Men by Women: Exploring Masculinity through the Female Gaze
No man is all masculine. It’s only a set of traits, and attributes that we often associated with the male gender, but that doesn’t mean that’s all a man is. Masculinity and femininity overlap, and their definitions change over time. Even the manliest man in the history is going to have some feminine traits because that’s only nature.
However, we do, for most of the times, only pull out those masculine traits onto the screen because they are the simplest and quickly recognizable images of what a man is, or at least, supposed to be. Maybe that’s all male filmmakers and audiences understand – our masculine side of things, which in some ways or other, a part of the male gaze. With that said, female filmmakers can bring that missing perspective of femininity onto the male characters in a way that most male filmmakers do not. It’s perhaps the side of men we don’t normally see ourselves as, but it’s there nonetheless.
So, these are the films directed by women that do exactly that.
Minor spoilers ahead for the films mentioned.
Male Bond – Old Joy by Kelly Reinhardt
Based on a short story by Jonathan Raymond, who later went to be a regular collaborator with Reinhardt, the film features two old friends, Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham) reluctantly reuniting for a road trip knowing how they have grew apart from each other.
It’s one of those relationships we’ve all probably been through at least once, and one of the realest depiction of that you’ll probably ever see on screen. It’s the one where both persons have drifted apart from one another in a way that just could not reconnect back no matter how hard they tried, and they really did- we all did and we all wanted to. In most of male relationships with each other, it’s going to be much more casual, at least on the surface, rather than outright intimate doesn’t matter how much that relationship may mean to them. You’re expected to, and expected that you can just pick up wherever that relationship was left off; and act as if nothing has ever really changed despite being so glaringly obvious that it’s long dead.
Reinhardt is known for her subtly, and especially in this one where it’s about the things unsaid. She was able to break the wall that you can see in many relationships that people may never lower it down. She, as well as others in this article, was able to bring in the vulnerability into the male ego, whereas in other male-directed films, we can see how differently male filmmakers value and see these relationships. They’re usually going to be about loyalty (calling each other brothers and family, etc.), understanding (no verbal communication needed), or mutual respect (putting faith in each other). While there’s nothing wrong with these attributes, men relationships are more often than not portrayed as ‘cool,’ rather than, vulnerable. You can actually sense this vulnerability in the film as the protagonists just couldn’t speak their minds on how much they missed each other, and how different the things they want in life are- only to, in the end, say ‘see you later’ knowing full-well that they never will.
More films about male bond: First Cow (2020) by Kelly Reinhardt, Point Break (1991) by Kathryn Bigelow, Mikey and Nicky (1976) by Elaine May and Wayne’s World (1992) by Penelope Spheeris.
Fatherhood – Somewhere by Sofia Coppola
Set in the legendary Chateau Marmont right on Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, the film tells a story of a minor celebrity, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) who’s going through an existential crisis in said hotel. After the mother of his child suddenly disappeared, Johnny gained the custody of her, Cleo (Elle Fanning) and for the first time in his life, taking on the responsibility of a father.
The film isn’t exactly about the father or fatherhood in its entirety, but rather, the relationship of father-daughter under the backdrop of the emptiness of fame and fortune which Sofia Coppola, being the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, probably knew a thing or two about. How she depicted what it’s like to be a father is quite different to what you usually see on screen. What she essentially does is breaking the norms or the role attached to how we think of fatherhood. Johnny isn’t what you called compassionate, but he’s not indifferent either. He doesn’t neglect or abuse, but he’s never done much to what you’d expect a father would do. For most of the times, Johnny is confused, scared, and outright just doesn’t know what to do. He’ll be there because he knows he should, but beyond that is just an unknown territory for him. There’s something beautifully honest about that depiction, because more likely than not, all of us don’t know what we’re doing either.
Coppola utilized cinematic realism techniques to capture the sense of being lost on screen. The film doesn’t have much of a plot, or a typical narrative, and all that meandering around is only to emphasis that concept. Johnny doesn’t have anything meaningful in life despite his fame and fortune, but his daughter might be only person who can give that meaning to him, yet he doesn’t know what he can do for her. She is a learning experience for Johnny for him to mature, rather than the other way around. Cleo is actually often seen as the one taking care of her father from cooking all the way to talking some sense into him. Parenthood, as well as fatherhood, is exactly like that- a learning experience in both way.
More films about fatherhood: All is Forgiven (Tout est pardonné, 2007) by Mia Hansen-Løve, Father of My Children (Le Père de mes enfants, 2009) by Mia Hansen-Løve, Toni Erdmann (2016) by Maren Ade, and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) by Marielle Heller.
Toxic Masculinity – The Power of the Dog by Jane Campion
Directed by veteran filmmaker Jane Campion, the Power of the Dog set against the backdrop of rural Americana in the early 20th century. It tells the story of two brothers (played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons) living together and working on a ranch in what appears to be the tail end of the cowboy era. While the film’s plot goes much further beyond that, we just going to stop it at that to not give anything away.
There are plenty of films that center on the concept of toxic masculinity, and a lot of them is good in their merits, even in most of, if not all Campion’s previous works is about the patriarchy one way or another. What makes the film different of all of those is that it features male protagonists to drive the story about toxic masculinity where others usually female’s. But it also did something very rare that we don’t get to see it that much, the film look at toxic masculinity in an empathetic way. Campion didn’t justify it in anyway, but rather just humanized it to make the audience really see what’s going on. There are three male protagonists who, in their own way, are full of toxic traits. Some may appear on the surface, and some hidden deeply underneath whether that would be abuse, negligent, or manipulative. Campion did a great job showing layers to these characters, and by doing so, she was able to shift the root of the problem from men (which most films about the same subject often landed on) to masculinity. These people are victims of their own in a vicious circle of abuse and abused, and how masculinity as well as machismo lead to anger, destruction, and loneliness (which we also see in Reinhardt’s Old Joy).
It’s important for us to understand the humans behind all of the bad in this kind of people, and not just simply put a blame out on them, because more often than not, we don’t really try to understand them even though they have the potential and desire to be something else, only lacking in guidance and support. In the end, we are ended up as enablers and contributors to the problem. The Power of the Dog is a great examination of toxic masculinity that could help us understand a lot better about the concept, or just even, realize that there’s more to it than being aggressive as well.
More films about toxic masculinity (and patriarchy): The Piano (1993) by Jane Campion, the Portrait of a Lady (1996) by Jane Campion, the Nightingale (2018) by Jennifer Kent, and the Assistant (2019) by Kitty Green
Identity – The Rider by Chloé Zhao
After meeting with Brady Jandreau while shooting her previous film, soon-to-be-Oscars-winning director Chloé Zhao decided to base this film on the story of Jandreau’s life, and have him star in it as a fictionalized version of himself. The film tells the story of a once promising rodeo star in the Midwest who is unable to return to horse riding after an accident. We then see the life of Jandreau’s character and those around him struggle to face the fact, and adapt to the new life with seemingly no real purpose.
Just like the Power of the Dog, the Rider also tackles toxic masculinity, and alluded to the themes of the damages that it’s doing to someone’s manhood. However, what makes this film much more different is the emphasis that it put on how men evaluate their sense of self-worth, and what makes they them which the film covers that from societal roles, to heritage. Coincidentally, how the characters do that is still under the framework of patriarchy, because how can you really escape it? That comes into play especially in how Jandreau’s character felt essentially useless because of the accident. He turned his passion of rodeo and horseback riding into pride, and when that passion is taken away from the pride is also gone. This is also made worse by the pressure from almost everyone around him whom constantly downplay his injuries as nothing serious, and that’s going to hurt anybody’s pride more or less, because on top of that, he also needs to take care his autistic sister and deadbeat father. Despite getting a job at local supermarket that can cover for a while, this doesn’t satisfy him as he’s desperately to get back to his horse, as well as the embarrassment from getting recognize at the place. He defined his life from being a rodeo star, which could end up be the thing that stole his life away.
Just like in the film, the patriarchal society often need a man to be ‘the man’, otherwise he would be no one, and we can see that happening with the main character. Zhao vividly illustrated the male pride under these senses of brokenness, lost, and low self-esteem that the character is going through while still able to prevent the character from being one noted as we see him being conflicted, fragile, and unsure. Because without that, it would end up encouraging the same stigma the film is trying to criticize.
More films about identity: Beautiful Thing (1996) by Hattie MacDonald, Beau Travail (1999) by Claire Denis, Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro felice, 2018) by Alice Rohrwacher, and the Mustang (2019) by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre.
Lastly, before we leave, it’s always a great idea to have someone from a particular demographic be able to represent themselves and their community on to screen as well as behind the scene. A lot of efforts had been made for that to happen, and it is happening right now which is beneficial to everyone. Although, many good things can come from having someone else depicts our images as well. Because by doing so, we can understand more about how other people see us which could lead us into understanding more about ourselves and what our differences are in the society. These films are great examples of that, and of course, there’s bound to bad ones but at least they all force us to confront something that we might have always taken for granted. And what we’re trying to say is that just expand your horizon, and engage in more types of stories made by different types of people because that way we can learn more about the world we live, and possibly change it for the better.
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