Masculinity in Classical Hollywood Cinema: the Male Body Image in Top Hat and the Best Years of Our Lives

Topics: Classical Hollywood cinema, Gender, Fred Astaire Pages: 7 (2682 words) Published: December 12, 2012
This essay will explore the ‘problem of masculinity’ and the way Classical Hollywood cinema invests and deals with the image of the male body, drawing from the analysis of examples from Top Hat (1935) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Steve Neale argues that ‘it is very rare to find analyses that seek to specify in detail, in relation to particular films or groups of films, how heterosexual masculinity is inscribed and the mechanisms, pressures, and contradictions that inscription may involve’ (Cohan and Hark, 1993:9) thus expressing the ‘problem of masculinity’ in classical Hollywood cinema and that the way it is portrayed might vary. In order to analyse the image of the male body, this essay will use Laura Mulvey’s work on the image of woman on the screen and the ‘masculinisation’ of the spectator position. Mulvey argues that ‘As the spectator identifies with the main male protagonist, he projects his look on to that of his like, his screen surrogate, so that the power of the male protagonist as he controls events coincides with the active power of the erotic look, both giving a satisfying sense of omnipotence’ (Mulvey, 1989:20). From this argument one can make the assumption that the male body is an object to be looked at but it is not part of the erotic gaze and spectacle that stops the narrative as the female does, in other words ‘She makes no differentiation between identification and object choice in which sexual aims may be directed toward the male figure’ (Rodowick quoted in Cohan and Hark, 1993:13). Mulvey argues that ‘The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story-line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation’ (Mulvey, 1989:19). We could say that the Musical being a genre that relies on the spectacle of the musical numbers adds to the ‘problem of masculinity’ in the sense that the man here is also the spectacle, therefore feminized in the classical Hollywood cinema conventions. This reliance on the spectacle could be the cause that ‘the musical would appear to be the genre most responsible for reproducing this reductive binary opposition of female performer and male spectator’ (Cohan and Hark, 1993:46) but as we’ve argued before, by using the male body as spectacle the musical poses a challenge to this reductive binary opposition an thus we can argue that it is ‘the only genre in which the male body has been unashamedly put on display in mainstream cinema in any consistent way’ (Neale quoted in quoted in Cohan and Hark, 1993:46). Mulvey adds that the women’s appearance is ‘coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness’ (Mulvey, 1989:19) but in Top Hat, we can verify that Fred Astaire’s numbers stop the show and rely on the spectacle connoting the same ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’. This quality being seen in a male performer can be problematic to the way masculinity is being portrayed because as Cohan puts it ‘The genre has placed him [the male performer] in the very position which the representation system of classic Hollywood cinema has traditionally designated as “feminine” ’ (Cohan and Hark, 1993:47). Although Fred Astaire can be found in a position that has been represented as feminine before, one should not make the assumption that his masculinity is totally erased or feminized rather one should argue that his masculinity is constructed by very important factors. For instance, in Top Hat, when Fred Astaire performs the number ‘No strings (I’m fancy free)’ he is declaring his preference for bachelorhood, meaning that his number will sustain his power as a dominant male in the narrative, but for Cohan even if the number sustains his masculinity it also ‘stops the show to insist upon his own ability to signify “to-be-looked-at-ness”’ (Cohan and Hark, 1993:47). We can argue that neither the man is feminized or the woman is...
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