Gangstas, Thugs, Vikings and Drivers: Depictions of Masculinity and the Search for Manhood in the Films of Nicolas Winding Refn

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A look at how masculinity is depicted in the films of Nicolas Winding Refn. I argue that while the characters in Refn's films appear to conform to or embody traditional notions of dominant …

A look at how masculinity is depicted in the films of Nicolas Winding Refn. I argue that while the characters in Refn's films appear to conform to or embody traditional notions of dominant masculinity, they actually present a subversion of traditional gender norms.

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  • When all four films are looked at together, the protagonists of each film comes to represent four different stages of a man’s life:Boyhood, adolescence, young adulthood/fatherhood, family manAdditionally, the characters in each film discover that embodying or conforming to traditional notions of masculinity can often lead to negative consequences.On the surface, Refn appears to engage in a sort of fetishization of masculinity. However, further examination reveals that his films present a much more complex depiction of masculinity. According to film critic Jonathan Romney, “Refn is as male a director as they come, yet screen masculinity has rarely been as spectacularly troubled as it is in his films.” (2010, p. 26)
  • Troubled masculinity is a pretty common theme these days, particularly after the recent economic downturn that saw many men lose their jobs, and by extension their footing within society.Genderwas once considered to be a byproduct of biology. Within this dialectic, masculinity was considered to be the domain ofmen, while women were thought to embody the more feminine qualities. However, with the introduction of 20th Century feminist theory, this idea was challenged, and the concept of gender was instead understood to be a variable constructsubject to societal expectations.This idea provoked a backlash from many men, who perceive the transformation of traditional gender norms as a threat to their dominant position within society, which has been normalized due to decades of reinforcement via mass culture. However, the idea of masculinity as being inherently white, middle class, and heterosexual is no longer understood to be the default position, and thus men, particularly white men, have seen their position within society become decentered. As a result, there is a fear among modern men that if they do not live up to some nebulous masculine ideal, then they will not be viewed as “real men,” and this has been referred to as the crisis of masculinity.The characters in Refn’s films all appear to embody or conform to traditional notions of masculinity, in that they are all violent, aggressive, hypervirile, emotionally repressed tough guys who are convinced of their dominant place within society. However, a closer examination reveals that each character is undergoing his own crisis of masculinity, and that traditional notions of masculinity may not be sustainable within a societal context.
  • Three types of masculinity:Dominant masculinity: Societal masculine ideal. In Western societies, this type of masculinity is marked by an emphasis on competition, wealth, aggressiveness, and heterosexuality, and it has been reinforced and normalized through various institutions such as the media, family, religion and educationComplicit masculinity – Conforms to and supports dominant masculinity. According to Kahn, this is “more widely available to men as a group because potentially all men can benefit from privileges of the hegemony whether directly or indirectly.” So even if men don’t embody a form of masculinity that conforms to the societal ideal of masculinity, they can still put on a front that allows them to benefit from acting a certain way.The third and final type of masculinity explored in Refn’s films is something I am calling Mythical MasculinityMythical Masculinity – a depiction of masculinity as a primal, unchecked, archetypal force that is so potent, it transcends any historically or materially located society, and places the subject firmly outside of humanity (ex: Man With No Name, Rambo, Shane, Yojimbo, Kowalski in Vanishing Point)
  • When looking at Refn’s films, I started by examining his first film.In Pusher, Frank and Tonny represent boyhoodThey are simply boys playing at being men, only instead of playing with toy guys, they are playing with real guns.Also represent complicit masculinity
  • Neither character embodies the type of dominant masculinity that is at once idealized and accepted within Western society.Frank is out of shape and powerless, while Tonny is clumsy and, as revealed in Pusher II (2004), he is also impotent.However, both men desire power and respect, two significant aspects of traditional masculinity, a desire that is made explicit by the fact that Tonny has the word “RESPECT” prominently tattooed on the back of shaved head.To achieve an illusion of manliness, Frank and Tonny have appropriated signifiers from punk, heavy metal, hip hop and gangsta cultures, all of which are primarily associated with traditionally masculine concepts such as strength, virility, aggression, competitiveness, and violence. Both characters are emulating the powerful, hyper-masculine bodies displayed in rap videos, most notably in the way they dress; Frank and Tonny wear uniforms that consist of track suits, hoodies, sneakers, and gold chains, cultural signifiers that are heavily associated with hip hop and gangsta rap. It is important that they engage in this act of appropriation, because in their minds,to lack power and respect would mean that they lack masculinity.
  • In Bronson, the character of Michael Peterson represents adolescence: he is the embodiment of the unchecked teenage id, prone to aggression and violenceMichael Peterson also represents dominant masculinity
  • Michael Peterson’s masculinity is completely genuine, and his body conforms to what Peter Lehman calls “the traditional phallic male body” (1993, p. 51). According to Roger Horrocks, the phallic male body is “erect, always ready for action. It is deeply veined, ribbed, with a massive head. It tenses itself, ready to explode. But crucially it is rigid, since the man himself is emotionally rigid” (1994, p. 160). Unlike Frank, Michael Peterson does not need to cultivate a persona that simply appropriates masculine signifiers in order to fool others into thinking he is a real man.However, there is a performative aspect to Peterson’s masculine identity. His lower class statusdoes not automatically afford him much power and respect, so he appropriates a persona that is already associated with power and respect, as a way of gaining some for himself. Peterson assumes the name Charles Bronson, a name that is heavily associated with an iconic masculine identity. The performative aspects of Peterson’s masculinity are reinforced by the sequences in which he is on stage or speaking directly to the camera, as they inform the audience that Petersonis acting. So even though he possesses all the qualities of traditional masculinity, Peterson is still cultivatinga performative identity.Most importantly, the film is implying that Peterson’s dominant masculinity is not sustainable within a societal context. At the end of the film, he is literally caged inside a cell that is barely large enough to contain his phallic male body. This suppression of Peterson’s masculinity is further reinforced when the prison guards close the doors to the room containing his tiny prison cell, placing yet another barrier between Peterson and society at large. Thus, Refn is saying that these types of traditional masculinities should not be admired or emulated, and that for the good of society, it is important that they remain locked away and suppressed.
  • In Valhalla Rising, One-Eye represents both young adulthood,and the fears of being a new fatherIn the film, the character is just entering the larger world on his own for the first time and trying to carve out an identity, which only truly comes once he has taken on the role of father.One Eye also represents the concept of mythical masculinity
  • Conform to Man With No Name archetype (no name, no past, no sense of identity)Conforms to dominant masculinity (violence, aggression, stoicism)Also conforms to phallic male bodyHowever, One Eye’s masculinity is so potent that it places him outside of humanity, and centers him firmly in the realm of myth. This is established by the film’s opening text, which reads “In the beginning, there was only man and nature.” Right from the start, the film is positioning masculinity as a natural phenomenon, and centering it as the default position for sexuality. The implication is that there is no room for femininity in the violent, patriarchal world of the film, and men are required to either embody or conform to traditional notions of masculinity in one way or another.However, the idea that masculinity is not inherent is actually reinforced by the type of masculinity embodied by the character of One Eye.The film implies that One Eye is not human, but something more, and thus his hypermasculinity is not natural in the way implied by the opening text of the film. To quote film critic Jonathan Romney, One Eye is a “mythical ur-thug of a distant age, before the Norse lineage devolved” (2010, p. 29). Simply put, One Eye represents an idealized masculinity that does not actually exist outside of fiction, and the other male characters represent men who are engaged in a futile attempt to live up to that ideal.There is also an implication within the film that this type of violent and aggressive masculinity must be contained for the good of society. When the film opens, One Eye is caged and treated like an animal, recalling Michael Peterson’s fate at the end of Bronson. One Eye is chained even when he is fighting. This reinforces the idea that One-Eye’s brand of masculinity is so powerful and overwhelming, it cannot be allowed to be completely unleashed even during the times when it should be. This is yet another way of indicating that the type of hypermasculinity One Eyeembodies must be contained and kept separate from the rest of society at all times.
  • The Driver represents the family manLike One Eye, the Driver represents a sort of mythical masculinity, but now he is attempting to start a family with his attractive neighbor and her young son, and become a real human being (in other words, he is trying to establish a masculine identity that will mark him as a real man)All of the male characters in Drive are involved in a performance in one way or anotherHowever, while the rest of the characters are attempting to establish their masculine identities, The Driver is attempting to subdue his masculinity in order to become a real human being.
  • Refn has often called Drive his superhero film, and this further reinforces the idea that The Driver is more than human. Superheroes are often portrayed as having great powers that set them apart from the rest of humanity. In the case of The Driver, it is his hypermasculinity that marks him as being more than human. However, The Driver is actively seeking to become human, but he can only accomplish this if he contains his masculinity. This is another way that Refn reminds the audience that the type of mythical masculinity embodied by One Eye and the Driver only exists in stories or on film, and that by trying to appropriate it, men hurt themselves and society.The film establishes the character’s masculinity in a number of ways: stoic, emotionally repressed, phallic male bodyMost importantly, though, the Driver is linked to masculinity through his professions (stunt driver, mechanic, wheel man) are inextricably linked to cars, and this serves to underscore the character’s masculinityThe fact that he does not have a name and is known only as The Driver serves to further reinforce the idea that he is the embodiment of a mythical masculinity (no name, no past, no sense of identity)The theme of masculinity is reinforced by the film’s aesthetic, which is heavily influenced by the 1980s, a decade that is often associated with the remasculinization of America. By emulating the style and attitudes of the 1980s, Drive could be seen as an extension of the hypermasculine identity that defined that decade. However, unlike the films made during that era, Refn is not shying away from exploring the negative consequences that can result from cultivating violent and aggressive masculinity.
  • While The Driver embodies mythical masculinity, his quest to become a real human being marks him as a more complex individual. This is reinforced by the casting of Ryan Gosling as The Driver. Gosling has come to represent or embody idealized masculinity because of how well his persona navigates the tension between what Jung called the animus (masculine energy) and the anima (feminine energy). Gosling embodies traditional dominant masculine signifiers, but as the Feminist Ryan Gosling meme is quick to point out, he is also sensitive, caring, and in touch with his emotions, which are often considered non-masculine characteristics. The duality that defines Gosling’s off-screen personaadds a sense of verisimilitude to the character’s trajectory from mythical masculinity to real human being. If Gosling’s off-screen persona was more in line with that of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone, men whose bodies and attitudes mark them as bearers of traditional dominant masculinity, the character might not be believable in either mode. However, because Gosling navigates the tension between animus and anima so well, it adds to the believability of the character’s journey.
  • Why is it important to study depiction's of masculinity in Refn's films? If masculinity is indeed a performance, then it is important to understand why men act the way they do. How do boys learn to be men? In Western societies, particularly the United States, they often learn by observing and absorbing mass culture. This leads to the creation of what Jackson Katz calls a “tough guise.” Katz argues that masculinity is a performance, taught via media images,and that boys and young men look to these depictions as examples of how to construct their own masculine identities. Thus, mass culture often aids in preparing young men to become violent, aggressive, competitive, and emotionally repressed.Mass culture rarely explores the negative consequences of hypermasculinity. Characters that embody or conform to the dominant masculine ideal are often portrayed as highly successful, sexually desirable, and ultimately triumphant. Mass culture rarely examines the downside to cultivating this type of violent or aggressive masculinity, and even when it does, it is still portrayed in a noble or heroic light.Refn’s films do explore the negative side of hypermasculinity. This is what sets them apart from other similar pop cultural artifacts, and why it is important to look at them. The characters in Refn’s films all conform to the dominant hypermasculine ideal, but they are far from the successful, powerful, desirable figures in music videos or action films. Instead Refn takes great pains to point out that cultivating this type of masculinity can often lead to negative outcomes, including isolation, imprisonment, and even death (though not in any sort of noble sense).Furthermore, by positioning masculinity as some sort of primal or mythical force, as he does in Valhalla Rising and Drive, and illustrating that even then it leads to negative consequences for the individual and those around him, Refn drives home the point that traditional notions of masculinity are not sustainable within either an individual or a societal context. This is particularly true today, because our understanding of traditional gender norms are undergoing a transformation. Thus, it is more important than ever to identify pop cultural artifacts that challenge the traditional ideas of gender norms, and understand just what they are trying to tell us.

Transcript

  • 1. Gangstas, Thugs, Vikingsand DriversDepictions of Masculinity and theSearch for Manhood in the Films ofNicolas Winding RefnChristopher John OlsonDePaul UniversitySpring 2013
  • 2. Crisis of Masculinity“In the late 1960s, in the wake of the civil rights movement, and with the rise of women’s liberation, gay liberation, and the increasing visibility of ethnic and racial diversity on the American scene, white men begin to be decentered.” – Sally Robinson, Marked Men: White Masculinity in Crisis (2000)
  • 3. Three Types of Masculinity Dominant (Kahn, 2009): “the idealized and socially expected ways of being male” Complicit (Kahn, 2009): “conform to dominant masculine norms in hopes of receiving rewards for being like the dominant group” Mythical: primal, archetypal, transcendent
  • 4. Pusher (1996) Frank (Kim Bodnia) Tonny (Mads Mikkelson) Boyhood
  • 5. Frank, Tonny, and ComplicitMasculinity
  • 6. Bronson (2008)  Michael Peterson aka Charlie Bronson (Tom Hardy)  Teenager/Adolesce nce
  • 7. “More of the Charles Bronson type”:Bronson and Dominant Masculinity
  • 8. Valhalla Rising (2009) One Eye (Mads Mikkleson) Young adulthood/ Fatherhood
  • 9. Man and Nature: One Eye andMythical Masculinity
  • 10. Drive (2011)  The Driver (Ryan Gosling)  Shannon (Bryan Cranston)  Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks)  Nino (Ron Perlman)  Family man
  • 11. The Driver: Real Hero, RealHuman Being?
  • 12. Mythical Masculinity, ComplexIndividual
  • 13. Conclusions “Tough guise” Culture of violence Unsustainable masculinity Transformation of traditional gender norms