Hard men, soft men:
cinematic manliness

by Marian Jebb

from Jump Cut, no. 40, March 1996, pp. 85-88
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1996, 2006

Clover, Carol J. Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. London: British Film Institute, 1992

Jeffords, Susan. Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era. New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994.

In this review I intend to assess and compare two recent books on socio-cultural issues in film: Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film by Carol J. Clover and Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era by Susan Jeffords. The former aims to analyze the meanings generated around gender in horror films of the late 1970s and 1980s, and audience reactions to these messages. Jeffords' book relates the dominant themes during Ronald Reagan's presidency to dominant themes in contemporary Hollywood action films, focusing particularly on the images of masculinity to be found in such films. Despite the apparent gulf between these two texts in terms of subject matter and approach, an analysis of the authors' arguments suggests certain strong relations between gender issues in mainstream and "slasher" or "stalker" movies. The fact that the books cover roughly the same period is important, enabling some measure of cross-genre comparison with reference to external events. They explore how social and cultural issues help to shape any film's agenda and ensure recognition from its audience.

Rather than taking the more usual perspective on gender issues in films and analyzing their take on femininity and feminism, both Clover and Jeffords choose to concentrate on films' portrayal of men and interpretation by male viewers. Cinematic discourses around "masculinity" are a central theme, although what constitutes the "masculine" in such films — physical strength, stamina, ruthlessness, and lack of emotion — may not match the attributes of real-life men. Both authors also discuss the assumption of these "masculine" attributes by female characters, who now fulfill the central heroic role in the majority of slasher films.

In Men, Women and Chainsaws Clover focuses primarily on audience understanding of, pleasure in, and identification with the genre loosely termed "slasher." There's a class of low-budget horror films which usually have a numeral in the title, scorned by most reviewers but gleefully received by audiences of both genders. Such films, uniform and predictable in their format, tend to be clarified by their especially distinct gender role making. The serial killer provides continuity from victim to victim and sequel to sequel and he tends to be a dysfunctional male, ostracized by society, rejected by women, mocked by normal boys and men. Among Clover's plentiful examples are A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET's child molester Freddy Krueger, killed by an angry mob of righteous citizens but returning to take his revenge; FRIDAY THE 13TH's masked Jason Vorhees, preying on sexually active teenagers after drowning as a child because his camp counselors were more interested in each other than their charges; the entire, male-dominated family of deformed social outcasts who run an abattoir in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. A recurrent suggestion in such films is that the killer is not only less than human but also somehow less than masculine. He is repulsive to women, and he murders them and the young men who successfully couple with them. He may be a transvestite, as in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS — a mainstream thriller that draws heavily on the slasher tradition — or excessively attached to his mother, as in FRIDAY THE 13Th Part 2, where Jason creates a shrine to his murderous parent. The forerunner of all of these, of course — PSYCHO's Norman Bates — was both.

If the slasher movie's killer is typically less than masculine, its hero, usually female, is forced to become more than a filmic symbol for "femininity." Clover argues that the monster's most resilient potential victim is set apart from her friends by her pseudo-male characteristics.

"The image of the distressed female most likely to linger in memory is the image of the one who did not die: the survivor, or Final Girl. She is the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of her preceding horror and her own peril…She alone looks death in the face, but she alone also finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued (ending A) or to kill him herself (ending B)." (p. 35)

The Final Girl's long struggle with her male attacker — his voyeurism and occasional lechery (witness the notorious bathing scene in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, where Freddy Kreuger's rapacious metal talons emerge from the water between Nancy's legs as she dozes) suggesting sexual intent — concludes with her proving herself superior to him in terms of intelligence, ingenuity and finally endurance. She rises above her physical weaknesses by means of these qualities, placing herself in the role of hero where her boyfriend, brother or father failed, and the destructibility of aggressive, athletic or powerful male characters serves to blur previously clear-cut gender roles. Clover points out that the Final Girl's status as a loner, her behavior and even her name may set her apart from the film's other girls.

"The practised viewer distinguishes her from her friends minutes into the film. She is the Girl Scout, the bookworm, the mechanic…The Final Girl is boyish, in a word. Just as the killer is not fully masculine, she is not fully feminine-not, in any case, feminine in the ways of her friends. Her smartness, gravity, competence in mechanical and other practical matters, and sexual reluctance set her apart from the other girls and ally her, ironically, with the very boys she fears or rejects, not to speak of the killer himself." (p. 39)

These characteristics are established via a system of signs throughout the film's narrative. HALLOWEEN's Laurie indicates her anxieties about dating near the beginning of the film, and is clearly set apart from the paired-off friends whom she alone survives. The heroine of FRIDAY THE 13TH, Alice, rejects the sexual advances of her boss (although her successors in the film's seemingly endless sequels are less determined, and later survive with and because of their male partners). In ALIEN, Ripley is only distinguished as a survivor with her seemingly brutal, yet highly practical refusal to allow an alien-impregnated crewmember back onto the ship. These qualities of independence and resolve indicate the Final Girl's opposition both to her more feminine friends and to her less than manly predator.

While the Final Girl may not always look different to other women, the heroines of certain mainstream action movies which are strongly influenced by honor themes — the ALIEN and TERMINATOR series — exhibit strong, worked-out bodies, proficiency with powerful weapons, and more resourcefulness than their male counterparts.[1][open notes in new window] Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor are determinedly self-sufficient, opting out of conventional romantic partnerships though both are sexually active at some point in the narrative. Because of these traditionally "masculine" qualities, Clover argues that male audiences can safely identify with these and other Final Girls despite their femaleness.

Nonetheless, a certain amount of confusion around audience identification is retained via the camera's intimacy with the serial killer. Shots from his point of view during pursuit and attack, plus clear signaling of the next victim, lead the audience to anticipate the impending slaughter and even to cheer the killer on. Yet in the final reel of the film, as the tables are turned on the psychopath, the viewers turn their allegiance to the heroine and cheer her victory with as much gusto. As male pretenders are taken out of the running and only the Final Girl remains to engage audience sympathy, her character being far more developed than those of the other victims, the role of hero is effectively transferred to her. In a specific type of slasher film, the rape-revenge movie, the vengeful heroine acquires the status of an icon, and the cultural significance almost of a Rambo.

Susan Jeffords' subject matter and agenda, unlike Clover's, are concerned with the cinematic mainstream and with political rather than psychological signposts. She relates the themes of 80s action films which iconized "hard," fit male bodies and patriotic values to those which characterized Reagan's presidency. The qualities which assured the president's popularity and the ways in which he was/is understood by Americans can be equated with those of action heroes and texts: strength, "masculinity," virility, conservative values and family stability. A figure who embodied the seemingly conflicting qualities of stability and showbiz glamour. Reagan himself had more in common with the hard-bodied hero than was at first apparent. Both were paternalistic figures who seemed to defend "us" — the vulnerable, voiceless public embodied in underprivileged groups, women and children, trusting military troops — from them — foreign entities or internal "bad seeds" who threatened U.S. autonomy. This palatable, physically reassuring facet of conservatism never failed to eradicate the enemy and hence reassure Americans of their country's security and supremacy. Reaganite values were inextricably tied up with masculinity, and masculinity in turn was equated with aggression, strength, lack of emotion and single-mindedness: the "hard body," in fact, seemingly as invulnerable as the president's own.

Although corrupt or weak figures in the action genre are also usually male — women typically being relegated to the role of victim or romantic interlude — they are set apart from the hard-bodied hero because of their lack of these clearly defined male qualities, or simply because, as "foreigners," they are naturally against the interests of the United States as embodied by the protagonist. The essential task of the action blockbuster is to imply that "normality" has been restored by its end, no matter how great the chaos created by the plot: the enemy is destroyed, the victims avenged, and the hero's status assured. In the slasher films analyzed in Men, Women and Chainsaws, this narrative closure is often symbolized by the breaking of day or the heroine's emergence into daylight after the killer's destruction, although his immortality may be hinted at in the closing frames.

Jefford's most frequent point of reference, and one which epitomizes her image of the hard body, is the problematic eighties hero Rambo. Obviously a crusader for the United States, and a defender of more vulnerable bodies than his own, John Rambo remained "different" from the rest of society because of his refusal to enter into the camaraderie of the "buddy" film or the family structure, which is now increasingly evident in even hard-core action adventures. This refusal to participate in either male or romantic bonding makes Rambo a figure who excites admiration, even awe, but little in the way of audience identification. He is clearly not one of "them" — the foreign enemies he destroys — but he is not "one of us" either. But his physical strength, utilized only in defense of U.S. people and thus, implicitly, of U.S. values, renders Rambo the product of U.S. ideology and the opposite of soft-bodied tactics which, Jeffords argues, characterized Carter's presidency. The meanings the three RAMBO films produce create around their hero can, therefore, be compared without stretching the imagination too much to those US citizens produced around their president. The obvious Otherness of Rambo's detractors is the key to this comparison.

"…in RAMBO the initial focus has shifted away from Rambo's individual body to that of the anonymous and collective body of the men Rambo is sent to rescue. In a similar fashion, Reagan, by this point in his presidency, had managed to redefine the focus on hostages/captives that had so mesmerised the Carter presidency away from the individual captives to the general status of American bodies." (p. 46)

This comparison epitomizes the ways in which, for Jeffords, physical and ideological meanings are inextricably bound together in eighties mainstream cinema.

BATMAN and its sequel, BATMAN RETURNS, can be adopted as exemplifying the intersection of the two genres and their ideologies. Mainstream and hugely successful films with a hard and active hero who battles a series of dysfunctional mutants, their hero's name and role suggest that he too is a mutant rather than the manly specimens who usually undertake the role of the Hard Body. The armor Batman dons, resembling a well-developed male torso, actually protects Bruce Wayne's soft and vulnerable body, and his reclusiveness and failure to consummate relationships recalls the socially inadequate killers of the slasher film.

Susan Jeffords argues that this problematic brand of heroism symptomizes the differences between the presidencies of Reagan and Bush, and is a product of the films' moment of production:

"As in the Bush presidency, the hard body is being both rejected and embraced, recognized as a burden and as a necessity…as a source of fear and attraction, of goodness and destruction." (pp. 36-37)

The villains of the BATMAN films are far more charismatic than their nominal hero, and the lack of pleasure and recognition derived from Batman's victories set them apart from the all-American triumphs of other action pictures. Moreover, the victims he rescues are typically suspicious rather than grateful, and this affords Batman himself something of the status of victim, unlauded by the society he aims to redeem. Unlike the impassive killing machines of action blockbusters, Rambo and the Terminator, Bruce Wayne/ Batman appears vulnerable to this treatment and to his repeated sexual failures. (In BATMAN RETURNS we learn that Vicki Vale left him after discovering his real identity — like the rest of society, his lover was incapable of accepting the man for himself.) Such rejections leave Batman uncertain and lacking in confidence; his only reliable supporter is the archetypal bachelor companion, the manservant. In BATMAN RETURNS, Wayne's romantic attempts prove doomed once again when Selina, the secretary with whom he shares a mutual attraction, turns out to be his deadly enemy Catwoman, and hence as unavailable as all other women. This pattern is a long way from the sexual success and supreme confidence of, say, LETHAL WEAPON's Martin Riggs.

The notion of creating a harder, less vulnerable, fine-tuned version of man which is mobilized in the science fiction and action films THE TERMINATOR, ROBOCOP and BATMAN and elaborated in their sequels is not a new one. It has its roots in that most gothic of honor creations, Frankenstein and his creation: the intended superman which emerged as a monster. The same description could be applied to each of the above-mentioned futuristic creations. The technology which created them is more elaborate than Frankenstein's reanimation techniques, but the moral is recognizably the same: experiments of this nature, however wonderful the concept, produce flawed mutations. Thus the Terminator is as capable, at the flick of a switch, of destroying humans as defending them; the cyborg Robocop suffers human emotions within a mechanical body; and Batman's inadequacies have already been mentioned. The cyborg, no matter how hi-tech his trappings, is no more than a step away from the accidents of nature which stalk horror fictions — a darker side of the creation of masculinity.

Jeffords comments that the heroes and villains of the typical action blockbuster are distinguished by, among other things, their attitude and recourse to weapons. While "The Enemy" tends to make use of an endless succession of hi-tech guns, infrared, rocket launchers and computer software, the hero and his buddies triumph through a combination of the trusty handgun, brute strength and resourcefulness. (See, for example, THE TERMINATOR, DIE HARD, UNDER SIEGE, TOTAL RECALL, DEMOLITION MAN.) In the slasher film this format is only slightly altered, with the monster deploying a series of increasingly gruesome tools and means to dispatch his victims, while the heroine has to resort to ingenuity.[2]

Yet this, too, is an area where BATMAN departs from established generic signs. The "hero" utilizes sophisticated and futuristic technology, a symbol of Bruce Wayne's vast wealth rather than Batman's crime-fighting abilities. This is a major departure from the original character of Batman, who, although of course possessing the Batmobile and a vast range of other improbable gadgets, was permanently ready to plunge into a fistfight. The new Batman, lacking physical strength and personal conviction, seems unable to succeed at all without recourse to his gadgets. Instead of the bigger, better versions of masculinity offered by sci-fi/ action movies such as ROBOCOP and TERMINATOR 2, BATMAN and BATMAN RETURNS provide an image of a somehow diminished masculinity. The central character is unable to align himself with U.S. hard-bodied heroes because of his lack of physical strength and courage, but also because he fails to be accepted into normal social or family life. He is not a loveable maverick like Martin Riggs or even a warrior for justice like Rambo, but a true loner, whose motivation and moral code are highly personal and fail to fit the patriotic action agenda.

In LETHAL WEAPON, as in other "buddy" movies, the potentially conflicting values of family man and hero are combined through the agency of "soft," conventional Murtaugh and his highly independent partner Riggs. While Riggs draws his partner into adventure, thus enabling him to become a vicarious hero, he is stabilized without responsibility through his acceptance into Murtaugh's ideal all-American home and family. Other action films — COMMANDO, DIE HARD, PATRIOT GAMES — unironically combine nurturing and aggressive qualities in their heroes, family men who ruthlessly destroy any potential threat to their stable values. ALIENS and TERMINATOR 2, glossier sequels to groundbreaking sci-fi/ horror films, rather than imbuing tough heroes with paternalistic qualities, toughen up their mother figures.

"Like the Terminator, Sarah Connor's character is repeated and inverted in the second film. In the first she was uncertain, frightened and weak; in her rebirth she is tough-minded, fearless, and strong…And while she is focusing on being a super-soldier, the Terminator is working on being a better mom, listening to and playing with the son that Sarah hardly notices for all the weapons she is carrying." (pp. 160-62)

Similarly, Ripley in ALIENS has a set of motivations and aspirations beyond those of motherhood. Although she bonds with the child she and the marines discover, and risks her own life to save her, Ripley recalls the male action heroes who manage to attain both a semblance of traditional family life and the means for physical, proactive solutions to problems. Both she and Sarah Connor, motivated as they are by a "maternal instinct," manage to break free from conventional images of passive women in action pictures. Unlike Batman, these action heroes, their qualities and values, have far more in common with Clover's apparently soft-bodied Final Girl of the slasher genre than with the socially inadequate males she battles. It seems that the narrative roles of the hard body and the Final Girl transcend their gender differences.


1. Another character in ALIENS, Vasquez, is deliberately compared to her male fellow marines and repeatedly comes off best in terms of physical strength, bravado and quickness. As she performs a series of chin-ups, the oafish Hicks calls out, "Hey, Vasquez! You ever been mistaken for a man?" "No," she retorts, "have you?" It's a moment that perfectly illustrates the ALIEN films' almost self-conscious rejection of gender difference.

2. Men, Women and Chainsaws, op. cit., p. 31. The issue of male versus female common sense and resourcefulness is neatly reversed in the 1992 mystery THE VANISHING, whose hero Jeff is obsessed by his girlfriend's disappearance. Three years after the event, her kidnapper appears and offers Jeff the opportunity to discover Nancy's fate, but only by going through exactly the same experiences himself. Furious but mesmerised, Jeff allows himself to be drugged and is buried alive by the psychotic kidnapper. His new lover follows him and, on being captured herself, is offered the chance to find out his fate — if she undergoes exactly the same experiences herself. Rita takes a lightning moment to consider and, using the sense her fey boyfriend lacked, guesses his whereabouts. "I'll take my chances," she decides, swiftly KO-ing her captor. This kind of differentiation goes against traditional gender role-making, but fits the picture already drawn of the couple: he's a writer unable to escape his past, she a waitress determined to drag him into the future.