Mask-ulinity

Paper by Kimberly Ann Lee.

There are only a few ways we see men portrayed in film. The usual mold we see is someone who’s dominant, loves women, and tries to avoid their feelings. There’s an unspoken ideological standard that men have to fit in and if they don’t fall into or come short on the ideological perception of masculinity then they become an outsider. In America on Film the authors explain that, “American society teaches and fosters certain types of behavior in men – the ones commonly thought of as masculine (aggression, strength, leadership, lack of emotion) – in order to maintain and reinforce patriarchal privilege.” (Benshoff 257). The way that masculinity has been institutionalized in our society has made it a social construct and men are feeling pressure to pass in any sort of masculine sense to be accepted by society and fellow men. In La Haine (1995), Straight Outta Compton (2015), and Waves (2019) they all feature hyper-masculine male leads. In all of these films the lead male characters at some point are upset with the world around them and/or at conflict with someone they know. Men internalize their feelings in order to fulfill their concept of masculinity; this is due to ideology set for men in a patriarchal social structure. This leads men to use violence, rage, project their issues on the people around, and ignorance of their situations in order to fit their molds of what they think a man is supposed to be and this can be seen in La Haine (1995), Straight Outta Compton (2015), and Waves (2019).

What does it cost to be a man?:
Alexithymia is described as the “inability to identify and express or describe one’s feelings” by Miriam Webster Dictionary, for men this dissociation links to the hegemonic standards that exist in society. We see all of our leading males in these films deal with alexithymia in some aspect. In Straight Outta Compton towards the end of the film we see Dr. Dre in the hospital talking to Eazy E who is in a coma; he reminisces on their success and time in N.W.A., shows excitement about their reunion track, and tells him that he loves him. This is a big moment in the film and it’s one of the rare times when we see one of the men cry, it’s an incredibly vulnerable and powerful moment in the film as he’s finally able to express his feelings. The unfortunate part is that he’s telling him after all the turmoil they faced, while Eazy E is in a coma, and under the grim glow of a hospital. We’re able to feel a lot of emotion in this scene because the shots are focused on Dre and his faces and we see him get worked up and ultimately cry as he’s coming to terms with losing a life-long friend and finally expresses some sort of love and gratitude. The fact that Dre wasn’t able to express his feelings until the very last possible moment shows that, “Men showed the greatest deficits in identifying and expressing emotions that reflected a sense of vulnerability or that expressed attachment.” (Levant).

We also can see this statement supported in the film La Haine, we can see this is in a contrast of the character of Vinz versus his friends Saïd and Hubert. Their friend Abdel is in the hospital fighting for his life after being brutalized by the police, Vinz, Saïd, and Hubert are all outraged at the injustice that their friend has faced. But, Vinz expresses extreme emotion and anger which leads him to want to kill a cop while Saïd and Hubert don’t feel as strongly about committing the violent act. They never really talk about the emotional toll this situation has taken on them, they just keep moving and thinking about how to take the power back into their own hands which identifies with what’s typically expected of men.
Alexithymia stems from society and this is instilled by authority figures in men’s lives, “Men had been discouraged as boys from expressing their emotions by parents, peers, teachers, or coaches, and some were punished for doing so” (Levant). We can see this in Waves, with Tyler and his father’s relationship he’d always push him, we can see this when Tyler is at a wrestling match and isn’t performing well and Tyler’s dad is giving his glaring look it’s daunting even to the audience. As the audience we’ve been seeing Tyler struggle with his injury he’s constantly pushing himself over his limits and then stealing his own father’s pain pills. Tyler’s father views his failure during his match as him not trying hard enough or not applying himself and encourages him to keep going. Tyler doesn’t ever tell his father about his pain because he isn’t able to express how he feels because he’s seeing it as a sign of weakness and failure, instead he tries to numb the pain whether that be using substances or hypersexualizing his relationship with his girlfriend. Although the people in Tyler’s life are not aware of how he’s acting and what he’s going through, the audience gets to see and feel with him as the film moves through various aspect ratios, ultimately growing closer and closer in on Tyler and the pressure he feels before he’s caught and sent to jail.

When Hegemony is Threatened:
For as long as we can recall in society men have always been the “dominant” class. Everytime this is threatened or called into question there’s discomfort and a sense of defense for the change. It feels as though there’s a threat to their masculinity which in our society is also their authority. Grønstad explains that in the film Fight Club, an incredibly hyper-masculine movie, that the film, “propose(s) a radical decentering of the identity politics of the male hero perhaps to the extent of admitting that masculinity is not only a construct but in fact an empty signifier” (Grønstad). In La Haine, we don’t really see their family relationships and we see them try and hit on women and get rejected. When we see them have a negative reaction we see them get into arguments and their mood immediately shifts and the boys say hurtful things. A sense of acceptance by women is something they crave so desperately and the fact that they’re rejected makes their masculinity feel decentered and then they go into a hurt ego trip.

In Waves, Tyler we see his relationship with Alexis, we open the scene with Focus by H.E.R. accompanying the scene this is the point where Tyler apologizes to Alexis for their original fight and they start speaking again and they’re communicating over text, once Alexis tells Tyler that she’s keeping the baby they’re text messages are in a flurry on the screen. The conversation escalates as Tyler yells through the phone and boils up to the moment where Alexis tells him that they’re over and she’s blocking him. While this happens the song warps, the instrumentals fade and then so do the lyrics suddenly, then we’re greeted with IFHY by Tyler, the Creator and Tyler starts throwing things into the wall and at the moment the song crescendos Tyler hits the wall and destroys his room. “Men’s violence is one major element in the perpetuation of that power, and is thus a necessary object of analysis and intervention…” (Hearn). This moment for Tyler is extreme and it’s raw, we feel that he feels that he’s out of control because of the fluid camera that moves with him. The movement isn’t perfect with him which adds to effects of the mess that his head is in and the lack of control he feels as his brain moves a million miles a minute. This moment of immediate reaction allows us to see that Tyler is affected by the loss of his girlfriend and his wrestling career, he feels out power and everything that he thought he had control over really isn’t.
Straight Outta Compton also identifies with the statement made by Hearn and this can be seen in the “Bye Felicia” scene. In this scene, N.W.A. is becoming more successful and are having parties in their hotel rooms where the women definitely overtake the men in their ratio. They’re all engaging in sexual activities in various parts of the room when Dre’s part of the room gets a knock on the door and it’s one of the girl’s boyfriends asking for Felicia, the camera follows Dre as he moves through the hotel room trying to find Felicia once they do Eazy E goes and gets guns and the group moves into the hallway to chase away the men with their guns. At this point the men feel very secure of themselves; they’ve grown success quickly and their lifestyles previously were surrounded in gang neighborhoods. The men are now in a position of power where they’re able to use guns, it’s their ideal mode of security and shows that they’re the bigger men.

Black Masculinity:
All of these films have black male leads and there’s added pressure to this section of men. Black Masculinity differs from traditional masculinity because there are added layers that Black men have to deal with. They’ve been systematically oppressed and they’re already at a societal disadvantage from other men. There’s no way to have a clear definition of black masculinity but it’s evident that there’s an extra set of societal expectations of black men, whether that they’re expected to be more violent, be more cold, or more outspoken. The unfortunate added influence leads to, “This notion of internalizing racist stereotypes of African Americans provides a convenient segue into the second expression of this frustration in black male characters: autodestruction. (Chan). We see the autodestruction of Tyler in Waves, especially in comparison to the Hubert in La Haine and the guys in N.W.A. from Straight Outta Compton on paper he should have had the best chance out of all of them. Tyler was from an upper middle class family and lived in a community where they were living very comfortably and you can see that Tyler was influenced by this. His father reminded him that they have to work harder than others, they fall into marginalized masculinity due to their race. Tyler struggles with this pressure and expresses himself in a way that will allow him to feel his emotions in a constructive way instead he keeps everything to himself and that leads to his autodestruction. It felt as though he was a ticking time bomb, the music, the lighting, and pace of the film made there a sense of stress and unsettling; his emotions were becoming unmasked and he was too caught up and accidentally killed his girlfriend, Alexis.
Hubert is the tamest of the three in La Haine, he’s the sort of peacemaker that wants to keep himself out of trouble. It’s Vinz that embodies a sort of white negro character, “White Negroes mimic black men because they seem more masculine; black men seem more masculine because they have to fight. (Locke). When Vinz shows Hubert and Saïd the gun that he stole from the police and says that he’s going to kill a cop with it Hubert takes the gun from him and points it back at him. He doesn’t feel like killing the cop is going to help their friend and doesn’t believe that Vinz’s intentions are actually as fleshed out as he thinks it is. Vinz is up for the fight and wants to avenge his friend. Hubert doesn’t see this, he views what Vinz is doing as destructive and making things more complicated. Hubert is tired of the conditions that he’s surrounded by in the projects and wants to leave. Hubert is a different take on masculinity; he does his best to stay on track so he can achieve his goals and make his life better so that he’s able to care for his family.

N.W.A. inspired and spoke for a generation, they were innovators and inventors of gangster rap. Their lives were reflections of their work and they were able to show the world what goes on in their neighborhoods however, their notary can come at a cost, “It is important to note that sometimes the desires of the record label executives and hip-hop artists are conflated, due to desires of some Black men from economically deprived communities to prove their dominance via stereotypical images of masculinity that enforce hypersexual and hyper violent behaviors.” (Belle). We can see this all throughout the film, the group fully embraces their celebrity lifestyle we’re faced with multiple scenes of multitudes of women, a lot of the times scantily-clad or topless women surrounding them. We also see a scene where Eazy E talks to his manager Jerry about wanting to kill Suge Knight and not wanting to go through lawyers because it’s not about the money it’s about respect. These men grew up with next to nothing and they were able to make names for themselves, since they’ve secured their fame they feel protective of it. These men have this ideology set within them and they feel as though things should be handled outside of court and within their own hands and means because that is what they’ve known all their lives.
When I picked this topic to write about I chose it because I wanted to get a better understanding of where this person I knew was coming from so I could understand him better and be able to be a better friend for him. In the midst of writing this paper he passed away and this paper took on a whole different meaning, it still helped me with my first intention, it’s been therapeutic and also incredibly hard to get through writing. Ultimately, it’s been fulfilling and I was able to move through my emotions and even grieve a little bit while connecting to something I love and feel passionate about, film that is. Straight Outta Compton, La Haine, and Waves all feature very typically masculine characters while they all dealt with various experiences in their lives but run under the same ideologies that men have to fit into. They were subject to alexithymia. They did use violence. They were influenced by rap and pop culture. But this was all due to the ideology that’s enforced within our society that men act out or don’t act at all. These three films were able to show experiences of masculinity in three different places and we can see that they’re conditioned to their social constructs just as much as women. Their internalization leads to all of this, everyone is ultimately a product of their environment and the ideologies that surround them their entire lives. The question for the future of the film is if we have the power to normalize people acting out of their gender norms, and do we continue to dismantle this culture or is it too ingrained into our society to fix? Nonetheless, it’s important to get these stories out there even if it is a “risk” or not a blockbuster. It’s important for men to see a real image of themselves and show them that boys do cry and that’s okay.

Works Cited:
Belle, C. (2014). From Jay-Z to Dead Prez: Examining Representations of Black Masculinity in Mainstream Versus Underground Hip-Hop Music. Journal of Black Studies, 45(4), 287–300. https://doi-org.ezproxy.callutheran.edu/10.1177/0021934714528953
Chan, K. (1998). The Construction of Black Male Identity in Black Action Films of the Nineties. Cinema Journal, 37(2), 35-48. doi:10.2307/1225641
Grønstad, A. (2008). One-Dimensional Men: Fincher’s Fight Club and the End of Masculinity. In Transfigurations: Violence, Death and Masculinity in American Cinema (pp. 172-186). Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctt46n1k3.13
Hearn, J. (1994). The organization(s) of violence: men, gender relations, organizations, and violences. Human Relations, 47, 731–754. https://doi-org.ezproxy.callutheran.edu/10.1177/001872679404700608
Levant, R. F., Allen, P. A., & Lien, M.-C. (2014). Alexithymia in men: How and when do emotional processing deficiencies occur? Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 15(3), 324–334. https://doi-org.ezproxy.callutheran.edu/10.1037/a0033860.supp (Supplemental)
Locke, B. (2014). “The White Man’s Bruce Lee”: Race and the Construction of White Masculinity in David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999). Journal of Asian American Studies 17(1), 61-89. doi:10.1353/jaas.2014.0009.

Share

About this entry