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Punch-Drunk masculinity.

Punch-Drunk Love, "winner of the best director prize at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival" (Stanton, 2003), "is a romantic comedy as wonderful as it is strange that expands the genre to its absurdist limits" (Turan, 2002, p. F1). In so doing it exposes the kitsch superficialities of masculine gender constructions. This film gives us a masculine gender performance that takes postpatriarchal contexts seriously while at the same time not pretending to offer an overly simplistic alternative. The following is an exploratory essay that asks what kind of masculinity Punch-Drunk Love represents. However, in order to elucidate the relationship between the film and postpatriarchal masculinity, we will first need to explicate an approach to gender and masculinity in general. This will then allow us to introduce briefly our punch-drunk protagonist, Barry Eagan (Adam Sandler). Barry's performance demonstrates what we will, third, describe in more detail as postpatriarchy. If it is true that men no longer hold patriarchal sway on a domestic level, then how is masculine gender constructed? Having explored postpatriarchy, we can then begin to address what this contemporary film tells us about the possibility of a punch-drunk masculinity.


In Punch-Drunk Love, Adam Sandler plays the role of Barry Egan in what has been called a "soulful, pained-behind-the-eyes performance a portrait of disconnected modern man" (Pierce, 2003). But what is it to be a man? When we refer to masculinity, we are not referring to some static concept that all men achieve or arrive at. Rather we are referring to the masquerade that men contribute toward as they perform various gender roles. "Gender from this point of view, is a role, not a biological condition" (Perchuk & Posner, 1995, p. 14). Masculinity as a gender role is performed and acted out. In Pact, the idea of a gender role itself was picked up by social theorists as a kind of metaphor "from the theater, in which an actor's part was at one time indeed literally written on a roll and handed to him, to be unreeled as it was played" (Perchuk & Posner, 1995, p. 14).

In Technologies of Gender, Teresa De Lauretis (1987) expands Foucault's understanding of technologies of sex to include gender, of which she believes film is an example. Cinema in particular points out the way roles played in film affect the roles played in real life and vice versa. Films produce various technologies of gender both in support of social norms and critique of them, and the very idea of a role played cannot be spoken of in the singular. Rather roles are available to us, and various roles are being performed both in film as constructions that shape and are shaped by real life. In De Lauretis's words, "the representation of gender is its construction" (p. 3).

It can be argued, however, that to unmask gender as representation and performance is to radically deconstruct it to the point of a kind of gender anomie. However, though all we have are various performances, such radical deconstruction does not have to end in despair. For instance, in the case of the film we are discussing here, we are investigating a series of fictional gender performances, but through this investigation we open up something important in our lives that we may not otherwise readily be able to talk about. Films are about life and often produced to say something specific about our experiences (Lehman, 2001). Punch-drank masculinity may or may not be true to reality, but it does offer us a compact means of looking at the experience of postpatriarchy. Therefore, we approach the film Punch-Drunk Love not in order to articulate an ethnographically documented historical account of men but to find an example of gender performance that may inform us about what it means to be a man in a hopeful and transformative way.


A small, mousy young man sits behind a cheap desk in an eerily nondescript warehouse anywhere in Los Angeles. Finishing his conversation, Barry Egan walks through the quiet darkness of the warehouse and into the alley to squint at the dawn. The camera pans to the street a hundred yards off where light morning traffic passes by. Out of nowhere a car flips uncontrollably into a chaotic wreck. Barry's petrified cringe defines his character--and his movie's theme--in a moment.

Barry Egan is a socially impaired owner of a small novelty (toilet accessory) business, who is dominated by seven sisters (Stanton, 2003). As Adam Sandler admitted in a Charlie Rose interview, "He's pathetic" (Wallis, 2003). One evening Barry calls a phone sex chat line, and it is through this experience that the dark underbelly of Punch-Drunk Love comes to light. Trustingly, Barry gives the chat line his credit card, Social Security number, home address, and phone number so that a girl can call back. The girl talks to Barry for the evening, and it all seems innocent enough. But then the girl he talked to calls him up the next morning to ask for help with her rent. Barry refuses, but then the girl threatens that if he doesn't give her more money she will charge his card and make trouble for him. Barry hangs up and goes to work, but the chat line girl calls him there as well. The phone sex voice now blackmails him for money that he doesn't have--expecting him to play a patriarchal role he cannot play.

At the exact same time that Barry's late night chat is turning into a nightmare, one of Barry's sisters comes to work with a friend to try to get them to go out on a date. The scene is shot to bring about the chaotic juxtaposition of three kinds of women. The phone sex girl is threatening him into playing the role of a financial patriarch. One of Barry's seven sisters is harassing him into a heterosexual performance as the macho man who dates her friend. But then there is this other woman with whom Barry's sister is trying to get him to date. He appears to be genuinely frightened of her like he is of the other two women juxtaposed in this scene. It seems Barry "is unlikely to find love unless it finds him" (Stanton, 2003), which is exactly what happens. Lena (played by Emily Watson) ends up bluntly asking Barry out on a date, to which Barry quietly agrees. Women complain to Barry that he is inadequate (his sisters), ask him for money (the phone sex girl), and even ask him on a date (Lena). Barry is expected to be a financial provider, a tough guy who doesn't cry (Barry has a crying problem that his sister asks him about at this point in the film), a macho ladies man, and oddly some sort of soft-hearted and sensitive companion. (1)

Though two of the three women are obviously asking Barry to play various patriarchal roles, Barry is unable to do so. The patriarchal means, like wealth and his ability to be the macho man, are nonexistent. He sells toilet plungers from a warehouse. Even if he did make a lot of money, he wouldn't be able to brag about what he does as a sign of masculine pride. It is the barrage of female voices that create the context for a postpatriarchal man. Barry is not given a voice by his sisters or the phone sex girl, for that matter. Multifarious fictional roles are handed out to a man who lacks the resources to play them all out. Women define and redefine the performances, but there are various women to listen to. The plurality of voices, presented cinematically to evoke the experience of pressurized chaos, leaves the audience with the distinct impression of squelched masculinity.


What we are suggesting here is that Punch-Drunk Love attempts to illustrate a postpatriarchal kind of masculinity, but what exactly do we mean by this term? It might help to start with the word patriarchy. "Patriarchy, as much a way of thinking as a characterization of society, promotes norms that men are taught to value in order to promote a social order that benefits a few men, while it oppresses many others" (Harris, 1995, p. 190). Whether it is promoted by men or women, (2) the general notion of patriarchy assumes the rule of men in a kind of "hegemonic masculinity" that aims to identify "those sorts of men who enjoy power and wealth" (MacKinnon, 2003, p. 9). When referring to the decline of patriarchy, then, we are not referring to the:
 decline of sexism, or misogyny, or even male domination ...
 [Rather] the original sense of the word, as the intimate power of
 men over women, a power which is historically exercised within
 the family by the male as breadwinner, property owner, or armed
 defender of women and children. (Ehrenreich, 1995, p. 284)

We are not talking about the fact that white men still seem to be a majority in positions of political power or that men typically still dominate the marketplace. What we are talking about here is the way men no longer wield influence and power in marriage and family relationships.
 "Patriarchy" simply does not describe the situation of today's
 single women, or married working women, working in corporate
 workplaces and living in dangerous cities. Even if we modify the
 word and call it "capitalist patriarchy" or "racist patriarchy," the
 word itself is anachronistic, and of little help in understanding
 the situation of more and more women in the world. (Ehrenreich,
 1995, p. 289)

In relaying the experiences of an online discussion group between white heterosexual men, George Yudice (1995) shows the way men feel trapped in an identity politics that silences their voice. When feminists, for instance, define themselves against white heterosexual male power structures within politics and the marketplace, it has the effect of silencing men. By claiming and proving oppression, gender identities can legitimate themselves and then demand that changes occur in the masculine hegemony. This paradigm assumes both that white heterosexual men have the power and that they are oppressors. More important, however, is that white heterosexual men no longer have a voice because they are the group that everyone defines themselves against. "This becomes quite obvious in discussions of oppression, which increasingly function as a cause to be recognized today, particularly in relation to the 'truth' ('we're oppressed') that men are 'not permitted' to speak" (Yudice, 1995, pp. 272-723). As a result, they have no means by which to engage the real problems that exist where white heterosexual men are oppressive. In other words, they are told what not to be (oppressors) but given no option of what to be. How does a man perform white heterosexual masculinity and not be oppressive?

Though the identity politics of oppression go unnamed in Punch-Drunk Love, we can discern postpatriarchal politics in Barry Egan's character. It is not that patriarchy is no longer a part of the story. Its voice still echoes through the women who taunt Barry with various masculine parodies. Rather, it is that Barry never successfully performs the patriarchal gender role in the film, and furthermore he does not make the rules about what this role might be. Barry is gagged--first in a politics of difference where everyone defines himself against men in power, and second as each asks for a redistribution of that power to secure his own sense of what masculinity ought to be. It is this latter point that requires that men be rich and powerful for the politics to work and for new gender performances to be demanded. In reality, however, very few men today have the kind of money and power to make this system feasible.


Punch-Drunk Love asks us what a man can become in a postpatriarchal context. Put another way, "What possibilities exist by virtue of the constructed character of sex and gender?" (Butler, 1990, p. 42). If a man has little power, and even less money, how can he give these things up and share them? "The point being made by many in the men's movement ... is that self-esteem and cultural empowerment are among the most important of ethical principles in any struggle for recognition" (Yudice, 1995, pp. 272-273). When we ask what men can become, we first need to ask what empowers them toward gender performances (Yudice, 1995). This is particularly important when we address masculinity in a postpatriarchal context where men often do not feel empowered but rather oppressed and disconnected from society as a whole.

Throughout Punch-Drunk Love we seem to be given many answers as to the way women attempt to coerce men into various performances, but when it comes to empowerment, we find only one clear source--cathartic love. Barry falls in love with Lena, and Lena falls in love with Barry. But the power of their love story is driven by their honesty with each other. Through their relationship, Barry finds a woman with whom he can "come clean with" because she is the one person who does not assume he is powerful or wealthy. She is a woman who, rather than asking for a handout, asks for a relationship with Barry. The honesty of their relationship is the one salvific constant throughout the various farcical gender performances that Barry attempts in the film. I would like to suggest that it is Barry's cathartic confessions with Lena that give the hope that he can become a man neither gagged, oppressed, nor confused by the subsuming politics of postpatriarchal masculinity.

Barry and Lena's first date is the beginning of the clue to Barry's journey into a kind of punch-drunk masculinity. The date is cut short when Lena brings up a story about Barry throwing a hammer through the window as a boy. Barry denies that it ever happened and then excuses himself to go to the bathroom. Upon entering the bathroom his chaotic rage bursts through his surface tranquility as he tears the bathroom apart, kicking down doors, ripping fixtures off the walls. He returns to Lena for dinner, but the manager asks to have a word with him. The exchange ends with Barry and Lena leaving the restaurant. Barry drives her home and takes her up to her apartment. They talk for a while, and Barry eventually cordially excuses himself for the night and starts to go home. He reaches the exit of Lena's apartment when the front desk woman stops him. It's Lena on the phone. "I just wanted you to know, wherever you're going or whatever you're doing right now, I want you to know that I wanted to kiss you just then" (Anderson, 2002, p. 59). The scene cuts to Barry running through Lena's apartment complex. He is being guided into a masculine gender performance, but he doesn't know how to find her apartment. The camera captures Barry running through various corridors trying to get to Lena for that goodnight kiss. Eventually after a concerted effort he finds the right door, knocks, and is greeted by a romantically passionate lip-lock. They hug for a moment afterward, and Barry opens up to Lena, honestly sharing, "I don't freak out very often ... no matter what my sisters say, OK?" (Anderson, 2002, p. 60).

After their first date, Barry follows Lena on her business trip to Hawaii, and the penultimate postpatriarchal catharsis ensues. The film continues to be "shot with a hyperreal celebration of true love--with the pulse of infatuation represented through an aggressively loud, discordant soundtrack and the occasional appearance of kaleidoscopic inserts" (Pierce, 2003). In Hawaii, they consummate their relationship and their need for each other with further scenes of intimate confession. During this sequence the soundtrack shifts to He Needs Me, which was written for the Popeye original motion picture soundtrack. A typology between Popeye and Barry soon becomes apparent. Previously in the film he is shown as weak and avoids confrontation at all costs. (3) Upon arriving back in California, Lena and Barry are rear-ended by four blonde white men in a pickup truck. They were sent by the phone sex chat line's owner, Dean (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman). Barry gets out of the car and subsequently begins to beat them and their truck with a crow bar. He takes Lena to the hospital to get treatment for her minor injuries, and then he abandons her in order to confront Dean (aka Bluto), who "fronts" the chat line business through a mattress store.

Barry fearlessly curses Dean out over the phone, who in turn talks trash back. Barry is so enraged he starts running like superman about to fly with the phone still in his hand, the chord now dangling. Barry drives to Nevada, where Dean runs his business, and laces up to him. Barry: "I didn't do anything; I'm a nice man. I mind my own business. So you tell me that's that before I beat the hell from you." Dean gets up and stands toe to toe with Barry. Barry: "I have so much strength in me, you have no idea. I have a love in my life, and it makes me stronger than anything you could imagine. I would say that's that, mattress man." (4) Like Popeye, Barry puts Dean in his place and ends the feud between them. What appears to be the victory for Barry, however, turns out to be yet another irrelevant masculine performance. Barry, in becoming the raging protector who fights off the Blutos of the world, ends up protecting a woman who doesn't want protection. Lena checks out of the hospital herself, and Barry has to come to terms with the way he has played the parts of so many masculinities that in the end had nothing to do with his relationship with the one woman he loves and cares about.


A simulacrum is a symbol without referent, or a surface without depth. It is a sign that instead of referring to something real refers to the fact that there is nothing real behind it. It is a surface that lacks any dimension or depth to support its weight or give it meaning beyond its immediate cognition. Like a special effect in a movie, the simulacra confuses/fuses "the factual (or operational if you prefer) and the virtual; the ascendancy of the 'reality effect' over the reality principle" (Ward, 2003, p. 33). Throughout Punch-Drunk Love, Barry is caught in gender simulacra. Each masculinity that Barry enacts (the financial patriarch, the macho man who gets the girl, Popeye the protector) turns out to be a depthless gender surface rooted in fiction upon fiction. The film seems to work through various masculinities, juxtaposing them amidst Technicolor blurs and symphonic sounds in order to show them for the surfaceless depths that they are. Postpatriarchal masculinity is a farce that many men experience, but few know how to move beyond. Trapped, they become disconnected toilet-accessory salesmen, perverts who jack off to phone sex chat lines, or idealized Popeyes who protect Olive Oyls who no longer want protection. Punch-Drunk Love exposes postpatriarchal masculinity as a confusing, oppressive, and gagging experience liberated only by concrete relationships that break through the simulacra into more honest encounters.

Far from providing a tidy ideal for men to aspire toward, Punch-Drunk Love concludes with Barry at the harmonium that mysteriously entered at the beginning of the film. In many ways it represents a hopeful logic that not only drives the soundtrack of the film but Barry's masculinity as well. He sits, practicing/performing as Lena comes up behind him, puts her arms around his neck and softly says, "So, here we go" (Anderson, 2002, p. 89). The film deconstructs postpatriarchal simulacra in a radical way that could leave the audience in a state of disillusionment. But I believe that the power that enacts the deconstruction is a productive cathartic love that opens up a far more hopeful possibility for Barry's masculinity. This film shows us that masculinity--and really gender as a whole--is a process and a journey that men have to go on in postpatriarchal contexts. Rather than ending in nihilism, however, hopeful mystery results from a man who comes to terms with the many lies he is living. This is not to say that Barry can ever be freed from gender performances, but through catharsis he assesses how best to correlate the roles he plays with the reality of his relationship with Lena. Though the film begins with a man riddled with self-doubt and shame, it ends with a man hopeful that his cathartic love relationship with Lena can sustain the punch-drunk masculine journey he has begun to embody.


Anderson, P.T. (2002). Punch-Drunk Love (1st Ed.). New York: Newmarket Press.

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.

De Lauretis, T. (1987). Technologies of gender: Essays on theory, film, and fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Dench, G. (1996). Transforming men: Changing patterns of dependency and dominance in gender relations. London: Transaction.

Ehrenreich, B. (1995). The decline of patriarchy. In M. Berger, B. Wallis, S. Watson, & C.M. Weems (Eds.), Constructing masculinity (pp. 284-290). New York: Routledge.

Harris, I.M. (1995). Messages men hear: Constructing masculinities. London: Taylor & Francis.

Lehman, P. (2001). Masculinity: Bodies, movies, culture. London: Routledge.

Lindsey, L.L. (1994). Gender roles: A sociological perspective. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall International.

MacKinnon, K. (2003). Representing men: Maleness and masculinity in the media. London: Arnold.

Perchuk, A., & Posner, H. (1995). The masculine masquerade: Masculinity and representation. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Pierce, N. (2003). Punch-drunk love. Retrieved December 10, 2003, from

Stanton, D. (Writer). (2003). Punch-Drunk Love DVD cover [DVD]: Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment.

Turan, K. (2002, October 11). Isn't it daringly, absurdly romantic?; Punch-Drunk Love mines real emotion on the extreme edges of the genre. Los Angeles Times, F.1. Wallis, C.J. (2003). PT Anderson. Retrieved November 6, 2003, from

Ward, G. (2003). True religion. Oxford: Blackwell.

Yudice, G. (1995). What's a straight white man to do? In M. Berger, B. Wallis, S. Watson, & C.M. Weems (Eds.), Constructing masculinity (pp. 267-283). New York: Routledge.

Correspondence concerning this article should be sent to Timothy Stanley, Linton House, Flat 6, 2A Wellington Road, Manchester, M14 6EQ, England. Electronic mail:


The University of Manchester

Manchester, England


(1.) The basic language I am using to describe Barry's conflicting masculine performances is loosely based on the following descriptive frameworks given in Lindsey (1994, pp. 210-214).

(2.) It can be the case that women contribute to the promotion of patriarchy in traditional societies to foster the creation of a masculine culture that contributes to their own needs (Dench, 1996, pp. 84-85).

(3.) There is a scene shot where the phone sex chat line has sent four blonde white men to extort money from Barry. He responds like a fear-ridden weakling.

(4.) These exact words are not in the screenplay but are in the film itself. For the original script version, see Anderson (2002, pp. 87-88).
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Title Annotation:Punch-Drunk Love
Author:Stanley, Timothy
Publication:The Journal of Men's Studies
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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