Problem of Masculinity by Laura Mulvey

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In this essay, the topic of the ‘problem of masculinity’ will be explored, specifically focusing on how Classical Hollywood cinema represents and addresses the male body. Examples from Top Hat (1935) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) will be analyzed. According to Steve Neale, there is a lack of detailed analyses that examine how heterosexual masculinity is depicted in specific films or groups of films, as well as the mechanisms, pressures, and contradictions involved in this representation. This highlights the ongoing issue of masculinity in classical Hollywood cinema, and the varying ways it is portrayed.

This essay will use Laura Mulvey’s work on the image of woman on the screen and the ‘masculinisation’ of the spectator position to analyze the image of the male body. Mulvey argues that when the spectator identifies with the main male protagonist, he projects his look onto that of his like, his screen surrogate. This results in the power of the male protagonist as he controls events coinciding with the active power of the erotic look, giving a satisfying sense of omnipotence (Mulvey, 1989:20).

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According to this argument, the male body is seen as something to be observed but it does not have the same impact on the storyline as the female body does. In other words, the male figure does not differentiate between being identified with and being chosen as an object of desire, unlike the female figure (Rodowick quoted in Cohan and Hark, 1993:13).

Mulvey (1989:19) contends that in conventional narrative film, women are a crucial element of spectacle. However, their visual representation often hinders the progression of the storyline, as it pauses the action for moments of erotic contemplation. In the case of the Musical genre, which heavily relies on musical numbers as spectacles, this further contributes to what can be considered the “problem of masculinity.” In this context, men also become spectacles and are feminized according to classical Hollywood cinema conventions.

According to Cohan and Hark (1993:46), the musical genre is often responsible for perpetuating the reductive binary opposition between female performers and male spectators. However, as we have previously discussed, the musical challenges this binary opposition by using the male body as a spectacle. Therefore, we can argue that it is the only genre in mainstream cinema that consistently displays the male body (Neale quoted in Cohan and Hark, 1993:46). Mulvey (1989:19) adds that women’s appearances in musicals are designed to have a strong visual and erotic impact, positioning them as objects to be looked at. In the film Top Hat, Fred Astaire’s numbers also rely on spectacle and convey the same “to-be-looked-at-ness”.

This quality, when displayed by a male performer, can pose challenges to the depiction of masculinity as it aligns with what Cohan refers to as “feminine” within the representation system of classic Hollywood cinema (Cohan and Hark, 1993:47). While Fred Astaire may be situated in a role traditionally associated with femininity, it is incorrect to assume that his masculinity is completely eliminated or feminized. Instead, one should argue that his masculinity is shaped by significant factors.

In the movie “Top Hat”, Fred Astaire’s performance of the song ‘No strings (I’m fancy free)’ represents his desire to remain single and maintain his dominant male role in the story. However, in the case of Cohan, while the performance also reinforces his masculinity, it also draws attention to his ability to captivate the audience’s gaze and demand attention.

According to Cohan and Hark (1993:48), the Hollywood musical neither feminizes the man nor masculinizes the woman. Instead, the main purpose of the musical numbers is to create masculinity and femininity through highly theatrical performances of gender. Additionally, Fred Astaire’s musical numbers redefine narrative space through visually stunning spectacles, fueled by his energetic performances.

It could be assumed that by putting so much emphasis on a number that becomes a spectacle, the male performer may revert back to the traditional Hollywood portrayal of a woman who simply entertains rather than propels the plot forward. However, these numbers can also add tension to the storyline and challenge the typical notion of how masculinity is supposed to drive and dominate a linear narrative (Cohan and Hark, 1993:49).

Cohan (1993:51) discusses how dance in Astaire’s films acts as a metaphor for sexual differentiation, seduction, and consummation. This is particularly evident in Top Hat, specifically the scene ‘Isn’t This a Lovely Day’, where Ginger Rogers as Sue Rickard not only moves the plot forward, but also legitimizes Astaire’s masculinity and presents him as a desirable object (Rickard, 1996:82).

We can argue that this example highlights another issue related to masculinity. Being desired is typically associated with female performers. However, as we have mentioned earlier, the musical challenges traditional views of masculinity, so the male performer does not entirely lose his masculinity. In fact, being desired by female observers confirms his masculinity.

According to Peter Evans, Dale Rogers compels Jerry Astaire to see her as both an object of desire and an equal dance partner. This supports the previous argument that gender is constructed through highly theatrical performances.

According to Cohan and Hark (1993: 57-58), despite being equal partners in dance and confirming Astaire’s masculinity, there is still an erotic charge. They shake hands and smile knowingly at the end of the dance, as though understanding that their dance represents a sexual ritual. This choreographs their sexual relationship, emphasizing comparability and partnership while retaining its romance and erotic charge. The solo numbers of male performers emphasize another way Hollywood invests in the image of the male body.

The use of a cane in the number ‘Top Hat’ by Fred Astaire is significant, potentially compensating for the absence of a female partner. This number is energetic and transforms the narrative space into a spectacle, aligning with Cohan’s argument that Astaire’s performances challenge traditional gender identifications by showcasing the male body as a source of joy and abundance, rather than lack or absence (Cohan and Hark, 1993:55).

According to Cohan and Hark (1993:61-62), in Hollywood musicals, masculinity is portrayed differently from other types of Hollywood spectacle. In these musicals, the male character’s masculinity is not defined by his power over women or other men. Instead, it is presented in a more spectacular and flexible manner, which later became dominant in popular television. The film “The Best Years of Our Lives” explores postwar masculinity extensively.

Mike Chopra-Grant argues that the film uses representations of performative masculinities in a narrative that parallels rhetorical strategies in other discourses about postwar readjustment for veterans (Chopra-Grant, 2006: 107). In these films, masculinity is presented in two contrasting ways: as a spectacle and as a postwar masculinity that centers on the ability of former soldiers to adapt to civilian life.

According to Chopra-Gant (2006: 02), there is a noticeable emphasis on the use of distinct styles of dress as sign equipment during the late-war and postwar periods. This signified specific performances of masculinity, with the uniform being associated with soldierly masculinity. However, when soldiers transitioned back to civilian life, they may have been perceived as losing their masculinity. This concept can also be applied to Fred Astaire’s style of dress.

The spectacle of his body, as defined by Cohan, was what established his masculinity. This was evident through his choice of clothing, such as his top hat and matching socks and scarf. Typically, Hollywood’s treatment of a leading man does not prioritize this type of spectacle. Additionally, the uniform symbolized soldierly masculinity, perhaps explaining why Al chose to continue wearing it upon returning home. This decision may have been driven by his fear of adopting a civilian masculinity.

According to Chopra-Gant (2006:103), Millie can only truly see who Al really is once he removes some of the sign equipment associated with his performance of soldierly masculinity. In a pivotal scene the morning after their outing, Al awakens in his pajamas and gazes into a mirror at a pre-war photograph of himself as a civilian. This sight confuses him because he has been donning the uniform for such an extended period that the reflection in the mirror and the image in the photograph no longer align with his soldierly masculinity.

According to Chopra-Gant, Al stands in front of his wardrobe after his shower and examines his civilian clothes, which will play a central role in reconstructing his civilian self (Chopra-Gant, 2006:104). It can also be argued that the fact that Al’s clothes no longer fit him due to weight loss poses a problem for his rehabilitation as a civilian. Furthermore, it is not just Al’s clothing that no longer fits him, but his entire civilian identity no longer suits him properly (Chopra-Gant, 2006:104).

Fred is another character who, like Al, goes through the process of readjusting to civilian life. However, there is a contrast between their experiences. Al is supported by Millie in his transition to civilian life. This support includes changing his sign equipment and eating more, so that he not only fits into civilian clothing but also develops a civilian identity over time. In contrast, Fred met his wife Marie during military training, and she has become accustomed to seeing him in uniform. Therefore, the uniform equipment serves as a symbol of his masculinity in their relationship.

When Fred returns, he desires to adapt to civilian life, however Marie requests him to wear his uniform again. Chopra-Gant suggests that Fred’s persistent use of aspects of military dress throughout the movie represents the challenges he faces in adjusting to civilian life (Chopra-Gant 2006: 105). Another scene exhibiting the transition from military to civilian masculinity is when Fred meets Al to talk about his relationship with Peggy. Fred is seen in his previous leather jacket from the Air Force, while Al is dressed in a business suit.

Chopra-Gant (2006:105) suggests that this scene demonstrates Fred’s struggles in letting go of his military identity and adapting to civilian life. The transition is dependent on accepting a significant decrease in social standing. Additionally, we can argue that this shift is not solely about social status but also encompasses a change from a masculine military identity to a more feminine civilian identity, with the difficulties of readjustment contributing to this perception. Homer, too, faces challenges in adapting to civilian life due to his age and disability.

Another moving scene occurs when Homer demonstrates to Wilma the process of removing his prosthetics before bed, a moment in which he feels incredibly vulnerable. However, when he sees that Wilma remains unfazed by this task and accepts his condition, he realizes that she genuinely cares for him, leading to a declaration of their love. This scene, similar to Fred Astaire’s films, relies on spectacle through the use of his prosthetic hooks. Despite transitioning from a soldierly masculinity to civilian life, Homer faces the added challenge of adjusting to life without hands. Although he is capable of accomplishing almost anything with his hooks, this scene portrays him in a more feminine light as Wilma is the one who tucks him into bed. Much like Fred Astaire’s star persona, which emphasizes the spectacle of his body as we have previously discussed, Homer’s image also incorporates the spectacle provided by his prosthetic hooks. When comparing these two films, we can argue that The Best Years of Our Lives features “examples of performative masculinities within realist, narrative generic modes,” whereas Top Hat and other Fred Astaire films demonstrate a “performativity of masculinities within the spectacular, less narrative-driven generic mode of the musical.” (Chopra-Gant, 2006:113).

In addition, it can be argued that the musical genre presented a different form of masculinity and successfully portrayed it as a spectacle. Cohan and Hark (1993:66) suggest that the musical genre was uniquely capable of showcasing a star’s masculinity through its performances. Moreover, it can be argued that both the films Top Hat and The Best Years of Our Lives exemplify how Classical Hollywood cinema explores male body images and masculinity in different ways.

Although their portrayals of masculinity may vary, both texts explore masculinity as performative identities. In The Best Years of Our Lives, a shift from a military-associated masculinity to a civilian readjustment is depicted, suggesting that masculinity is a performative act. Similarly, Chopra-Gant suggests that masculinity in this film is a performance that showcases the ability of men to adapt and readjust to civilian life (Chopra-Gant, 2006:107).

In the film Top Hat, we can observe a reinterpretation of masculinity specifically tailored for postwar viewers. Fred Astaire’s portrayal of maleness on screen can be seen as a highly theatricalized depiction that alternates between a fictional character embedded within traditional gender roles and a musical persona whose dynamic choreography offers a revised version of masculinity and desire. This interpretation is argued by Cohan and Hark (1993:63-64).


The text includes references to various books on Hollywood genres and cinema masculinity. These include the following:

  • 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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Problem of Masculinity by Laura Mulvey. (2017, Feb 02). Retrieved from

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