“How does masculinity express itself today? What are the challenges it currently faces?In his book ‘Masculinities and Culture’, John Beynon (2002) questions the idea that “masculinity is cultural”. Beynon (2002) also highlights the idea that masculinity is constructed by circumstance, the location in which the individual finds themselves and that it is dependent on the type of individual. Beynon (2002) also quotes that masculinity is “shaped and expressed differently at different circumstances in different places by individuals and groups” (Berger et al, 1995). Beynon (2002) also states hat the concept of “masculinity’ is composed of many masculinities”, meaning that there is no definitive answer in regards to the question of ‘what is masculinity’ as masculinity is “expressed differently at different times” (Beynon, 2002).
Connell (1995), in the book ‘Masculinities’, says that the various definitions of the term masculinity have been “mostly taken” from “our cultural stand point”, which emphasises that deciding who is or is not masculine is also dependent on the type of person making this decision.
Steve Craig (1992) in the book ‘Men, Masculinity and the Media’ defines masculinity as “what a culture expects of its men”, which I personally read to mean that a culture can shape a masculinity. This will cause it to be reflected within various representations of masculinity.In order to answer the question “how does masculinity express itself today?” and “what are the challenges it currently faces”, I am going to explore the concept of masculinity in close relation to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which consists of television programmes and feature films. I will be primarily focusing on the masculinities that are displayed through the characters of Agent Grant Ward and Agent Leopold Fitz from the television series ‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ (2013- present). I will also be exploring the masculinities displayed by Steve Rogers also known as Captain America from ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ (Johnston, 2011). I have chosen these case studies because I believe that they display a unique and different perspectives on what masculinity is. “The characters of Ward and Fitz in particular serve to illustrate a view of masculinity which is rarely seen on television” (Lady Geek Girl and Friends, 2014).In the book ‘Masculinities’ (Connell, 1995), it states that there are four categories of masculinity. These categories are as followed: hegemonic, complicit, marginalised and subordinate. Hegemonic masculinity “is the dominant form that is expected in our society” (Mediatechnologyeducation.pbworks.com, 2018). The characteristics of this particular category of masculinity include the male being heterosexual, white, physically strong and having the ability to suppress their emotions.Within ‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D’, the character of Agent Leopold Fitz (portrayed by Iain De Caestecker) is an example of subordinate masculinity. This is so due to the fact that Ftz is in possession of “qualities that are opposed to those that are valued in hegemonic masculinity” (Mediatechnologyeducation.pbworks.com, 2018). Fitz frequently acknowledges and expresses his own emotions. The character of Leopold Fitz is often rarely viewed as the stereotypical masculine male. Fitz is not recognised for being physically strong, or for suppressing his emotions and for lusting after females. Fitz is usually recognised for his intelligence. The character of Leopold Fitz frequently “confronts his own emotions” (Lady Geek Girl and Friends, 2014), especially in terms of his own masculinity, his fear of violence and his love for Jemma Simmons (Interrante, 2015). During the seventeenth episode of the show’s first season titled ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ (Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., 2014), John Garrett (Bill Paxton) is revealed to be a double agent and he then begins to aggressively threaten Fitz, Phillip Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Melinda May (Ming Na Wen). In this scene, Fitz becomes overly emotional and he expresses the emotion of sadness and he begins to cry, making his character appear weak and fragile. Weakness is not a trait that is considered to be viewed as masculine. “Tears are represented as liquid emotions” (Shamir and Travis, 2002). It is often stated by the character of John Garrett that Fitz’s ability to express emotions through tears is humorous; he continuously insinuates that it does not make him a “real man”. “Fitz is allowed to express emotion” (Ray Guns Must Be Disabled at All Times, 2016) and is never thought of any less of a man. “Fitz is visibly upset when he shoots a HYDRA soldier and cries when confronted by Garrett yet Fitz is still presented as courageous” (Ray Guns Must Be Disabled at All Times, 2016) . ‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D’ often present the character of Leopold Fitz as a hero due to his ability to admit how he feels to himself and others in various situations. This presents a challenge that masculinity faces in today’s society because it appears tricky for a male to reveal and express how they are feeling in situations. This is tricky because it is considered to be feminine, not masculine, to express sensitive emotions or to cry.Within ‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’, the character of Grant Ward (portrayed by Brett Dalton) is the physical embodiment of the dominant hegemonic masculinity. This is evident as Ward clearly expresses a romantic interest for Skye, he displays his strength and he suppresses his emotions of sadness and pain. ‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ expresses the idea that to be masculine you should suppress any forms of sensitive emotions through the character of Grant Ward, but by presenting this idea, they are not stating that you have to suppress emotions in order to be masculine. In his book ‘Masculinities and Culture’, Beynon (2002) states that a man should suppress his emotions by highlighting the idea that “emotions are signs of weakness”. As previously stated in this essay, individuals in today’s society view a male with a weakness as feminine. This ideology is commonly reflected through the character of Grant Ward as he feels that he has to hide any sensitive emotions that he feels in order for himself to be seen as masculine. A practical example of this character suppressing his emotions in order to appear more masculine features within the first episode of the first season titled ‘Pilot’ (Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., 2013). After being injected with the ‘truth serum’, Grant Ward acts stoically in regards to the level of pain that he suffered during the act. After being asked whether or not it hurt, Ward firmly replies “no” (S01E01). However, he later states “I always try to mask my pain in front of beautiful women because I think it makes me seem more masculine” (S01E01). This dialogue from the character of Grant Ward further expresses the ideology that for a male to be considered masculine, the male should hide the pain and hurt that he has suffered in order to be seen as strong. This makes the male appear masculine as a characteristic of masculinity is stoicism and emotional repression.Another example of the ideal version of masculinity involving stoicism and emotional repression features within episode twenty one of ‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D’ titled ‘Ragtag’ (Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., 2014). In this episode, it is revealed that Ward had been taught that to show emotion and to care about people was a weakness. John Garrett told Ward that he needed to “fight that weakness” within himself, telling him that he “cannot get attached to anyone or anything” (S01E21). “Garrett constantly drills into Ward that feelings are a weakness” (Ray Guns Must Be Disabled at All Times, 2016). “Ward has been taught to think of caring for other people as a weakness, as many boys in today’s society are taught” (Lady Geek Girl and Friends, 2014). “The strong silent type has been a manly ideal for a long time” (Shira, 2016), this presents a challenge for masculinity in today’s society because some individuals find it hard to go against what they know. The ideal of the ‘strong silent type’ is wholly embodied through the character of Grant Ward, however, I do believe this ideal of masculinity is outdated because it is stated that it is important for males to be able to express emotions (Ladwig, 2016). It is said that it is important for a male to be able to express how he is feeling because it is vital to their “personal health and well-being” (Ladwig, 2016). The suppression of a male’s emotions proves a challenge to the masculinity of the males today because “boys learn that sharing their feelings is less than manly” (Shira, 2016). This would, in addition to the images that are typically viewed in the media, highlight that it is not masculine to express emotions because it they have been informed that it is not masculine. Therefore they will fear expressing their own emotions due to the fear for being perceived as feminine.The character of Grant Ward is often presented as a hyper masculine male. Beynon (2002) states that hyper masculinity is “an exaggerated display of the overtly ‘masculine” in the way that they look and the way in which the male would act. Hyper masculinity is also known as toxic masculinity. For an individual to be considered as hyper masculine, they need to be in possession of the negative characteristics of what it means to be of the male gender. Grant Ward “embodies the toxic elements of manliness” (Ray Guns Must Be Disabled At All Times, 2016). A characteristic of hyper masculinity is that the male is overly aggressive. ‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ illustrates hyper masculinity within men through a scene that features the character of Skye (Chloe Bennet) and Grant Ward. Whereas the character of “Fitz is unthreatened by intelligent and competent women” (Ray Guns Must Be Disabled At All Times, 2016), Grant Ward is threatened by powerful and intelligent women. Laura Mulvey (1973), in her essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ wrote that “the woman as icon always threatens to evoke castration anxiety”. This means that men are often afraid of the power that women have over them. Skye’s intelligence is seen as threatening to Grant Ward’s masculinity which causes aggression within himself, which he then takes out on Skye. Mulvey (1973) also wrote that “the male unconscious has two avenues of escape from this anxiety (castration): fetishism or punishment”. In a scene from the twenty second episode from the first season titled ‘Beginning of the End’, Skye tries to take on Ward one-to-one, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. Ward appears to find this altercation intimidating because he then threatens to “take what he wants” from Skye, telling her “maybe I’ll just take what I want, wake up something inside of you”. Many audience members read the scene between the pair as a rape threat which further caused me to discover that the character was aggressive and that he had fear for beautiful women who has power over him. This shows that Ward has taken the avenue of punishment to escape from his fear of the attractive and intelligent female. Ward made this threat because he was afraid of what Skye could do and he was angered by it. It appears that Ward needed to re-assert his dominance as he felt that because Skye was taking over the role of the dominant character, he was losing his sense of his own masculinity. To me, this is an element of how masculinity is expressed today. This also poses as a challenge for masculinity today because this is a type of masculinity that has been explored in many different pieces of media and the challenge would be to delve always from what is currently being shown to many, whether that be through the television or the film industry.Masculinity today is expressed through the physical fitness and appearance of the male body. Kirkham and Thurmin (1993) in their book ‘You Tarzan: Masculinity, Movies and Men’, explored the creation of masculinity within feature films. It is stated within the book that the male body has the connotations of “power” and “strength”, to name a few. In the chapter ‘The White Man’s Muscles’ from Richard Dyer’s 1997 book ‘White’, Dyer suggests that males express their dominance through the physical fitness of their bodies. Dyer (1997) also highlights the idea that the bare white male body is depicted as an image of “power” and “dominance”. The concept of the ideal male body, is expressed through the character of Steve Rogers who features within ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ (Johnston, 2011). In this element of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Chris Evans portrays the title character Captain America who is also known as the “rejected military soldier” (IMDb.com, 2019) Steve Rogers. During the beginning of the film, Steve Rogers weighs ninety five pounds and is five foot, four inches in height. This is considerably smaller than all the other men who are trying to enlist in the US Army. Steve Rogers is then rejected from the US Army multiple times due to his body being small, skinny and scrawny. Steve was rejected due to the fact that his body “doesn’t fit the standards of the US military” (Garcia, 2011). However, Steve Rogers was determined to enlist and kept trying; this qualified him to participate within a scientific experiment to transform him into the masculine super soldier. After emerging from the machine post-experiment, Steve Rogers’ body was transformed to that of what is the shared idea of the ideal male body. Steve Rogers became “tall, muscular, seemingly indestructible, with perfectly parted hair” (Garcia, 2011). Due to the experiment, Steve Rogers , then weighed two hundred and forty pounds and has the height of six foot, two inches. The medium long shot of Steve’s bare, recently transformed body held on screen for approximately forty seconds. This shot was celebrated as an image of strength, dominance and power by many. Agent Peggy Carter (portrayed by Hayley Atwell) approaches Steve and she reaches out and touches Steve’s bare chest. This appears to be an action based on her reflex. However, this action “draws in the audiences’ gaze” (Garcia, 2011) to the ideal of the masculine body that Steve Rogers is in possession of. It was stated that Steve Rogers “possessed a champion body” (Garcia, 2011), the fact that Steve Rogers had to have a physically fit and healthy body, promotes the idea that to be masculine you have to be athletic. To conclude, in today’s society masculinity is expressed through the ideas of emotional suppression, stoicism and athleticism. However, masculinity is also viewed as having the ability to admit your feelings to yourself and to others, by expressing your emotions through actions such as crying. In today’s society, the concept of masculinity faces many challenges, but the main challenge is to break the stereotype that is commonly reflected throughout the media daily.Word Count: 2436