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Hard Body Cinema 1




The 1980s were an intense time, both politically, creatively and socially. The hysteria

surrounding the AIDS epidemic was rampant, post-Vietnam hysteria was rampant. America

was beginning to look weak. The powers that be, knew that something needed to be done.

Who better to look to than President Ronald Reagan, Hollywood heart throb turned

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Politian? He was a model US citizen who started in small town America and rose through the

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ranks to headline his own movies. He defended the American way of life while he testified

at the McCarthy trials. At the height of the cold war, America needed to look strong to the

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outside world and decided to do this through one of Americas largest exports, cinema. No

longer would American men be represented by soft broken bodies, but rather strong,
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chiselled, unbreakable men. These all American superheroes would range from the

indestructible killing machine John Rambo (Rambo: First Blood Part 2, Cosmatos, 1982) and
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the vengeance seeking Kurt Sloane (Kick Boxer, DiSalle, Worth, 1989) to the man who was
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always in the wrong place at the wrong time, John McClane (Die Hard, McTiernan, 1988).

These characters all shared the same goal, to defeat the foreign villain and uphold their all
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American values. Susan Jeffords refers to these as hard Body films. Although these

heroes were acting as a deterrent to the villainous foreign regimes, they were also used as a
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way to create a false sense of security for the American public, making them feel safe from
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not only foreign threats, but also threats forming within the country itself.

Reagans hard body was the foundation for his image. His collective ideals were that of the

hardworking man; chiselled and glistening in sweat from the hard days work and America
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fell in love with it. According to Jeffords (1994) As such, these hard bodies came to stand not

only for a type of national character-heroic, aggressive, and determined-but for the nation

itself. (p. 25) This gave the people something to strive for, allowing them to stop focusing

on the broken, soft bodies of the Vietnam era, but rather a masculine figure that would

protect them from any harm that comes their way. This new America under Reagan would

itself be a strong body, moving away from the previous Carter administration. Jeffords (1994)

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describing the administration as an administration that will be able to confront the Evil

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Empires rather than submitting to them. (p. 25) The Carter administration was referred to by

some of Reagans public relation workers as feminine this was highlighted by Reagans

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clothing while in the oval office. While Carter wore a sweater, which was soft and created a

look of submissiveness, Reagan wore a suit coat. An item of clothing that demonstrated
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stature and power.
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Ayers (2008) outlines a series of requirements that the Hard Body must undergo to earn the

title.
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1.) The male Hard Body on display. This is the foundation of the entire Hard Body cinema.
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The majority of Hard Body cinema the films, as Ayers describes prioritize the depiction of

the unclothed, physically sculpted male body and fetishize this hardbody in spectacular and
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excessive ways that are normally reserved for female characters. (P. 51) (See Fig .1-2)

2.) Scenes of torture and pain. The hero must endure a series of physically painful challenges.
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Whether it be torture or a physically intense training sequence. These are to show the hero

under intense pressure, yet his Hard Body will never break as he is the unbreakable man.

3.)Jungle or industrial setting. The majority of Hard Body films will take place in either a

jungle or urban/industrial setting. Ayer explains that these maze-like environments provide

the perfect milieu for the hardbody to demonstrate his skills in stealth combat (P. 53)
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whereas, the industrial environment allows for a similar type of experience but in far closer

quarters, emphasizing the need for quick thinking.

4.) The Fetishization of Weapons and Vehicles. Hard Body cinema fetishizes the male Hard

Body but they also fetishize both weapons and vehicles. Just as the male body is on display,

almost acting as a tool, allowing for the situation to be systematically fixed the same can be

said about weapons and vehicles. They are given the full length of the screen allowing the

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audience to bask in their glory. (See Fig. 3-4)

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5.) Individuality and Liminality. The Hard Body film pushes the individuality of the hero by

having them battle against corrupt or overly bureaucratic institutions. In Die Hard, John

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MacClane must not only battle the group of west German terrorists, but also clash with the

bureaucratic FBI agents at every turn.


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6.) The Final Showdown. Taking from their Western predecessors, Hard Body films would

usually feature a shootout or Final Showdown between the Hard Bodied hero and the
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antagonist. This is particularly prevalent in Hard Body films, as seen in the final showdown

between Arnold Schwarzenegger and the titular Predator (McTiernan, 1987)


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7.) Reflexive humor. A large percentage of Hard Body films have a significant amount of
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self-referential, almost mocking humour. Schwarzenegger films relied heavily on his sense of

humour, as did Bruce Willis films. Without this contemporary, wry humour we wouldnt
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have such quintessential lines like Die Hards Yippee Ki Yay and the classic line

Remember when I killed you last? I lied! from Commando (Lester, 1986).
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These rules culminate in a reference guide for spotting Hard Body films. These rules

allowed for an audience to easily identify with the Hard Body heroes through sheer

understanding of the setting, themes and humor. Thus making it possible for the audience to

see themselves in the role.


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These ideologies and rules stand tall in Rambo: First Blood Part 2. (Cosmatos, 1985) John

Rambo is tasked with going into enemy territory and rescuing a group of Prisoners of War.

While there, Rambo must single handedly fight his way through waves of Soviet and

Vietnamese soldiers, all while avenging the death of his lover Co Bao. Rambo comes through

all of this while remaining virtually unscathed by the oncoming forces assaults. Rambo even

goes so far as taking down an attack helicopter with his bare hands. He was, the ultimate

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American super weapon. Much like the all-powerful President Ronald Reagan, who himself

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survived an assassination attempt. As stated by Jeffords Indeed, in all of American history,

five presidents have been shot at and hit by assassins' bullets, and of those five-Lincoln,

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Garfield, McKinley, Kennedy, and Reagan-only Reagan survived. (P. 30) Rambo would

later go on to battle Russian soviets in Afghanistan in Rambo III (MacDonald, 1988) pulling
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several parallels to Reagans battle with the Kremlin at the height of the Cold War. Sylvester

Stallone, the man portraying John Rambo, had built up and hardened his body for the role.
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America first fell in love with Stallone in his breakout role in Rocky (Avildsen, 1976) in

which the titular Rocky Balboa rose from the working class of Philadelphia to become the
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underdog hero of boxing. The role of Rocky in itself was as much of a Hard Body film as the
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Rambo franchise, the difference being that the character Rocky had to train to earn his hard

body, whereas Rambos hard body was a byproduct of his time in the armed forces. This was
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something that the audience had to strive for.

John Rambo was a Vietnam veteran, yet he was able to push through the trauma and post-
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traumatic stress that he was left with and still get the job done. This was the ideas that Reagan

was striving for Being strong and moving on as a nation.


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The Hard Body film can be broken down into three separate architypes;

1. The developing Hard Body.

2. The Repressed Hard Body and

3. The Full Formed Hard Body.

The Developing Hard Body would have the hero train and work to earn their hard body,

starting from nothing and earning their way to the top, much like the aforementioned Rocky.

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Rocky Balboa was a part time thug who would train in the art of boxing, transforming not

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only his body, but his lifestyle. At the beginning of the movie Rocky is just a thug but by the

end of the film he has won the hearts of the crowd as well as the heart of his romantic

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interest. Even though he loses the final fight, the true achievement was that he had obtained

his Hard Body status.


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The second of the three; the Repressed hard body, would see a hero who has already
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developed their Hard Body, for some reason or another, choose to leave that life behind. But

a series of unplanned circumstances will thrust them back into action. The previously
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mentioned Rambo fits this architype. Die Hard is also a good example of the Repressed Hard
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Body. New York City police detective John MacClane (Bruce Willis) travels to Los Angeles

to attend the Christmas Party of his recently estranged wife. Not long after arriving at
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Nakatomi Plaza, it is sieged by radical West German terrorists who proceed to attempt to
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steal six hundred and forty million dollars in bearers bonds. John MacClane must take up

arms and single handedly take down each terrorist to thwart the master plan. MacClane starts

with nothing but his police issued pistol but still manages to defeat every one of the terrorists,

working his way to the mastermind Hans Gruber. Die Hard, more than ever, allowed for

audiences to identify with the Hard Bodied Hero because Bruce Willis was average sized

compared to other Hard Body heros such as Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger.
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This is also a result of the social class of John MacClane. He isnt a deadly navy seal or a

super soldier, he is a regular, every day detective from New York. As stated by Yvonne

Tasker (1993) This production of both struggle and labor as spectacle is central to the

articulation of a class-based definition of masculinity in the action cinema (P. 239)

The final architype is the Fully Formed Hard Body. This is similar to the Repressed Hard

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Body but the hero will fully embrace the Hard Body. They are the ultimate weapon, usually

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deployed into some kind of combat scenario to either clean up a mess caused by soft body

bureaucrats or to single handedly fly in and complete a dangerous mission. The film that

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would fit well into this category is Masters of the Universe (Goddard, 1987). Based on the

successful Mattel toy line and subsequent cartoon series, Masters of the Universe centers
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around He-Man (Dolph Lundgren) and his forces as they are transferred from the magical

land of Eternia to New Jersey to battle and defeat the evil Skeletor and save both their
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worlds. This fits perfectly into the Fully Formed Hard Body as Lungrens He-Man is the

poster boy of the Hard Body, wearing nothing but a pair of shorts and some belts, showing
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off as much of Lungrens masculine body as possible. (See Fig.5)


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These three architypes are not mutually exclusive, films can, and have, used more than one of
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these architypes. The sequel to the previously mentioned Rocky, Rocky IV (Stallone, 1985),

doesnt only fit within the Developed Hard Body, but the Repressed Hard Body as well. The
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film starts out with Rocky being pulled out of retirement by the death of his friend Apollo

Creed at the hands of the villainous soviet Victor Drago. Rocky challenges Drago to a fight

with the condition that the fight take place in Moscow. Rocky IV follows several of Ayers

rules of the Hard Body Film. During all of the fight sequences, both fighters Hard Bodies are

on display (Rule 1). The film has two separate training montages, in which both Rocky and
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Drago put their bodies under incredible amounts of strain. (Rule 2) These montages are split

between Rocky and Drago undergoing their training regimens. While Drago is training in a

state of the art laboratory, Rocky is shown training in a rustic farm house in the middle of the

Russian wilderness. This shows the parallels of the characters. While Drago is being

engineered to be the best boxer of all time, even undergoing steroid treatment, Rocky is seen

lifting rocks, pulling plows and running through metres of high snow. This demonstrates the

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Individuality and Liminality (Rule 5) of Rocky. Rocky is the underdog, he must work from

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the ground up to defeat Drago, even if it means literally climbing a mountain to do so (see

Fig. 6). Of course there is the final showdown (Rule 6) between Rocky and Drago

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culminating in a nearly 5-minute fight montage where Rocky comes out victorious, avenging

his friend and single handedly delivering a speech that ends the Cold War, linking back to
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Reagan.
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Hard Body Films were a product of their time. They were built on the political and

ideological landscape of the 1980s. But times change. Reagan stepped down after two terms
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in office. America would move on, but Hard Body Cinema would stick around through the
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1990s and slowly disappear into a new landscape only to make a re-emergence in the mid to

late 2000s. The genre, much like the audience that viewed them, had changed over time.
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Masculinity, while still in the forefront, may not have had positive connotations. Logan

(Mangold, 2017) is one of these new aged Hard Body films. While it still follows several of
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Ayers rules of Hard Body it plays on the three architypes. Logan centers around the titular

character Logan (Hugh Jackman), an aging mutant who is beginning to lose his ability to

rapidly regenerate wounds. After leaving his superhero life behind, he now is a private driver

living in Texas attempting to make enough money to support himself and a rapidly

degenerating Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stuart). He is approached by a woman who


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offers him money to transport a mysterious young girl, Laura, across the border to Canada. It

is later discovered that Laura is being pursued by the evil corporation that gave Logan his

powers. Logan will eventually discover that Laura is his genetic clone with the same mutant

abilities.

It should be noted that Logan is part of Foxs X-Men franchise and was the final film in

which Hugh Jackman would portray Logan. While Logan does follow on from other films in

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the superhero genre, it takes a heavy directional change in way of tone and themes. Logan

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falls directly into the Repressed Hard Body architype. Due to the tragic death of the X-men,

Logan has put that life behind him. He relegates himself to driving his Limousine and

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drinking himself to sleep. It is only when he and the professor are put in danger that he

decides to help Laura.


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Throughout the X-men franchise Hugh Jackman has always been portrayed as the Hard

Body. In three of the nine films he has appeared fully nude to the camera. Logan on the other
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hand is different. Rather than portraying Logan as the Hard Body he is portrayed as the

Broken Hard Body. As conceptualized by Russel Meeuf (2009) given that American
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conceptions of masculinity are based on able-body-ness and spectacles of dynamic


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movement, it is understandable that much of the cultural anxiety surrounding demobilization

would focus on disability, using the disabled body as a "repository' for social anxieties" about
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postwar American masculinity (P. 98 -99). This can be repurposed for Logan. Throughout

the film, Logans body is slowly breaking down, his wounds are healing less and less and he
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is slowly succumbing to metal poisoning due to his metal skeleton. Jackmans Logan was

known for his Hard Body but having him in a state of disrepair creates an anxiety within the

audience based on their idea of masculinity.

While it is not in itself built around the ideals of the Reagan era, Logan still speaks of the

fears of its audience. The use of mutant powers emerging at puberty has been heavily used as
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an analogy for homosexuality throughout the X-Men franchise. Logan depicts the year 2029,

no more mutants are being born and the last remaining mutants have been nearly wiped out.

This can be read as a direct allegory for the turmoil that minorities are facing today.

Although the changes to the Hard Body format are noticeable within Logan, the rules of the

Hard Body film still apply. Jackmans Hard Body is on display, going shirtless for a number

of scenes and sporting a singlet for most of the film. Logans body is constantly put through

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tremendous amounts of pain and torture. Almost every fight sequence in the film ends with

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Logan left half dead and bloodied. Logan and Laura are in constantly pursued by a corrupt

medical corporation, individualizing the heroes. The film ends with the final showdown

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between Logan and a literal clone of his younger self, X-24. While Logan does die at the end,

he only accepts death after the defeat of the villains in an act of self-sacrifice to save Laura
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and a group of young mutants created by the corporation. It is this self-sacrifice that sets apart

the Hard Body films from the 80s and Hard Body films of today apart. The sacrifice is seen
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as the greatest triumph of masculinity of the Hard Body Hero.


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In conclusion. The Hard Body Cinema was born out of a very specific time period and has
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left its mark on the cinema landscape. Because of the ideals of the Reagan era, the Hard Body

Cinema gave the audience something to strive for, something to make them forget about the
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heated political climate of the era. This was done through the use of systematic rules and

architypes of the heros and the narrative. We can still see these themes and rules in todays
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cinema. Although some of the core themes have been subverted, it is still the same general

idea. Audiences want to feel big and strong, and the Hard Body Cinema allows them to put

themselves in the shoes of the strongest people imaginable.


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Fig.1

Sylvester Stallone, Rambo: First Blood Part II, 1985

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Fig.2
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Jean Claude Van Damme, kickboxer, 1989
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Fig. 3
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Die Hard with a vengeance, 1995


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Fig. 4

Predator, 1985

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Fig.5

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Dolph Lundgren, Masters of the Universe, 1987
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Fig .6
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Stallone, Rocky IV, 1985


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Jeffords, S. (1994). Hard bodies: Hollywood masculinity in the Reagan era. Rutgers
University Press.

Ayers, D. (2008). Bodies, Bullets, and Bad Guys: Elements of the Hardbody Film. Film
Criticism, 32(3), 41-67.

Meeuf, R. (2009). John Wayne as "Supercrip": Disabled Bodies and the Construction of

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"Hard" Masculinity in The Wings of Eagles. Cinema Journal, 48(2), 88-113.

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Tasker, Y. (1993). Masculinity, the body, and the voice in contemporary action cinema.
Screening the male: Exploring masculinities in Hollywood cinema, 230.

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