistic about that happening.
Wow I said “things” a lot…I’m gonna stop there. Soo yeah, this is my off-the-top-of-my-head contribution. I could probably talk about this for much longer once I get my thoughts together.
Damn YOU’RE so eloquent! I had to read slowly to make sure I absorbed it :p And off the bat I want to say I really like this convo too because you’re adding details on media analysis that I just don’t really think about. So there’s a lot of stuff with classic tropes, techniques, references to other films, etc. that I either take for granted or just miss out on, so I’m glad you’re making me think about it. I’m pretty new to media analysis AND gender studies discussion. Also I definitely cracked up at the sliding down the wall thing because it’s SO TRUE
(Sidenote on the Walt question — I’m mid season 4 and don’t see him as an antihero yet, I don’t think… He’s not necessarily sympathetic but maybe just more pathetic/frustrating to me. I just saw the “I am the danger” outburst which was kinda silly actually because now he’s getting more arrogant, and he’s mean about it, but I’m trying to suspend judgment STILL which idk why.)
And holy crap you’re right! Breaking Bad is definitely changing up the way we relate to characters and perceive them with respect to the “hero” typecast, the middle-class father “just trying to support his family” (I’m still not convinced lol) but who is not supposed to be sympathetic… and yet the show got us talking about reinforced gender roles haha. Whoa. (Although my perspective on the masculinity thing was partly based on the show’s structure with the nearly all-male, mostly white cast, but also on how it showed how the drug cartel business as basically a men-only operation and how women, like Skylar, are too innocent or sensitive or fragile to be reliable workers in that business. But as I’m watching the show I’m not necessarily like “where are the women???” so I’ve obviously internalized a lot of ideals about where men & women should be in society. Which I’m realizing.)
Maybe the things we’re talking about — the different typecasts for how male and female characters are supposed to act in different situations — are things that certain people in the movie industry are not comfortable challenging. Because like you said, if something is tried and true and people like it, why change the formula? Why write an original screenplay when sequels or remakes of other movies/comic books/books can be top-grossing movies? Which as I’m sure any artist deeply believes is a poor approach to art and movie making. For some reason though it’s not just that we see those tropes in movies and respond positively, but those tropes reinforce how we think we “should” be acting in real life. I feel like we’ve hit on a root problem in the ways stories are relayed in big-budget movies, so how the hell to address it?
:D thanks! Media analysis is probably my #1 hobby after media consumption haha.
Ah, I think I was searching for the word “reinforce” when I was writing my first reply - there’s a cycle of give and take between fiction and reality that continually reinforces ideas of what’s acceptable or expected. Unfortunately, a lot of those ideas are restrictive and for some reason unchanging. The current onslaught of movie adaptations and sequels is a good way to relate the problem - movies with an existing fan base are probably easier to get funded than original stories. So is it also harder to get support for movies/shows that don’t have white male leads? Casting more diverse ensembles and especially changing up character traits seems a little more complex than the sequel issue because the characters are involved in both the writing and production stages. It really shouldn’t be difficult at all, though. So I’m just repeating your question, how can this problem be addressed to the extent it deserves?
Also, “where are the women???” made me think of this article about Reservoir Dogs and how the film addresses feminism even though there are practically no women in it. Interesting stuff.
I’m in the middle of reading that article now! Thanks for linking it. I also definitely think reinforce is a helpful way of thinking about this give-and-take process. Almost every time it makes me think of 1950s-ish television and advertisements, which I suppose is where a lot of pop culture norms have their roots — a bombardment men’s products vs. women’s products, the Leave it to Beaver-style family ideal, women getting pushed back into domesticity after all the men returned from WWII… and all that imagery getting really ingrained in the American imagination of what it means to be normal (or better than normal, i.e. “keeping up with the Joneses”). And it’s really interesting that Hollywood was around during the entire century! So I think it was definitely responding to all these different things happening socially throughout the decades. Which is for me a really cool way to approach thinking about the movie industry, that it was founded as a white male-dominated industry and everyone else has had to push their way through to different extents. Someone definitely had to have written a book about this and I want to find it haha.
I will hunt down that book because yeah it has to exist. I definitely agree with you on the 1950s norms too. What’s interesting about that is that, while Hollywood films had been around for quite a while, that decade was when television became popular. And then the competition between movies and TV started, but that’s a whole other thing… Anyway. I think there definitely is a connection between the 1950s-ish standards and TV. Those standards created a division of accepted roles and responsibilities for men and women and somehow became cemented in our culture. Maybe the prominence of TV has something to do with that?
(Also - Googling resulted in that book you already linked me to, so now I’m wondering if you posted this before or after you found it?)
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