How is race disparity connected to hypermasculinity in film, and how has it evolved over time?
by Adam Cheek
Cinema has been an integral part of America’s culture for well over a century now, evolving and progressing through various forms of presentation, norms, and formats. However, prevalent racial issues and hypermasculinity have persisted throughout this historical saga, especially in the forms of role disparity, portrayal issues, and racial and gender stereotypes propagated by this industry. While many films have abandoned these issues, and progressed towards equal casting and roles, the influence of these prior scenarios has seeped into the modern cinematic industry and still plays a role in casting, even if those involved are not aware that they are influenced by this historical norm.
A prime example of hypermasculinity and racism’s impact on prevalent genres is the superhero sect of film, primarily the Marvel universe. Consistently produced, well-made, high-quality films, these superhero movies are one of the centerpieces of our yearly cinema. However, there are more in-depth issues that reside within these movies. The films rely on what could be considered white hypermasculinity throughout, and rely on violence enacted especially by white, male characters, and seem to have an obsession with it (McIntosh). Such characters as Black Widow and Scarlet Witch, portrayed by Scarlett Johansson and Elizabeth Olsen, have smaller roles and play second fiddle to such iconic characters as Iron Man and Captain America. The article details how the Marvel Universe has relied on violence and hypermasculinity throughout its films. Additionally, there are very few minority heroes within the Marvel cinematic canon. Captain America: Civil War did introduce Black Panther, one of the first central black characters in the movie canon, but there is very little that has been done to progress this movement, aside from Black Panther receiving his own film, scheduled for release within the next two years. However, more lead characters of minority status must be introduced for this series to continue, as all-or-mostly-white casts harm the integrity of the industry and decrease the diversity of the casts.
Hypermasculinity in film has also become so prevalent that it harms the overall integrity of males in film, as well. Its prevalence objectifies men and appears to imply that the image of men being as “macho” as possible and lacking emotion is a positive portrayal (Guittard). The article argues for the promotion of supportive and diverse attitudes to be shown to young men, rather than promoting tough-guy personas and the typical hero-type of character. It also discusses stressing the importance of emotion and emotional intelligence, as men shouldn’t lack emotion or just have that tough-guy attitude. In a sense, it is similar to arguments against objectifying women in film, only it attempts to argue for the scaling back of hypermasculinity and bringing the male portrayal back to a normalized state, as well as picketing for these portrayals to seem more human and normal.
Justin Tipping’s film Kicks is another example of the prevalence and overuse of hypermasculinity in today’s cinematic canon. An interview revealed Tipping’s attitudes on these issues, especially his views on how male characters must be written to show emotion and seem human (Boo). Describing it as the “ridiculousness” of hypermasculinity, Tipping does acknowledge that his film possesses aspects of misogyny and hypermasculine elements, but Tipping’s film combats this trend by showing male emotion and how men can have emotion, unlike many films that tend to ignore or forgo this in favor of blatant power or machismo.
The 1987 film Predator is a prime example of “macho” characters and hypermasculinity in film, primarily white men. A team of special forces soldiers are sent into the Central American jungle on a rescue mission, only to come face-to-face with the Predator, a highly skilled alien that hunts them. One by one, each member of the team is slaughtered, leading to a final showdown between Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character and the creature. The film, while great, features a very white cast, starring only one member of a minority. Various members of the cast went on to become increasingly involved in film or in politics, such as Jesse Ventura and Schwarzenegger becoming governors. A minor role in the film was played by Lethal Weapon screenwriter Shane Black, who would go on to direct famous titles such as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Nice Guys, and Iron Man 3. The racial disparity in the film comes primarily in the form of Carl Weathers, who plays the lone black character and, while he is a stronger character than many of the other roles, he is killed off as well, leaving only Schwarzenegger’s white lead to face off against the Predator alone. Several scenes stand out as well, such as Weathers’ character and three others dying at the hand of the Predator, while Schwarzenegger’s character is merely wounded. Predator shows how the trend of most-to-all-white casts in films continued in the industry, particularly action films, and how audiences tended to accept this for what it was worth and think little about societal issues connected to the film.
The Expendables, released in 2010, is most likely the best example of white hypermasculinity and a “macho” attitude in film, with very little diversity. Starring notable action stars such as Lundgren, Statham, Stallone, Rourke, and with uncredited cameos from Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the film centers around a group of mercenaries dispatched to overthrow a dictator on an island in the Gulf of Mexico. While it’s an incredibly enjoyable shoot-‘em-up, heroes-will-be-heroes film, the roles of white action stars takes overbearing precedence over including many minorities. The main characters of minorities in the film are played by Terry Crews and Jet Li, but Crews’ role is a minor character, while Li’s character is a martial arts expert, typical of many action roles played by Asian actors (although, granted, Li is a martial artist in the real world, as well). Most of the scenes, as there are very few minorities in the film, consist of the white action heroes saving the day and completing their mission, while obliterating anyone standing in their way. However, one scene in the latter stages of the film features Crews’ and Stallone’s characters destroying a helicopter while working together, but this a short scene that really does not make up for the lack of minorities in the film.
1988’s Die Hard, while one of the greatest (if not the greatest) and most classic action films of all time, is a clear-cut example of the difficulties that minorities face in film. The film stars Bruce Willis as a New York police officer attending a Christmas party at his estranged wife’s office, a party that goes horribly wrong. A group of terrorists, led by German Hans Gruber (played by the late, great Alan Rickman), seize the building and take all of the inhabitants (all on one floor for the party) hostage. Willis’ character, John McClane, is the only one to escape. After killing another terrorist, he steals a radio, which he uses to contact the LAPD. The department sends a cop by, played by Reginald VelJohnson. He does not suspect anything is wrong until McClane launches a body out of the window onto the police car’s hood and windshield, leading him to summon the rest of the LAPD. McClane eventually is able to defeat the terrorists, but it is not until the end that a character of a minority breaks with the typical character trend. Throughout the film, minority characters are used for comedic effect or as more of a “silly” character. Examples include an Asian terrorist deciding to snack on some of the candy concessions while waiting to ambush the LAPD, VelJohnson’s character purchasing a large number of Twinkies at a convenience store, and the lone black terrorist having a sort of aloof, jokey attitude towards the break-in. The cop has a trend-breaking moment near the end of the film, when a presumed-dead terrorist emerges with a primal scream from the building. The cop had said previously that he chose to not use a gun, as he accidentally shot and killed a young boy who was holding what he thought was a real gun. However, the terrorist’s appearance spurs him to save McClane and his estranged wife’s lives and gun down the would-be killer. Die Hard does feature many typical tropes of minority characters, even more so than in some other of the films listed, but also features a trend-breaking moment not seen in those others.
The 1984 comedy Beverly Hills Cop walks the line between typical race issues in film and breaking those trends. Eddie Murphy, a famous comedian and former Saturday Night Live cast member, stars as Axel Foley, a Detroit police officer who travels to Beverly Hills under the guise of a vacation to solve a crime. He is after the men who murdered his childhood friend, as well as on the trail of a drug trade that is ongoing in the California underground. During this pursuit, he develops a friendship with a pair of officers. The sergeant and detective eventually help Foley solve the crime, as well as rescue another one of his friends. The film exhibits the typical tropes of minority characters, such as Foley’s comedic attitude at times, but also breaks these trends in more ways than it follows them. Foley is an adept officer, able to easily pick off the main antagonist’s henchmen, and he is in just about complete control of the events occurring around him, rather than, for lack of a better term, events that oppress him holding him back. Beverly Hills Cop breaks more trends than it typifies, and also shows how roles can be reversed, a minority can take the lead in a film (and hold that lead exceptionally well) rather than whites always having complete power within cinema.
The 2015 film Creed defines trend-breaking in today’s world. This film, along with Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, are likely the primary two films of this century to place an actor of a minority into a lead role, one either previously held by a white man or one that would typically be given to a white actor. The Rocky franchise received a reboot in 2015 with Ryan Coogler’s Creed, a film that follows along some of the same lines as 1976’s Rocky, but with a different protagonist. Michael B. Jordan takes over the head of the franchise, this time with Sylvester Stallone in a supporting role, and he follows a path similar to Stallone’s character in the first installment. However, this film shows that a minority can be put into a lead role, however large, and succeed. Jordan’s great acting appealed to many viewers, and demonstrated that minorities continue to emerge as leads in film and, contrary to some beliefs, are just as great as white actors. These films show that race or color doesn’t have to necessarily matter in the world of film at times; actors of minorities can be just as great as those who are white, and even better.
McIntosh, Jonathan. “Why Is the Marvel Universe – and the Geeks Who Love It – Still Obsessed with Aggressive Hypermasculinity?” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 27 Nov. 2015. Web. 14 Mar. 2017. http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/captain-america-civil-war-our-fixation-with-hyper-masculine-films-damages-all-of-us-a6750366.html
Guittard, Cari E. “Hypermasculinity & The Fight to Redefine Male Leadership in the US.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 05 Apr. 2016. Web. 12 Mar. 2017. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/cari-e-guittard/hypermasculinity-the-figh_b_9587518.html
Boo, Bernard. “Exposing the Ridiculousness of Hypermasculinity: An Interview With Justin Tipping.” PopMatters. PopMatters, 9 Sept. 2016. Web. 14 Mar. 2017. http://www.popmatters.com/feature/exposing-the-ridiculousness-of-hypermasculinity-an-interview-with-justin-ti
Predator. Dir. John McTiernan. Perf. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura, Shane Black. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 1987. Film.
The Expendables. Dir. Sylvester Stallone. Perf. Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke. Roadshow, 2010. Film.
Die Hard. Dir. John McTiernan. Perf. Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson. 20th Century Fox, 1988. Film.
Beverly Hills Cop. Dir. Martin Brest. Perf. Eddie Murphy, Judge Reinhold, Ronny Cox. Paramount, 1984.
Creed. Dir. Ryan Coogler. Perf. Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2015. Film.