Masculinity has been on my mind this month. As someone who researches the subject (I’ve written about the medieval and modern Orientalist romance hero), I often spend time thinking about the way men are represented, the kinds of discourses that are used to talk about men and, of course, how this relates to the way we think and talk about women. Yet two things have recently brought men and masculinity to the front of my thoughts.
First, I watched a movie: a Swedish film by director Ruben Östlund, Force Majeure (2014). This film had been on my Netflix watchlist for a while and it was one of those long, January nights, so I thought I’d stick it on. The film is about a middle-class Swedish couple, Tomas and Ebba, who take a week’s ski trip to the Alps with their two children. There are plenty of indicators straight-up that suggest all is not well: Tomas, is constantly on his phone; the couple barely talk to each other; and the way the film is shot suggests some kind of menace is just around the corner (lots of lingering shots and dramatic music).
Indeed, not long into the film, it looks as though disaster has struck. On their second day of skiing, the family are eating lunch seated outside at a slope-side restaurant. The sound of an avalanche cannon is heard (used to create controlled avalanches to clear snow) and everyone on the terrace turns to look. At first, people are taking photographs and pointing, but then it becomes apparent that the avalanche is headed directly for the terrace and is showing no sign of stopping. Panic sets in, and people start to run.
What happens next is a key moment that defines the rest of the film. As Ebba and Tomas realise that the avalanche is headed straight for them, Ebba immediately grabs her children, while Tomas grabs his iPhone and gloves and flees, leaving his wife and children behind. The screen is filled with white, as snow dust envelops the terrace: the avalanche has stopped just short of the restaurant. As the mist clears, Ebba dusts herself and the children off and they silently resume their lunch as Tomas, uncomfortably making jokes, returns to the table.
Tomas’ decision (conscious or not) to flee, leaving his family behind, opens a fissure in his relationship with Ebba as they both struggle to reconcile certain masculine values – the man as hero – with Tomas’ actions. This kind of man, this kind of hero, is what popular romance studies calls the ‘alpha male’: the ‘commanding’, ‘demanding’, ‘self-assured’, ‘passionate’ man of ‘status’ (Mills & Boon 2010: n.p.). As romance scholar and editor Sarah Frantz writes, ‘the hero represents patriarchal power in all its glory by being the richest, or the strongest, or the most beautiful, or the most emotionally distant man the heroine has ever known’ (2002: 18).
And this is precisely the kind of masculinity Force Majeure lambasts; Tomas is not the alpha hero we (and Ebba) expect him to be (that Ebba wishes in some way for a Harlequin Mills & Boon hero is made clear later in the film in a scene where she is carried down a ski slope by Tomas in an act of atonement for his earlier cowardice).
While discussions of the nature of masculinity have become more visible in recent years, there is a long history of cultural artefacts critiquing and challenging models of masculinity, not least the Middle Ages. Medieval romance, the most popular secular genre in the late Middle Ages, regularly presented men in a particular range of public roles: knight, father, husband, priest. Medieval romance masculinity was not far removed from the alpha masculinity of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; Rachel Dressler points out that strength and military skill were valued in romance heroes (Dressler, 1999), who are typically adventurous, brave, and handsome knights (Colwell, 2002). Yet, medieval romance, too, queried this performance of masculinity, challenging its definitions and revealing a contemporary anxiety about gender identity (I’ve written about this in the romance Floris and Blancheflour in another blog post). So, questioning and interrogating masculinity is not a new thing.
This brings me to the second thing. In mid-January, my Twitter feed exploded with the revelation that a prominent and respected medievalist in the field of gender and sexuality, Allen Frantzen, had written a series of anti-feminist posts, including one in which he offers advice to men on how to escape the ‘fem-fog’ [donotlink]: "the sour mix of victimization and privilege that makes up modern feminism and that feminists use to intimidate and exploit men." I found it shocking that a scholar whose work I cite in my own book could write such a venomous and, frankly, poorly argued piece about gender and masculinity. For example, Frantzen writes:
"I refer to men who are shrouded in this fog as FUMs, fogged up men; other terms come to mind. They may might [sic] not be feminists but as they wander through the mist of politics and polemic about women, they feel like they should be feminists. They think feminism is good for everybody and they want to be nice to women. Life in femfog is the price a man pays for women’s acceptance and approval. These are goals many straight men desire, even crave, because men want to have sex and they know that adored women are more likely to grant sexual favors…
My aim in this … essay is to help you clear the fog of feminist propaganda. Grab your balls (GYB) and be the man you want to be without looking over you [sic] shoulder to see if she thinks you are ok. Men in the femfog are on the blue pill (BP). Once you choose the red pill (RP), you are on your way out of the fog."
Plenty have written responses to Frantzen’s writing, pointing out its misogyny, inconsistencies, and poor argumentation. For example, Jeffrey Cohen posted on the blog In the Middle, and on the same site, Dorothy Kim reflected on the issue in light of wider problems of racial and ethnic diversity in medieval studies. The Chronicle of Higher Education even ran an article on the furore.
What I find most disappointing about Frantzen’s posts, is that there is the potential within them for some really strong, feminist arguments about masculinity and culture, and how men can be forced into particular performances of masculinity which can be damaging (for both men and women). In one post [donotlink], Frantzen describes masculinity thus:
"a man is masculine when, in comparison to other men, and often in competition with them, he strives to be both the best version of himself and the best of the men around. He may not succeed in the second aim, but he must succeed in the first. In the gym, we aim to be stronger and more persistent than other men. We work out longer and harder. In traffic, we are more patient and drive more skillfully (and cautiously) than they do. We remember that the restraint of power (or speed) can be as effective as power (or speed) itself. At home or at work, we have more honor. We tell the truth when telling a lie would be easier. In every case, the masculine man says 'I can do better.' Then he does it."
Elsewhere on the site, Franzten writes:
Remind your friend that men are expected to die for women. Men are expected to give up safe places for women in emergencies, for example. Why?...
Big gaming websites--The Rational Male, for example--repeatedly emphasize that strong, successful men are more desireable [sic] than weak men. In gender politics, weak men are "mother-may-I? feminists" (that's Donovan's term, but any other--"sweetie may I?"--is just as unmanly). Weak men run their views on sex and gender by women for approval.
A man who thinks for himself and knows something is more manly than a suck-up feminist afraid to say what he thinks. I'm guessing she will get that. Power is sexy. Wimpishness is not sexy. GYB.
GYB (Grab Your Balls) is, by the way, is what Frantzen encourages men to do in order to become more manly (a strange connection between the social performance of masculinity and biology).
So Frantzen’s 'man' is competitive, strong, self-sacrificing, successful, powerful (and therefore sexy), in possession of balls to grab, and definitely not feminist. The masculinity Frantzen describes here is both hegemonic and hierarchical – a man is defined by characteristics which privilege him in a Western cultural system (white, heterosexual, physically strong, handsome, wealthy, successful) and he is, or strives to be, the best of those men. As Frantzen writes, "masculinity is competitive, not just comparative"; "there is no masculinity without an audience of men."
It is precisely this model of masculinity which is critiqued in Force Majeure. Tomas is expected to be strong and self-sacrificing, and it is his failure to perform this that creates a crisis in the carefully maintained heterosexual gender roles of their (white, middle class) marriage. The director, Östlund, in an interview published in The Guardian, says:
"One of the most painful things that can happen to a human being is to lose their identity… For men, losing our identity is very connected with being a coward. That’s what annoys me when women think Tomas is an arsehole. Because they’re as much victims of gender expectation as anyone else. In our society there’s a slight feeling of shame about being a man. Trying to deal with [our] basic behaviour and put it into culture today...
The most reproduced character in Hollywood is the man as the hero. From an ideological perspective, if we hadn’t reproduced that main character it would be impossible to send young men into war. Men are made to feel like they should stand up and protect someone. We should sacrifice ourselves for a bigger meaning."
What Östlund manages to say (in a less offensive way than Frantzen) is that the societal and cultural structures that load men and women with particular roles and behavioural expectations are damaging for everyone, and it is this societal expectation (the bigger meaning Östlund describes) that is to blame.
Frantzen (quite rightly) labels this bigger meaning 'patriarchy', and argues:
"in patriarchal systems, men had to shut down their emotions and any signs of weakness. It is important to remember that you and I, and our fathers and grandfathers, and their grandfathers, were not part of the patriarchs’ triumph. Patriarchy was and has been good for some men, but not for most of us. We too are its victims. We pay a high price for the power patriarchy gave to some men, even though feminists think it has benefited all of us…
Men who display weakness do not deserve to be shamed for being whole men. Men are far more likely to be shamed for their weaknesses than women are, since, traditionally, society has expected more of men than of women."
Leaving the matter of the accuracy of this statement aside, where Frantzen goes (very, very) wrong here, is that rather than following his own logic and recognising that the root of the problem is ‘society’, he instead points the finger at feminism and, by extension, women. It is, for Frantzen, feminism (or the femfog) that "keeps men in the dark or at least in the murk" and allows women to "rise to power … at men's expense."
My point, and I think this is where Frantzen makes a grave error in his argument, is that the bigger meaning is not created by women for their own benefit. The bigger meaning is a society where gender roles damage all of us, forcing us into roles and responsibilities and values that we just can’t live up to. Unfortunately, it seems that Frantzen’s approach is too clouded with misogyny to see this bigger picture; patriarchy is bad for everyone, and the goal of feminism is getting rid of it – this is not about men versus feminists.
Writing about Force Majeure, Yvonne Roberts writes:
"The film is a feminist dissection of modern masculinity conducted by a man – with laughs. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger writes: “Men act, women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. In Force Majeure, the roles are switched... Ebba observes as the power of her husband dissolves into a puddle of tears. For Ebba and Tomas and the increasingly distressed children, au fait with divorce, nothing is as it was – or is it? That is the scale of the catastrophe – there is no hero."
What Force Majeure does, more successfully than Frantzen, is to show that the kind of masculinity that society expects – heroic, brave, strong – simply doesn’t exist (just as the oppositional feminine role of cowardly and weak is not demonstrated by Ebba, as we might expect). What the film does is show us how hollow and how unreliable these models of masculinity are for everyone: no-one can truly embody them and we shouldn’t hold people to them. This is, at root, what Frantzen is saying, it’s just that Force Majeure puts it much better.
What we need to do is to move beyond the simplistic and constricting labels of gender – labels created and upheld by a patriarchal society – and understand men and women as individuals, without expecting them to demonstrate particular kinds of behaviour based on their gender.
For this, Frantzen will be disappointed to realise, we all need feminism.
Image is Eugen Sandow: Life of the Author as told in Photographs, from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom.
Dressler, Rachel (1999), “Steel Corpse: Imagining the Knight in Death.” Conflicted Identities and Multiple Masculinities: Men in the Medieval West, ed. Jacqueline Murray, London: Garland, 1999, pp. 135–167.
Frantz, Sarah S. G. (2002), “‘Expressing’ Herself: The Romance Novel and the Feminine Will to Power,” Scorned Literature: Essays on the History and Criticism of Popular Mass-Produced Fiction in America, ed. Lydia Cushman Schurman and Deidre Johnson, Westport, CT: Greenwood, pp. 17–36.
Mills & Boon (2010), ‘Living and Loving with the Alpha Male!’, leaflet.