The Unruly Man?

Masculine aggression in film and tv has been puzzling me lately.

As part of my thesis, I've been working through Kathleen Rowe's theory of "The Unruly Woman," a transgressive character type in the genre of comedy who disrupts gender conventions by exhibiting an unbecoming physicality. The unruly woman is slobbish, loud, and funny. Think Roseanne Arnold and Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids and you've got the idea. Thanks to her comedy, the unruly woman is able to pose her female physicality as problematic and laughable in order to subvert expectations of women on screen, thus occupying a feminist position.

Is there such thing as the unruly man, though? If we try floating the idea of gender conformity to men in film and television, we get figures like James Bond, Indiana Jones, and Edward Cullen, who rather become their physicality and use it to assert their masculinity. In other words, their bodies are never at odds with their characters, and these bodies actually trigger or reinforce their character's causality.

I'd like to examine cases, though, where physicality goes to the extreme and ends up possibly subverting these characters' own power. We watch them move from protagonists to antagonists when this happens. Perhaps this is where we find the unruly man.

One actor portrays this principle beautifully (or brutally). Matthias Schoenaerts, star of Rust and Bone (2012) and Bullhead (2011) is a burly 6'2" and gained a massive 70 pounds of muscle for Bullhead, in which he plays a cattle farmer who gets mixed up with illegal testosterone.  Similarly, in Rust and Bone, he is an underground boxer who smashes competitors' teeth out for a living. I won't give away any plot details of these films, because they are excellent and you should watch them, but I will say that in both instances, the third-act story arcs involve Schoenaerts's physical strength in tricky, dangerous situations.

Schoenaerts in Rust and Bone

Another classic example of this physical brutality indicating a mental spiraling is Fight Club's Tyler Durden. He starts off as a sexy, violent ideal, but his (imaginary) presence has damaging physical effects on his alter-ego's body. And more recently, there's Adam in Girls, who is often shirtless, takes out his aggression issues on his woodworking projects, and escalates to unhealthy, borderline sexual assault in the end of the second season. He is the only one of my examples to be somewhat redeemed, when he runs (again, shirtless) across Brooklyn to save Hannah from her crippling OCD. By the way, Hannah is another unruly woman - she and Adam make a great unruly match.

Of course, men's self-destruction through fights, drugs, alcohol, or other means happens a lot in movies and television (Hank Moody, anyone?) but I think what's different here is that in the characters I describe, their physical nature does not coincide with acceptable forms of masculinity. Instead of being commended for their strength, and their ability to use violence to overcome the bad guys, they have traits of the bad guys brewing in them. They are too strong, too agressive, too threatening. Most of all, they can't keep this agression in check, and it costs them the viewer's sympathy as favorable representations of men. When I watch these men, I am constantly negotiating my own distance from them, trying to forgive them for their corporal mistakes, and trying to dig into their interiority which their bodies so problematically eschew.

I have no idea if others have this reaction when they watch strong, conflicted men who take their emotions out using violence. But I am definitely glad that these characters exist, however threatening they feel, because underneath their exaggerated hypermasculinity lies stirrings of the current crisis of masculine identity that deserves more attention in the media. The question remains, though: can the unruly man take up a feminist position that advocates for a more nuanced portrayal of men in the cinema?

Boston, or Melancholia

I am a Media Voyeur