Whether we like it or not, media shapes who we are and how we look at the world around us. Every piece of media, from books to television to comics to films to video games, acts as a time capsule that holds the social beliefs of the time period in amber. It’s hard to return to some classic films without being reminded that they are “of their time.” This is why it’s valuable to sift through older pieces of culture to find the golden nuggets of social progression within.

I’m often reminded of the beloved 1942 film CASABLANCA. The film stars Humphrey Bogart, the pinnacle of the stoic, hard-nosed male protagonist, as Rick. In one iconic scene, Rick is sitting in his bar with no one but his friend, Sam. After losing the love of his life again, Rick demands that Sam play “As Time Goes By,” the song that Rick and his beloved Elsa claimed as their own. While Sam strums away at the keys, Rick’s face slowly drops as tears fill his eyes. Gone is the tough guy persona that Bogart has crafted over miles of celluloid, as it melts away to reveal the vulnerable lover beneath.

What makes this scene significant is that you’d be hard pressed to find such a raw, emotional scene from an actor like Bogart in that era, and it speaks to the cultural beliefs about men in that time period. They were supposed to be strong, unemotional, and unconcerned about heartbreak.  This rigid gender construct carries itself into our culture over the next few decades, only breaking as the movements of second and third wave feminism begin to take hold in the popular discussion. With these new perspectives on feminism comes the larger discussion of gender roles in our society, including the concept of toxic masculinity.

Toxic masculinity can best be defined as “one of the ways in which Patriarchy is harmful to men […] the socially constructed attitudes that describe the masculine gender role as violent, unemotional, sexually aggressive….” (x) In other words, when men stifle their emotions in unhealthy ways due to the social pressure that tells them to “man-up”? That’s toxic masculinity. The driving source of conflict on this season of THE BACHELORETTE? Toxic masculinity. The way some of you reading might have raised your eyebrows when I mentioned that I, a male, watch THE BACHELORETTE? (Back off, bro, it’s a good show.) Toxic masculinity. My aggressive use of the word “bro” just now? Toxic masculinity. This suppression of any behaviors, interests, or emotions that might be coded as feminine is likely what overwhelmingly leads men to self-destructive and violent behaviors (Source: Tough Guise: Men, Violence, and the Crisis in Masculinity).

While these masculine roles are reinforced by the people within our society, our media reinforces them, as well, with the portrayals of men across mediums. As mentioned before, it can be difficult to divorce art and media from the culture that surrounds it, but if you’re looking for the greatest culprit of reinforcing negative masculine stereotypes and misogynistic portrayals (or outright erasure) of female characters, it’s hard not to look directly to the action film. Due to its use of violence as a solution to every problem, as well as glorification of brawny heroes and poor treatment of female characters, can the action movie save itself from toxic masculinity? Slowly, the modern films of the action genre have found ways to cure themselves of the toxic masculinity problem to give a more nuanced and complex portrayal of both male and female characters.

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Let’s start by looking at one of the biggest modern action films, THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS franchise. Going against expectations, this franchise has steadily improved in quality and scale since its original film in 2001. The first film’s low-stakes story about street racing and truck hijacking seems quaint compared to the later entries involving tank chases and the Rock flexing so hard that his full-arm plaster cast explodes. However, it is this evolution that has escalated the brand to the point where it can become one of the most highly anticipated summer blockbusters each year a new installment arrives. In addition to being hugely popular, this franchise has become one of the most forward thinking franchises in the move away from toxic masculinity.

The films primarily revolve around the relationship between Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker). The two characters are textbook action film archetypes: Brian is an undercover FBI agent and Dom is a street racer, both on opposite sides of the law, and both men who would generally have toxically masculine traits. The first of these traits is an insatiable sexual appetite, like your James Bond types who have a different love interest in every sequel. These two characters, however, maintain steady relationships throughout the films. Brian falls in love with Dom’s sister, Mia (Paget Brewster) in the first film and eventually marries and has a son with her, while Dom’s primary relationship is with Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez). Instead of rotating new love interests in and out of each movie, Mia and Letty have been allowed to grow as characters in their own right and have created a space where the filmmakers can show a rich, developed long-term relationship rather than feeding the idea that men have to be sexual conquerors.

Granted, long-term monogamy is a very low bar to clear to erase decades of harmful masculine portrayals, but the film also presents a subversive portrayal of one of its leads: Dominic Toretto. For the big lunkhead of the franchise, he presents a surprising amount of emotional sensitivity. Dom takes on the roles of both patriarch and matriarch in making sure his  “family” stays together (and that they attend Sunday barbecue). He encourages the familial bond as an outlet for his feelings of love for the people around him. While he rarely expresses that love directly—a symptom of action movies not fully letting go of toxic masculinity—he doesn’t play the lone wolf and treats the men and women in the family as independent individuals.

One of the primary factors reinforcing toxic masculinity within action films, which THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS manages to avoid, is the complete lack of quality female representation within their stories. Even when films have great female characters—Rey in THE FORCE AWAKENS or Black Widow in THE AVENGERS—they are erased in popular culture when merchandise doesn’t represent them. It seems arbitrary, but when a boy doesn’t see a female character put on the same level as male characters, on a toy shelf for example, it reinforces the idea that female characters are less desirable and less important to the narrative. From there, it’s a slippery slope to assuming that men are superior to women. THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS films have managed to circumvent this issue by creating a diverse range of female characters. As the franchise progresses, characters like Mia and Letty, as well as newcomers Elena Neves (Elsa Pataky), Gisele Yashar (Gal Gadot), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), are respected by their male counterparts and are treated as equal partners in action. By having a diverse group of female characters, the series can reduce toxic masculinity by placing male and female characters on an equal playing field, allowing the filmmakers to subvert traditional gender roles in the storyline.

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Another entry in a long-running action franchise that also tackled toxic masculinity in 2015 is STAR WARS VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS. While widely considered classics, the STAR WARS series is notoriously lacking in the department of female representation, a flaw it amends greatly in EPISODE VII and will likely continue to amend in 2016’s ROGUE ONE. In the latest film, the franchise brings back one of its most iconic characters, Han Solo (Harrison Ford); however, many people criticized the character’s regression to his smuggler ways from the hero he became by the end of the original trilogy. In some respects, this regression can be read as a commentary on Solo’s inability to move beyond masculine expectations. Yes, toxic masculinity exists even in a galaxy far, far away. Dating back to A NEW HOPE, Solo is a scoundrel and a selfish criminal, but the fact that he reverts back to his old life after seemingly changing shouldn’t come as a surprise. THE FORCE AWAKENS presents Solo’s relapse as an intergalactic mid-life crisis, the pinnacle of male insecurity—just replace the Ferrari with a Corellian Freighter. Despite his progression to a more selfless man, Solo admits that when his domestic life with Leia became difficult he “goes back to the thing he knew best.” In other words, Solo returns to the comfort and simplicity of masculinity rather than attempting to change. This inability to escape the masculine idea is also reflected in the story of the film’s villain, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

Much like (spoiler alert if you’re one of the 12 people who still haven’t seen THE FORCE AWAKENS) his father Han Solo, Kylo Ren is a victim of toxic masculinity, both within the text of the film as well as meta textually in audience reactions to the character. Although we don’t get the specific circumstances of their estrangement, there is enough textual evidence that Han is part of the reason for his son’s turn to the dark side of the Force. “You feel like [Han Solo] is the father you never had,” Kylo comments to Rey in their first meeting, “He would have disappointed you.” The deeper meaning behind this cryptic phrase is certainly up for debate, but based on Solo’s regression to his traditionally masculine identity, it’s likely that Solo’s lack of emotional honesty with his own son could have been a cause of the damaging effects on Kylo’s psyche.

It’s hard not to see evidence of emotional instability in Kylo Ren as he lashes out violently when he fails. These violent outbursts are a classic symptom of emotional suppression brought on by an inability to properly express male emotions. He is trapped in the spectre of his grandfather, Darth Vader, and desires to attain more power that is ultimately denied to him. Kylo Ren’s need to become like Vader parallels the adolescent male desire to be strong and masculine like their own heroes in the media that reinforces negative masculine traits. Kylo begs the spirit of his grandfather to help him escape the “pull to the light”; in other words, he wants to suppress healthy emotions and embrace the toxic ideal of the dispassionate and dominant male. The ultimate irony is that Kylo Ren has no idea the truth about is idol: that in the end, Vader returned to his true self as Anakin and gave his life to protect his son. If the villainous side of Vader represents the masculine ideal, then Kylo Ren is worshipping a false idol, just as the conceit of how men and women are “supposed” to act is a similarly fraudulent idea. 

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Even outside the realm of the film, Kylo Ren falls victim to toxic masculinity. Fans often joke about his emotional state—see the obnoxious amount of “Emo Kylo Ren” joke Twitters—which ultimately reinforces the masculine ideals that convince men to display their manliness through stoic violence. By showing the harmful effects that societal pressures can have, Kylo Ren acts as a cautionary tale against toxic masculinity, ensuring the audience that the supposed glory of strength and purging of emotion can only lead to ruin.

The apex of toxic masculinity deconstruction also came from last year’s batch of summer blockbusters in the form of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. The film has been lauded for its numerous feminist strengths, but the toxic masculinity conceit is the primary force behind the film’s conflict. The antagonist of the film, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), is toxic masculinity personified. Lording over an army of War Boys, Joe has fashioned himself into a god among his people. The War Boys are completely dedicated to his cause, willing to die to reach “Vallhalla,” while the women are treated like breeding stock and machines to feed the young War Boys. Among these women is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who stands up against Immortan Joe’s totalitarian reign by fleeing the city with his collection of wives. Trapped in the middle of these two factions is Max (Tom Hardy), who wants no part of trying to protect anyone. For the second time in 2015, an action movie directly address the harmful effects of toxic masculinity on both men and women. We see how Immortan Joe’s wives suffer after being treated as slaves, as they repeat “we are not things” as their mantra, a reminder to themselves (and to the audience) of their worth.

Much like the recent FAST AND FURIOUS movies, FURY ROAD is especially considerate in the way it crafts its female characters. Furiosa herself is the most memorable, but each of the wives are given a miniature arc and a specific motivation that makes them distinct characters rather than becoming the homogenous “female.” One of the simplest ways this film combats the idea of toxic masculinity is by crafting these bits of characterization for the brides. By making them each stand as individuals, the audience sees their personhood in a way that Immortan Joe, and many other action films, do not.

On the male end of the spectrum, we see the culture of the War Boys who are all desperate to die to please their alpha male, Immortan Joe. The film focuses on one War Boy, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who is considered the runt within his pack. The film uses the War Boys to explore the social structure of male groups. Each War Boy is intensely competitive while trying to earn Immortan Joe’s favor and validation of their warrior strength. The parallels between the War Boys and the competitions between young boys in social situations are stark. The War Boys put their bodies on the line to please Immortan Joe, and mock any sign of weakness within their ranks.

Nux begins his journey as another poor soul desperate to please his hypermasculine peers. His repeated failure to recapture the wives shatters his masculine illusions and, through the kindness of the brides, he sees the errors in his ways and instead sacrifices himself to bring them to freedom. This may seem as though Nux traded one terrible ideology for another, but consider the matter in which he sacrificed himself: Whenever War Boys are shown sacrificing their lives, they are doing it as part of a suicide attack. This is an explicitly aggressive and dominant, therefore masculine, form of sacrifice, placing the “glory” of the sacrifice on just how deadly the attack can be. Conversely, Nux chooses to invert this tradition and gives his life to defend Max, Furiosa, and the brides. By committing a defensive, passive attack, he is letting go of the toxic hostility that passes for proper masculine behavior to become the eradicator of the masculine force at his heels. Not only is FURY ROAD a socially conscious film, it’s also the best action film to have been released in 2015 all around. By setting the bar so high for both characterization and action, it’s a sign of a more enlightened future for the action genre.

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What all three of these films share is an equal representation for the male and female characters. In what should come as a “no, duh” statement to some that this is one of the easiest ways to repair the toxic masculinity problem: put men and women on an equal playing field, especially in the action genre. Men and women consistently split the amount of tickets sold in theaters right down the middle, but if you look at the offerings in theaters, you would think that men were the only ones buying movie tickets. Sure, we can point to the success of THE HUNGER GAMES and wipe our hands to say “sexism is over,” but for every HUNGER GAMES, there’s a litany of unsung female-driven action films like EVERLY or HAYWIRE that come and go with little to no fanfare. When we reflect on the classic action movies, the list shouldn’t end at DIE HARD and RAMBO; we need to mention ALIEN/ALIENS, LADY SNOWBLOOD, and THE HEROIC TRIO, a film so creative and outright bonkers that it deserves to be placed in the cult classic category alongside other weird action films like BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA and THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI ACROSS THE 8TH DIMENSION.

However, this equal treatment can’t stop at the edges of the movie screen. There is a myriad of incredibly badass women in Hollywood who need to be allowed to cut loose and create action films that will show that being tough is not a specifically male trait. Can anyone name one good reason why Hollywood hasn’t created a female-EXPENDABLES film starring Sigourney Weaver, Pam Grier, Michelle Rodriguez, Zoe Saldana, Elodie Yung, Cynthia Rothrock, Zoe Bell, and Michelle Yeoh (who is a better actor than Brando because she jumped a dirtbike onto a moving train in SUPERCOP, and if you’re not impressed check out the film’s stunt outtakes and watch at the :35 second mark how she almost died before getting it right. Then just go watch all of SUPERCOP because that movie is a treasure)? Fanboys will roll their eyes at the upcoming GHOSTBUSTERS remake, and already the all-female OCEAN’S 11 reimagining is beginning to get some flack, but the fact that there is any push back only highlights the importance of these films. What these critics fail to realize is that through positive representation, we push gender constructs away. We see that not every male has to be strong and sexually aggressive, and we see that not every woman has to be a passive victim. This will even create a space to tear down the binary of gender itself and create characters who have a more fluid gender identity.

As the summer 2016 movie season approaches, audiences will be inundated with many more action films, but the question remains whether or not they will continue the trend of purging of toxic masculinity. So far we’ve had films like KEANU which successfully satirizes masculine expectations and how they bleed into racial stereotypes. The two big superhero films of the year, BATMAN V. SUPERMAN and CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, have come and gone, both with interesting things to say about masculinity and male identity as well. The catalyst for both of the films revolve around men who are unable to properly process their grief and when they turn to violence, it only ends with more destruction rather than a victor. In spite of any flaws these two films may have, they both have surprisingly mature things to say about the way superhero action films use violence as the ultimate solution. The endings of both of these films leave both parties in a state of limbo, neither victor nor loser.

Social progress is always a slow and frustrating process, but when it comes to the action movie, the signs of a serious shift in attitude are showing. However, for every film like the ones listed above, there comes films like LONDON HAS FALLEN, which manages to be racist, misogynist, and weirdly homophobic for no reason. Movies like this will still find audiences and continue to linger, but as long as quality filmmakers make the effort to maintain a well-rounded portrayal of men and women, we will find ourselves with a better class of action film. The audiences are there, now the filmmakers need to catch up. The action genre still has a long way to go, but it takes time to cleanse any body of toxins.

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