I'm not worried about masculinity in crisis: I've seen where it leads

Blood, mud and splinters.

Diane Abbott is not the first public figure to generate headlines with the phrase “masculinity in crisis.” (Though she may be the first to use the ungainly word “pornified” in a speech.) I remember it being quite the bumper-sticker slogan around the publication in 1990 of Robert Bly’s Iron John: a Book about Men which advocated that the male’s proper place was in the woods, gnawing the heads off gazelles and felling trees with his bare hands, usually while shirtless (weather permitting). The burgeoning consensus was that men had been emasculated and feminised by the whole New Man revolution; in the process of changing nappies, watching thirtysomething and waxing our chests (often all at the same time), we had lost something vital and visceral in ourselves.

Having become a parent for the first time in the early 1990s, these matters were occasionally on my mind. It’s true that I did spend a lot of my time pushing the pram; sometimes I even remembered to place my baby daughter inside it first. The concept of masculinity in crisis was not one which affected me personally; if I was not hunting or playing rugby or putting up a shelf any more, it was only because I had never done it in the first place, what with my disabling fear of blood, mud and splinters.

But I had witnessed it played out enough times in films to know that my generation could not reasonably lay claim to its inception. If you have seen John Wayne grappling with his own brutishness in The Searchers, or Jack Nicholson snarling and sniping at the women around him in Five Easy Pieces and Carnal Knowledge, you have seen a phenomenon that predates by many decades Abbott’s slightly bizarre vision of a culture characterised by Viagra and Jack Daniels. Latter-day cinemagoers have not been short of examples, many of them properly connected to the culture of isolation and misdirection that Abbott identifies in her speech as arising from “movements in the labour market”—look at what the absence of work does to the men in Brassed Off or L’emploi du temps.

The new thriller The Liability, starring Tim Roth as a seasoned hit-man taking on a cocky apprentice (Jack O’Connell) for a job in the North of England, provides a neat glimpse of male vulnerability in the context of violence. I should declare an interest—the film’s screenwriter, John Wrathall, is a friend and colleague of mine—but it’s the performances of Roth and O’Connell (and that of Peter Mullan as their imposing boss) that I want to highlight here. Roth has himself been on the other end of this relationship: he was the yapping upstart to an older assassin (played by John Hurt) in Stephen Frears’s road movie The Hit, and there’s a pleasing continuity there. Roth’s character Myron didn’t survive The Hit (few did) but if he had done, it is plausible that he would have grown up to be like Roy, the weary old hand whose irritation at O’Connell’s Adam softens into an intermittently paternal protectiveness.

As the instigator of their gruesome mission, Mullan happens also to be Adam’s mother’s boyfriend, which brings another distorted father/son relationship into the mix. The problem is not merely the fatherlessness that Abbott highlights but the influence of the wrong sorts of fathers. The connective tissue between The Hit and The Liability is helpful here. Myron was already under the influence of a toxic kind of masculinity—the 1980s soccer-yob culture which you can see in the scene in which he smashes up a Spanish bar and everyone in it—but to have John Hurt’s Braddock (as weary there as Roth is in The Liability) as a mentor is never going to keep you on the straight and narrow. Similarly, Adam may have to face his own stepfather in the brutal climax of The Liability, but even if he defeats him, there’s no real prospect of him escaping the cycle of violence given his tutelage by Roy—and by his alliance with another character later in the movie. Think of the eloquent final scene of Scorsese’s Gangs of New York: two violent men lying in the dust. That’s where violence gets us.

So The Hit leads almost 30 years later to The Liability, which leads to… what? Well, perhaps some enterprising writer will put together the next instalment in another three decades, and a canny casting director will have the good sense to hire Jack O’Connell as a grizzled, grown-up version of Adam and we can check back in to see if the cycle has been broken.

The Liability is released 17 May. The Hit screens tonight (16 May) at BFI Southbank, London SE1.

jack O'Connell and Tim Roth in The Liability.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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No, J J Abrams – Star Wars was never “a boy’s thing”

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”.

In 1977, millions of people went to cinemas to see Star Wars: A New Hope, and afterwards, a good portion of them were suddenly rendered invisible. It didn’t matter that they rushed to line up for the sequels; it didn’t matter that they were eager to buy and play with the toys; it didn’t matter that they grew up to read the novels and explore the expanded universe and sit through the prequels and introduce their children to something they had loved as a child. They’re a group that overlaps with the invisible force that haunts comic book shops, or plays a lot of video games, or makes up nearly half the audience for superhero films, or, to one New Statesman staffer’s persistent, possibly-only-half joking incredulity, liked Doctor Who long before Russell T Davies got his hands on it. 

With less than three weeks before J J Abrams’s rebooted Star Wars hits screens, the director went on Good Morning America yesterday to talk in vague, broad strokes about his turn with the franchise. But the otherwise-unremarkable interview made headlines because of one segment, when Abrams was asked who he most excited to hear from about the film. He said:

“Star Wars was always about, you know...it was always a boy’s thing, and a movie that dads take their sons to. And though that’s still very much the case, I was really hoping that this could be a movie that mothers can take their daughters to as well. So I’m looking forward to kids seeing this movie and to seeing themselves in it, and seeing that they’re capable of doing what they could never imagine was possible.”

That invisible group of Star Wars fans, who love that well-known “boy’s thing”? Women, who have spent the past four decades loving the franchise just as much as all those fanboys, even if no one else – the fanboys themselves in particular – seemed to take much notice. Abrams’s offhand remark coincided with recent headlines like Bloomberg’s “‘Star Wars’ Toys Aren’t Just For Boys Anymore as Rey Takes Over”, a reference to the female lead of The Force Awakens, portrayed by Daisy Ridley. Across the web, aside from stirrings by the now-mandatory Internet Outrage Machine, the overwhelming response seemed to be one of sad and somewhat resigned frustration, with women sharing memories of falling in love with the series, essentially saying, “We’ve been here this whole time.” My friend Lori Morimoto, in “An Open Letter to J J Abrams”, wrote, “I’d like to tell you the story of a girl who became a Star Wars fan. I hope you can suspend disbelief over my existence long enough to make it to the end.”

Star Wars is a universe populated by complicated gender politics, on and off screen. The three original films fail most facets of the Bechdel test (I laughed out loud here seeing the suggestion that A New Hope deserves a pass because the only two named female characters could have talked offscreen). Princess Leia’s enslavement and escape (and the bikini she wears while doing it) is a cultural touchstone that’s launched a complicated feminist dialogue over the decades. And it is perhaps because of the mostly-male cast in the films – and the long-held assumption that science fiction is a primarily masculine property – that the franchise has long been marketed exclusively to boys, despite the massive and loyal female audience.

But the modern Star Wars empire is helmed a woman, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, and when she revealed that two-thirds the story team behind the newest film was female, she also pledged that there would be a woman in the director’s chair before too long. And since one of the leads in The Force Awakens is a woman, her character, along with a black male lead – portrayed by John Boyega – sparked anger from the reactionary white guy corner of the internet in recent months (sorry that the SJWs ruined your movies, guys!). For films that once portrayed a place so alien that only white men were allowed to speak to each other, the widening of representation in this reboot apparently looks to some like a political – or, to them, a politically correct – act.

The welcome diversity of the leading cast highlights all the good intentions in Abrams’s statement: that this new film promises more than a panoply of white guys, that girls and people of colour can see themselves reflected back in these new heroes. All the girls who thought the movies weren’t for them because they only saw men onscreen, or the endless line of male action figures on the shelf, have a point of entry now – that’s what representation means. And that’s certainly worth cheering for, even if it only took us 40 years to get there. But it’s hard for all the people who aren’t white men who’ve found other points of entry over the years, who managed to love it without seeing themselves there. I can speak from personal experience when I say that a lifetime of media about white guys hasn’t stopped me from finding characters and stories to fall in love with.

Here’s a theory: you might not have noticed that you were surrounded by female Star Wars fans all these years because you were the one who rendered them invisible. Women who like things such as Star Wars, or comics, or anything else that leads journalists to write those painful “not just for boys anymore” trend stories, have had to take it from all sides. Enthusiasm for something seen as the province of men clashes with mainstream perceptions of femininity. Even women liking this stuff in the context of traditionally feminised fan spaces, like fanfiction, find themselves fending off assumptions from men and women alike, perhaps the accusation that they are sexualising something too much, or they are placing too much weight on the emotional elements of a storyline. Basically, that they’re liking the thing the wrong way.

But women’s enthusiasm for perceived “male” spaces is always liking the thing the wrong way. The plainest illustration of this is the Fake Geek Girl, in meme and in practice: the barriers to entry are raised immeasurably high when women try to join in many male-dominated fannish conversations. The wonderful Noelle Stevenson illustrates this beautifully – and then literally, when a guy challenges her on her work. I’m sure that just by writing about Star Wars, I’m opening myself up to the angry gatekeeping-style pissing contests that men like to toss at women who claim to like the things they like. (Let’s get it all out in the open here: Star Wars isn’t my fandom. I saw the three original films on dates with my first boyfriend – our first date: Star Trek: First Contact, because we were clearly the coolest kids in town – and upon rewatches as an adult nothing grabbed me. But I am also a fandom journalist, so that’s kind of how this works.)

There’s a persistent myth – and I say persistent because I keep seeing these deluded boys get mad in new viral posts – that women who claim to like geeky things are just pretending, the somewhat confusing notion that they are doing it for attention. (And then there’s the inevitable anger that in this supposedly desperate plea for attention – why else would a woman claim to like their beloved characters?! – these women still don’t want to sleep with them.) And what never seems to occur to any of these gatekeepers is that these women were there all along, liking these things just as much – and are finally being given the cultural space to be open about their interests and passions. But that space is given haltingly; plenty of women, tired of waiting, are going out and taking it. The result is the tension (and, at times, outright hostility) that has marked certain corners of the fannish world in the past few years.

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”. There are many reasons that people love Star Wars, and most of them are universal things: the themes, the characters, the archetypal struggle of good versus evil. Most of the time we default to the white guy; he struggles with things we all struggle with, but somehow, he is deemed most relatable. Abrams, Kennedy, and everyone behind the new films should be applauded for their efforts to give non-white guys a turn at the universal story – I think these are incredibly valuable choices, and certainly will make the films vastly more accessible, particularly to children.

But we don’t just need Rey on screen and Rey dolls on the shelves for mothers and daughters – those same mothers and daughters have found plenty to love without many women to look to on their screens. We need boys to love the female heroes as much as we’ve loved the men over the years: we need universal to be truly universal. And when we express that love, the default reaction shouldn’t be a challenge: not, “You don’t like this thing as much as I do,” or, “You don’t love this the right way.” Isn’t it easier to say, “Oh, I’m so glad that you love this, too!”

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.