In a previous feature published by Cultural Transmogrifier on “chick flicks,” I assert that our culture should refer to action films as “dick flicks.” Essentially, action films are the male equivalent of romantic comedies. They are geared almost exclusively to a male audience, the stories follow a redundant plot structure, and the male leads are often cookie-cutter hero stereotypes that uphold problematic ideas of “manliness.”
It’s obvious that the treatment of women in these films is deplorable, but here I seek to unveil an issue that is rarely brought up: the treatment of the male gender. Although action films are often fun diversions, with their explosions, gun fights, car chases, and the like, they are also a reflection of our social values and popular views of masculinity.
The plots of most action films are predictable and beyond tiresome. The basics include some kind of natural disaster on the horizon, a kidnapping, or terrorists plotting a twisted revenge on innocent civilians. The villains are often as over-the-top as the heroes, which only adds to the ridiculousness of it all. There is a female love interest that must be saved and, of course, the hero is able to save both her and the world.
Story structure is an integral part of the creation of characters. Because these recycled plots lack depth and overcompensate with special effects, they produce equally vapid heroes. Much like the romantic comedy, action films are gross offenders in terms of gender representation and thus provide us with very unflattering images of ourselves.
The male action hero is often a loner. He plays by his own rules and doesn’t need anyone. John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood), and a slew of characters played by Chuck Norris fit this bill. Other characters that take this same model and twist it slightly are the comic book film heroes Ironman/Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), and Peter Parker/Spiderman (Tobey Maguire). For the most part, these characters keep to themselves, and their secret identities give them a martyr like existence, for to be masculine is to be independent. The heroes refuse to take orders, performing dangerous acts because they know that they are right, and everyone else is wrong (or simply too cowardly to take action). John McClane (Bruce Willis) is constantly sticking his nose in the business of others, but by God, we’re sure happy he did! Stubbornness and the inability to listen to others is portrayed as a strength, when in reality, such traits are extremely detrimental to any kind of progress. This bleeds into the stereotype of the man who refuses to ask for directions. I guess if Rambo didn’t stop for directions in the jungle, then dads everywhere don’t need a map for the freeways.
The loner/rebel role also feeds into the machismo ideal that emotions are strictly feminine. These men are stark, cold, and distant. The female love interest is key here because she is often used as a device to show the audience that the hero is actually capable of love. For example, in the recently released John Carter (2012), Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is portrayed as a man who only takes care of himself. Later (through some chaotic flashbacks), we learn that this emotional divide comes from a deep trauma that he suffered when his wife and child were killed. But rather than dealing with his feelings, he essentially becomes a selfish jerk. Why? Because men aren’t supposed to feel; they are supposed to represent pillars of strength who shoot their guns rather than cry.
Lastly, the typical male action hero has a very specific body type. Female body image in the media and films is always a hot topic, but male body image is often overlooked. Popular action heros are muscle-bound, with faces as chiseled as their abs. They are able to run great distances, perform insane feats of strength, and bullets never seem to hit them. Their bodies are as unrealistic as the films in which they star. For example, Ryan Reynolds’ body in The Green Lantern (2011) is so well defined it turned my stomach because it was actually gross. The male body is objectified in these films to highlight the super masculine: muscles represent strength, and the super muscles of the action hero represent super strength. Personally, I just see possible steroid use and self-absorption. In a side note, the only redeeming quality of the most recent installment in the Die Hard series (1988- ), Live Free or Die Hard (2007) is that McClane is allowed to age. Willis is still fit for a man his age, but he looks natural and complains about his aches and pains like an aging man would.
By my definition, the above mentioned qualities are the traits of “dick flicks.” By no means am I claiming these traits to be absolute; this is just the basic formula that the bulk of these films follow. If women have “chick flicks,” it’s only fair that males also have a genre named specifically for them. Blockbuster action films in no way represent true masculinity or how men should conduct themselves in society, just like the “chick flick” in no way properly represents women. While these genre pictures are marketed to be fun entertainment pieces, they both do us an incredible disservice as a culture. So let’s not allow ourselves to be insulted anymore, or at the very least, understand what we are looking at: garbage.