Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite is my research associate. You can find her on Twitter @manishaclaire
The new Marvel film Guardians of the Galaxy has been a “surprise” hit at the box office, earning over $100 million in North America since its release last week.
On the surface, GOTG showcases a new kind of superhero in Peter Quill, whose happy-go-lucky attitude (played with charm by Chris Pratt) stands out in a movie where almost every other character is hell-bent on revenge or a quick buck. On a quest to retrieve a magical orb from an evil overlord named Ronan, Peter is joined by a band of misfits including a talking raccoon and a giant magical tree, a vaguely alien being named Gamora and Drax, a man who wants to avenge his family’s murder at the hands of Ronan.
Actually, the movie’s plot isn’t important for this post, but then again, it’s not really important for the film either. In Guardians of the Galaxy, the soundtrack isn’t the only thing that’s vintage—the movie’s treatment of masculinity is disappointingly retro.
Over at Salon, Gavia Baker-Whitelaw talks about the ways GOTG portrays and promotes its female characters, arguing that while there are certain things that are laudable about the film in this respect, it feels engineered and ultimately doesn’t override the low-level misogyny that is played for laughs in the movie.
Much as Baker-Whitelaw thinks that GOTG fails women, I think it fails men as well. For a movie that supposedly represents a quirky new direction in superhero/space opera movies, GOTG relies on outdated and potentially destructive ideals of manhood.
As viewers, we don’t see how his mother’s death affects Peter as he grows up. The small references to his past are limited to a product placement (the Sony Walkman) he carries around with him, with tapes given to him by his mother, and we are supposed to take that as a sign that he hasn’t yet dealt with his grief. But any sadness he might have expressed is shoved aside to make room for him to show off his womanizing (by forgetting about a woman he just slept with), his virility (by making a weird black-light joke that goes on too long), and his fearlessness (fighting evil with a smile on his face). Any time he feels sad about his mother, he keeps the thought to himself, sometimes going out of his way to hide things from his friends (like his mother’s last gift to him, which Rocket the genetically engineered Raccoon finds on the ship). Being able to compartmentalize his pain is apparently how Peter can get on with his life, rather than dealing with his feelings in a healthy way.
Drax is another character who has experienced a great deal of sadness in his life. His wife and daughter were murdered by the evil Ronan, and his sole mission is to kill Ronan in retaliation. In one scene (perhaps the most emotional in the whole movie), Drax gets drunk and makes a reckless decision that almost kills everyone on the team. When pressed about why he did it, he starts to explain his feelings of deep pain and sadness at losing his family, and how those feelings cause him to act the way he does. Rocket Raccoon has no patience for this, snapping that everyone has “stuff,” and that the best way to get over it is to funnel his sadness into murderous rage, targeted to Ronan. Rocket’s remark is in character for him, but it shuts down any possibility of exploring Drax’s character, and also tells viewers that the most effective man is one who doesn’t access his feelings (unless those feelings lead to a climactic bit of violence).
For GOTG’s male characters, managing sadness (or rather, eliminating sadness) is achieved through anger, or rage, or a complete emotional shutdown. Wouldn’t it be more powerful to see a male superhero face his feelings, rather than see him punch them into submission?
A version of this post originally appeared in The Telegraph (London, UK) on January 30, 2014
It’s been many years since I’ve heard anyone utter the words, “Act ladylike.” But it’s hard to go more than a few hours without hearing some version of “be a man”.
I couldn’t even escape it this week while seeing a production of Shakespeare’s Richard II when a hanger-on tries to cheer up the embattled king by making fun of his enemies as “boys with women’s voices [who] strive to speak big.” It’s been a long, long time since simply being a male was enough to make you a real man.
That’s because we give “real men” real rewards.
There’s a cottage industry of women and men who now bewail there are no real men left, that men have become feminised, and that men are the real losers in the feminist revolution.
I’ve spent the past 35 years saying all this is nonsense. After all, we still live in a world where men earn more money and pull most of the political, religious, economic and cultural levers. And when it comes to the exercise of violence, whether against women or other men, men still have the franchise, if not the total monopoly.
The rewards for being “real men” are admiration in the world of men, freedom of movement, a voice of authority, respect, and tangible privileges at work and at play. In fact, we’ve had a de facto affirmative action programme for men that stretches back about 8,000 years — the programme known, simply, as patriarchy.
But the astounding thing is that the very ways that men have constructed societies of men’s power also bring enormous cost to men ourselves. Men die younger than women, are less likely to ask for help when in physical or emotional need, are more likely to be addicted to alcohol and other drugs, be killed in workplace accidents, and commit suicide. Men live in enormous fear of being exposed as weak. As not being real men.
All this is because our very notions of masculinity are made up, ephemeral. From an early age we bathe boys in notions about a masculinity that requires the suppression of a range of feelings and human possibilities. At a certain age, we require that boys set up emotional boundaries from their friends. Almost from the start, we say that the tasks of nurturing and caregiving are not for them.
Boys and men strive to live up to these impossible ideals. But the more we do, the more we must create an emotional distance from women, from children, and, in a strange way (since the world is dominated by elaborate men’s clubs) from other men. It is a recipe for enormous isolation.
That is why I have long felt that we men have a two-fold task.
One is that, if we want to truly get to the roots of what ails us, we need to embrace and actively support gender equality. We must actively challenge all forms of men’s power, whether in the workplace, our places of worship, the sports field, the kitchen, nursery or our bedrooms. It’s not only the right thing to do. Simply put, women’s emancipation is also key to our own happiness because the ways that we men have collectively constructed and individually internalised men’s power is not only devastating to the women we love but, in a different and paradoxical way, is devastating to men ourselves.
And so we must fight for gender equality and against all forms of abuse and violence against women. This has been an area of my own volunteer work in co-founding White Ribbon, a campaign to engage men and boys to work to end violence against women that has spread to seventy or eighty countries.
At the same time we need to transform what it means to be a man. To embrace the diverse possibilities of manhood…of humanness. To raise our sons to not be afraid of emotions or of being outed as not real men.
Perhaps there is no more important place to start than the transformation of fatherhood. I don’t want fathers helping out. I want fathers doing an equal share of parenting. And so, I’m putting time into a new international network, MenCare, which has the goal – dramatic but, I believe, realisable – of men doing fifty percent of the care work on the planet.
All this was why I was in London last week to speak at the Southbank Centre’s “Being a Man” festival.
Simply to say, yes, let’s talk about our experiences of being men. But, actually, let’s stop forcing destructive and self-destructive versions of manhood on each other. Women, men, children, and the planet will be much better for it.
The fifth of a series with White Ribbon stories & links from around the world. Scroll down or click for: 1: Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific, Part 2: The Americas, Part 3: Europe, Part 4: Asia, Middle East & Caucusas.
Because White Ribbon is a decentralized network with thousands of different organizations and institutions involved, it’s impossible to track down most WR activities in the world. What is below is only a small sample. I hope you’ll add your own stories by sending me an email or adding links in the comments section.
White Ribbon’s messages:
- Although most men don’t use violence in our relationships, all men have a responsibility to helping make it end. Why? Because our silence becomes a form of tacit consent. White Ribbon works to end men’s silence.
- We know that the violence stems from social inequality between women and men. The violence won’t end until women enjoy full equality in the law, within our religions, in our workplaces, and in our families.
- We also know that men’s violence stems from the ways we raise boys to be men and the impossible expectations of manhood. If we want to raise boys to be good men who won’t ever use violence, then a model of caring, non-violent masculinity must start in the home. We must stop raising our sons to fear showing feelings, to fear vulnerability, to feel they must always be in control.
- We recognize the need to go beyond awareness-raising campaigns. We push for better laws, police training, new policies in workplaces, courses for new parents, and school-based programs.
White Ribbon works like this:
- It is a decentralized campaign. We believe that people know best in their own countries and communities how to reach the men and boys around them.
- It’s international. Over the years, it’s spread to 70 or 80 countries.
- In some countries there is an actual WR organization. In most, it’s a campaign run by other organizations or a government office or simply a group of volunteers in a school, workplace, community, or place of worship.
- It works in partnership with women’s organizations and urges men to listen to women’s voices and concerns.
- It focuses on positive messages. This is not about collective guilt. This is about working for healthy and loving relationships, and positive models of parenting.
Cape Verde: As it many countries, Laco Branco (White Ribbon) has many different activities and initiatives. One, to get public attention for the issue, was a mountain climb to the Pico d’Antonia with over 150 participants.
Kenya: Coexist is one of the organizations that uses the White Ribbon symbol in its work through Kenya. Its work has focused on ending sexual violence, child marriage and FGM, promoting safe dating and doing media training. One of our brother organizations, Men for Gender Equality Now (MEGEN) holds a ‘Travelling Man’ conference every year as part of 16 Days of Action to educate men on preventing violence against women,
Nambia White Ribbon Campaign has an ongoing organization since 2000, starting off with a national training conference and rally in front of parliament to support a proposed law that for the first time made it illegal for a man to rape his wife. It carries out ongoing training sessions for boys and men. It has Facebook pages here and here.
Nigeria: There has only been sporadic use of the white ribbon over the years, but a large, multi-organization initiative will be starting up over the next year.
Rwanda: Our brother organizations Rwanda Men’s Resource Centre, Rwanda MenEngage Network, and Promundo are doing terrific work to end the cycle of violence–including working to heal the ongoing legacy of the genocide. They do education work, training, run support services, and research, including this excellent study of Masculinity and Gender Based violence in Rwanda. They also carry out work in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
South Africa: The white ribbon has been used for many years as a symbol (for men and women) during the 16 Days of Activism when white ribbons are visible on politicians, media figures, and citizens in South Africa. Years ago, Nelson Mandela led a white ribbon march. This year, the Government of the Western Cape has asked citizens to wear white ribbons for the entirety of the 16 Days. My friends and colleagues at our brother organization, Sonke Gender Justice, have an extremely wide range of activities and initiatives focused on ending men’s violence against women. Here is short and terrific TV interview with Dean Peacock, the Executive Director of Sonke.
Tunisia: The only news I received was of the lovely white ribbon stamp commemorating the fight to end violence against women.
Morocco & Mozambique: There has been use of the white ribbon symbol, but I have no up-to-date information.
Prepared by Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite & Michael Kaufman
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Guys Guide to Feminism…The Talk
Yes, you’ve heard the rumors: Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling are teaming up with Steven Spielberg to make the movie version of this year’s indie-hit book. Ah, rumors… Which brings us to the reason for
"Guy’s Guide to Feminism … The Talk" because this is exactly how you’ll get co-author Michael Kaufman to your campus or community for an incomparable night of humor, serious conversation, story-telling, and hard-hitting analysis. Get in touch: email@example.com
- No public Twitter messages.
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- There’s no such thing as a ‘real man’
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- White Ribbon: Taking Action Around the World to End Violence Against Women – Part 4, Asia, Middle East & Caucusas
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