In the 1980s, the epitome of masculinity was a muscular and macho version of the ancient Greek Adonis, at least as far as Hollywood was concerned. Seemingly fearless and with the power to kill anyone or anything that stood in their way, actors like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger wowed audiences with their display of masculinity on screen. However, in the 1990s, a new role model for men appeared. It was a model that contrasted the figure that was prominent in the 1980s: a sensitive, caring, good-looking, slim and yet, importantly, still muscular. This type of man could fight his way out of any situation while having the emotional depth demanded in order to really understand a woman’s needs. Both of these types of masculinity oozed power and control. Director Kathryn Bigelow, nonetheless, shaped a new type of cinematic role model for men through her films.
In The Cinema of Kathryn Bigelow (2003), Deborah Jermyn and Sean Redmond state that 1991 was a pivotal year for screening the male whose representation in fact evolved into this new model of a man. Bigelow’s Point Break (1991) has been widely recognised by critics for offering a fundamental redefinition of masculinity and gender identity. This has been considered to be the starting point of the new model of man that progressed onto our cinema screens. Since Point Break, Bigelow has gone on to direct other action films like Strange Days (1995) and The Hurt Locker (2008), where she continued to screen the male based on this new type of man.
Point Break follows FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) as he tracks down a gang of surfers he believes to be bank robbers. Utah is presented as a strong, good-looking embodiment of this new model of masculinity and the mise-en-scene is constructed in a way that underlines this. Jermyn and Redmond write about the camera cutting and interweaving between Johnny and the leader of the surfers Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), emphasising the way that they use their body language in order to affirm their masculinity. The opening scene displays Johnny in a simulated target arena, killing bad guys and saving the good. He chews gum whilst tensing his muscles in a tight black vest as the rain pours on his wet, smooth hair. Meanwhile Bodhi rides the ocean waves, showing his audacity for extreme sports, and that he is a risk-taker. These are masculine traits of the new man, making him look cool and powerful at the same time.
Jermyn and Redmond mention that Bodhi’s character embodies traits that are conventionally considered as masculine and others that are generally regarded as feminine. He is muscular, his hair wavy and blonde and his voice is soft, with a calming, reassuring tone, suggesting that he is sensitive. However, he is also ruthless and powerful yet somehow he manages to retain his sensitivity. There is a definite bond between the two men, even though they are supposed to be rivals. Jermyn and Redmond suggest that Point Break hints a gender crisis in which the main male protagonists form a homoerotic relationship. They are often screened topless together, for example, engaging in game-playing that necessitates close physical contact. They are in awe of one another and recognise each other’s hegemonic masculinity; they are both alpha males and this ultimately fuels their rivalry and relationship.
The exploration of dominant males has been central to Bigelow’s films and male groups have often been a point of fascination for her, whether being surfers, bikers, police officers or soldiers. In The Hurt Locker, she explores male identity through the main protagonist, Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner) who leads a bomb disposal team in Iraq. He has a boyish charm and is a maverick but at the same time he remains respected. James’s team are initially wary of him due to his young and naive personality, which they fear that would threaten the safety of the rest of the group in the warzone, however, there is a noticeable transformation in James’s relationship with his team. Bigelow uses this transformative journey to create empathy for James and the main characters as we discover more about his tendency for recklessness. This characteristic explores his relationship with death. He does not fear it and shows passion in doing what he enjoys, hinting that he has emotional depth beneath a rebellious exterior.
The exploration of dominant males has been central to Bigelow’s films and male groups have often been a point of fascination for her.
In Strange Days, the protagonist Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is a former cop who receives a data disc that records the feelings and emotions of a murder that he seeks to avenge. Lenny is physically weak, a feature that sets him apart from Bigelow’s other male leads. Like in many of Bigelow’s films, Lenny is a lawful figure chasing a bad guy. In Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls: Gender in Film at the End of the Twentieth Century (2001), Murray Pomerance describes Lenny as a delicate man. He often gets beaten up and is more skilful at using his words rather than his fists. Nonetheless, Lenny is still a representative character of the new male hero. His piercing eyes display love, a desire to fight and willpower, and these attributes compensate for his lack of physical strength. He is more than capable of using a gun and has enough drive and determination, which indicates that he would stop at nothing. While Bigelow’s male protagonists are quite different, they share qualities of the new model of man, suggesting Bigelow enjoys the representation of different types of masculinity in her films.
Women play an important role in defining the new man in Bigelow’s films.
Women play an important role in defining this new man in Bigelow’s films and often display qualities traditionally associated with masculinity. In Strange Days, Lornette “Mace” Mason (Angela Bassett) is powerful, muscular and at times more physically intimidating than men. She is an exceptionally skilled driver and has a quick instinct that helps her avoid trouble. She embodies many masculine traits that Lenny does not seem to possess, consequently reversing conventional gender roles. In Point Break, Tyler (Lori Petty) also connotes power and dominance. Her name is gender-neutral, she has short hair, she takes control and is prone to angry outbursts. However, she cannot cope with the masculine repartee that takes place on the beach when the men play American Football together, and she leaves, saying that there is too much testosterone for her to be around. She later becomes the damsel in distress when she gets kidnapped and needs Johnny to save her. In presenting stronger, more aggressive women and sensitive men, Bigelow frequently tangles with the conventions of gender identity, questioning stereotypes and established ideas of how men and women should act.
The action genre is often perceived as a male targeted genre because of its focus on fast-paced action and violence, yet Bigelow’s action films also have broad appeal on female audiences. Bigelow successfully challenged the 1980s male identity, which was rewarded when she became the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director. The new model of the male hero continues to flourish, as it is evident from the portrayals of deeply emotional and mysterious characters like those offered by Ryan Gosling in action films such as Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011) and Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines (2012). Bigelow has reformed the way in which male masculinity is portrayed on screen and, in doing so, has revolutionised the action genre. The model of the new man is relatable to both male and female spectators, offering a more realistic and identifiable male character than the hyper-masculine 1980s male heroes did •