16 Apr 2012

Boys on Film: Movies, Masculinity and The Hunger Games

*** SPOILER ALERT - If you are one of the remaining folks who hasn't seen The Hunger Games and still wants to, do not read on! ***

When one of my co-workers took some cheques to the bank to deposit in our company's account, the clerk serving her noticed our company name (the Feminist Majority Foundation, the charity that owns Ms. Magazine) and asked the following, oh-so-enlightened question:

"Do you guys all hate men?"

My colleague politely responded no. But that's what feminism has come to mean in so many minds. Pro-woman must equal anti-man, especially if you're one of those charming Men's Rights Activists (MRAs). This was a criticism levelled at the fantastic film Thelma & Louise, as not only did it (gasp!) focus on two female leads and put men on the sideline, but it highlighted the fact that (shocker!) some men do some terrible things. Not all men - Jimmy, played by Michael Madsen, is a loyal and caring boyfriend to Louise. Hal, played by Harvey Keitel, tries his hardest to prevent the two protagonists becoming victims of the law that is meant to protect them. And yes, there are three male characters who do shitty things - Harlan, the bar-room charmer who turns out to be a violent rapist, J.D., the buff cowboy who gives Thelma her first 'proper lay' but then robs her, and the truck driver who sexually harasses our ladies and gets his comeuppance. And guess what - there are plenty of real-life men who do those things and are never brought to justice, but having this highlighted in a film was clearly too much for some, and they either demeaned the film by labelling it a 'chick flick', or simply accused it of promoting man-hating - or at least a negative picture of masculinity.

However, masculinity can be extremely negative, let's not deny it. This is not the same as saying men are bad - it's saying that the macho stereotype that is demanded of them definitely is. Being violent, aggressive, arrogant, domineering, ruthless, selfish and positioning oneself as superior to the opposite sex are precisely the characteristics that harm our planet and its people every single day. So what about alternative models of masculinity?

Well, I started thinking about this when I finally caught up with the rest of the Western world on Saturday and went to see The Hunger Games. Yes, I realise I'm a little late to the party, but the phenomenon took a while to filter through to this non-American, and I also wanted to be a purist and read the book first. When I finally saw the film, what came through to me was not just the incredibly positive representation of a female as strong, intelligent, self-sufficient and able to protect and provide for others, but the contrasting depictions of men. Katniss's father is entirely absent from her family, leaving her to take over as head of the family, and provide for her mother and sister. Her friendship with Gale is an equal partnership based on practicality and mutual respect, so far devoid of romance. It is Gale who is left behind to look after Katniss's family while she is tasked with representing her District - another inversion of the 'women belong in the domestic sphere whilst men go out in the world and do Important Things' trope.

Haymitch, Katniss's only mentor, is a drunken shell of a man whose life has been forever tainted by his experience in the Hunger Games. Although he attempts to impose discipline on Katniss and make her 'likeable' for the cameras, he is rarely successful in getting her to toe the line, reminding me a little of the relationship between Giles and Buffy, where Giles' timid attempts to play the patriarch was always scathingly blown out of the water by the headstrong, attitude-laden Buffy. Haymitch does end up with affection for his charge, perhaps realising that her unwillingness to play the passive female is what may actually lead to her survival in the Games.

Then there's Cinna - ah, after Lenny Kravitz gave a face to Katniss's one unconditional friend in the Capitol, who doesn't love Cinna? He's beautiful, gentle, and he genuinely cares about our heroine. Although he is limited in his ability to help her, his moral and emotional support is depicted as invaluable, both in the book and the film. Cinna's sexuality is ambiguous - his soft voice and physical mannerisms, plus the stereotype of men who work in fashion being mostly homosexual, could imply his character is meant to be gay. However, his 'effeminate' characteristics could also simply be a side-effect of living in a future where everyone, male and female, is insanely groomed, appearance-obsessed, and make-up has become de rigeur for both sexes (interestingly, Cinna always wears black unlike the other Capitol characters who are drowning in colour, perhaps showing that he has not fully surrendered to their fashion fascism). Cinna also helps Katniss in both traditionally 'feminine' and 'masculine' ways - his fashion know-how gives her visual appeal to the crowd through her costume (and importantly, without sexualising or objectifying her), but he also provides strength and comfort when she is consumed with terror at entering the arena.

Then there is Katniss's 'team-mate' in the Games - Peeta. Unlike the other males in the game, and unlike Katniss herself, Peeta is uncompetitive and fairly resigned to dying in the Games. Most of the evidence points to Peeta's total lack of aggression - when other males mock him during training, it is Katniss who has to persuade him to make a show of strength because 'those guys are looking at you like you're a meal'. It is Katniss who objects to being made to 'look weak' when Peeta admits his romantic feelings for her on TV, inverting the stereotype that love and romance are 'for girls', and his submission to Katniss's rage when she slams him up against a wall is distinctly un-Alpha-male. Once in the arena, Peeta appears to betray Katniss by teaming up with a group who are hunting her, but it becomes apparent that this is a tactical move to infiltrate and placate the enemy. When he is seriously wounded, it is she who protects him and nurses him back to health. The scene where she applies healing balm to his wound simmers with chemistry, and for me it was partly because of Peeta's vulnerability and willingness to defer to Katniss.

Peeta's lack of competitive/aggressive behaviour is sharply contrasted with that of Cato, the stereotypical 'Alpha male', who is depicted a little more than a brute, a mindless killing machine bent on violence and domination. The audience is meant to dislike him - he is the enemy because he kills without discrimination, and often seems to take pleasure in murder. His lack of moral code is what makes him objectionable, in direct opposition to Katniss, who only kills in self-defence or defence of another (such as Rue). Cato is definitely not meant to be admired, and indeed there seems to be a warning implicit in his last scene, where we see him bloodied and borderline-hysterical, finally aware of the futility of the Games - he laughs bitterly "I'm dead anyway" as he holds Peeta in a headlock and taunts Katniss that if she kills him, he will take Peeta with him. Cato appears to have been driven to distraction by the deliberate viciousness of the Capitol; they have encouraged and glorified his extreme machismo then abandoned him. I think there are some possible parallels here with the way men are destroyed by the exploitation of their need for masculine glory - army recruitment being a major example that springs to mind.

In contrast, Peeta has never wanted to play the macho game, and is calm in his practicality when the rules are changed and he immediately surrenders, telling Katniss to kill him because 'one of us should go home'. I can see how Peeta's passivity could be read as a negative indictment that feminism has 'emasculated' men, that his lack of aggression, willingness to play second fiddle to Katniss and defer to her expertise are all examples of the unattractive, 'feminised' man that the women's movement is accused of creating. Interesting that the qualities that were supposed to make women so attractive to men - being gentle, non-aggressive, unthreatening and letting others take the glory -is suddenly supposed to become so unattractive when embodied in a man. However, the swathes of female admirers joining 'Team Peeta' imply otherwise. A man comfortable enough with himself not to be constantly asserting himself via macho behaviour can be very attractive, as the army of Peeta fans will attest. Peeta supports and respects the girl he loves - many of us would agree there's nothing sexier. When compared with Cato's hackneyed blustering and frat-boy posturing, it's pretty easy to say who's a more attractive picture of masculinity.

What makes the 'good' male characters in The Hunger Games is loyalty. Even Thresh is afforded some audience sympathy when he spares Katniss because she protected Rue, whilst taking revenge on Clove, who gloats over Rue's death. His loyalty to his fellow tribute and the girl who protected her contrasts with his contempt for the amoral and sadistic Clove. Gale keeps his promise to protect Katniss's family. Cinna's support for Katniss never wavers, before, during or after the Games. And Peeta's loyalty to Katniss is always apparent.

These are visions of masculinity I can get behind. This is the kind of masculinity I want to see more of, both on the screen and off.

No comments: