A CIA agent intensely interrogates a detainee. She stands, pacing as she fires questions at the prisoner seated at the table. Sitting across from the detainee is a burly man with closely cropped hair. The man says nothing as the agent inquires and stays on her feet behind him, almost looming. Periodically, when the detainee attempts to avoid answering or evades the topic, the female agent firmly pats the burly man on the shoulder. This is his signal to lean forward and punch the detainee. The female agent speaks with purpose and authority and has a wealth of knowledge about the operation under way. The burly man says nothing, waiting for his cue to exercise brute force. The only decision-making he exercises is what level of force with which to hit the man across from him. This scene is from Zero Dark Thirty, a fine film, but one that includes this excellent example of how men are oversimplified, reduced and limited to a small range of skills and characteristics in modern film.
To be clear, Zero Dark Thirty is not to blame. Director Katherine Bigelow is under no obligation to fight against unflattering depictions of anything, including waterboarding. Yet it helps to point this out as in introduction to the way society and Hollywood view and portray men.
One of the most successful franchises of the past two decades is the Fast and Furious series. The men in this series are unpolished gearheads who also happen to be criminals, hijacking trucks for a living when they’re not illegally racing in the streets. In the first entry in the series, Paul Walker is the undercover police officer who infiltrates the group led by Vin Diesel and of course attracts his sister (Jordana Brewster). The theme of criminality and a rugged job as a means of attracting a woman is one that surfaces time and again in film after film. In the 2012 film Contraband, Mark Wahlburg portrays a former smuggler who has gone straight. He now works in security and because he was a criminal, he is rewarded with a life of domestic bliss with Kate Beckinsale (!).
In season 5 of Girls, the character of Charlie is revisited when his ex-girlfriend Marnie runs into him while walking on the sidewalk. Charlie was an overly kind man in the early seasons and Marnie was turned off by his “smothering love.” He now speaks with a street-influenced voice associated with small-time thugs and while he once owned a tech company after developing an app, he now works on a construction crew. By the end of the episode featuring his time spent with Marnie who, apparently attracted to his new street persona has slept with him, it’s clear he now uses heroin. In her comments about this episode, creator Lena Dunham said this character change was inspired by a man she knew in her personal life who put on a harder persona in order to make himself more appealing to women.
The transformation this fictional character went through and the real-life one it was inspired by are indicative of an unfortunate preponderance of this limited view of masculinity. The concept of life imitating art or art imitating life goes back ages. There is an unquestionable prevalence in reality however, of men being limited in how they present themselves and what careers and ambitions they may have while still being attractive to the opposite sex. When it comes to quantifying this, the careers men have and which number are employed here, are available through the Bureau of Labor Statistics. When it comes to finding a precise number of how many men are in these types of “masculine” fields and are also in relationships with women, this is available through a less scientific method called anecdotal evidence. Considering a vast majority of stories of gender stereotypes is the result of anecdotal evidence, it’s fair to proceed with an examination of male/female careers and male gender expectations with the same.
It is not uncommon at all to see women with men who are in a field that society might consider “below” them in terms of intelligence and education. The halls of couples are filled with duos of women who have intellectually taxing careers requiring extensive education while the men they’re with are in fields requiring them to hold a gun or a tool.
There are a few examples in pop culture of this stereotypical version of masculinity being flipped on its head. In season three of House of Cards Claire Underwood is speaking to an Israeli military official about a policy affecting the Jordan Valley President Frank Underwood is spearheading. The Israeli official criticizes the president’s lack of personal experience regarding the region. She says to Claire, “I served in the Jordan Valley.”
Claire interrupts her before she can continue and says, “You held a gun and stood where someone told you to.” She then explains that the weight of the decisions her husband makes on a daily basis would overwhelm most people.
A Most Violent Year includes a scene in which both the strength of an ambitious style of masculinity and the strength of femininity work together to show how a couple can be stronger when matched well. Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, a man who owns a heating oil business and during the course of the film is attempting to secure a loan in order to purchase a piece of waterfront property that will make his business even more profitable. Jessica Chastain plays his wife and business partner and throughout the film they work together, sometimes harmoniously, and sometimes with great conflict. To see a man and woman work together and feed off each other’s ambition and intelligence is electric, especially when presented by two such gifted actors. In this scene that is a rare display of a multifaceted masculinity, Abel has come from a day of fending off competitors who are literally stealing from him and is under the weight of the deadline by which he must receive the funds, which have fallen through and are not yet materializing. Seeing the stress on her husband, who is in a seated position, Anna (Chastain) kneels in front of him so she can meet his eyes. She firmly grasps him with both hands in a display and gesture of comfort and encouragement and tells him she told their children earlier that their father has been out there today working hard for them.
A Most Violent Year depicts a woman being drawn to a man’s mental strength, as her husband is ambitious and succeeds due to his intelligence and sophistication instead of brute force. This scene is doubly effective because it shows the power of femininity as Chastain’s character knows when and how to provide strength to her man by offering this display of affection and encouragement. There’s another great scene in which Abel is explaining to the bank representatives why it’s important to purchase the property. As he articulately describes what the property will do for his business, Anna smiles with pleasure while she listens to her obviously business-savvy husband.
The show House of Cards, for all its depravity, offers a positive view of masculinity. Claire Underwood is another woman drawn to her husband because of his ambition and intelligence. Frank Underwood is a criminal, but one who doesn’t use physical force as his primary weapon. (He is guilty of two murders, but his wife doesn’t know about these). Frank’s weapon is foresight, calculation and a keen understanding of what drives people. This understanding allows him to use his other skills so well and succeed as a result. There are scenes throughout the series in which an expression of pride washes over Claire’s face as she watches her husband take the upper hand over an opponent though his use of intellect and eloquence. Frank can assert himself over someone and talk circles around them while doing so, leaving them intellectually outmatched and defeated.
There is a single moment in the series in which there is even a flash of a baser attraction in Claire and it occurs when she is at a very low point in her relationship with Frank. On the campaign trail, they are in their hotel room at night and Claire asks that Frank take her in a very forceful sexual fashion. Frank is turned off by this and angrily says to Claire, “If you wanted someone to prove his manhood that way you should have stayed in Texas and married the prom king!”
This is one of the best moments as it shows Frank being both disgusted and offended by the fact that not only is he being asked to present this demeanor, thereby lowering himself, but that he might actually be with a woman who is attracted to it.
Yet these are unfortunately only two of what is an all-too-rare representation of masculinity being represented by intellectual or thoughtful achievement. Pop culture and society as a whole still have a long way to go when it comes to encouraging men to not be afraid to be intelligent and ambitious.