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Problem of Masculinity by Laura Mulvey

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    This essay will explore the ‘problem of masculinity’ and the way Classical Hollywood cinema invests and deals with the image of the male body, drawing from the analysis of examples from Top Hat (1935) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Steve Neale argues that ‘it is very rare to find analyses that seek to specify in detail, in relation to particular films or groups of films, how heterosexual masculinity is inscribed and the mechanisms, pressures, and contradictions that inscription may involve’ (Cohan and Hark, 1993:9) thus expressing the ‘problem of masculinity’ in classical Hollywood cinema and that the way it is portrayed might vary.

    In order to analyse the image of the male body, this essay will use Laura Mulvey’s work on the image of woman on the screen and the ‘masculinisation’ of the spectator position. Mulvey argues that ‘As the spectator identifies with the main male protagonist, he projects his look on to that of his like, his screen surrogate, so that the power of the male protagonist as he controls events coincides with the active power of the erotic look, both giving a satisfying sense of omnipotence’ (Mulvey, 1989:20).

    From this argument one can make the assumption that the male body is an object to be looked at but it is not part of the erotic gaze and spectacle that stops the narrative as the female does, in other words ‘She makes no differentiation between identification and object choice in which sexual aims may be directed toward the male figure’ (Rodowick quoted in Cohan and Hark, 1993:13).

    Mulvey argues that ‘The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story-line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation’ (Mulvey, 1989:19). We could say that the Musical being a genre that relies on the spectacle of the musical numbers adds to the ‘problem of masculinity’ in the sense that the man here is also the spectacle, therefore feminized in the classical Hollywood cinema conventions.

    This reliance on the spectacle could be the cause that ‘the musical would appear to be the genre most responsible for reproducing this reductive binary opposition of female performer and male spectator’ (Cohan and Hark, 1993:46) but as we’ve argued before, by using the male body as spectacle the musical poses a challenge to this reductive binary opposition an thus we can argue that it is ‘the only genre in which the male body has been unashamedly put on display in mainstream cinema in any consistent way’ Neale quoted in quoted in Cohan and Hark, 1993:46). Mulvey adds that the women’s appearance is ‘coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness’ (Mulvey, 1989:19) but in Top Hat, we can verify that Fred Astaire’s numbers stop the show and rely on the spectacle connoting the same ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’.

    This quality being seen in a male performer can be problematic to the way masculinity is being portrayed because as Cohan puts it ‘The genre has placed him [the male performer] in the very position which the representation system of classic Hollywood cinema has traditionally designated as “feminine” ’ (Cohan and Hark, 1993:47). Although Fred Astaire can be found in a position that has been represented as feminine before, one should not make the assumption that his masculinity is totally erased or feminized rather one should argue that his masculinity is constructed by very important factors.

    For instance, in Top Hat, when Fred Astaire performs the number ‘No strings (I’m fancy free)’ he is declaring his preference for bachelorhood, meaning that his number will sustain his power as a dominant male in the narrative, but for Cohan even if the number sustains his masculinity it also ‘stops the show to insist upon his own ability to signify “to-be-looked-at-ness”’ (Cohan and Hark, 1993:47).

    We can argue that neither the man is feminized or the woman is masculinized but rather ‘ what the Hollywood musical does above all else when the numbers interrupt the flow of narrative is the production of masculinity and femininity alike out of highly theatricalized performances of gender’ (Cohan and Hark, 1993:48). Another important factor of Fred Astaire’s musical numbers is their ability to redefine narrative space in completely visual terms as spectacle mostly fuelled by the energy he invests on them.

    One could make the assumption that by investing so much energy on the number turning the narrative into spectacle, the male performer, as argued before, might fall again in the classical Hollywood definition of the woman that stops the show rather than driving the plot forward but these numbers can put pressure on the narrative drive and thus, in Cohan’s words, they ‘also overturn the customary way in which masculinity is assumed to advance and dominate linear narrative’ (Cohan and Hark, 1993:49).

    Cohan also adds that ‘Many studies of the musical have explained quite well how dance functions as a metaphor for sexual differentiation, seduction, and consummation, nowhere more brilliantly, subtly, or consistently so than in Astaire’s films’ (Cohan and Hark, 1993:51). We can definitely see this form of seduction in Top Hat, moreover in the number ‘ Isn’t This a Lovely Day’, which not also drives the plot forward but also by being seduced, Ginger Rogers as Sue Rickard puts it ‘legitimates Astaire’s masculinity’ and makes him a ‘believable object of desire’ (Rickard, 1996:82).

    We can argue that this illustrates another ‘problem of the masculinity’ because being an object of desire is associated with the female performer, but as we’ve argued before, in the musical, masculinity is constructed in a non-customary way, so the male performer is not deprived entirely of his masculinity because being an object of desire to the gaze of the female is what confirms is masculinity.

    Peter Evans also adds that ‘Dale [Rogers] also forces Jerry [Astaire] to look at her, not only as object of desire, but as an equal partner in dance’ (Evans, 2010:60) reinforcing the idea argued before of the production of masculinity and femininity alike out of highly theatricalized performances of gender.

    In relation to this number we can argue that although they are equal partners in dance because Rogers confirms Astaire’s masculinity, the erotic charge is not lost, in Cohan’s words, ‘At the close of the dance, they shake hands and smile knowingly, as if perfectly aware that their dance has enacted a sexual ritual, choreographing their sexual relation in terms of comparability and partnership without losing its romance and erotic charge’ (Cohan and Hark, 1993: 57-58). A key feature that illustrates another way of how Hollywood invests in the image of the male body is the solo numbers of male performers.

    In the number ‘Top Hat’ we can see that Fred Astaire relies on the cane as a very important prop and possibly for compensating the lack of a female partner. We can argue that this number uses a tremendous amount of energy turning once again the narrative space into spectacle and as Cohan argues ‘Astaire’s numbers reverse the usual psychoanalytical terms for describing gender identification symbolically, since in their orchestration of the male body as a site of joy they display plenitude and not lack, presence and not absence’ (Cohan and Hark, 1993:55).

    This means that his masculinity is far from other types of Hollywood spectacle in which the male achieves this through his power over women or other men. Cohan argues that ‘Hollywood musicals reimagined American masculinity for postwar audiences in the kind of spectacular terms that would later come to dominate a televisual popular, but with more mobility and flexibility’ (Cohan and Hark, 1993:61-62). The Best Years of Our Lives is a film that deals a lot with postwar masculinity.

    Mike Chopra-Grant argues that ‘The film deploys representations of performative masculinities as part of a re-adjustment narrative that is structured in a similar way to the rhetorical strategies employed in a wider range of discourses concerned with the problems of veterans’ postwar readjustment’ (Chopra-Grant, 2006: 107). This means that masculinity was portrayed differently in the films this essay is analysing. On the one hand we have the masculinity as a spectacle and on the other we have the postwar masculinity based on the ability of former army men coming back to adjust to a civilian life.

    Chopra-Gant notes that ‘In some of the publications of the late-war and postwar period, it is possible to detect an emphasis on the use of distinctive styles of dress as sign equipment that signified particular performances of masculinity’ (Chopra-Gant, 2006: 02). This means that a soldierly masculinity was associated with the uniform and that by returning to a civilian life, soldiers could be losing their masculinity. We can also relate the style of dress as sign equipment in relation to Fred Astaire.

    His top hat and tales or matching socks and scarf were what defined his masculinity but in this case, this masculinity was defined by spectacle, in Cohan’s words, they insist ‘upon the spectacle of his body in ways that go against the grain of Hollywood’s typical treatment of a leading man’ (Cohan and Hark, 1993:63). I would also argue that as the uniform was seen as the sign for soldierly masculinity, this could be the reason behind Al’s decision to go out still wearing it when he returns home, maybe because of his fear of a civilian masculinity.

    Chopra-Grant also argues that ‘Millie can only see the “real” Al once she has stripped away some of the sign equipment associated with the performance of Al’s soldierly masculinity’ (Chopra-Gant, 2006:103). The morning after they go out is a key scene of how masculinity is portrayed in this film. When Al wakes up in pyjamas and looks at the mirror and his pre-war photograph as a civilian man, he seems confused because he has been wearing the uniform for so long that the images he sees in the mirror and the photograph don’t correspond to his soldierly masculinity.

    Chopra-Gant argues that ‘After his shower, Al stands in front of his wardrobe examining his civilian clothes; the sign equipment which will play a central role in the reconstruction of his civilian self’ (Chopra-Gant, 2006:104). We can also argue that the fact that his clothes don’t fit anymore because he lost weight makes it a problem to his rehabilitation a civilian and also that ‘it is no only Al’s clothing that no longer fits, but his whole civilian identity that no longer “fits” him properly’ (Chopra-Gant, 2006:104).

    Fred is another character whose role portrays the readjustment to civilian life but it contrasts with Al’s. We can argue that on the one hand Al has the support of Millie in going back to a civilian life by changing his sign equipment and also eating more so that not only his civilian clothing but also his civilian identity will fit in time. On the other hand, Fred met his wife Marie, when he was in military training, therefore she is used to the uniform equipment as a sign for his masculinity.

    When Fred comes back we wants to readjust to a civilian life but Marie asks him to put his uniform again to go out. Chopra-Gant argues that ‘Fred’s retention of elements of military dress throughout the film becomes an index of the difficulties he experiences in readjusting to civilian life’ (Chopra-Gant 2006: 105). Another scene that demonstrates the shift between masculinities from soldier to civilian is when Fred meets Al to discuss his relationship with Peggy. Fred appears wearing his old leather jacket from the Air Force while Al is wearing a business suit.

    Chopra-Gant argues this scene ‘illustrates Fred’s difficulties in shedding his military identity and adjusting to civilian life, since it makes this shift dependent upon his acceptance of a sharp reduction in status’ (Chopra-Gant 2006:105). We can also argue that this shift is not only of social status but also from the soldierly masculinity to the civilian masculinity, which seems more feminine due to the difficulties of the readjustment. Homer is also a character that appears to have difficulties in readjusting to a civilian life because of his age and disability.

    Another poignant scene involves Homer showing Wilma the procedure of removing his prosthetics that he must go through before going to bed—the time when he feels most helpless. After he sees she is unfazed by this task and his condition, he realizes that she truly cares for him, and the two declare their love for each other. We can argue that this scene like Fred Astaire’s films also relies on the spectacle because of his prosthetics hooks. Besides the shift from the soldierly masculinity to the civilian Homer has this new difficulty of adjusting to a life without hands though it seems that he can do just about anything with he hooks, this scene feminizes him because Wilma is the one who tucks him in bed. Like Fred Astaire whose star persona insists upon the spectacle of his body as we’ve argued before, Homer’s image also uses the spectacle of the prosthetic hooks. In comparison of the two films we can argue that while The Best Years of Our Lives provides ‘examples of performative masculinities within realist, narrative generic modes’ Top Hat, and other Fred Astaire’s films demonstrate a ‘performativity of masculinities within the spectacular, less narrative-driven generic mode of the musical’ (Chopra-Gant, 2006:113).

    We can also argue that the musical imagined an alternative style of masculinity and ‘could produce this effect so easily because it was the one genre which, trough its numbers, could take the performance of a star’s masculinity to hear so completely, so seriously, and so openly as spectacle’ (Cohan and Hark, 1993:66). We can argue that both Top Hat and The Best Years of Our Lives are films, which demonstrate the various ways of how Classical Hollywood cinema deals with the images of male body, and masculinity.

    Although their ways of portraying masculinity are different we can argue that they both deal with masculinities as performative identities. We have argued that in The Best Years of Our Lives masculinity is portrayed in the shift between a masculinity associated with the uniform and the military to a different masculinity of civilian readjustment. Chopra-Gant argues that in this film masculinity is a performance ‘a way of showing that men can change and therefore will be able to readjust to civilian life’ (Chopra-Gant, 2006:107).

    In Top Hat we can argue that we have a masculinity reimagined for postwar audiences, Fred Astaire is ‘a highly theatricalized representation of maleness on screen which oscillates between, on the one hand, a fictional character grounded in the static and reductive binarism of traditional gender roles and, on the other, a musical persona whose energy choreographs a libidinal force that revises conventional masculinity and desire’ (Cohan and Hark, 1993:63-64).


    Chopra-Gant, M. 2006. Hollywood Genres and Postwar America?: Masculinity, Family and Nation in Popular Movies and Film Noir?. London and New York: I. B. Tauris & Co Ltd???? Cohan, S. and Hark, I. R. 1993. Screening the male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema. London and New York: Routledge Evans, P. 2010. Top Hat. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell Mulvey, M. 1989. Visual and Other Pleasures. New York: Palgrave Neale, S. 2000.

    Genre and Hollywood. London and New York: Routledge Rickard, S. 1996. “Movies in disguise: negotiating censorship and patriarchy through the dances of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. ” In: R. Lawson-Peebles, ed. , Approaches to the American Musical. Exeter: Exeter University Press Filmography Top Hat, 1935. Directed by Mark Sandrich. USA: RKO Radio Pictures The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946. Directed by William Wyler. USA: Samuel Goldwyn Company

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