“Men renowned for the ability and inclination to be stoned, drunk or sexually daring, appear terrified by the prospect of
revealing that they can be -and often are- depressed, dependent and in need of help”
-Anthony Clare, On Men: Masculinity in Crisis (2000)
This quote from Anthony Clare’s book on masculinity completely reflects the media’s representation of men, especially in
films of the action genre. The representation of men in the action genre are usually opposite to the claim Clare makes in his
book , the common cliché of the action hero is that they are macho, strong and women can only be dependent on them.
The action hero doesn’t need anyone, and are never so depressed that they wish to take their own life. This also relates to
Richard Dyer’s Utopian theory such as media text providing a sense of energy where there is exhaustion and getting
together where there is fragmentation.
In this essay I will look at how men are represented within the action genre, the question of masculinity, the
‘Americanisation’ influence on media’s male representation and the films and characters that have standardised
The media is such a powerful influence on our societal values, that audiences can be very susceptible and almost oblivious
to certain representations and the media can use clever tactics in order to make sure a representation does not receive
hostility. For example, in order for an extreme machismo male representation to be liked by women, filmmakers make him
attractive and make sure he takes off his shirt to show off his masculinity, and it’s because of this, a dated, sexist male
character can easily be liked by women because of his physically attractiveness.
Most films use physical attraction to juxtapose to the audience who is the hero and villain, linked to Noam Chomsky’s
theory of dominant societal groups. For example in First Blood; Rambo is physically fit and educated, while his “nemesis”,
Sheriff Will Teasle, is overweight and quite sadistic. But even though both characters have a destructive nature, we would
more likely side with Rambo because he has the physique and muscles, while the sheriff is just a fat, bumbling idiot.
And this is linked to how men are represented in the action genre, as both heroes and villains, as dominant and subversive,
or binary opposites (’us and them’). The hero will always be the dominant ideological representation so he is seen as the
hero, and so that the dominant ideology can be enforced and audiences can “see” who is good and bad. The hero will
mostly be the incarnation of dominant ideology; they will always be male, white, physically fit, heterosexual, sometimes
Christian and always American, while the villain will personify the subversive, the opposite; they will be foreign, not so fit,
unattractive, atheist and possibly homosexual, and the media is able to symbolically represent the ideological messages of
American superiority by coding the villain with “otherness”.
Men are represented in a way so the audience can be influenced by the film’s own ideologies, and adopting them as their
own and wanting to be what the heroes are, the audiences would want to be physically toned and more attractive and
work so they can provide the ’perfect utopian society’ the media believes should exist.
One common representation for the hero, and sometimes villain, is that they have power over women, able to command
them and make them fall in love with them. Filmmakers make it look like it is of their own volition because of the hero’s
physical appearance, not because of the situation they are in, while if a women falls in love with the villain, they are
considered to be mentally ill or insane, for example in The World Is Not Enough, the main female character, Elektra King, is
able to seduce Bond but is actually in love with Renard, the villain, and everyone in the film says it is because of Stockholm
Syndrome, a psychological disorder. This plays on the fact that the hero is the attractive, heterosexual one, while the villain
is considered ugly or homosexual. In action films, when the hero is “lumbered” with a woman who just happens to be
there, the woman is usually represented as physically or mentally weak, dependent on the man to be protected and
satisfied. This kind of representation could be linked to men wanting to reclaim their place in society as the ’masters and
protectors of women’, the winner in the Battle of the Sexes. It could also be linked to the sexist, common stereotype of
women as vulnerable, fragile creatures that need a knight in shining armour. This is similar to Vladimir Propp’s narrative
characters, the woman is the damsel-in-distress, the princess and the man is the manly hero with a strong build ready to
fight anything to rescue the princess and marry her. It is because of these kind of representations that men would try to be
like the hero, and it could be argued that this is almost like government propaganda, where the men are convinced to join
the military to get the women and glory. The hero will always have a distinguished career in authority or military to show
their patriotism that they, again, wished to be passed onto the younger generations so they turn out to be the future’s
soldiers and policemen, not the future’s criminals. The villain would have quite a hedonistic career, with him probably
doing nothing or probably a job that many people would find unpopular, such as a CEO, or a taxman, etc.
Masculinity is defined by the coding of macho and manly characteristics of the human being, not limited to men, but in the
media it is only men who are masculine. Masculinity is very different to ’male’, as male is biological, while masculinity is
aideologically and culturally constructed characteristic trait of someone. Masculinity is used to enforce the male character,
as a machismo filled hero, ready to provide and fight for ’his woman’. Masculinity is used so much used in films that the
media can be able to reinforce the idea of men as the dominant sex and the family provider, while the women need the
men to help them. Masculinity is being used more frequently than ever because women are starting to receive more
equality in society as they are no longer cookers, cleaners, mothers or people needing constant commodities to attract
men, they’re now leaders, inventors, government ministers and heads of corporations and the hegemonic aspects of the
media are trying to disapprove of it, and have men claim those positions, and that is why the hero will be overly macho and
manly, flaunting muscles and saying sexist words, but of course, the women is too stupid and scared to realize.
Masculinity can easily be replaced by effeminate, or femininity, and this able to create the opposite to the hero, thus
creating the villain who will act very flamboyantly, never showing signs that he is attracted to women, has lots of male
bodyguards, fight very weakly and is insane. The insanity of the feminine villain is possibly linked to the fact that many
doctors and psychologists believe homosexuality to be a mental disorder, which it self is linked to Christianity,
thenAmericanisation which influences media constructed images. The hero is always likely to have had or is still, a manual
worker to display his masculinity, such as builders and blacksmiths, and also inspire layabouts to work harder so they can
reap the rewards: the embodiment of the American, capitalist ideal.
Masculinity is set to return, as many believe it is in a crisis, being threatened by female heroes and villains, women who can
easily fight as well as men (Ripley, Aliens) and be able to show them as stupid (in The World is Not Enough, Bond is tricked
by a woman). Now men in action films are distinctly macho, being able to carry massive weapons, wearing no shirts or
vests to show-off their toned bodies, and being able to have any women fall in love with them. Now masculinity has added
itself to the ‘dominant’ side of Noam Chomsky’s table of dominants and subordinates. Because a ’macho man’ will be
white, heterosexual, middle-aged, physically fit and attractive, while femininity is subordinate and which is why the heroes
and villains of action films will always be represented as such.
Masculinity can also seems to add homoerotism to a film. If two masculine characters are partnered there is a hidden
homoerotism within their relationship, ironically in their mutual display of masculinity. They are willing to make at display
of masculinity, shirtless, together without given thoughts that may be a certain attraction between each other, but most
audience would be only watching the film for humour and action, but those who examine and analyse films could notice
such blatant homoerotism in certain films like Predator or Fight Club. But no homosexual scenes are ever made, the two
characters can obviously have feelings for each other, but they are never emotionally expressed, only sexual feelings for
other women, because the media does not wish for homosexuality to be accepted or at least supported by a mainstream
mass media, because a right-wing media wants its children to procreate, not to find pleasure in sex. One glorious scene
which encapsulates this theory of homoerotism in the action genre is the “arm wrestling” scene from Predator. In this
scene, the two characters, Dutch and Dillon arm wrestle together, each character’s arm is bulging with muscles and veins
and shine with the sweat of hard labour and they stare into each others eyes, with audiences believing it’s just to
intimidate each, but is a much deeper meaning. The scene ends with Dutch beating with ease Dillon, and this is interesting
to note as Dillon is a Black character, and this can be linked an Americanisation effect of the action genre of downsizing the
role of the ethnic hero. In a film, Black people are just side-lined as the sidekick, even though they are doing just as much
their White partner. If it was two White men, we would not know which was the sidekick, but constant representation in
films like Lethal Weapon, tells us that the Black is the sidekick, never the hero. This could be linked to age-old stereotypes
of Black people as vagrants, thieves and uneducated, so they could never be the hero, and this still goes on, even 30 years
after the Civil Rights Movement. this is because the media wishes audiences to subtly see White men as the Hero and the
Black man as the sidekick, which could also be linked to many White people still believing in Black slaves, so the sidekick is,
in a way, the disposable slave.
The United States of America is a presidential republic which has been able to create a massive flood of hegemonic,
cultural influence around the world without having to physically build an empire, like Spain and Britain. It‘s influence
comes from its military might and its cultural and ideological products, as America is an extremely fundamental capitalistic
nation, ready to sell it’s product in every nook and cranny of the world, evidence that its government is more likely to fund
Coca Cola projects than Greenpeace’s. It also has great influence on the film industry, since the capital of the industry,
Hollywood, is within the glittering towers of Los Angeles and because of this, the ideologies of America have passed down
into the varying genres. This type of influence has been named ’Americanisation’, similar to globalisation. Action genre has
been greatly influenced and changed by Americanisation, and because of it the hero will always be American. Recently
America has be receiving bad press due to the Iraq War and the Vietnam War, the country has been seen as an aggressive
war machine, fighting more for resources than democracy, so that is why more and more action films have an American
hero and a foreign villain, so that audiences can see that Americans do care about fighting for what is right.
Americanisation has not only influenced the nationality of the hero, it also affected how America is portrayed in the
narrative, the dominant ideology portrayed and the villain’s portrayal.
Also Americanisation influences a film narrative to show American supremacy, especially in the fields of weaponry and
body strength. For example, in First Blood, John Rambo is able to fire an M60, an American machine gun, from the waist,
which is impossible without mounting it on the ground with a tripod, since the gun weighs 23.1 lbs, and it is ironic that
during the Cold War only one gun of the same type was capable of being fired via the waist and it was a Soviet weapon.
Not only did the famous scene of Rambo’s onslaught of destroying the town demonstrate American strength, but also
American weapon supremacy.
This way of showing off American weaponry has entered into the cliché of the action hero; not only is he American, he only
uses American weapons. Sometimes he will pick up the baddies’ gun, but never use it instead using his own American
weapon. Not only that, but American weaponry in action films is portrayed as powerful and very efficient, whereas the
weapons of the baddies are useless and inefficient and usually foreign. However ,many guns used by the US military and
American action films are usually foreign weapons, but fine detail of the gun is hidden, so the susceptible audience can
assume it’s American.
American ideology has spread into the film genre it self, and I noticed this while analysing Die Hard, it had a lot of religious
connotations, specifically Christian, which is not only the dominant religion in America, it is representative of the dominant
ideology of America, and is staunchly defended by Americans. (“In God We Trust”). In Die Hard it is possible to read John
McClane as Jesus, with Hans Gruber as the Devil and their appearance supports this, McClane is wearing simple clothing
and barefoot, one of the symbols of martyrdom, while Hans Gruber wears expensive suits and has combed, neat hair,
linked to Pride, one of the Deadly Sins, and also has a short, trimmed beard; one of the common representations of the
Devil. Both their goals are similar to the stories of the Bible, McClane wishes to save the trapped people, the way Jesus
wanted to save the trapped people of Jerusalem from sin, and Gruber wishes to secure money under the guise of being
terrorists wanting to free political prisoners, like the Devil who disguised his true intentions of torturing Humanity, under
the guise of giving us freedom to do what we wish, knowing doing such sins would condemn us to Hell. Also, Gruber talks
with quite a venomous tone, which is known as “having a snake tongue”, relating to when the Devil disguised himself as a
snake to deny Humanity paradise, finally near the end, McClane has very bloody hands and feet similar to Jesus’ stigmata.
The Rambo series has established the stereotype of the American hero in action films; muscular, strong, patriotic and a war
veteran, and his style of dress has also become cliché, the ubiquitous vest. The vest almost reflects American society,
wanting to showing itself off and the same time not be naked, because Americans would see a shirtless man on television
or film as being ‘naked’ and that could pollute the minds of children. So Rambo can show off his muscles, but not be seen
naked. However, the first film, First Blood, was interesting as the villain was American, Rambo was destroying American
property. It also touched upon the sensitive subject of the Vietnam War and war related disorders (Post-Traumatic Stress
Disorder). American citizens and government are always portrayed as having a good relationship with their military,
however many reports and rumours circulate about military men who have been discharged from the military because of
injuries and mental disorders without receiving compensation or support from the government. But this is hidden away by
the media who represent America as ’the great support of family’.
Die Hard series created the archetype of the ’everyday hero’, a common man thrown into extraordinary circumstance.
However, so people would recogniseMcClane as the hero, he was made a high ranking police officer in the most well-
known police service, the New York Police Department. And in a way, Gruber supported the ‘mad German villain’ cliché.
Although Under Siege is probably a less known film, famed for the awful acting of Steven Seagal, it is interesting to note
because the film never challenged the status quo of male representation. The hero is an American Special Forces hero and
the vulnerable woman, who is also a model, needs his help and eventually falls in love with him. Although the two villains
are American and one is a former-CIA agent, they are clearly portrayed as mentally unstable, so the audience would never
think of as Americans, linked to the “otherness” villains are portrayed with, more as insane people. So Under Siege is just
trying what was selling at the time, manly heroes with command over women.
Terminator more or less really challenged the standard representations and swapped roles, the villain was a robot/man,
while the hero was a very strong woman, who needed not the help of men. However the fact that the “villain” spoke with a
very heavy German accent, can undermine Terminator being subversive to the action genre representation.
In conclusion, male representation in the action genre has been the same since the genre began, muscular men, who know
how to fight and the only ones strong enough and handsome enough to save women, and with America cinema growing
globally, it’s now become more about showing America as an ideological force for good and it may be years before this