Wednesday, 21 April 2010

From Wimps to Wild Men

From Wimps to Wild Men: Bipolar Masculinity and the Paradoxical Performances of Tom Cruise is by Donna Peberdy. She's interested in the stories we tell about the way masculinity changes over time: some people say 'Once men were real men, but now that are soft and wimpy.' Other people say that masculinity swings like a pendulum from toughness to wimpiness and back again. In the early 90s there was a big move to recover 'lost' masculinity, epitomised by the poet Robert Bly, who wrote a book called Iron John: A Book About Men and organised men-only weekends where blokes got together and did manly things like ritual dances with masks (hm). Bly thought that men had been 'feminised' and it was time to take back the manliness. Peberdy thinks that this fear of losing masculinity has been around in American culture ever since the frontier disappeared: men are often thought to stand for culture over and against 'feminine' nature, and if there's no wild nature to conquer, how can men be men?

Peberdy thinks that the basic opposition is between 'hard' and 'soft' masculinity, and she argues that it's not that we've lost one and replaced it with another, or that when we have too much of one we reach for the other. Masculinity, she argues, is fundamentally bipolar: it is both hard and soft, and hard and soft models of masculinity need each other. We talk as though masculine 'wildness' is inherent, natural, and only bad, feminised culture takes men's manliness away from them, but actually the 'wild man' is always a performance: that's why Bly's men wore masks to dance around the campfire.

Peberdy also thinks that we see this bipolarity of masculinity epitomised quite nicely by Tom Cruise, especially in the film Magnolia where he almost parodies his earlier roles: he plays a self-help author of a book called Seduce and Destroy, and when we first see him he is shouting, butch, and hyper-masculine. Over the course of the film, this persona falls apart, as we find out that his character had to nurse his sick mother when his father left her, and eventually he breaks down and sobs by his father's deathbed. This complexity is mirrored by Cruise's real life: he started out playing classically masculine roles, but there were rumours about his sexuality, increasingly viewed as unstable due to his Scientology, and eventually became a figure of fun when he jumped on Oprah's sofa to declare his love for Katie Holmes. Like his Magnolia character, his hyperactive public performances called into question his masculinity. The lines between performance and reality, masculinity and femininity are begin to look blurrier than we'd like to think. Wild men are wimps and vice versa; like the protagonist of Fight Club, all masculinity is bipolar.

It's interesting how these sorts of narratives get translated into Christian culture: Wild at Heart is the obvious example, but Mark Driscoll's definitely in on it (in a much worse way), and I'm sure there are more examples. What would it look like if we let men be a bit more complicated than the Wild Man/Wimp dichotomy suggests? What's going on when we blame the 'feminisation' of culture for the decline of 'real men'? Answers on a postcard.


Nick said...

Dear Marika,

Wish you were here.

We aren't more complicated than that. The 'problem' is that, boys (and men) are bipolar - we are both the aggressive and "wild", and also the emotional and "soft". The problem is when a society tries to stifle either of those extremes.

I believe Peberdy is wrong when she says "wild man" is only a performance. She just wants it to be a performance, a mask that can be "taken off". It isn't and it can't. We are aggressive by our nature, but we (should) naturally desist from our aggression as well, with out the need for... intervention.

The weather continues fine.

Jenny Baker said...

Interesting comment on performance - Judith Butler says that all gender is a performance, not in the sense of it being a conscious act like an actor in a play, but in the repetition of gendered acts we establish the appearance and practice of an essential 'core' gender. I wonder if that's the sense in which Peberdy uses the word.

Personally I think Wild at Heart has a lot to answer for. I was in a seminar on 'godly men' recently where it was regurgitated as gospel truth with no critique.

Marika said...

I think there's something of Judith Butler's performativity in there, but I think it's also about the irony of talking about 'getting back to nature' but then constructing elaborate rituals and wearing special clothes to do it in.

Nick, your idea that men are both 'wild' and 'soft' is actually the point Peberdy's making: it's not that some men are wimps and some are wild but that the same men are both at different times and in different contexts. But I think there is an element of performativity in 'wild' masculinity: men express their masculinity by hunting, shooting and fishing at least in part because culture has told them that that's what men do, just as little girls like pink because they've picked up that that's the colour they're supposed to like. Maybe there are some intrinsic gender qualities, but the way we express them is always affected by the culture we live in.