Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Certain Kind of Cinema: Those Tough Guys & Fast Talkin' Dames and How Gender-Biased Attitudes Try To Tell Us What to Watch

The lovely ladies over at The Scarlett Olive are looking for a few good men.  Um, let me rephrase that.   Katie and Hilary (the aforementioned lovely ladies) are hosting an event titled, "For the Boys Blogathon".  Apparently there is a bit too much estrogen over at The Scarlett Olive (not my words!) so the film critic and blogging community have been cordially invited to participate in a manly kind of affair.  In their words: "Write a blog (or podcast) regarding the masculine gender in film, genres that appeal to men, films in these genres, or a combination of any of the above. If you are male or female and disagree with this completely … write about that!"  The following is my humble contribution to said blogathon.

Now I know plenty of women who go big for the dark environs of Film Noir and the bang bang bravado of the Gangster genre.  Ladies who go gaga over Bogart and Mitchum and Robert Ryan - and for more than just their upper body strength and individual je ne sais quoi.   In fact, three of the best and most well-known of the film writing community (male or female), the nimble and quick-witted Kim Morgan of Sunset Gun fame, the sharp and saucy Stacia over at She Blogged By Night and the bold and perceptive, and always willing to tell it as it should be Self-Styled Siren, with her encyclopedic knowledge of classic cinema, are all big fans of these very same, supposedly male-oriented genres, while at the same time managing to keep theier womanhood quite intact.  They can bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan.   Now I am going to stop myself there, because this line of thought could go quite awry and get me into a heap of hot water.  Let's just say, that these talented and brilliant ladies are capable of enjoying, not just those cinematic things supposedly made for women (you know, Joan Crawford films and Musicals, to toss out the most obvious cliches) but also those things that others say are made for a man - even if they can still see, and call out, the inherent misogyny within them.  Imagine that.

But yes, I suppose if one were to get down to brass tacks as it were, movies such as Scarface, White Heat, Dawn Patrol, Little Caesar, Captain Blood, The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Rififi, Kiss Me Deadly, Pickup on South Street, Shoot the Piano Player, A Fistful of Dollars, The Great Escape and Seven Samurai (to name just a very few), are made with a male audience in mind.  Or at least society's gender-biased idea of what a male is.   I, for example, enjoy all of the films just mentioned, while at the same time thoroughly enjoying such female-centric films as Meet Me in St. Louis, Mildred Pierce, All That Heaven Allows, Singin' in the Rain, The Heiress, Stella Dallas, Make Way For Tomorrow and The Red Shoes.  That last one I even put at the top of my All-Time Favourites list - above more manly films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Psycho.  Does this make me, as a red-blooded American male, a sissy?  Okay, perhaps my dancing around while watching The Young Girls of Rochefort is a bit questionable, but overall, I do not think this gender bias should keep me from watching these so-called less-than-manly films.

I suppose what I am trying to say is that there may be movies made for men and there may be movies made for women, but this does not mean each is exclusive of one another.  My wife can love the male-centric Taxi Driver and the female-centric An American in Paris, while equally disliking the male-centric Rififi and the female-centric Breakfast at Tiffany's.  My wife and I can also love a film like Godard's Breathless (her second favourite film of all-time, my tenth) - a film that seems to fit into both categories, with Belmondo's Bogie-loving tough guy and Seberg's able-bodied modern woman.  So, yes, it is quite silly to think only beer-swiggin', football-watchin' macho men can enjoy a gritty gangster film or a rootin'-tootin' western, and only a finger-sandwich-eating, Project Runway-watching proper lady can enjoy the sudsy melodramatic environs of Douglas Sirk or a pastel-painted Hollywood musical.  In fact pretty much everything about that last sentence is quite silly.  But then again, there is no denying that my wife and I may be in the minority when it comes to playing the sex-based genre crossover game.  I won't bother getting into the whole Venus/Mars debate, but rightfully or wrongfully (and I don't think it is necessarily either) women go for one thing while men go for another. 

But getting back to those tough guys and fast talkin' dames of the title, there is a certain kind of cinema that is more oft than not, the typical domain of the guy.  Movies for guys.  A man's cinema indeed.  From the quick-witted pre-coders of the first years of sound cinema, throughout the gangster/noir riddled golden age of the thirties and forties, where men were men and women were put in their place (except in the screwball comedy where it was usually the other way around), to the  bloody war films of the so-called greatest generation, tough guys and their equally tough  (many times even tougher) ladies were making a splash in what one, through gender-biased societal niceties, would call movies for men.  These movies, populated by tough guys such as Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, Bogart and Garfield and George Raft, Mitchum and Robert Ryan (can never leave those last two out), and those fast talkin' dames like Stanwyck and Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, Una Merkel and Veronica Lake, Rosalind Russell and Carole Lombard, are definitely a group of films, a gang of films if you will, that make many a red-blooded American guy get all hot and bothered.  And no, I do not mean that in any hidden-meaning homoerotic way - though there is that too, but that is a whole other story for whole other day.

But even in this certain kind of cinema, there is only a superficiality of male-centric stereotype.  Noirs such as The Big Sleep, Gun Crazy, Detour, Out of the Past, The Killers and Double Indemnity have female characters that are as strong, if not stronger than any of the men around them.  Yea, yea, I know, these are not the most upstanding women, but in the case of Stanwyck and MacMurray in Double Indemnity, wicked or not, it does have a certain feminism to it.  Seriously though, the whole idea of these movies are for men and these are for women (the so-called weaker sex if you will - but that is just going to get me in trouble again - how about the fairer sex), is just a bunch of bunk.  But then, marketing is marketing after all, and the majority vote rules.  As an example (one that ties in marketing with the motion pictures), in the most recent issue of TCM's Now Playing magazine, there is an ad in the back that suggests gifts for the holidays.  The "For Her" side has a Wizard of Oz snowglobe, a Grace Kelly/To Catch a Thief Barbie and an Audrey Hepburn/Breakfast at Tiffany's poster.  The "For Him" side has a John Wayne wooden keepsake box set, a 2001 t-shirt and a James Bond/On Her Majesty's Secret Service poster.  Personally I want the Oz snowglobe over the Duke boxset, but then we have already established my possible sissydom earlier.

So, in sum, I suppose even in those genres, those certain kinds of cinema, where the testosterone is flying - Paul Muni's monstrous Scarface ready to either strangle or screw his sister Ann Dvorak, Ralph Meeker's Mike Hammer shutting up his dames with the back of his hand, The Duke's arrogant posture against all of femininity in pretty much any of his films - there are women who love them; just as there are men (and not just the stereotypical gay archetype either) who are thrilled when Vicky Page pirouettes in her doomed Red Shoes, or Stanwyck's Stella Dallas nobly gives up her daughter, or Rock Hudson takes Jane Wyman in his autumnal arms and demands she does the so-called unthinkable.  Gender roles be damned!!   Now I think I'm going to go watch a double feature of The Dirty Dozen and Written on the Wind.


Dawn said...

I really enjoyed reading your contribution to the blogathon. I'm one of the girls who loves a good film noir and then pop a fluffy romance into the the DVD player..

I do not blame you for wanting the Oz snowglobe over the Duke boxset.:)

Kevyn Knox said...

Thanx. And that wasn't just literary flapdoodle, I really do want that snowglobe.

Anonymous said...

Wow! Thank you so much for this quality post! Your article pretty much explained the very thought we had when we schemed up this blogathon: girls can like hard-boiled Noirs (and the heroes who star in them) and guys can enjoy the pure fantasy of a musical. Wonderful!

Thanks again!

Katie and Hilary

Kevyn Knox said...

Thank you for hosting such a gig. Lots of good entries.

Anonymous said...

Great point about the evil women being stronger than the men. While I think there's a certain secret feminism to that, I also think this is another part of what appeals to men: the fear of emasculation. Like how girls like to watch horror movies in which the blonde girl is chased by a slasher and then finally wins (although slasher movies are not really targeted at girls, I suppose).

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