Essay: Hegemonic Masculinity in Film

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October 28, 2016

Hegemonic Masculinity in Film

Hegemonic masculinity and manhood acts are an idea seen through real life experiences through the way men carry themselves and show dominant roles in society. This idea is vividly portrayed through film. Two films in particular that display the presence or lack of hegemonic masculinity and manhood acts are Saving Private Ryan and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

War on screen generates portrayals of hegemonic masculinity because of military values and ideals in Saving Private Ryan, Captain Miller exemplifies traditional male virtues. Although he is courageous in combat, the film does not celebrate his courage under fire. It rather focuses on his sense of responsibility, his fatherly concern for his men, and his strong ethics. Miller has a tic in his hand brought on by nerves, which humanizes the male hero. Although Saving Private Ryan depicts the Second World War, it was produced in the late nineteen nineties and thus reflects a more contemporary form of culturally idealized hegemonic masculinity. 

Instead of underscoring physical features, Saving Private Ryan praises traditional masculine values such as courage, loyalty and a sense of civic responsibility. Captain Miller is not incredibly Herculean, fighting topless with his sleeve tied around his head, but is a leader with an average physique who cares about his men and is looking to return to his wife in Pennsylvania. This vividly shows his sense of hegemonic masculinity in a very contemporary way. He shows nurturing virtues in the sense that he cares about getting home to his wife, but at the same time he portrays dominance and shows his masculinity through his sense of leadership.

When a group of soldiers in Saving Private Ryan find themselves in possession of a surrendering German soldier, Captain Miller refuses to disregard the military codex that ensures the well-being of foreign prisoners. He did this despite his men pushing for a violent execution at their hands. Miller blindfolds the prisoner and tells him to walk in the opposite direction of their mission and hand himself in to the first American soldiers he comes across. However, when survivors join Private Ryan’s squad in defending the bridge that will inevitably allow the victor to advance, we see that it is the same German soldier Miller freed that shoots a bullet into Miller’s chest. This plot device suggests that decency is lethal and unacceptable as a standard of behavior at war, and committing violence, often against protocol, should be necessary in a dominant masculine identity. Miller pays the ultimate price. 

In male presiding institutions such as the military, representations on screen will have a predominantly male cast and so homoerotic undertones are likely to become evident. A knife fight between Private Mellish and a German soldier in Saving Private Ryan is almost intimate when considering the way the men have been killing so far: from a distance with a gun. As the blade is forcibly driven into Mellish’s living flesh at the hand of the German soldier, the men stop being German and American, Nazi and Jew, but are two men sharing a physically intimate moment more morbid than their surroundings. Such moments displace the heterosexual dominance of masculinity, although the war genre frequently finds ways to disregard homoerotic encounters and intimate moments of male bonding with an emphasis on family or brotherhood. 

Saving Private Ryan achieves a realistic depiction of war populated by a range of masculine identities. The film reveals a shocking historical war that was previously censored and sanitized on the Hollywood screen. Captain Miller, the dominant male with whom we align ourselves, combines ideal hegemonic traits of the nineteen forties “Greatest Generation” with a contemporary sensitivity. This displaces and challenges the previously traditional hegemony and allows for the growth and development of a new, fluid spectrum of masculine representations.

A lack of hegemonic masculinity is drastically displayed in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. If Finn has a describing attribute, it is being genuinely compassionate about other people. He does not act out of hegemonic musicality. Fighting, winning, and showing leadership roles through his masculinity are not his priorities. His ego and insecurities are not the priority. When Kylo Ren throws Rey against the tree, Finn turns his back to the enemy, drops his weapon, and runs to her to make sure she is okay. It is endearing, wonderful, and humane. In creating a hero that undermines society’s typical, aggressive expectations for masculinity, an idea of feminism is created. He does this in spite of years of conditioning to kill. Instead, he affirms that caring for others is what is most important to him. In another movie, he would have fought Ren immediately without a second thought, springing into attack mode. Rather, Finn turns his back on movie tropes, on violence, on toxic, traditional, hegemonic masculinity for caring. Finn eventually picks up the light saber and faces the enemy with it, but Finn running to the aid of his friends and strangers is a recurring motif of The Force Awakens, and it is what we should all want from our heroes. It is what we should all want to be.

Another type of masculinity that is not hegemonic is also shown in this movie: toxic masculinity. Where Darth Vader was authoritarian and fear-inspiring, Kylo is amateurish, angry, and conflicted. The Force Awakens shows us the downsides of the Dark Side. Instead of embodying the patriarchy’s lie of what masculinity being portrayed to be aggressive, powerful, and solitary, Kylo Ren demonstrates the reality of it all. The dark side of the force is an ideal metaphor for toxic masculinity.

Kylo, fittingly, is miserable. Constantly comparing himself to an outdated, impossible standard of manliness, Kylo is a clear example of how the patriarchy’s emphasis on traditional gender norms hurts both men and women. Kylo hates himself for not being Dark and Man enough. He feels love for his parents, has feelings, and is human. Toxic masculinity suggests that the only feeling it is fine for him to have is anger and he proves to be grumpy, destructive, and ultimately ineffective. He tears other people apart in order to preserve his sense of “manhood”. His quest to achieve hegemonic masculinity turns him into a toxic man.

These two films vividly display the presence or lack of hegemonic masculinity and manhood acts. While Saving Private Ryan still shows the presence of hegemonic masculinity but in a more contemporary form, Star Wars: The Force Awakens shows drifts away from this idea of hegemonic masculinity. These two films show men carrying out tasks within a given society, whether these tasks are used to bring dominancy to the male character or not. Men throughout the course of time show how masculinity is portrayed in media through film.

Works Cited

Kennedy, Kathleen, J J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Lawrence Kasdan, Michael D. Arndt, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Max. Sydow, John Williams, Mary J. Markey, Maryann Brandon, Daniel Mindel, and George Lucas. Star Wars: The Force Awakens. , 2016.

Spielberg, Steven, Robert Rodat, Ian Bryce, Mark Gordon, Gary Levinsohn, Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore, Jeremy Davies, Vin Diesel, Adam Goldberg, Barry Pepper, Giovanni Ribisi, Matt Damon, Ted Danson, Harve Presnell, Paul Giamatti, Ryan Hurst, Max Martini, Leland Orser, John Williams, Janusz Kamiński, Michael Kahn, Tom Sanders, and Joanna Johnston. Saving Private Ryan. , 1999.

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