How to Be a Man

Any movie that has something to do with being a man usually has some sort of scene about how to do it right. Of particular interest in the examples I’ve chosen to show as an illustration of this point is the role race plays in the performance of masculinity. I didn’t even do it on purpose, but the three scenes I right away thought of as good example of “how to be a man” cinema all involve racial minorities. What does it mean? Do racialized men (particularly Asian men, as you’ll notice) have to learn manliness more than white men? Are white men the natural authority on all things male? It would seem so, at least in the following scene from Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino:

So what does “manning up” mean according to ole Dirty Harry himself? Is it upping the witty banter factor? Is it being able to throw around racial slurs and insults like a football without so much as a bat of the eye? Or is it just remembering to not talk about having “no job, no car, no girlfriend, no future, no dick”? These are the things that make up a man, no?

Maybe we should lighten the mood and segue into a musical number…

If you haven’t seen it, Mulan is the story of a girl who disguises herself as a man in order to take her father’s place in the Chinese army against the invading Huns.  Clearly she’s got a lot more to master than that cute hairstyle. Oh boy, this clip is rife with stuff – they’re preparing for war, so naturally it’s imperative that these guys be able to do things like break pots with sticks, pierce tomatoes with arrows, climb poles, and catch fish with their bare hands. More importantly, though, and in case you weren’t listening, they must be swift as the coursing river, with all the force of a great typhoon, with all the strength of a raging fire, mysterious as the dark side of the moon. So to recap: swift, forceful, strong, mysterious. Hey Mulan, I think you’ve got it! You’re a man! (Just don’t mention that you don’t have a dick and you’re gold.)

The subtext here is, of course, that to be a man is to go to war. For some, as in the next clip, the war is the everyday battle of living as a racial minority. Smoke Signals is a cool little road trip movie about two Native American guys going to pick up one of their father’s ashes downstate. The scene here is actually about being a “real Indian”, but it says a lot about what makes up the basis for our understanding of masculinity:

So apparently catching fish does not a real man make, at least not in every circle. But grinning like an idiot? I think most would agree that stoicism is pretty valued among men, not just mean-looking Indians. If you’ve ever known a guy who kept his feelings in, put your hand up. Point made.

What’s interesting about this clip is Victor’s notion that “White people will run all over you if you don’t look mean”. Here, the manly embrace of meanness and anger – the acceptable male emotions – is a way of reasserting power over the oppressor; be a bigger man than the White man. But how ‘bout young Thao in Gran Torino? What you may not know about him if you haven’t watched the movie is that he resists initiation into gang life – a world where race and crime collide as ultimate expressions of one’s masculinity. Now he’s taking lessons on how to be a man from an old white guy? Victor would not approve.

But hey, isn’t the best way to be a man to be a white man? That is the whole reason Victor is the way he is – he got his cues on how to act from old white guys who have essentially emasculated him with racism. Mulan might be based in China, but it’s really an American-born story, with songs written by old white guys singing about how to be a man. Thao really must be getting lessons from the best.

But what sort of options does that leave men today? Is this still what Hollywood wants us to think – that real men are aggressive, insulting, tough, strong, mean, white fishermen/warriors? Does that really look good on you, now that it’s 2011?

We still have a way to go before most people agree that it’s a good thing to be a nice and sensitive tough guy. But cinematic endeavours could help push us along a bit. Granted, Smoke Signals and Mulan sort of break the traditional man-mould with their respective endings. But it’d be nice, for once, to watch a movie with a musical number about picking up your new baby girl from the hospital for the first time.

What does it mean to you to ‘be a man’, to ‘man up’? Were you ever taught to do this? Can you think of movies that depict alternate ways of learning masculinity?


About Deborah

I'm a reader, writer, cat-lover, tea-drinker, world traveler, Christ-follower, and awkward moment-creator. I love adventures. Follow me on my next great one.
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5 Responses to How to Be a Man

  1. Cat says:

    Song about bringing kids home from the hospital? Challenge Accepted.

    Okay, well I didn’t quite find that.

    The guy appears to genuinely care for his kids against a backdrop of complaining about various parenting jobs. Fatherhood is played for laughs rather than breaking that traditional mould.

    • Deborah says:

      Yeah! I love this! This is still pretty awesome despite the fact that it’s comedy. I think jokes have a lot more power to change people’s thinking than we attribute to them. Something that made us laugh (perhaps with a catchy tune) is likley to stick in our brains just as much as something that made us think because it pushed the envelope/challenged the status quo/made us mad or uncomfortable. Here’s to the power of funny!

  2. natasharoses says:

    I like that you chose to focus on race. The British film This is England comes to mind:

    It’s about a young boy, Shaun, who befriends a group of skinheads. The leader of the group, Combo, mentors Shaun into a racist, violent white masculinity (or he tries to, anyway). Whiteness is very important to this guy’s British male identity, with nationalism and gender overlapping a lot. In one scene, Shaun cries in response to Combo’s assault of a Black man, and Combo yells at him tearfully that “real men don’t cry.”

    I think that racist investment in masculinity-as-white is tied up in the ideological fantasy of conquering. I agree with you that manhood is understood in the pop cultural imagination as going to war. The nationalistic identity of the white male is totally dependent on the colonization of the land that has become white-washed. The colonized male is then looked down on as “feminine,” and then racist violence becomes sexist violence as well, like in This is England.

    So, in Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood’s racist character can only cope with being the friend of a racialized Other by coaching him in masculinity. His “manning up” makes up for his race, as masculinity is assumed to be white.

    Very interesting how you bring up Smoke Signals and explore how masculinity can be treated from the racialized side of the coin. The “white people will run all over you if you don’t look mean” issue seems to be very much alive in various racial minorities. Media portrayals of Black men and Latino men in particular come to mind. These men are represented as tough, threatening and macho, and I wonder how much of this reality (if it is a reality) has to do with an anticolonialist resistance. It’s a shame how vicious the colonialist cycle is: White men colonize men of colour and instill misogyny in them, then tell them they’ll never be real men, and then the colonized exaggerate the colonizer’s behaviour in an oxymoronic combo of assimilation and resistance, and then this exaggerated masculinity gets blamed on the racialized Other as if white racist masculinity never had anything to do with it!

  3. popagranda says:

    I think John Woo’s 2002 film Windtalkers is another example of a racialized negotiation of masculinity within a colonial context.
    The film is premised on the struggle of two Navajo soldiers to gain acceptance into their military unit during the Pacific Campaign against Japan in the Second World War. There is an explicit othering of the Navajo characters by their fellow (read: white) soldiers who even go so far as to suggest that they cannot tell the difference between the Navajo and the Japanese enemy, without the markings of the American fatigues to illustrate a “difference.”

    The Navajo characters do not achieve integration and acceptance into the unit through tolerance, respect, or or by breaking from the racial stereotypes that other them (in fact the film absurdly exaggerates many Native American stereotypes) but by showing bravery in battle. The army unit itself can be read in much the same way as Clint Eastwood’s character; it represents a white masculine ideal to which other racial minorities must be assimilated to gain acceptance or even visibility.

    I think both of these clips speak to the questions “what sort of options does that leave men today? Is this still what Hollywood wants us to think – that real men are aggressive, insulting, tough, strong, mean, white fishermen/warriors? Does that really look good on you, now that it’s 2011?”

  4. Pingback: Black Nationalism and Hip-Hop Music | MANalysis

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