The language of masculinity uses a vocabulary of truth and realness to describe itself. Western culture assumes there is a true masculinity hidden deep within each man; we hear of ‘real men’, ‘natural men’, ‘the deep masculine’, and so on.
Such rhetoric necessarily invites a lot of questioning. What is a ‘real’ man? Why is it so important than men, above all else, be ‘real’? Does this phrasing not imply the possibility of a ‘fake’ man? Then how do we define a ‘fake’ man? Masculinity theorists have argued that a real man is increasingly defined by what masculinity is not, rather than what it actually is. Masculinity, for instance, essentially means ‘not feminine’.
I believe that masculinity’s attempts at invoking the rhetoric of ‘the real’ suggest an anxious desire to mask this condition of its identity. The very idea that masculinity has always needed Others threatens masculinity’s unspoken authenticity; if masculinity is a constructed identity, then how can it retain its position as the default or simply the human in Western culture?
I believe that masquerade is actually the practice which literalises this condition of masculinity. Masculinity viewed through the lens of Butlerian masquerade or gender performance theory becomes an interface, the point where two identities (the man and the costume) converge and fight for dominance.
Hence, my research project is an unmasking of masculinity in order to reveal the disguise itself rather than some ‘real’ identity underneath. I argue that masculinity is a performance but, more than that, masculinity is specifically the performance of naturalness. In other words, masculinity is a decorative layer or a social construct that masquerades as a gender ontology.
Starting from Judith Butler’s pioneering theory of gender as a performance, I look at four American films released across the 1990s: Point Break (1991), Face/Off (1997), Fight Club (1999), and The Matrix (1999). Each film has in common its genre (action) and the fact that each was released during a decade in American culture when masculinity was infamously pronounced as being in crisis. In this regard, I believe each film is a useful and necessary study in the performance of heterosexual, white masculinity. A study of the body literally in action becomes a study of the male body as a performance.
Images of masquerade, disguise, pretence, and doubling abound in 90s action cinema: from F.B.I. agent Johnny Utah going undercover to infiltrate a gang of surfers in Point Break, to Sean Archer and Castor Troy literally wearing each other’s faces in Face/Off, to the Narrator’s realisation that he is and has been Tyler Durden all along in Fight Club, and, finally, to Neo, Thomas Anderson’s superhero-like alter-ego in The Matrix. In fact, as I demonstrate in my research project, the men in these films rely on masquerade to work out and perform most aspects of their identities, including sexuality and homoerotic relationships, the body literally in action and wielding hegemonic dominance, and the notion of gender crises.
The significance of the action genre to the reinforcement and replication of masculinities is by no means a new concern. Key film theorists on the topic, such as Susan Jeffords, Yvonne Tasker, and Mark Gallagher, have each identified the prevalence of images of the family and fatherhood specifically in 1990s action cinema as a prime example of masculine anxiety about narratives of continuity. What is a new concern is an examination of the way in which masculinities in 1990s action cinema accomplish this narrative through images of male bodies in masquerade.
In fact, despite the wealth of material on action cinema, very little attention has been paid to the way masculinities are performed in these films; more often than not, what is studied is whether masculine protagonists conform to or deny notions of hegemonic masculinity and, hence, conclusions are based on what the film does to promote or discourage its continuation in wider American culture. Instead, my research takes this notion further; for as much as this notion of masking draws attention to a hysterical ‘putting on’ of masculinity – that can hence be subversively ‘taken off’ – it also splits the masculine subject.
Like a cell that paradoxically multiplies by dividing, masculinity’s continuation is predicated on doubling. As such, to study the representations of masculinities in action cinema from a performative gender theory approach has implications for not only the ways in which masculinities reproduce, but for the wider feminist project of denaturalising gender as well.
Kate Bowen is a second-year postgraduate student at the University of Adelaide in South Australia, undertaking a PhD in English. Her doctoral research centres on masculine identity performance in American action cinema of the 1990s. Her wider research interests include contemporary American cinema, particularly genre cinema such as horror, and theories of novel-to-film adaptation.