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?