The Making of the Modern Man
By Madeleine Rose Elliott, 2016
According to the principles of the ruling ideology and the psychical structures that back it up, the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification.
There’s only a few things I really care about in my life; my body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls and my porn.
(Don Jon, 2013, 3mins)
What is masculinity? Don Jon; a seducer of women with gym built muscles, a nice car and the defensive aggression towards any threat of his machismo is the perfect representation of constructed masculinity. In 2013, Joseph Gordon-Levitt wrote, directed and starred in this comedy-drama film, based on the fictional libertine Don Juan (Encyclopedia Britannia, 2015), which attempts to unveil the complexities hidden in the exaggeration of the male stereotype, or the hyper-masculine, and how media can warp our views on relationships. Based in New Jersey, America, Jon Martello (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) struggles with a porn addiction and dissatisfaction with sex when he becomes involved with Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), whose expectations of men come from romantic-comedy films. The modern man actively objectifies himself and his life; ‘my body…my girls’ (ibid.), the man who owns everything is perceived as the hyper-male and avoids objectification by others. ‘Whatever is culturally associated with the culturally regarded feminine presents a potential castration’ (Mackinnon, 1997, pg. 25), any threat of emasculation, anything that could be deemed feminine or weak, becomes a spark for aggression and defence. But how detrimental are the consequences of this hyper-masculinity, to men and society?The ideal man is one who looks sculpted from the marbles of ancient Greece. At least, that is what body builder’s aim to look like, (Pumping Iron, 1977) and most probably many guys who frequent the gym, as Don Jon’s character does. To them, the body is not a tool for life, but a piece of art to be sculpted and made beautiful. One of the most famous depictions of the male figure, Michelangelo’s David (See Fig. 1), is part of a wide Greek tradition to celebrate the nude male. The penis was viewed as a symbol of power, moderation and intellect; specifically these things were associated with smaller, non-erect penises. These statues were ‘idealised in the form of gods’ (Easthope, 1992, pg.12), icons for every man to live up to. In these times, ‘only grotesque, foolish men who were ruled by lust and sexual urges had large penises in ancient Greece’ (Goldhill, 2016), whereas today these concepts have merged and divided. A man is degraded in modern male culture if he has a small penis; he is inferior to those without. Instead, his masculinity and power is restored through material objects, or exaggerated displays of machismo. An expensive or “flashy” car is seen as over-compensation to counteract this threat to ‘his precarious sense of masculinity’ (Mackinnon, 1997, pg.27). This means that many men exteriorize their own worth and masculinity, explicitly portrayed in Don Jon’s own list, ‘my body, my pad, my ride’ (ibid.) of the things that make him who he is. They measure from their surroundings and acts and thus, objectify their lives. However, they disavowal any issue because of concern for this exact threat to their machismo, therefore, all men in turn perform to these standards of masculinity.
Both the developments of the hyper-masculine and the ideological male figure merge together into the sport of bodybuilding. As Don Jon exhibits in its many gym scenes, many men view their body as something to be worked on. It is not purely for joy, although this may be part of it, but a task and a performance of masculinity. Jon stares at himself in the mirror (See Fig. 2), emanating narcissism in his activity. He proves to himself his own machismo, which is constantly encouraged by his friends as they idolise his façade. Arnold Schwarzenegger, about becoming a bodybuilder, stated ‘I wanted to be so big I was feared’ (Pumping Iron, 1977). There is a whole aspect to bodybuilding that is about the shaming of other men into feeling inferior. In competitions, men stand next to each other, displaying their muscles in the most toned and proportioned poses, literally making themselves look as big as possible, as if they were animals fighting for dominance. Adverts shame “skinny” men (See Fig. 3) into thinking they are worth nothing if they don’t obtain the ideal body and that with it they can become heroes and obtain any woman they want, portraying men as an object of desire (only once this transformation has taken place) and the women as a trophy for heroic feats. However, bodybuilders avoid the passivity of objectification that women are subject to, through active participation and display of strength and power. There is, on the other hand, a tension as the body hair is removed, curves are accentuated, as if breasts are developing, and ‘the addition of oil to the body, the muscles, [are] the visible marker of ‘masculinity’, yet, at the same time, it exposes the body more to the gaze, renders it more ‘to-be-looked-at’ and thus feminized’ (Mackinnon, 1977, pg. 41). Thus, as the body becomes hyper masculine is it emasculated at the same time and then exhibited in a display of power and dominance.
This internal battle of men trying to be themselves in a society which promotes individuality, whilst also living up to the social construct of masculinity could be one reason the rates of male suicide is the second highest in 15 years, with 4,623 suicide deaths in the U.K in 2014. It is the biggest killer of men under 45 (Doward, 2015). Not only is it a danger for men themselves but, also, if it is taught that anything socially regarded as feminine poses a threat to masculinity, this leads to aggression, misogyny and homophobia (Mackinnon, 1997, pg.25); In Don Jon, Jon is asked whether his ‘parents or his girlfriend’ picked a night class for him and in turn (50mins), feeling like his masculinity is under threat if his girlfriend is making decisions for him, he lashes out aggressively and storms away from the scene. This theory has coined the term Masculinity Discrepancy Stress, in which men who felt they were not masculine enough ‘had the highest rates of DWIs (Driving While Impaired) and were more likely to commit severe acts of assault’, with links also connecting to domestic violence (Adams, 2016). In addition to the damage these standards cause to a man’s mental health, this is turn could also create a risk to others around them.
There is no argument that the objectification of men exists, confining them into a set of convictions and attitudes. At a young age, children are defenceless against and shaped by their external influences, especially from within the family home; the argument of nature versus nurture is on going, but the latter perpetuates the myth of masculinity. Jon’s father, ironically also named Jon, is an exact double of himself; white tank top with a gold chain and a stern look, however, more unstable, possessive and exhibiting a flow of constant aggression. Jon Sr. offers the perspective into what Jon’s future would be like, if his path is not altered: ‘[his dad is] sort of a mean dude, who’s sort of emotionally unavailable, ignores his family, sort of objectifies women as badly as his son does, if not worse’ (Gordon-Levitt, 2013). The tension that Gordon-Levitt creates between the two reveals aspects of an Oedipus Complex, a Freudian study wherein a boy desires the love of one parent, usually the mother, and in turn forms a ‘rivalry with the father and [fears] castration.’ (Connell, 2005, pg. 9) In these family dinner scenes, hostility emerges any time one feels his masculinity is threatened, the two men actually square up to each other at one point after Jon is called ‘a kid’ by his father (28mins), not too dissimilarly to the display put on by bodybuilders in competition.
There is one important and historical difference between the objectification of men and women; in the eyes of society, government and law, men once owned women. The one time Jon Sr. appears to present any feelings of affection towards his wife when telling of when they first met, he states his first thought was ‘That’s mine’ (40mins). This idea of men’s ownership is one of the main reasons why men’s objectification may not be viewed as of serious an issue. Up until the 20th century, women were viewed as property. In the 15th Century, when a couple got married they became ‘a single person, because they are one flesh and blood’ (Bracton, 2014), but as the women took the man’s name and had no legal right to hold property, vote, go to court or have legal ownership over their own children, it is clear that this ‘single person’ they became, was the man.
Putting a word to the most obvious social dynamics is the first step toward ending inequality. Words like “sexism” and “racism” make clear that different treatment based on sex or race is something other than the natural state of things; the invention of the term “Ms” shed light on the fact that men simply existed in the world while women were identified based on their marital status.
But even though women now are able to do all these things, all through society today men still feel the same ownership and entitlement to women. A new wave of Rape Culture awareness has swept through media in the last few years, fighting against victim shaming; when women are deemed partly to blame because of reasons like outfits that are “too revealing” or having drunk too much alcohol. However, as Ariella Azoulay explains it ‘[the man] knows or supposes that until a moment ago it would have been available to him and he doesn’t understand why [it] has been taken away’ (Azoulay, 2008, pg. 232) (the ‘it’ meaning sex with a woman). The sudden rejection damages the masculine ego and, in many cases, leads to aggression under the threat of castration, but also this idea of a man’s ownership of a woman creates a sense of entitlement and thus, she does not have the right to say no. This is why many cases of rape happen, whether it is a stranger or someone familiar to them. Just because we no longer have great, towering statues of nude men with this ‘phallic power’ on display does not mean it ceases to exist in today’s society. Therefore, unless there is an extensive shift in our culture and deep-rooted attitudes, and the symbol of phallic power completely diminished, the illusion of masculinity will continue to corrupt men and women and thus, along with it the sense of ownership and entitlement.
The media plays an exceptionally important role in influencing the public’s views and opinions. Children’s TV shows aim to teach them the morals and standards of life, but this carries on into adulthood too. In Don Jon, Barbara’s character embodies how the romantic-comedy genre manipulates many women into absurd and idealistic relationship expectations. In turn, she attempts to shape Jon into this role of romantic masculinity, the conviction repeatedly being emphasised that ‘when a real man loves a woman, he doesn’t mind doing things for her. He’ll do anything for her’ (1:20mins). Her character portrays these ingrained gender-roles that exist in our society, ideas about chivalry, marriage and that men shouldn’t clean because ‘its not sexy’ (48mins). In contrast, Jon’s character’s expectations of sex and relationships form through watching pornography. Although he outright states that romantic comedies are completely fake he believes that in pornography, they’re ‘not pretending’ (42mins). However, as a result of these unrealistic expectations, he can no longer feel satisfied by real sex, lacking any connection with the actual women he sleeps with. Even the women he sees on magazine covers are there to ‘please him’, presenting a one sided relationship and that women are there to dote on men. Don Jon shows how people are constantly objectifying each other into their own set of ideals, instead of actually connecting to one another.
Conflictingly, Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrays Jon to be an exaggerated example of hyper-masculinity, yet, because of his expectations, he is incapable of connecting to a woman and is completely dissatisfied after sex. Thus, by externalising his masculinity he leads to his own sexual emasculation, provoking insecurity around his machismo and, therefore, aggressive outbursts, a similar result that is seen in the external feminisation of the body builder’s physical appearance. The director clearly shows the abundance of media portrayals of women (porn, magazines, advertisements), yet we never see any portrayals of men in this way. The hyper-masculine stereotype Jon has learnt to live by has been taught from his father and reinforced by his friends; it is not a representation crisis, there are no statues of the ideal man, like David (ibid), but it is already ingrained into society.
Throughout the film, Jon actively objectifies his own body and everything in his life he believes is in his ownership (women in the night club, for example) and because of this, he is never sexually objectified by anyone else. He does, however, sexually objectify almost all the women he comes into contact with, rating from 1-10, or ‘dimes’ as he calls them (5mins). The women in the night club look over at him, the willing smiles on their lips (See Fig. 4), but they only seem to do so after they notice his gaze on them, after noticing that they are being watched because ‘men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at’ (Berger, 1972, pg.47). Women objectify themselves into a spectacle. Both parties suppress each other into a certain role; Jon looks at these women as a sexual conquest and, from Jon’s description, the women want an intimate sexual experience, although the viewer is never actually told the women’s own intentions.This is the layout used time and time again throughout media and reality. A recent advert for Levi’s (See Fig. 5) depicts a man getting dressed into his Levi jeans and leaving a woman in the bed, after what is hinted as a one night stand, and her getting up, putting on her own Levi jeans, frustrated but unsurprised to find herself alone. For this situation to be reproduced in an advert, the company must know that many people, especially women, will relate to the situation, meaning it must be a common occurrence. The difference here is that the man returns, telling the viewer that this man – this man that wears these Levi jeans – is different and he will not leave you abandoned. He is used as a mannequin for a product, however, ‘[he disavowals his] own status [of objectification] through an emphasis on [his] activity and thus, it would appear, masculinity, serving to deny the threat of passivity’ (Mackinnon, 1997, pg.21). Compared to women, who are portrayed submissive and often unaware of objectification, men, like Jon’s character, are aware and active in their objectivity.
Whilst Don Jon often utilises the same techniques it pokes fun at, these characters have been created by Joseph Gordon-Levitt to be relatable to the wider audience. Men and women are constantly objectifying and constricting each other into performances of masculinity and femininity; ideals passed on through family values, media and social constructs. However, men play an active role in their objectification whilst conforming to the ideologies of masculinity, diminishing any threat of castration by others. Thus, what they cannot bare is the idea of emasculation or feminisation. As a result of history, ‘it is not possible within patriarchal culture to retain a sense of neat separation between biological male-ness and phallic power’ (Mackinnon, 1997, pg. 12). However, it is no longer known what this ‘biological male-ness’ may be, as society has never known another way. It is a valid conclusion that if the myth of masculinity is completely exposed as a social construct, then many acts of misogyny, homophobia and general aggression will fade with it, as men will no longer have to revert to ‘exaggerated displays of machismo to reassert [their] precarious sense of masculinity’ (Mackinnon, 1997, pg. 27).
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