Thursday, November 14, 2013

Film and Physicality

A silly and entertaining fight scene from They Live.
Movies would be unwatchable if nothing happened in them. So, as a rule, a film requires action; even if it isn't an action film, tension and conflict are necessary aspects. In the case of the action film, conflict is the main theme. Action movie conflict consists not of arguments but actual physical confrontation. Sequences such as these require plenty of images of the male body in action. These displays of masculinity are reflective of a certain idealized maleness that has held sway throughout the ages. Theorist R.W. Connell suggests that "mass culture generally assumes there is a fixed, true masculinity beneath the ebb and flow of daily life--[there is talk of] 'real men', the 'natural man', the 'deep masculine." This embedded masculinity "is almost always thought to proceed from men's bodies... either the body drives and directs action or [it] sets limits to action."

Certainly the bodies in action films do both. They propel the narrative by going out and seeking confrontations or responding in kind to the aggression of other male bodies. There is also the unstated limits of male activity in action film. By and large, men in these films are not going to display weakness or emotion. Many sociobiologists "[theorize] that men's bodies are the bearers of a natural masculinity produced by the evolutionary pressures that have borne down upon the human stock. [That] masculine genes [lend] tendencies to aggression, competitiveness, political power, hierarchy, territoriality, promiscuity and forming men's clubs." Further, "masculine gender is a certain feel to the skin, certain muscular shapes and tensions, certain postures and ways of moving, certain possibilities in sex."

Indeed roughness and muscularity, 'aggression', 'competitiveness' and 'territoriality' are major players in action films. According to Connell, men have a kind of physical status which they use to assert domination, yet this physical status is primarily learned and that men would be better suited to jettison antiquated notions of masculinity as being a purely bodily or aggression based state. Except masculinity cannot primarily be a social construct. Without it, there would be no historical narrative, or social constructs, for that matter. Certain stereotypically masculine traits like logic, reason and spatial acuity were necessary in the building of cities and societies. This isn't to suggest that women cannot possess any of these traits, but rather that historically men have had the opportunity to display them more readily. This, in itself, is problematic and returns to the question of men's physical status. Natural male dominance certainly prevented female advancement. More importantly, learned, imposed or inherent female passivity played a role in men becoming a dominant historical force.

It is likely that it isn't possible to separate masculinity from the male body. There are defining physical characteristics which in turn effect mental characteristics, personality and behavior. The action film showcases these in a manner that, to Connell, would be problematic. This masculinity, exaggerated though it may be, has a historical precedence. It cannot be ignored or simply relinquished as this behavior would be in opposition to thousands of years of learned or inherent masculine activity.

Connell, R.W. Masculinities

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