Strutting warriors, bare-armed film stars: is there any greater performance than being a man?

I spent much of Thursday staring at men. 

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I spent much of last Thursday looking at men. Or at least images of men, if not actual men in the flesh. Though, in truth, there was quite a lot of flesh involved.

First I went to see the “Masculinities” exhibition at the Barbican (reviewed on page 52), which looks at how stereotypical images have been played with by artists. I liked the works that showed masculinity as a pose or costume – street fighters showing off, Afghan warriors strutting with a peculiar mixture of guns and flowers, their eyes blackened with kohl in a heady mixing of butch and femme, startling in its unexpectedness. Elsewhere, a montage of actors playing Nazis sits alongside a wall full of men in suits. Different kinds of uniform, all of them representing power.

But my favourite piece was the Jeremy Deller film entitled So Many Ways To Hurt You, which tells the story of the Welsh wrestler, Adrian Street. Growing up, he was expected to follow in his miner father’s footsteps, but he chose instead to work away at the coalface of his own body, building it into a V-shaped torso which so perfected a certain kind of masculinity that it graced the cover of magazines.

He then clothed this body in a style that was a deliberate assault on the expectations of his bullying father. A photo from 1973 by Dennis Hutchinson shows Street at the pithead with his dad and other miners, who stand, headlamped and blackened with coal dust, while he preens next to them in lurex pants, satin and platforms, furs and frosted lipstick. The miners look bewildered, while he looks like a glam-rock star, although built, as they used to say, like a brick shit-house. Every inch of him seems to declaim an almighty fuck you. 

I found the film beautiful, sad and funny – and Street embodied everything that is hard to pin down about what masculinity means, how it operates, how it can be both strength and weakness, prison and a liberation.

The same evening I went to the BFI to see the 1951 film, A Streetcar Named Desire. On the face of it, the film is more about femininity than masculinity. When I saw it thirty-something years ago I don’t think I understood it. I certainly didn’t get the character of Blanche DuBois. Back then I found her irritating, with all that play-acting – the putting on of scarves and frippery, the simpering voice – to appeal to men. I thought she was weak, a victim. 

Viewing it now I see how trapped she is, and the valiant quality of her stubborn refusal to lie down and accept her fate. Blanche and her sister Stella experience complex emotions, and have to deal with the realities of the world, while the men around them are useless. Mitch, still living with his mother, idealises Blanche, then rejects her when he learns the truth about her past.

And what of Stella’s good-for-nothing husband Stanley? His class defensiveness, his resentment at being looked down on and called a “Polack” – all that is sympathetic. But in every other respect he’s the villain – an unimaginative bully, king of his little world, bossing around his wife and his poker buddies, constantly breaking things, lashing out. And the only thing that complicates our feelings towards him is the casting of Marlon Brando. 

Which brings me back to where I began this column, gazing at men. In all honesty, has there ever been a more staggeringly beautiful man on film than Brando in this movie? There can’t be anyone, male or female, gay or straight, who isn’t dazzled by his appearance, who isn’t half waiting, every moment that he isn’t on screen, for him to reappear. Stop talking, you think, just let me look at you.

It’s an almost comic display of masculinity: his clothes constantly drenched in sweat, or torn from his back to reveal his body. In one scene a shirt sleeve is ripped away, for no other reason, it seems, than to show us his biceps.

I kept recalling the images I’d seen earlier that day, and thinking about all the types and stereotypes: man as proud peacock, man as confused lunk, man as physical perfection, man as invulnerable bully. What a performance it all is. What a performance. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her books include Naked at the Albert Hall, Bedsit Disco Queen and, most recently, Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia 

This article appears in the 06 March 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Inside No 10

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