Millennial Masculinity: Men in Contemporary American Cinema.
Timothy Shary, ed. Wayne State University Press, 2013. 367 pages; $29.95.
Timothy Shary's edited volume provides a surprisingly thorough extension of recent scholarship addressing masculinity in film studies by examining films released during the turn of the recent century, from 1990-2012. Shary frames the anthology as moving "away from traditional takes on the male form" and towards an investigation of "masculine sex and power but more broadly considering] the body over time in terms of other factors vital to corporeal imagery, such as dress, weight, and race" (8). Accordingly, the chapters center on the themes of "performance," "patriarchy," "male sexual practice," and "the crucial intersections between race and masculine identity" (9). In my eyes, however, what is new, fresh, and vitally important about Shary's intervention is the way that Millennial Masculinity grapples with cinematic representations of male bodies and masculinity in a post-9/11 America.
The text is separated into four movements with specified focuses. The first, "Performing Masculinity," features chapters on Adam Sandler, Sean Penn's performance in Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008), and climactic scenes of gender performance in "cop action" films. The second, "Patriarchal Problems," features chapters on Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999), Wes Anderson, Bringing Out the Dead (Martin Scorcese, 1999), and the family values of characters deemed "psychos" post-Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver's infamous main character). The third, "Exceptional Sexualities," features chapters on Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005), "Bromance" films (specifically examining Wedding Crashers (David Dobson, 2005)), and the queer potential of Philip Seymour Hoffmann's bodily performances. Finally, "Facing Race," features chapters on the films of Spike Lee and John Singleton, Will Smith's performance in I Am Legend (Francis Lawrence, 2007, the "Neoretro Heist Film" (of which Ocean's Eleven (Steven Soderbergh, 2001) is the key example), and the Rush Hour franchise.
While each chapter lays out an interesting argument regarding representations of masculinity in turn-of-the-century cinema, trying to chart out a solid body of text to which Millennial Masculinity as a whole is responding is somewhat difficult. Each of these sections provides important interventions that extend the work of prior scholarship, with many of the authors focusing their attentions on close readings of specific media works. Maria San Filippo's reading of Wedding Crashers, for example, draws parallels between Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn's performances in the film to Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell's performances in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by engaging with the foundational queer close reading of Alexander Doty.
The body of work that each chapter is grappling with, however, is quite fractured in ways that are simultaneously productive and problematic to the anthology as a whole. It is productive in that the anthology covers an incredible amount of ground, trying to leave all pressing issues in the field on the table and addressed. It is problematic, too, though, because issues like Shary's explicit desire to address race, which he articulates clearly in his introduction, are only grappled with in the chapters under that heading. While Shary writes that he "made a dedicated effort to bring forth such analyses [of masculinity and race] ... in the book's final section" (12), and this final section certainly engages issues of race and masculinity in productive ways, he leaves important questions about race unaddressed elsewhere. How, for example, do issues of race get treated in our reading of Sean Penn as Harvey Milk? In Millennial Masculinity, they do not. Instead, the text as a whole seems more concerned with questions of class, providing potent and thought provoking discussions regarding the intersections of class and masculinity throughout all of its four sections.
I do not wish, however, to sound overly critical of the anthology or its methodology. It engages a constellation of scholars and theorists--Richard Dyer, Judith Butler, Yvonne Tasker, Michel Foucault, Tania Modeleski, Frederick Jameson, and Slavoj Zizek--in interesting ways, sometimes using them to form important bridges between the arguments in individual chapters. While I, personally, found statement's like Neal King's that "masculinity is simply the ideals and behaviors that distinguish men from women" (66) in need of a dialog with the work of Judith Butler, I found that engagement with Butler in chapters like Chris Rose's brilliant reading of Wes Anderson's films, which looks to Butler alongside feminist film theory and psychoanalysis to argue that Anderson's directorial work "reveal[s] men's pervasive fears about the feminine restricting their autonomy both within and outside the home" (103). In fact, psychoanalytic theory and the work of Butler and Michel Foucault are threads that run throughout Millennial Masculinity.
By the end of the text, I found that my personal responses to the approaches taken by each author mattered less to me than the fact that Millennial Masculinity had worked tirelessly to engage the basic yet central question of all studies of masculinity--"what is masculinity?"--in as numerous and sometimes contradictory ways as there are chapters. The importance and productivity of this tactic, in my mind, cannot be overstated. By providing such diverse approaches to the reading of these recent films some films, including Fight Club, Anger Management, and Taxi Driver are invoked repeatedly from chapter to chapter in strikingly different ways--Shary's anthology provides a crucial intervention into how we think about current, popular representations of masculinity in American cinema.
Instead of a lasting engagement with any one critical framework, what comes to the fore in the book as an organizing and connective logic between all of its chapters (in both explicit and implicit ways) is the inescapable influence that the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and the George W. Bush administration's response to them, had on representations of male bodies and masculinity in American cinema at the turn of the century. This connection is epitomized and literalized in the last section of Millennial Masculinity, "Facing Race," by way of Claire Sisco King's reading of I Am Legend and Gina Marchetti's chapter on the Rush Hour franchise. King quite brilliantly puts I Am Legend in conversation with a memorial for 9/11 held on its first anniversary in New York City, which asked its speakers to deliver notable past orations instead of new speeches. She argues that I Am Legend, like this 9/11 memorial, works to understand its present by using "past 'experiental frames'" (243). These frames, in the case of I Am Legend, work to "manage post-9/11 discourse about the nation, its leading men, and its prevailing legends by using the discourse of trauma to recuperate the national-masculine in the face of both anxieties about American vulnerability and critiques of American xenophobia" (245). Thus the film promises "a hopeful new beginning by paradoxically returning to a thrice-old tale, and in the end ... reinscrib[ing] old legends about sacrifice, the nation, masculinity, and whiteness" (262).
The examination of recent representations of masculinity that are inevitably in conversation with the trauma of 9/11 is where Millennial Masculinity thrives and where its somewhat fractured logic works best. Its authors employ a gamut of theoretical and scholarly frameworks to evaluate and theorize representations of masculinity in a trauma-filled, post-9/11 climate that has, inevitably, altered the way that we see and represent masculinity on screen.
Russell Sheaffer, Indiana University
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|Publication:||Film & History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2015|
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