Is our culture changing how we define gender? Are our cultural standards about masculine and feminine easing a bit?
There are many people who feel that gender equality has been achieved and that thus we have no need for an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), no need for affirmative action based on gender, and no need to address educational or workplace discrimination.
Gender – and our gender norms - are embedded in our society in many different ways, and are most visible in the media. Our most popular performers conform to the gender standards of the times. Most actors who get the lead roles and can “open” a movie do have distinct physical features that align with our standards of gender. (See an earlier post of mine for examples.) The popularity of some young male celebrities who are not typically masculine has had some suggesting that our traditional definitions of gender are eroding.
Does the popularity of Johnny Depp and Zac Efron, among others, suggest change in our norms of masculinity? Both of these men can be described not only as handsome but pretty. They both have been ascribed a type of feminine attractiveness as they are perhaps more androgynous than strictly masculine. (Androgynous combines the gender characteristics ascribed to both men – andro – and women – gyn.)
Speaking of actors, I saw Tropic Thunder, Ben Stiller’s new film the other day. This film does much more than satirize Hollywood. Most of the press on this film focuses on either the racial issues surrounding Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of “a dude, playing a dude, playing another dude” or on the treatment of people with mental challenges, who are referred to in the movie as “retards”.
My reaction to the film’s presentation of these two issues aligns with my opinion on the entire project. I think it is a brilliant satiric exploration of our society’s inability to really deal with issues of difference. While the focus on race and mental disabilities are obvious – and brilliantly written and acted – the movie also raise issues about masculinity and gender norms.
Take a look at one of the ads featuring Downey. The movie’s premise rests on a film company that is making a war film, so the actors are playing actors who are playing soldiers. War films are bastions of masculinity; in them, competition and power as primary tasks and goals. The fire and expression in this ad directly relate to the connection of masculinity with danger, aggressiveness and violence. Each of the actors plays a masculine stereotype and they are all involved in uber-masculine behaviors throughout the film.
I won’t spoil the film (too much anyway) by getting more specific about which scenes actively and directly satirize (and challenge) our culture’s masculine norms; I challenge you to watch the film and look at it with a gendered lens.
In this film and in general, it is difficult to untangle racial issues from the gender issues since racial issues are easier for our culture to discuss. This doesn’t mean we solve problems with our public discussions, since prejudice has been covert rather than overt as it had been in the past.
It is easier for many people, especially in sociology classes, to acknowledge how race and ethnicity are part of societal structure and much more difficult to understand gender as a socially constructed category.
Before we start the celebrations for increasing equality, let’s ponder how people perceive Tropic Thunder. Are people getting that the film is a satire, an exploration and questioning of the complexities of race, ethnicity, and gender? The people complaining about the depiction and treatment of the mentally challenged are apparently not aware of the movie’s subtle (and not so subtle) satiric twist on how people – and Hollywood – treat that subject.
How we perceive and interpret media depends upon our standpoint, our social position, our experiences, our backgrounds, and our interactions with other people. Would one’s perception of this film differ depending on one’s religious affiliation? Age? Sense of humor? Gender? Race/ethnicity? Social class? Sexual orientation? Drug history or experience? Critical thinking ability? Military connections? Mental capacity or connection to such issues?
Tropic Thunder is doing very well at the box office, pushing the Dark Knight out of first place. It seems that a satire on race, gender, and many other things is more popular than a superhero film that reflects and reifies our gender norms. Is this good news?