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The Bruisers: Men as individuals in film

August 22, 2014

*This article has a sister: The Bitches.

The very fact that this article about men concerns men as individuals and the sister article is about women in groups automatically tells us something quite significant about the way we perceive gender. In film, women have a hive mind. They reach decisions as a group consensus, not autonomously. They are chivvied along like wayward children, rather than going on a lone-wolf rampage kicking down doors like Manly Men do. Both representations are ridiculous, of course, but mean significantly different things. The message, loud and clear, is that men don’t play well with others and women have no individuality. I need hardly say these are grossly exaggerated generalisations.

It’s come to my attention that fictional men are weird. They lope around silently, glowering at people, growling orders and randomly pinning people up against walls for making some pathetic jibe that in real life would barely raise a faint sneer. They have no off-switch, or understanding of degree, or proportional response to emotive stimuli. They run endlessly through the streets, yelling and waving guns. They act jealous when their wives so much as get up off the sofa without them, but are never there to witness it. Their children are their pride and joy when they are speaking to each other on the phone, but they forget all about them when they are out bar-stooling someone in the back of the head.

Cop thrillers are a wonderful example of such men. Oh, cop thrillers. How I love your shoutiness. Your sweariness. Your lack of realism. Your explosions. You rampant racism and sexism.

Well, the racism could be intentional, by which I mean, consciously worked into the fiction. To make a cop thriller or crime drama without noting the tensions between black youth and white cops would be to offensively gouge out a huge section of what makes cop fiction tangible to its 21st century audience. The sexism on the other hand is less often specifically examined and thus more likely to come from a place of genuine prejudice.

I could talk about the abject lack of female cops in positions of power, authority or prominence (i.e., they are never the main characters and rarely the support, unless facing imminent death). However, I’m not overly concerned with the portrayal of female cops who, when they appear, are much the same as male cops; aggressive, single-minded, tough and a tad rude. These traits on a male character I find boring because they are overdone, but on a female it has a certain freshness about it without being anything new at all.

I can only remember one time when I was really annoyed at the portrayal of a female police officer, discounting Miss Congeniality which is a chick-flick not a cop thriller. It was a film with a title I can’t remember and a plot too generic for Google to fathom. The male cop’s work partner was female. They had a good relationship and I liked the character, but when the pair came under fire she was utterly useless. She’s a cop, for crying out loud. Likelihood is, she can fire a gun as well as he can. What’s she doing on the force if she’s going to cower like a child? You’d think someone would have noticed her propensity to do that before she got shot and killed. Whoever hired her will be up for review.

She was one of the very few gay female characters in this genre. They let it hang for a while, not exactly subtly (she stared at another woman’s breasts), before having our macho LAPD cop bellow out her sexuality so loudly it could have been heard in Guernsey. Shortly afterwards, she dies. Smacks of the whole “the black guy dies first in the horror movies” thing. The gay woman dies if she gets outed.

Much more significant than the colleagues are the lovers. You know, I don’t think there’s been a single love interest in a cop thriller or drama who hasn’t annoyed the shit out of me. They’re always these attractive, feminine but “damaged” or “crazy” sorts intended to compliment him and his twatishness. Only, she doesn’t; having her as boring doesn’t make him any more interesting.

The cop-wives always a bit useless, flailing their arms and shrieking, desperately seeking often sexual attention with an unnerving persistence which on a man could be considered grounds for divorce. They don’t have jobs or lives, only complaints. She’s expected to sit around and wait for him and appears to have no life outside of him but it’s still somehow her who has the character flaw, not him with his short-tempered, neglectful self-absorption and personality of a blunt spoon.

She annoys him with her demands on his time and she Doesn’t Understand Him or How Important His Work Is. Then they fight, or fuck, or both. Perhaps he hits her, but that’s OK, because he is a Manly Man with a temper and she should have known better than to get up in his face. Because as we know, it is always the victim’s fault when they get attacked. Always.

This view of female lovers is also consistent within “true stories” about informants, moles or muckrakers. The woman is a barrier to his work, who then unfairly leaves him while he is saving the world, because women are like that. No screen time is given over to her, her frustrations, motivations or fears. Even though there are countless examples of very fine actors being able to give flesh to a character in just three short lines of dialogue, she is not given them, unless she screams, cries or otherwise makes a leaky, irrational nuisance of herself.

There isn’t enough time in the film to show a female’s character, so she becomes an extension of his – a way of showing that He Is Straight With Normal Sexual Urges, because heaven forbid our heroic hard man should be gay or sexually disinterested in both directions.

This world is seen entirely through the eyes of people who have similar problems with relationships, specifically, not understanding the female mind. This world is designed to be seen by men. More, it projects the limited world view of someone who hasn’t bothered to take the time to understand an event in his own life in order to better depict someone else’s. A bit useless, when you consider that these films are often about real lives and real people with all their complexities. A film maker who takes on an important topic should represent it as best he can within the boundaries of what could be considered entertainment.

Yet, this is part of the problem; he feels contractually bound to include the relationship because he knows it existed (and ended). At the moment, we have with “realism” and not understanding what it is and how it should be applied. The acrimonious relationships between men and women are “realistic”, never mind that they reduce both parties down to nothing but their worse characteristics.

Unrealistic is bad. I mean, having a fifty-floor building fall down when someone sneezes is fine, as is having someone be shot in the head 65 times before dying. But it would be far too unrealistic to include a larger proportion of people of colour than white people in a film set in a white-majority area, so it would be ludicrous to go to lengths to include more PoC, since that would be “over” representative. And it would be VERY HARMFUL INDEED if white children thought there were more black people in the country than there actually is. It would discourage our fine and functioning system of racism which works very well for white children.

The director does not know the details of the real relationship between the husband and wife, so he leaves them out, thus making an unsympathetic character out of what was most likely a reasonable person. Being mindful of just how unfaithful to the facts “true stories” tend to be, perhaps he should have just left his main character single rather than make a hash of depicting a relationship he had limited access to. If the film was based on the man’s life story as written by him, it will contain all the delusions he harboured represented as fact. Some of those “unflattering” depictions of real people are ones where someone took the trouble to find information from a source other than the subject and his friends.

It’s part of the “complex” man trope, the strong, silent, mysterious type who stands around silently smirking. The best example I can think of was the uncharacteristically boring Ryan Gosling movie, Drive. How much time is spent on him standing around smirking attractively! Carey Mulligan apparently finds his lip-curl irresistible. This may be because whenever her ex speaks, he talks utter tripe, so she’s tired of hearing men talk. She wants a mute mechanic with strong arms.

It’s an oddly male perception of attractiveness. For all the talk there is about “the strong silent type”, I’d say women generally prefer their men not to stand around staring at them in unnerving silence. Quite apart from anything else, it would quickly get irritating to ask someone a direct question and have them just stand there like a dumb sack of shit.

“Dave, we’ve nothing in. Do you want to get takeaway or go out to eat?

“…Dave? Dave? DAAAAAVVVVE!!!!!!”

It’s the same with the “suave” male character. James Bond is absurdly popular, but I’ve known few die-hard female fans. “Suave” is a concept dependent on over-reading the value of chivalry. Once again, some women may like it in theory but in practise it can be anything from basic consideration to downright condescension. Chivalry, in practise, is for men; it appeals to his sense of usefulness and thus, adequacy. “I say, look at that big strong man effortlessly scoop up the damsel in distress and save her from the baddies! Isn’t he charming!” we think to ourselves when we watch Bond and his kindred. During filming, it took a winch to get her up there. Humans tend to be heavy, all full of bones and shit. Struggling to pluck someone up away from gravity’s inclination is clumsy enough that the attempt is likely to cause annoyance to everyone involved.

Female audiences favour the seducer, the one who uses a mixture of his (traditionally) masculine assertiveness and his (traditionally) feminine gentleness to “persuade” her to have sex with him. It’s splashed all over the most typical and popular women’ literature. Indeed, it seems women en masse prefer, in fantasy at least, that Twilight / Fifty Shades style of abusive and narcissistic arsehole to suave James Bond. Or Richard Gere in Pretty Woman – he’s smooth all right, but what’s he doing? “Rescuing” a prostitute. That’s no female fantasy.

It’s clear that problems with female characters create problems with male characters and vice versa. It would be an error to assume that male characters are intended to appeal to a female audience and female characters to a male. It looks more like male characters are built for a male perception of what women want and female characters to a female perception of what men want. We aren’t just chasing ghosts with these stereotypes; we’re chasing ghosts who are chasing ghosts. It’s like a dead-eyed choo-choo train of ghosts, frantically grasping at each other with useless, wispy hands.

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