Watch Your Men: Masculinity from the '80s

In the world's history of patriarchal heteronormativity the notion of masculinity is a staple, why would it ever change?

The image of raging men in ripped clothes, firing a gun, causing colossal destruction in the epitome of revenge, is still a common understanding of masculinity translated through mainstream cinema. But the longer we live, the less defined the notion of masculinity becomes. It tends to change as a reaction to cultural globalization as well as economical and political situations in the world. This leads to the main question – what expectations should a male character meet now to be considered 'manly'?

by Yar Varsobin


There's no doubt that masculinity, like other socially constructed notions, relies fully on expectations. From an early age boys are given an example of how to act, look and behave to be not only accepted in society, but also successful in life by obeying a number of unspoken rules that begin with 'a true man must…'. The portrayal of masculinity boys see in movies can be their only example of a well-collected role model, therefore fundamental in molding the character that hasn't fully developed yet. Unfortunately, these ideas create limitations – if you don't want to be a macho man – maybe you're not a man at all. And if not identifying yourself with all masculine traits can make you an outcast, showing typically 'feminine' traits can make you a target. Those ideals were made to facilitate life, not to ruin it, so as a response to the damage, a new statement was made: ' we need more than one way to be masculine.'

Saying that masculinity is in crisis is both a cry for help from those uncomfortable with societal changes towards acceptance and mutual respect, and a call for constructive discussion. Why is the notion changing and how?
The goal of masculine representation now is not to reinforce the existing patriarchal male image, but rather to produce an alternative male role model. The portrayal of male masculinity is changing – to see how, we'll go through box office hit movies released from the 1980s to the 2020s.
Machine-made heroes of the '80s
Following the martial arts movie success combined with military-themed hits of the previous decade, '80s action heroes grabbed the best of both worlds. As a result of America's escalating tension in foreign relations, those stoic, brawny soldiers, silent, mysterious and righteous heroes were always ready to save their country from the enemy. Glorified individualism and heteronormative family values of the Reagan era in America brought the most memorable examples of masculinity in cinematography.

All heroes of the '80s played by Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, Seagal now feel constructed, physically mature, but lacking substance. They are the ideal of men that provides an almost mythical image – it's unattainable, unreal, and… it's about to change.

Action genre legend John McClane (Bruce Willis), a New York City policeman from Die Hard (1988) performs exactly as expected from a man of his era – with no help to be seen, he withstands the foreign terrorists, not delivering many lines in the course of a movie. His rough look and bravery contrasts the well-styled clothes and suaveness of the main antagonist, criminal mastermind Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), with the intention to show the audience which man should be seen as a role model. Furthermore, John's behavior is glorified, his violation of rules is justified by the main goal – 'save the day, get the girl'. Despite the fact that the movie is filled with action movie tropes, McClane is presented as an imperfect man: unlike many male protagonists, he's forced to rely on his quick thinking rather than big muscles. There are another two interesting facts about him – his marriage is failing, and he is not immune to fear – these small additions alone make him more sympathetic in comparison to the machine-made action heroes of the '80s.

With planes being another focus of masculine interests alongside cars and explosions, Top Gun's (1986) Maverick (Tom Cruise) became yet another iconic portrayal of white masculinity. As the best pilot of Naval Fighter Weapons School, he is cocky, stubborn, confident – yet irreplaceable. Even with his hardly tolerable boyish demeanor, Tom Cruise's character is still a juxtaposition to another pilot – hypermasculine and aggressive bully Iceman. Maverick is a daredevil, and it's presented as something appealing – even when Iceman says 'You're unsafe. You're dangerous' Maverick agrees and replies with pride, 'I am dangerous'. Despite his recklessness and bravado, he gets what he wants – a relationship with his civilian instructor, his dad's secret, and a victory in a sky-high theatrical battle. By the end of the movie his script immunity runs itself – he loses his friend, feels the blame, and has a tough choice to make about his future career. Gradually more and more action heroes become more real, albeit traditionally adrenaline-driven, arrogant and emotionally distant. These movies of course still don't fully reflect reality, but at least they pretend to.
Rediscovering identities
In the '90s, after the era of the most memorable heroes, the question of masculinity in crisis was evoked. Women movement of the third-wave feminism made gender and the issues related to it visible. Women can do what men can – the rules of manhood stopped being applicable to the modern way of life.

In the 1990s, men, unable to replace those archaic constructions of traditional masculinity felt their limits and were trying to create coherent new models. As a reflection of the time, Point Break (1991), directed by Kathryn Bigelow, stands out among common action movies. Full of classic tropes expected from the genre, it has a point to make – masculinity is a spectrum that applies not only to men. Kathryn shows us two, at first glance opposing, visions of masculinity – a young FBI agent, soft-spoken, empathic 'pretty boy' Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) and an adrenaline junkie surfer-robber Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). Both men are revealed to be similar in their way of discovering the sensuous, spiritual part of themselves. They discuss dominance without violence, but the movie ironically is still filled with it. Besides, male protagonists are put in the middle of the scale. On one side – over masculine violent nazi guys and Johnny's aggressive boss, and on the other – Tyler, the only female character, who surfs and plays football, rocks her short haircut and knows her way around a gun. And if Tyler is there to complement Johnny's soft side, Bodhi acts as a catalyst for situations that make both men question traditional male ideas and seek new identities.

Men of the '90s were pushed towards rediscovering their identities, and it is visible – new depictions of masculine heroes go further from a conservative flat image. With the rise of adventure and fantasy action arrived an abundance of new roles for young men to try on. The most eye-catching representation in the genre is without a doubt Blade (1998), whose otherness and duality as a complex hero was shown through the lens of his vampirism. He's still in the battle between good and evil, which is expected, but this time the focus is on the inside as well – half human half vampire he's pressured to choose the side. Almost a classical portrayal of masculinity, Blade (Wesley Snipes) is not omnipotent, he's vulnerable in the search for his identity, and that's exactly what makes him relatable.

The topic of discovering male identities through negation of extremes is the focus of David Fincher's Fight Club (1999), which since has become a cultural staple. All the frustration from self-discovery in a swiftly changing world, all the rage from 'wanna be macho angst' manifests itself in a perfect representation of over-the-top masculinity. It goes hand in hand with the extreme violence of the protagonist and his group of men, depicting hegemonic masculinity in a bad light. Through discussion, exposure of vulnerabilities and aversion to extremes, some positive changes were implemented in the portrayal of masculine figures on screen throughout the 90s.
Self-confrontation and fantasy worlds in the middle of a mayhem
After the early 2000s havoc of natural disasters, terrorist attacks and the Great Recession, expectations for men changed again. Besides saving the world, serving the country and, ideally, being present in the business game, men had to take responsibility for other things – consequences of their lost personal battles. An interesting example of this tenuous shift is 2005's box office hit War of the Worlds, starring an action movie legend Tom Cruise, who plays a failing father that got confronted with his responsibilities in the middle of an alien invasion. He's not the bravest, he clearly panics – equally when his daughter is having an anxiety attack in the car and when he discovers that disastrous space monsters also have a lust for human blood. His character is given room for improvement, he's learning his lessons, adapting to his new role as a caring father.

The tendency to give male heroes a good development arc beyond the drama and rom-com genres is getting widespread. Men are getting more aware of the toxicity of traditional notions, they know they need to look inside, to discover where they failed and why.

The 2000s technical advancement significantly raised the stakes for companies — both the visuals and the plot should be top-notch to receive widespread acclaim. Christopher Nolan's Batman interpretation was an instant success. In Batman Begins (2005), self-doubting orphaned superhero Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) embodies the archetype of the modern masculine crisis. Struggling with finding himself after his parents' death, Bruce grows up feeling lost, numb and vengeful; he's left with no choice but to compensate for his own traumas and create Batman as a symbol of power. Permanently filled with grief and repressed anger, he fears weakness, and, being far from superhuman, he shields his vulnerable self with a Batsuit, invests in military equipment, asserts dominance with power concealed as justice. Nevertheless, as an action movie hero, Batman is sympathetic and thought-provoking. A protagonist living through an identity crisis as a background for the extreme odds he's facing is the epitome of an excellent 2000s male representation.

A big influence and a step back from action thrillers was the 2000s era of CGI action fantasy that started slowly easing the idea of different masculinities to the mainstream media. Now, boys can picture themselves as warlike elves with long hair and brave hobbits on dangerous adventures in the Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) settings. They can feel represented by awkward but altruistic Peter Parker throughout the Spider-Man trilogy (2002-2007) and get inspired by the self-assertive little wizard from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001). Without a doubt, the Harry Potter franchise (2001-2011) has a huge influence on the generation that was raised watching the way the protagonist matured on the screen. With new movies coming once every other year, the audience saw Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) growing up learning many lessons, acting brave and indecisive, developing friendships and conquering enemies. He was a fair example of a confident masculine figure, he felt real even in a fantasy setting. Harry was exactly what the generation needed – an inspiring young masculine figure for an impressionable young audience.
No room for power fantasy - we strive for honesty
With the rapidly improving digital technology and escalating popularity of streaming platforms of the 2010s, cinema production changed forever – to capture viewers' attention in the abundance of new movies, executives found ways to create something unconventional. All movie genres exhaust themselves at some point, all tropes get boring, having lived their cycles movies don't excite people anymore. To change that, old notions get disassembled, and their pieces are meticulously brought together. For the last several decades, the portrayal of masculine characters has been changing – through self-reflection and exposure, men learned about issues related to masculinity that harmed women and men, respectively. Two tendencies prevail in conveying these problems to the wider audience - exaggeration of the old notion and its exposure to the new settings.

One of the most influential and talked about action movies of the decade, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) conveys the message about hegemonic masculinity clearly: it's ferocious to all, it destroyed the world. In the futuristic setting, the society regressed to hypermasculine patriarchal domination in a form of a cult that praises martyrdom and glorifies the afterlife, treats men as expendable cannon fodders and women as objects for reproduction. Through playing up to the archaic notion, main protagonists Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and Max (Tom Hardy) hijack masculinity to further a goal of reassembling a new masculine identity. Male coded war captain Furiosa turns against the usurper and, on her journey to free 'The Five Wives,' she meets Max, a former captive. They bond through mutual respect and admiration in the middle of an adrenaline-fueled car chase that checks all the action movie boxes. Visually it highlights all the action movie tropes related to masculinity – large cars, powerful explosions, brutal killings, but plot-vise it pushes a different narrative. The male protagonist Max is stripped off of expected masculine notions – hypermasculinity, heterosexual desire, violent actions – fuelled by his desire to live, he finds a new identity where masculinity is reliant on and goes hand in hand with femininity. The notion of what is masculine is getting further from the traditional heteropatriarchal narrative and these changes seek more representation in the mainstream cinema every year.

One of the most prominent superhero movies, Logan (2017) tells a story of real stakes in the futuristic world where all mutants are killed, and familiar heroes are only a shadow of their past selves. Two male superheroes are past their prime – Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) loses his strength and healing abilities, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is tormented by brain disease and poses a danger to himself and others. Complex and emotionally sheltered Logan, an embodiment of masculine clichés, suffers immensely, haunted by the traumas of his past. Given no identity, Logan failed to reinvent himself and took the one that was given to him. Now every toxic masculine trait he acquired hinders him; the cycle of violence leads to pain, emotional withdrawal – to no fulfillment in life, no purpose, no connection. The story inevitably leads Logan to change – he gets stuck with things he is afraid of the most: love and family. By the end of the movie we see him redefine himself – he becomes more open, lays his life on line to help others, and dies in peace, sharing with his daughter one piece of advice that summarizes his life: 'Don't be what they made you'. By putting old clichés in a new setting, James Mangold created a time capsule that perfectly depicts the implications of all the glorified traditional masculine traits when used blindly for a personality formation.
The new decade has never looked so inviting – we still have a long way to go with demolishing toxic stereotypes of sexism and homophobia tied to the notion of masculinity from the previous century. Movies no longer teach the generation by showing a physically mature man, a silent protector, never bending under the weight of his problems; on the opposite – the new notion of masculinity invites men to look inside, gives room for self-discovery and self-identification, teaches healthy coping mechanisms and respect. Power is not in the dominance, not in the sky-high ladder that leads to nowhere. Power is in finding the true inner voice and being comfortable with yourself, letting others do so. We no longer have interest in power fantasy, we strive for honesty.
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