Monday, February 15, 2016

Core Post #1: Masculinity, John Wayne, and NxNW

I felt that the readings this week tied in well together, addressing various aspects of masculinity, star image, and cultural/historical context, specifically in regards to western icon John Wayne and Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest. (Apologies for this long post -- I mostly talk about Wayne, but I briefly touch on NxNW towards the end).

The Willis reading was a comprehensive overview of John Wayne's character, masculinity, and popularity. Although I knew he was an iconic star, I didn't know much about him going into this reading (or Stagecoach), so this was especially informative. Willis points out that Wayne not only epitomized the American male through his overtly masculine features, gait, and physical strength, but also through his political prowess and unrelenting representation of America's desired image. Willis writes that "when [Wayne] was called the American, it was a statement of what his fans wanted America to be." While other stars, such as Rudolph Valentino or Marilyn Monroe, were popular because of their "cult" followings in relation to a specific aspect of their appeal (such as Monroe's sexuality), Wayne was more than a film star. He embodied American values, and his celebrity persona  much outlived his physical self.

When we analyze celebrities, I feel as though the older stars and their followings contain much more depth than their contemporary counterparts. Perhaps it's because more scholars have studied older stars. Wayne was connected to President Richard Nixon, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and numerous other political and cultural figures (such as Joan Didion). Are there any stars today that we could claim have a similar impact on our culture and society? Of course, the line between politician and celebrity has become less apparent with the rise of digital media and television -- Donald Trump is a good example of this. Can we argue that contemporary celebrity culture has become more superficial (perhaps due to tabloids, yellow journalism, sensationalism, etc)? And if so, what does this say about how our society has evolved?

Masculinity is an interesting construct in it of itself. Wayne was also a popular star because of how Americans defined the ideal male back then: physically attractive, white, strong, good at his job, woman-wooer. How has that changed now? Hollywood has become (somewhat) more racially diverse, but the notions of physical attractiveness, physical strength, and ability to provide for a family (or a woman, further hinting at feminine submissiveness and inferiority) haven't budged much. When we look at social progress, it's perhaps most important to look at the media's portrayals of whomever we are studying. If our image of the ideal man hasn't changed much, what does this say about the values that our country considers important? Certainly, one could say that physical attractiveness is very important.

The Cohan reading discussed North by Northwest and Cary Grant's characterization in the film in response to Cold War paranoia and the "emasculation of the American male." I found this analysis very interesting -- I have seen this film many times before, but this reading brought forth a lot of important insight. The power of Eve Kendall, and Thornhill's incompetence displays some shifting of social power, though in the end, the man wins out. Although it's interesting to analyze gender here through Eve's character, the reading capitalizes on the male crisis through dissecting Roger. It is not the uprising of feminism here, but the downfall of traditional family and male values in response to post-war efforts and paranoia.

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