Tag: masculinity

The Big Country

big-country

William Wyler’s 1958 film The Big Country is many things you’d expect from an epic western of its era. Nearly three hours long. A plot about families feuding over land and pride in the Wild West. Two vastly different men with vastly different styles vying for the same woman.

But what took me by surprise was just how resolutely the film subverts many of the expected tropes of its genre.

This is epitomized in one scene between the two leads. Gregory Peck, handsome as ever, plays the genteel New Englander McKay who arrives in the “big country” of the western plains to marry the local honcho’s daughter Patricia. Charlton Heston, laconic and smoldering as ever, plays the tough-guy ranch foreman Leech, whose own ambitions for Patricia put him at immediate odds with McKay.

But McKay isn’t interested in fighting, for her honor or his. He repeatedly refuses to be goaded into a fight, whether by a posse of ruffians from the rival family or by Leech, who brands McKay a liar in front of Patricia to try to shame him into fisticuffs.

It doesn’t work. Says McKay:

You aren’t going to prove anything with me, Leech. Get this through your head. I’m not playing this game on your terms, not with horses or guns or fists.

He’s only half-right. After Leech successfully spooks Patricia away from McKay due to his seeming unmanliness—”I’ve never been so humiliated” Patricia tells him—McKay decides to settle things with fists, but not as we’ve come to expect from westerns.

He wakes up Leech in the middle of the night, saying he’ll be leaving in the morning but had in mind a farewell. He says this so evenly and without anger that it’s a wonder Leech even got the meaning. The two of them amble out into the twilight and duke it out.

We get our “epic” fight, but it’s in the dark, without horses or guns, without spectators, without any music whatsoever, let alone anything heroic. Just two men silently slugging each other because they feel they have to, and they don’t even look cool while they do it. They’re like drunks brawling in an alley. Wyler pulls the camera way back, the high and wide framing exposing them as insignificant specks against the infinite plains.

They finally wear each other out. McKay:

Now tell me, Leech, what did we prove?

This is merely a subplot in a larger story of rival clans in a lawless land and the consequences of revenge. But it’s a powerful illustration of a new path being forged within the lives of these characters and, metatextually, within the genre of American westerns at large.

There are many more Wyler films I’ve yet to see, but The Big Country—along with The Best Years of Our Lives, Mrs. Miniver, and Roman Holiday—make him an all-timer in my book.

Queer Eye and Straight Guys

Karamo Brown of Queer Eye recently gave a free talk nearby, so I availed myself of the opportunity to see him in the flesh. He was the same as you see on the show, except this time he made himself cry. He got emotional as soon as the talk began because an old college friend of his was in the audience, someone who reminded him of how far he’d come in life. He then briefly told stories from the show and about being a dad.

Unsurprisingly, he was very open with feelings and implored us not to make fear-based decisions. His sons probably do not appreciate when they bring girls home and Karamo pulls them aside and asks “Have you done anything out of fear lately?” But that’s something youths can only appreciate in hindsight (and something only a therapist/motivational speaker like Karamo could get away with).

I never watched the original Queer Eye, though vaguely remember its cultural impact. But while I was in Denver for a wedding last fall, my straight-dude friends were effusive in their praise for the new version. It’s so much more than fashion, they said. They were right. It’s fun to see the Fab Five work their magic: Bobby remodeling homes and Jonathan transforming hair and Antoni inspiring cooking and Tan remaking wardrobes and Karamo shepherding the show’s “heroes” to a new self-awareness.

But, like Karamo, I think I’m most interested in seeing what makes the subjects cry, or at least be vulnerable. Those moments are water wells, openings to the deep reserves of emotional underground that’s usually in darkness. Drawing from that space, for me anyway, involves work and risk but almost always reward. It happened for me that weekend in Denver, which is why I’ll always associate that time with the show. The ability to be vulnerable among friends—straight male friends, no less—and to do it so easily when it’s otherwise so daunting, meant it was good in the richest sense of the word.

That inspiring of goodness is one of my takeaways from the show. The Fab Five dedicate themselves to new and challenging experiences around Georgia for the first two seasons, and in doing so demonstrate their goodness to everyone. Being willing to share their expertise for the betterment of strangers, prodding when necessary but remaining open to being changed themselves—that’s good. That takes guts, and vulnerability. And that’s what I look forward to seeing even more of in season 3.

Twilight Bites: How Dazzling Vampires Distort Masculinity

Published in the North Central Chronicle on April 24, 2009.

Let’s pretend I’m a teenage girl and that you’re my best friend. I’ve just told you about this guy I started dating. He’s perfect in every way, I say. He stares at me while I sleep, he alienates me from my friends and, among other things, he drives a wedge between me and my single dad.

Wait…what?T-09126.jpg

Oh, you mean that those aren’t actually good things? Edward Cullen, the lead vampire from Twilight, does all of those things to Bella, the main character in the film, and yet women swoon over him. Why?

Let’s start with the superficial. The novel describes Edward as “impossibly beautiful,” his body as hard and cold as marble. He’s impossibly smart too: he plays and composes classical music and has two degrees from Harvard. And, like any good bad boy, he drives really, really nice cars really, really fast.

Bella goes on and on about how mysterious and seducing and perfect he is. But once they actually get together, she wholeheartedly submits herself to his every whim. The fact that Edward can read people’s minds (though not Bella’s for some reason-presumably because she doesn’t really have that much going on up there) shows that he is all about control. This becomes evident as the two grow closer;they become inseparable (though not in the cute way), and when a rival vampire clan jeopardizes Bella’s life, Edward tells her to abandon her sweet, thoughtful and lonely dad to skip town. Bella was indeed in danger, but Edward didn’t have to force her to blow off her dad.

What makes me cringe more than the film’s lessons is the viewer response to them. We talk so much about how pornography and advertising and television are giving young girls unrealistic expectations about body image and relationships, but what about crazes for a novel that promotes the suppression of self-confidence and identity and creates a steamy hero out of a cold and brooding vampire?

My sisters are obsessed with the series; one so much so that she read one of the books in church, hiding it in the hymnal she was supposed to be using. And she’s not alone. Fan groups and forums have sprung up all over the place with readers confessing their undying love and unhealthy addiction for Edward and the vampire saga. On one such site called “Twilight Moms,” a poster admitted: “I have no desires to be part of the real world right now. Nothing I was doing before holds any interest to me.”

Granted, it’s not just vampire romance novels that can pull people in so seductively. But the fact that some women may expect, if only secretly, that their boyfriend or husband will start acting like Edward is alarming and wholly unfair. It’s like when a man expects his girlfriend or wife to perform like a porn star in bed. Pornography is not real sex, and Edward is not a real man.

I don’t want to completely destroy what many women see as an ideal man. It’s good for men to look out for what is best for their significant other. But I still struggle with the thought of trying to become someone like Edward Cullen, because he’s really not someone any man should want to be, or any woman should want to love.

A blogger at Salon.com summed up well the lesson being told to young men through the movie:

“Don’t be fun, thoughtful, quirky or smart if you want to get the girl. Be a d—. But be a d— who can stop cars with your bare hands.  And look depressed. But be good looking while you’re depressed. And express your desire to be with the girl of your dreams but be vague about why you can’t be with her. Confuse her, make her crazy, change your moods by the hour and make sure your hair looks like Johnny Depp in the mid-90s.”

I don’t have two Harvard degrees or chiseled, marble-like features. I don’t drive sports cars or live in a mansion. I don’t have immortal life or superhuman strength. What does that mean for me? If I want to be in a relationship with a girl but I know that when she thinks of the “perfect man” she thinks of Edward Cullen, I lose. Because I am impossibly imperfect.

But who isn’t? That’s why unrealistic expectations, even if they are gleaned from fiction, are so destructive: they don’t allow us to be real, to be human.

But then, Edward Cullen isn’t human. He’s a vampire. So, ladies, dream away, I guess. But when you wake up, don’t tell me what you dreamt about. I have a feeling I will be sorely disappointed.