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MASCULINITY AND HEROISM IN THE HOLLYWOOD 'BLOCKBUSTER': The Culture Industry and

Contemporary Images of Crime and Law Enforcement


Author(s): Richard Sparks
Source: The British Journal of Criminology, Vol. 36, No. 3, Masculinities, Social Relations and
Crime (1996), pp. 348-360
Published by: Oxford University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/23638032
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BRIT.

J. CRIMINOL.

VOL.

AND

MASCULINITY

36

NO. 3

SPECIAL

ISSUE

IN THE

HEROISM

1996

HOLLYWOOD

'BLOCKBUSTER'

The Culture Industry and ContemporaryImages of Crime and Law Enforcement


Richard

Sparks*

This article considers the connections between masculinity and heroic agency in certain versions of
popularfilm. It proposes that how films dignify and celebrate the sufferingand striving of theirleading
men may be quite centrally indicative of durable sensibilities regarding the qualities and virtues seen
as defining manliness; and, moreover, that some of the more drastic reaffirmationsof rugged mascu
linity in recentfilms starring Schwarzennegger, Stallone, and others are in reaction against instabil
ities in current notions of masculine gender identities. It is in suck aspects of representation, and in
what they suggest about the appeal of such films to their audiences, that we should now locate dis
cussions of the social influencesof screen 'violence'.

Linguists
recently

was
from

departures
marked

of terms as displaying

speak
'he'

and

in

use

general

a presumed

unmarked

male

forms.

'marked'

an

unmarked

reader

or

as

The

or 'unmarked'
personal
of male

company

unmarked

cases

pronoun:

of'nurse',

subjects.
'nanny',

would

forms. Until
one

had

Nouns
and

very

to

mark

too

have

'secretary'

seem to be feminine, as in a different vein is 'prostitute': they can all be qualified


by adding the prefix 'male-', but otherwise they take feminine pronouns automatically.
By

contrast

the

unmarked

cases

of

'prisoner',

'criminal',

'defendant',

'offender',

and

and so on)
'detective', 'Superintendent',
'delinquent'
(not to mention those of'judge',
remain masculine.
If this is so, what follows for the understanding
of the positions of
crime and law enforcement in popular culture from the initial realization
that the
unmarked case of all the following terms is masculine:
'hero', 'villain', 'cop', 'killer',
'psycho',

'hood',

'private

eye',

'con',

'gangster'?

And

surely

more

abstract

terms

are

also gendered in their unmarked forms: 'heroism', 'violence', 'action'?


It has by now been pointed out many times that criminology traditionally fails to
consider fully the implications of the unmarked gender of its key topics and terms (so

often in fact that one might dare to hope that it were no longer true). The doings of
at the forefront of the discipline's concerns
boys and men have been so overwhelmingly
that it has neglected to note clearly just how centrally their boyishness or manhood is
constitutive of the activity itself. Something of this sort has also long been true of dis
cussions of media 'violence', in a number of respects. First, we have rarely spoken with
sufficient clarity about the startlingly evident fact that historically the heroic agents of
been men. Secondly, in discussions of
popular film and television have, predominantly,
the 'effects' of media 'violence'
there is the largely unexamined,
but no less over

of males (and more


whelming, point that really it is the 'effects' on the behaviour
that
underlies
the
social
and
animates
the research. It is
particularly
boys)
anxiety

* Professor of
Criminology,

Keele

University.

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AND HEROISM

MASCULINITY

perhaps

only

analysis

of

in

the

of pornography

respect

tion and reception

that

the

of

'performance'

and

sexuality

the

ventions

of depiction

is a fairly recent development

heroism,

the

the

villainy,

and

action,

the

nature

gendered

has been fully and clearly discussed,

invocation

of

desire

(see Kappeler
are

violence

both

of representa

but even there the sophisticated

in

1986).

a certain

sense

con

through

In short, the

invisible

for

as

long as the masculinities on which they rely remain unmarked and unremarkable.
There are a number of avenues along which the examination
of masculinities in the
media might fruitfully be taken forward by criminologists.
This paper is
popular
intended as a preliminary exposition of some of these. In particular it seeks to indicate
some points of possible connection between certain fields of research (criminology and
film/media studies) that often go on very separately. Among the questions that seem to
me to be germane

(and around

which the essay is organized)

are the following:

( 1 ) What are the sources of the recurrent appeal of masculine heroic figures in film and
television and what sorts of significance do they embody for their audiences?
Has
the nature of the heroic agents portrayed in popular narratives changed
(2)
recently in terms of the masculinities that they display (or else via the extension of
traditionally male kinds of prowess or resourcefulness to female characters?) If so,
to what

sorts

of cultural

of sensibility

transformations

do

such

changes

respond?

How might a nuanced


to the question of masculinity in the media
approach
revise or illuminate the enormous but generally rather repetitious and incon
clusive debate on the 'effects' of media 'violence'?

(3)

it has the most


Let us raise this last point briefly firstand return to it lateras
concerns. It has often been noted
obvious bearing on some traditional criminological
that both 'lay' and official concern over media violence have a prominent but rather
intermittent presence in public debate. The screen violence question is a scab often
picked at, but not constantly so nor with consistent intensity. In earlier work I
observed that the volume of social research on screen violence has similarly varied: its
the raisings and lowerings of the tem
quantity has a way of tracking barometrically
of political

perature

debate

its consequences

(and

for

the

flow

of research

(see

funding)

1983). The easiest way to cope with this sort of


Sparks 1992: 1921; see also Rowland
would be to file it under the heading of'moral panics'. This certainly has
phenomenon
some prima facie plausibility given the kinds of moral enterprise and political opportu
nism

that

reflection,
notion
to

fact

panic

that

attend

each

it is a stance

however,

of moral

the

and

precede

is a rather

such

heavily

of

and

descriptive

of heightened

moment

episode

clucking

concern.

that now seems at best only partially


moral

anxiety

one.

processual
occurs

but

does

On

further

helpful. The
It sensitizes
in

not

and

us
of

itself illuminate what is substantively at stake in the rhetorics that encircle a given issue
nor just why that issue should attract a particular kind of attention at some particular
time. It is also, famously, a largely agnostic idea which asserts (or silently assumes)
that

the

level

and

kind

of concern

evinced

over

an

issue

is unwarranted.

than the moral panic notion


This last point is generally much less clearly decidable
as the debates about the fear of crime most amply demonstrate
(Hale
presupposes,
1994). Moreover, an expression of concern resembles a moral panic only for so long as
it remains trapped within the grooves of received ideas, reiterating familiar strains of
It is much less clear that screen violence has no case to answer
moralizing disapproval.
when

one

rethinks

it not

as

a miasmic

source

of cultural

decadence,

nor

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yet

in

terms

of

RICHARD

to

attempt

positivist

and

quantify

SPARKS

behavioural

catalogue

'effects'

so-called

(the

'bullet theory' version of media studiessee


Hodge and Tripp 1986: 194), but rather
in terms of the transmission and reproduction
of hegemonic masculinity. This is not
a

entirely
older

old

new

but

argument,

it remains

I return

and

arguments,

more

to some

than

provocative

in

of its implications

rest

the

of

conclusion

the

even

below.

moral panic theory might well have enjoyed another outing during
Nevertheless,
19934 when, in the aftermath of the grisly murders of James Bulger and Suzanne
Capper,
press attention again focused with some eagerness on the malign effects of
of unsuitable
home
screen violence, and more particularly on the ready availability
videos to children and young teenagers. Some newspapers (the Daily Mirror perhaps in
went into campaigning
mode; radio phone-ins and television chat pro
particular)
were

grammes

held.

and produced
as

research

new

The

House

of Commons

a report (Home
was

Home

Affairs Committee
one

although

forthcoming,

Affairs

Committee

took

evidence

Little that could be described

1994).

review

much-quoted

and

of

synthesis

'effects' of viewing violence had


existing work firmly took the view that behavioural
been adequately
demonstrated
remained
(Newson
1994). In short, the perspectives
to move decisi
similar, but the centre of gravity of the debate appeared
recognizably
vely in the direction of a consensus of respectable opinion that screen violence had been
shown

to

There

new

be

harmful.

was,

undertook

one

however,

questions.
of known

rather

than

but

those

of research

piece

which

raised

Young Offenders and the Media

study

between
and

offenders

young

provocative

Newburn's

comparison

systematic

sample

small

and

Hagell

the

habits

viewing

of a cohort

and

of young

some

(1994)
of

preferences
who

people

were

not

so identified. The study revealed rather few differences in the media use of the two
groups. Those which did exist seemed to flow from differences in the use of daily time
differential

violent

images,

or

screen

heroes

the

apart.

To

extent

the

involvement

otherwise.

Moreover,
of the

responses
that

clear

or

with
when

and

delinquent

favourites

attachment
asked

to

to
name

non-delinquent

emerged

they

any

their

boys

were

set

particular
favourite
were
the

largely

actors
hard

of
or

to tell

sameArnold

and Jean-Claude
van Damme reigned supreme. Hagell and Newburn
Schwarzenegger
a
somewhat
list
for
the young offenders than for the other boys, but it
provide
lengthier
continues
and

so

pretty

much

in

the

same

veinBruce

Willis,

Stallone,

Sylvester

Bruce

Lee,

on.

None of this should surprise us unduly. Certainly there is no reason from the point of
view of studies of masculine gender identities (Brittan 1989; Segal 1990) to presuppose
that young offenders should be any more attached to images of heroic manhood (or for
that matter more misogynist) than their more ostensibly conforming peers. The point
is rather that the imagery is somewhat pervasive: it is what the young men have in
common

rather

than

tion of the cultural


primarily
boys.

We

what

differentiates

them.

We

cannot

therefore

address

the

ques

of those depictions or of the violences that they include


and law-breaking
men and
by trying to discriminate between law-abiding

must

first

salience

attend

to

their

wider

prevalence

and

more

general

attraction.

Squaring-up: The Constant Hero


Readers who begin from an interest in laws and law-breaking
often find much of the work that exists on screen violence

(in short criminologists)


The
very unconvincing.

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MASCULINITY

(with its endlessly

'effects' tradition

experimental
has

siveness')

been

rarely

AND HEROISM

able

to

argue

ingenious
that

credibly

of 'aggres

manipulations

its

concerns

have

clear

any

external referent or criteria of validity (for judicious overviews see Noble 1975; Hodge
and Tripp 1986). The literature is enormous. Yet it remains rather poorly integrated
into

larger

or

criminological

to great pains

gone

or

ecological,

economic

dynamics

perhaps indeed disappointingly,


of screen
bers the assimilation
resources.

planatory

debate.

sociological

Television

to show how their concerns


that

interest

other

students

of

crime.

no currently important criminological


imagery in any very prominent place

is a stand-off.

There

have

researchers

Some

rarely

intersect with the kinds of familial,

students

of the

media

Conversely,

position num
among its ex

attribute

to them

a uniquely important and central role in socialization


and indoctrination.
Criminolo
treat the popular media as if they were wallpaper,
gists, by contrast, characteristically
but

ever-present

inert

else

(or

allude

to

them

as

a kind

of 'indexical'

the

explanation,

one we resort to when all else fails).


Other starting points are, however, possible. Film theorists, for example, generally
eschew the kinds of questions about causality that so preoccupy public debate about
the media in favour of questions about how the media operate. How is a visual image
made
into

as

interpretable
a

followable

or

meaningful

narrative?

How

How

pleasurable?
do

certain

is a

of images

sequence
men

of

images

and

made

women

become

as especially alluring, desirable, worthy of admiration, heroic?


Simplifying freely we may say that film theory has two primary strands in its
to these sorts of questions, both of which are of some importance in seeking
approaches
to develop an account of the prevalence of images of heroic masculinity in popular film
to cinematic (and latterly televisual) form (in
and television. The first is an approach
That body of work is
the influential views of Christian Metz (1974) for example).

established

to discover

concerned

how

between

continuities

Such

approaches,

tend

to

restricted
elements
gain
a

notion

what

narrative

that

stock. They

lose

the

of heroic

the

infinite

various

story.

film

in

and

of

variety

in

finally

which

earlier

real

possible

heroes

emerge

its own

this

or

popular

stories

tests,
In

is embedded

formalism

to

is

often

short,
very
seems

folk

(1968),

woven

from

whose

overcome
one
deep
'thin'.

forms.

Propp

'morphology'

undergo

triumphant.

struggle

and

'text'

it. This tradition stresses the

the folklorism of Vladimir

upon

through
On

a meaningful

to provide

that compose

that there is an underlying

ways
and

overcoming

is a well-formed

in

structure

drawing

suggest

confederates

is constructed

(or 'syntagms')

commonly

emphasize
include

and

film

the

identify the units of meaning

basic

obstacles,

can
in

argue
our

It

that

sense

is not

of
that

exten
nothing real is identified (see for example, Eco's (1979) witty and provocative
to the James Bond sequence
of stories). But there is a
sion of a formalist approach
danger

of over-asserting

the

universalism

of the

forms

and

hence

of courting

certain

lack

of historicity or sensitivity to contexts of reception. Moreover,


formalism risks
we
know
that
heroes
are
while
telling us what
already
(e.g.
mostly male)
leaving on
one side what to many will seem a more basic and prior set of questions: Why do we
enjoy heroic narratives? To what aspects of ourselves do they speak? Just why is the
agonistic hero so generally and pervasively male?
film theory, namely an
Here we come to the second major strand in academic
to the dynamics of address and reception (perhaps most celebratedly
in the
approach

views of Laura Mulvey (1975)).


Within film theory the answers to the kind of moti
vational
outlined above are often proposed
within a version of psycho
questions
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RICHARD

For

analysis.

in

Mulvey,

view

SPARKS

much

subsequently

revised

and

extended

others

by

of narrative cinema is provided by an


1983), the heart of the appeal
(e.g. Neale
imagery of desire, identification, and pleasure in looking. In particular Mulvey focuses
on the narcissisitic identification of the male spectator with images of mastery and
omnipotence:
As

the

his

identifies

spectator
his

like,

coincides

screen

with

the

so

surrogate,

the

active

. . . (Mulvey

potence

with

of

dimension
to

at

looking

of mainstream

show

that

this

power
erotic

male
both

look,

he projects

his

protagonist

as

giving

and

of heroic manhood

and

of

Rather

of omnipotence

of the

of

representations

cinema

'economy'

male image.

singular
tures

men

protagonist,

look
he

to that

on

controls

of omni

sense

satisfying

of

events

12)

If this view is correct the depiction


question

male

the

of the

power

1975:

main

that

television.

emotive

vulnerability,

and

mastery

others
does

looking

there is an array of possible

is first and foremost a

certain

and

Mulvey

and

charged

(which
in

men

way)

is

have

been

not

To

pivotal
at pains
a

presuppose

in various

masculinities

suffering.

some

of

pos

these

the

in other cases the look is complicated


spectator relates as to an ego-ideal;
by maso
chistic or sadistic desires. Moreover, heroes can occupy a variety of positions in relation
to social institutions: they may be integral or marginal figures, upholders or opponents
of secular

in

even

a genre

the

turing

basic

the

so

on.

such

as

considerable

two-dimensional)
that

and

authority

Thus

narrative

Western

the

Western

variation

components

in

Mulvey's

is between

traduced

as

by playing

One

provide.

view

often

(so

is possible,

of

the

the

upon the ambivalences

central

societal

and

simple-minded

struc

oppositions
of the

reintegration

hero

through marriage or his exclusion through departure ( The Searchers, Shane) or death
( The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ride the High Country). What then can we infer about
the

nature

of heroism

the Western
violence

and

vention.

The

from

the

is

too

alone

fundamentally

moments

which

frame

definitive case. In the first moment


to

desert

towards

us.

of the

frequency

hero is simply unassimilable.

landscape,
In
the

beautiful
last

moment

the

latter

two

to

find

in

place

narrative

of

In

alternatives?

He is too primordial;
The

any

many

cases

of social

con

he lives too much


scheme

Searchers

offer

perhaps

of the film we look out through an opening


but

inhospitable,

the

door

closes

across
as

the

which
same

a
figure

figure
Ethan

by
the

door on

approaches
Edwards

recedes into the distance and Ethan is left to 'wander


between the
Wayne)
like his 'savage'
whom he so closely resembles
enemy the native American
1994: 68). One of the main aims of the Western is to dignify its heroes by
(Bingham

(John
winds'

tragic fates upon them, and at the same time to create a foundation myth
That is, as Jane Tompkins
centring upon their acts of renunciation.
(1992: 37) points
out, there is an implicit rejection of a feminized civility in favour of a reunion with wild
nature. (Indeed
Tompkins regards the whole moral structure of the Western as pro
for
male violence, a point to which we return below.)
viding pretexts
The point is that, with few exceptions, the Western is one genre in which narrative
form and visual iconography combine in order painstakingly and deliberately to imbue
male heroism with grandeur. In the hands of its most accomplished
directors (Howard
imposing

Hawks, Anthony Mann, John Ford) this is carefully established in relation to the ele
mental spaciousness
of the barely populated landscapea
deliberate attempt to lift the
narrative away from mere social or historical contexts. Similarly the choreography
of
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MASCULINITY

the

climaxesthe

genre's

AND HEROISM

of

convention

the

shoot-out

most

to

especiallyexists

establish the heroes' liminality and their transcendence


through battle. If the Western
the
is a reactionary genre it is so because of the artistry that is devoted to poeticizing
struggles

of its

male

and

private

Police

heroes.
movies

eye

are

more

sociologically

complex

than

genres

the

Western. In striving less for a notion of the elemental they also permit a far wider
scope and variety of masculinities, in and against a more varied array of settings and
narrative
and

In

problems.

more

modern

constrained

by

this

respect

than

sense
reality

attain

they

Westerns

do.

and

principles,

the

more

status
are

They

of 'myth'

for

these
to

concerned

in

a far

far

more

only

reasons

situate

heroes

their

looser
often
in

cir

cumstances
that invite recognition
(in Hodge and Tripp's
(1986:
116) terminology
their 'modal
fit' with the viewer's interpretive schemes is much closer). Yet their
concern to dignify the hero is often no less acute, and frequently the sketching in of a
more plausibly
secular and constraining
(and frequently corrupt) social world is
to allowing
the hero to distinguish himselfto demonstrate
his
similarly devoted
integrity, his prowess, his lonely probity. In these respects these films are generally
not

less

devoted

lovingly

to

than

male

in respect of the norms and institutions


of action.

many

the

heroes

and

extend

of

their

from

same

Westerns

urban

crime

films

attribute

the

particular

they
of

discomfort

that inhibit his autonomy

freedom

Accordingly

In

are.

about

assumptions

to

their

a somewhat

heroes

the

begin
heroic

and curb his


more

extensive

(but not essentially dissimilar) set of orientations towards law and institutions than
Westerns. These include being external to the law (The Fugitive), or marginally con
or within
nected to it as a private investigator (Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe),
individualistic
the institution but still insubordinately
(everything from Dirty Harry to
Beverley Hills Cop), or inside but actively opposing a surrounding corruption (Serpico,
Brubaker).
At one time (Sparks 1992; in common with others such as Gitlin 1979 and Clarke
1986) I took the view that placing heroes in such positions had principally to do with an
embedded

out
or

in

relief

because

contemporary

somewhat

secondary

on.

realm

the

networks
legal

of criminal
that

thought,

TV

of secular

is

justice

to

say,

our political frustrations. Clearly

cinema

preferred

competence

ordinary

so

and disillusioned

their

or

the
and

and

Hollywood

legitimacy

addressed

primarily

as

the

bureaucratic,

cated

that

scepticism

about

ences

is replete

with

scepticism

attitude.
to

the

have

more

such

attributed
institutions:
was

that

primary

to

suspect,

logic

audi

hero

stood

ineffective,

these

can

(Chinatown) or a reactionary
come

their

versions

or

corrupt,

of

heroism

this view has some merit, and the


which

imageries

to
the

of the

however,
heroic

wear

either

(Dirty Harry)

populism
that

a sophisti

such

narrative

as

are

tropes
such;

or

at

least that the order of priority between the story as an opportunity for heroic display,
and the psycho-social
conditions which lead us as audience to respond to a hero of a
certain type, is muddier and more complex than I formerly knew. The main business of
many movies is just the evocation of an heroic masculinity whose principles of absolute
themselves demand the
individuation,
solitude, probity, and personal resourcefulness
did.
of the principal figure, much as their Western antecedents
marginality
who knew something about heroism in crime fiction, was quite
Chandler,
Raymond
clear in his view that the prime concern of the detective story was with the hero him
self:
social

353

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RICHARD

these

Down

this kind
man

mean

be such

a common

and

a man

phrase,

a man

streets
must

of story

by

without saying it. (Chandler

read

to

He
an

yet

who

is neither

is the hero.

must

He

The

a rather

weathered

of it, and

thought

in

detective
be a complete

must

to use

be,

without

certainly

1984: 35)
is shared

which

emphasisone
narratives

crime

afraid.

is everything.

He

inevitability,

1944, quoted in Mandel

popular

nor

tarnished

He

man.

unusual
and

instinct

of my earlier

the source

Perhaps

go

and

man,

of honour,

mentatorswas

must
a man.

SPARKS

much

too

with other com

from

the

within

dis

ciplinary horizon of criminology, as if films were documents of a more prosaic kind


than in fact they are. The outcome would be to misidentify their ostensible 'topics' as
the

real

sources

of

their

or

pleasure

Of

appeal.

to

course

refocus

the

of heroism

issue

the question of masculinities does not foreclose the possibility of such 'political'
them. It requires us to recognize, for example, that the
readings but only complicates
hero is inherently an overcoded image: he bears meanings about justice, morality, and
law, and about being a man, in the same layered iconography.
in the
Consider in this vein the much-discussed
Harry Callahan,
example of'Dirty'
has given him. Following
that Clint Eastwood
various
screen incarnations
Eco,
'moves'
films
reiterate
features
or
that
the
successive
notes
'Harry'
(1994)
Bingham
around

from

the

first.

Bingham
rative

while

play

the

upon

the

star

themes

a set

piece,

that

except

and

from

separate

the

the

'number'

involves

films commonly

which

plot,

scenario.

from nar

of departure

So, 'Harry'

main

known

already

case

in Harry's

rather than tap-dancing.

to

prior

of an

variations

and

such films permit moments

a 'number',

does

guns at people

pointing
with

They

shows that like musicals

reintroduces

begin
the

star

and gives him his menacing/wish-fulfilling


tag line for the movie ('Do you feel lucky?'
'Make my day', and so on) before pitching him into the serious business of the identi
the purport of
of his arch opponent.
fication and elimination
Bingham summarizes
these films thus:
films

The
threat

find

of these

vigilante

authority

of which

condense

seem

control
in

power

an

the
a wish

...

of a

villains

to call

for a strong

hero'
a part.

(he
This

films

to avoid

actually

for it.

(Bingham

1994:

unfathomable

primal,
authoritarian

the

by celebrating

'official

he is ostensibly

authorityallows
they

would

of police-state

suggestion
vest

out-of-control

aberrant,
killers

belongs

authority
to

paradoxan
advocating

the

evil.
the

power,

While

the

deny

any

films

of the individual.
police

authority
authoritarian

figure

The

who

force)

films

defies

rebelling

repression,

the

against
although

184-5)

All of this makes Harry, in Bingham's view, not an anti-hero but an anti-Establish
ment hero. The hero is defined by his singular capacity for action, and he must free
himself from any constraint that inhibits this. He is in this sense a 'primal man'
1994: 186), an observation that has led some critics to view Dirty Harry as a
(Bingham
Western'
(Ray 1985). In the 'Harry' films, it seems, nothing social or insti
'disguised
of authoritya
compete with the hero as the source and justification
which
led
Pauline
Kael
to
comment
on
'this
action
tendency
Dirty Harry,
genre has
had
a
certain
fascist
and
now
it
has
surfaced'
always
potential,
finally
(Kael 1972).
tutional

can

It is of course
agenda

of its

unwise
most

to centre

extreme

an

instances.

account
Cop

of a genre
and

private

(let
eye

alone
movies

a gender)
have

around
shown

the
them

selves to be capable
of all manner of inflections, some severely revisionist and disillu
sioned (Chinatown, Prince of the City), others knowingly humorous (Beverley Hills Cop) and
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MASCULINITY

AND HEROISM

some featuring versions of masculinity decidedly less overbearing


than that of Dirty
for
Even
the
brief
two
decades
since
the
moment of Dirty
Harry (Sea of Love,
example).
have
a
intensified
focus
the
witnessed
much
on
of
sexual
identities. This
Harry
plasticity
has given rise to the proposition that masculinity these days is no longer 'performed'
it is either

unproblematically:

reasserted

with

some

vehemence

'backlash'

(a

phenom

1994: 232; Holmlund


1993: 214).
enon) or else vested with a certain irony (Bingham
Let us then briefly consider some of the vagaries of masculinity in the contemporary
cinema.

Acting Out: Male Heroes and the 'Blockbuster'


If masculinity
has in any sense become a more openly problematic
and
notion in recent times, how (if at all) has this been registered in popular
and

television,
ments

with

The

here.

what

We

consequences?

homology

need

masculine

between

not

for

look
and

prowess

contested
film and

revolutionary

develop

conventions

of heroism

is

for that; and in any case if some form of'crisis of masculinity' can
some of its cultural manifestations are at least as likely to wear a
snarlingly retrogressive face as they are merrily to assimilate ideologies of 'new' man
hood. Moreover,
questions of gender do not stand in isolation from surrounding cul
If the purposes of the action film include the visualization
tural preoccupations.
of a
it
the
certain form of order (cf. Ericson et al. 1991: 4)the
challenges
undergoes,

too deeply embedded


indeed be discerned,

of its restoration

means

or

the

repairthen

demands

made

the

upon

hero

as

an

agent

of retribution or restoration and the evocation of the world that he inhabits necessarily
intimate relation to one another. And if those surrounding
stand in a dialectically
conditions come to be depicted as more and more chaotic, lawless, and disorderly, then
the

called

response

forth

from

the

hero's

saving

becomes

presence

the

only

more

intense. Moreover, if an equation is drawn (whether explicitly in political discourse,


implicitly in fiction) between the anomic condition of the world and the subversion
masculine

the

assertion
This

order

fact

rather

1993))
that

recycled:

then

ideals,

contradict

not

the

self-conscious

increasingly

lund

its

the

stage

is set

of heroic potency and virility (cf. Theweleit


does

Jameson's

and

remarks

rather

the

(or

has

are

'pastiche'
become

reverse

'the

that

producers

has

Jameson
does

of culture

not

become

inhabit.
that

argues
mean

have

that

nowhere

an

(Holm

'masquerade'

can comfortably

pertinent.

or exhausted

of
re

vigorous

especially

masculinity

versions

some

that anyone
perhaps

uprooted

because

in

an

1987).

noted

already

than a tradition
on

a tradition

view

'performance'

for

or

Frederic
the

mere

it cannot

be

to turn

but

'
1984: 65), but with the addition
styles . . . (Jameson
'blank irony'. Perhaps what we see in the contemporary
Hollywood
'blockbuster'
is the reactionary face of postmodern pastiche. In this it would closely
as the attempt to invoke traditional
definition of fundamentalism
recall Giddens's

the pastthe
of a certain

imitation

of dead

conditions (1994: 846).


categories under post-traditional
One of the ways into these issues that has found most favour with film theorists is
leading men. In particular the films
through the star images ox personae of Hollywood's
and Bruce
and careers of Mel Gibson, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger,
Hark
One
of
the most
Cohan
and
Willis have received much commentary
1993).
(see
their
near
such
as Kurt
to
mention
of
most
of
these
stars
features
(not
peers
striking
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SPARKS

RICHARD

is their evident, indeed exaggerated,


Russell and Dolf Lundgren)
muscularity. Many
have presented
most obviously)
stars of earlier periods
(John Wayne
perhaps
in
and heftily masculine figures but with few exceptions (Kirk Douglas
emphatically
Spartacus) the detail and definition of their physique has not been dwelt upon so
are not just male heroes: their pumped up
lingeringly. Stallone and Schwarzenegger
as if these days one showed masculinity by pre
bodies signify (nay, yell) 'Masculinity'
prototypical, warrior essence (see Creed 1987; Tasker 1993).
senting it in excessa
are

There
recent

In

1.

line

drastic

other

with

(Bingham
have

we

the

By

Jameson's

expectations,
of what

reenactment

1994:

have

attributed

what

we

went

before.

in the ultra-physiques

232)

certain

token

be

may

of major

to a number

We

is really

observing
see

masculinity

of Schwarzenegger

close-to-the-edge

'hyper-masculine'

same

been

also

in the Lethal Weapon films (Fuchs

character
2.

the

that

features
movies:

action

performative

ized'
else

certain

Hollywood

more

'hyperbol

or

or Stallone;
of the

dangerousness

Mel

Gibson

1993).
motifs

common

from

earlier

movies

are

also

to

prone

among these are perhaps images of male


Principal
being recycled and amended.
'Buddy' movies are nothing new, but some commentators
friendship and pair-bonding.
see in recent films an intensification of the emotional and erotic charge of these rela
one

tionships,
narratives

of which

consequence
The

altogether.

cultural

is

that

are

women

male pair {48 Hours', Lethal Weapon) (see Fuchs

racial

Men

3.

do

but

emote,

within

narrow

primary

some

is that

1993; Holmlund
The

compass.

from

'ejected'

is preferred

that

'togetherness'

of

of the

these
cross

1993).
that

emotions

they

evince include grief (for lost love or slain partners) and rage (for the same reasons).
broods
Consider the moments in Black Rain for example when Nick (Michael
Douglas)
over his murdered partner's possessions and lastly carefully unwraps his gun: it is the
emotional

palette

of

the

tale.

revenger's

Heroes

and

suffer,

they

care.

They

undergo

grief, loss, and physical pain (on the prevalence of torture imagery in blockbusters see
Holmlund
1993; Tasker 1993). There are variations, of course. Male pairs can embody
different dimensions of masculine virtue, as with the domesticity of Murtaugh
versus
the
sent

isolation
a

negger's

of Riggs
less

cuddlier,
undercover

in
severe

the

Lethal
image

assignment

as

films.

Weapon
of
an

manly
infant

Moreover

strength,
school

for
teacher

there
example
in

the

are

attempts

Arnold
absurd

to

pre

Schwarze
Kindergarten

Cop.
4. There

is a potent strain of anti-establishment


feeling in almost all blockbusters. In
some cases authority figures are explicitly villainous
(Lock Up) or have used and
abandoned
the hero (Rambo) or are uselessly incompetent and obstructive {Die Hard ).
In each case the hero is singularly alone and thrown back on his own resources. In

several

instances

such images are overlain by strongly dystopian images of the near


either pit struggling humans against implacable
machines
{Terminator,
Blade Runner) or heroize the machines themselves {Terminator II, Robocop) by subverting
the human/machine
distinction. Even where a movie takes place in the present {Die
Hard) it invokes its most fearful aspects (terrorism). Many of these films seem to imply
the failure of politics as such: there is a vacuum into which the hero must step, moti

future which

vated not by profession, duty, or patriotism but rather by his purely personal and
familial bonds, or by a still more basic instinct for survival (Tasker 1993).
5. The concluding passages of most of these films are exceedingly spectacular,
not to
356

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MASCULINITY

say

cataclysmic.

marked

are

They

by

AND HEROISM

vast

explosions,

deaths

fires,

pile-ups,

of

the

wicked, and miraculous


escapes of the virtuous (in Total Recall Arnie provides Mars
with a breathable
atmosphere).
They are replete, therefore, with signifiers of unreality
(even
we

the

though
make

to

effects

of this?

And

and

stunts

have

what

has

it to do

to

be

as

convincing

with

the

never

What

before).

are

of 'violence'?

question

Conclusion: Further Thoughts on Heroism, Men, and Violence


It has often been suggested that heroic fictions presuppose some sort of failure of social
their violent disruption by a figuratively or literally alien forcein

arrangementsor
a

that

way

whether

makes
tell

we

intervention

redemptive
such

ourselves

stories

from

in order

without

to

It

necessary.
our

ratify

desire

for

is a

moot

heroes

or

point

whether

we feel the need for heroes when we already find the world alien and hostile. Arguably
cinema is a magnification
of these antique
what we see in some recent Hollywood
starting

Much

points.

mainstream

cinema

offers

us

scenes

the

from

as

apocalypse

way of introducing, justifying, and winning our support for the hero. The social world
evoked in Robocop or Total Recall is dangerous, lonely, chaotic, and deeply hostile, lit
tered

with

industrial

narrative

movies

such are marketable


tion

are

and

ruins

been

and followable

down

pared

anomic

to their

unsullied

outcasts

In

humanity.
manichean

in the world).

anywhere

are

uncomplicatedheroes

of

masses

seething

have

problems

as

(and

Identification

attachments

by

such

many

essentials

and rejec

or

institutional

connections, yet they remain 'of the people' and their painstakingly crafted physiques
the hardness of men's physical labour.
recall in imagination
To say that these figures address male fantasies is to state the obvious. What is more
difficult and more interesting is to say how they do this and with what consequences.
The

of some

tone

complacently
and

view

on

cautious

the

violence'
importance
of proof

questions

debate

has

of the

issues,
the

and

shifted
but

at

the

has

become

time

same

of the

status

It

lately.

less

evidence

how

this

relates

to

the

transmission

or

of any

acquisition

less
certain
and

(Hodge

Yet we find it no easier now than before to specify what happens

1986).
or

'screen

on

agnostic

more

Tripp

of the

attitude

or

when we
outlook.

The term 'violence'


of course resists codification (Barthes 1985). Violence in stories
in
definable existence (see Hall 1976). It is embedded
has no separate, independently
morali
aesthetic
laden
with
imbued
with
invested
with
concerns,
narrative,
meaning,
ties. It is simply not helpful to seek to isolate the question of violence from the regimes
in

of representation
the

instance,

mere

which
fact

it occurs.

that

But

what

this

happens

not

does
in

many

betoken

any

lesser

Hollywood

concern.

For

is consciously

movies

and deliberately
marked as 'fantasy' does not in and of itself deny it any emotive
suasive force. As Rosalind Coward (1987: 26-7) has pointed out:
can

Nobody
aggression
often
tion

violence

present
of the

political
To

persuade
is anything

relationship

question
put

the

than
matter

me

that

other

the way
than

for most
another

integral
fantasy

this culture

and

dangerous.

to masculinity
reality

has

deals

currently

and

destructive

deeply

as something
between

in which

. . . For
always

with

[These
feminists

been

a much

violence
fantasies]

the

whole

more

or

and
also
ques

pressing

men.
way,

one

thing

that

the

debate

on

screen

violence

and

is
for example in the study of pornography
masculinity can learn from developments
that one can develop a sophisticated
grasp of how the genre works (as a form of sig
357

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RICHARD

SPARKS

nification) without lapsing into agnosticism about its moral and political implications
1986; Itzin 1993). The study of screen violence is perhaps on the point of
(see Kappeler
on notions of'pseudo-mechanical
rather than
breaking with its traditional dependence
semiotic causality'
(Hodge and Tripp 1986: 201).
Let

us

remind

therefore

ourselves,

we

(though

not

should

need

that

reminders),

images that are cognitively 'unreal' can nevertheless remain psychically and emotion
ally terribly powerful. We know more and more clearly now from studies of audience
that

reception

screen

their 'preferred

is what

issue

plexing
ourselves

images

reading'

to

be

are

multiply

when

happens
and

enraptured,

we

so

As

view

with

tastical

Tripp

images, 'an image of violence is still an image


enjoy it are still endorsing those impulses in themselves'
the

moral

structure

of the

narrativeits

The

entire

the

hero

of the

purpose

lets

loose

with

. . . This

necessary

...

pattern

to get

his six-shooters

is the

moment

of moral

then

These

are

not

en scne.

mise

As

Drifter, which
a

envisage

narrative

comments

Bingham

who

would

be

endorsementsis

crucial

to the

hero

where

point

it can't

it arrives,

is so right

feels

biologically
wronged)

about

how

much

one

'violence'

witnesses.

on

the

controversial

and

appalled

endorsed
the

by

scene

rape

within

scene?

To

in

has

gone

to

some

pains

to

those

explore

of crime

aspects

that

of

Plains

High

the film, can we not

which

the

answer

is 'of

. . . but the film was clearly not made for such a spectator' (1994: 166).
Finally, there is an often overlooked strand within contemporary
criminology

course

till

wait

is, so

(that

to

want our

structure and point of view and other aspects

he sees as being validated

spectator

fan

and viewers who


117). For these reasons

so that we actively

by the time
The

in

even

note,

1992: 228-9)

issues

quantitative

are filmic issues about

audience

ecstasy.

that he can kill with impunity. (Tompkins

They

the

allow

involvement,

soberly

(1986:
its

happens

. . . Vengeance,

or query

of violence,

commitments,

of its possible 'effects'. What


any understanding
heroes to act forcefully? For Tompkins this is

resist

but the more per

and

pleasure

and

Hodge

that

et al. 1992);

Schlesinger

do

on.

in ways

often

interpreted,

(see for example

have

that
to

principally

do

with fun, excitement, risk-taking, and pleasure. This perspective is perhaps most fully
developed
by Katz (1988), whose emphasis lies on the experiential 'foreground' of law
forbidden pleasures that lie beyond its 'invitational
breakingthe
edge'. For Katz
some

of these

have

a will towards
ment, and
undertaken
I

have

no

to do

with

often

'transcendence'.

momentary

Similarly,

underlain

of'dizziness',

experiences

Cusson

by

(1982) stresses that action, excite


as ends in themselves,
experienced

are
play as aspects of delinquency
for the sheer thrill of the sensation of living intensely.
intention

of pronouncing

on

whether

the

demand

for

action

as

its

own

reward is exclusively or predominantly


male. But it does seem that when undertaken
by men and boys its imaginative scripts are peopled with images of proud, undaunted,
romantic masculinities.
for most of us menseduced
into
Meanwhile,
courageous,
conformity

rather

than

crimethat

realm

of

transcendence

and

of

heroized

mascu

linity is available
vicariously. Most
like sensation and arousal and the
(Lyng 1990) at second hand. And,
(Mel Gibson's 'crazy' performance
given
who

permission
continue

by being

to involve

of us are not risk-takers most of the time; but we do


frisson of imagined fear. We take our 'edgework'
that we so enjoy
moreover, the kinds of'dizziness'
in Lethal Weapon, for instance) are legitimated and
attached principally to heroic law enforcers. Those of us

ourselves

in

what

one

of my

female

students

so

aptly

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described

AND HEROISM

MASCULINITY

as 'just dodgy blokes' films' could fruitfully reflect on what aspects of our own identity
are satisfied (or at least gratified) by Hollywood's
muscular masculinities.
Whether
such

ever

stories

do

gerous

paths

is still

Katz's

'what

are

the

'script'
uncertain.

people

activities

to

trying

do when we view?'

of

those

it remains

But

do

who

when

us

to

take
a

ask

the

more

dan
to

question

parallel

'what

is it that

a crime?':

commit

they

do

really

to

open

we

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Barthes,

'On

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