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In Black & White: Big Bad Wolves: Masculinity in the American Film

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

BIG BAD WOLVES: Masculinity in the American Film. By Joan Mellen. Pantheon. 368 pages. $12.95.

If memory serves, Professor Joan Mellen is not a fan of Pauline Kael’s, but the two ladies have things in common. Both have the (fortunately) rare gift of being simultaneously very readable and wildly wrongheaded, so that the reader is forever being placed in the bizarre situation of flinging their books down in rage and then hastily picking them up and reading on. Neither simply puts forward an idea or argument; instead, the reader is subjected to a nonstop harangue, with no quarter given anyone who might occasion their dislike. Passing off this constant shrilling as serious critical analysis is profoundly annoying.

Big Bad Wolves has a good and timely subject. “Manhood” has, after all, been one of Hollywood’s permanent themes, and with sexual roles being the subject of much debate over the last decade or so, it is interesting to consider how far, and in what ways, the movie industry has contributed either to understanding sexual mores or to distorting concepts of what “being a true man” is all about. Leslie Fiedler’s books have occasionally touched on the movies, and no one can have failed to notice the buddies syndrome which has been the most obvious preoccupation of American movies over the last ten years (not that it was exactly absent from them before that), so a study of “masculinity in the American film”, especially from a woman’s viewpoint, should have been pretty interesting. Alas, Professor Mellen’s tome has set back the cause of common sense about sexual roles by quite a few centuries. In attacking the male grossness and sexual fascism that she regards as typifying the Hollywood product, she is as inaccurate and underhand as the films she despises most.

Roughly, her idea is that the masculinity of characteristic male superstars like Wayne, Eastwood, Redford, Gable, et al. in fact epitomises a violence and brutality that pervade American culture. Such heroes as these, she argues, justify male domination and the perception of women as fickle, shallow, flighty creatures who lack real identity and intelligence. They are also deeply conformist and reactionary, they secretly dread impotence and disguise this fear with macho narcissism, and very often their putting-down of women goes so far as to become hatred of the sex, which in turn makes their idealising of male friendship latent (or not-so-latent) homosexuality. Not that the Prof is against gays – far from it, she claims. But she feels that this hidden form of homosexuality is dishonest and hypocritical, especially as it goes hand-in-hand with a paranoid loathing of overtly homosexual people. The virtues of tolerance, gentleness, generosity and kindness give way to acts of brutality that corrupt and stunt fulfillment. In short, she says, “in seeking to entertain us, movies in a very real sense have exacerbated our pain.”

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