Thursday, October 10, 2013

Gazing at Big Men: Objectification in the 80s

The most striking change in the films of the 1980s versus the 1970s was not the wardrobe of the actors/characters, but rather their physical appearance. As if to mirror the excesses of the decade, the 80s action star was swollen, buff, massive, almost cartoonish in appearance. In films such as Predator, Commando and Rambo the camera lingers over the muscular physiques of Schwarzenegger and Stallone. The camera objectifies, regardless of whether the subject is male or female, though much has been made of female objectification in film. The difference, here, is the way men on screen get to perform their objectification.  Critic Laura Mulvey refers to a kind of "looking [that is located] solely in relation to activity/passivity," specifically, that men "look" and women are the "object of the look." This is largely true and is a legacy of the patriarchy and certainly film has been a reflection of that, but an examination of any action film of the 80s turns that point upside down.

This, too, is what makes these films so unique. While they are performing and upholding a conservative Reagan era agenda, they also seem to be playing with these ideals, poking fun at them. Schwarzenegger, despite his Austrian origin, is American might writ large. In Commando, he carries trees that he felled himself on his shoulder like a modern day Paul Bunyan; later he rips seats out of cars, phone booths out of walls. In Predator, he wins a punching match with a seven foot alien.  This sort of strength is ridiculous, it's impossible. Attached to this strength is a kind of joviality. Schwarzenegger never loses his sense of humor, even when he kills. This seems in some way to be an intentional or unintentional jab at American wholesomeness--the American belief in the over-arching goodness in all that is American, no matter what is done in the name of patriotism and to whom.

More importantly, there is something almost silly about the kind of hyper-masculinity displayed in these films, and, I'd argue, these movies are, to use a Terminator 2 term, "self-aware" of their over-the-top aspects. Manliness is being celebrated in these films, but it is also being fetishized. These bodies are being used, to beat and bludgeon, yes, but they are still performing objects. Critic Steve Neale focuses on this idea in his essay "Masculinity as Spectacle: Reflections on Men in Mainstream Cinema," he asserts that these films treat "images of men" in three ways, by "identification, voyeuristic looking and fetishistic looking." Furthermore, he perceives that there are "erotic elements involved in the relations between the spectator and the male image [that must] be constantly...repressed and disavowed...[else] mainstream cinema would have to openly come to terms with male homosexuality." With this last point, I disagree. I think that the 80s film is so concerned with showcasing the right (in the conservative sense) kind of masculinity that the point is that the male viewer is to watch and admire these bodies and to aspire to become strong and brave in the same way. The characters are presented as courageous and tough- they are the ideal male.  In most of these films, they are so busy killing there is no time for sex. If anything, they seem asexual. This isn't to deny that some viewers may watch and get aroused by the characters, but that isn't the point. The bodies on display in the films are for use solely for their strength; they are essentially big machines.

These are purely physical beings, not mental. They don't have rich interior lives- they act, they react and that's it. This seems to be very similar to the way in which women are objectified--except these male bodies are used for strength, not sex and while they aren't always portrayed as particularly bright, they are still powerful.

Mulvey, Laura. (1975). "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" & "Afterthoughts...Inspired by Duel in the Sun." (1981).

Neale, Steve.  "Masculinity as Spectacle."

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