What can a nearly-sixty-year-old movie teach us about masculinity?
A lot, it turns out.
We live in a time where one could be pardoned if they wondered aloud what being a man is about. It’s a question that should see past the bullshit created by idiotic cries for “men’s rights” and childish hashtags like “#notallmen”. Like many other groupings of humanity, men are seeing the world change before their eyes, and some are reacting out of fear and confusion. We are being asked to be more aware. We are being told to change our attitudes. We are facing challenges to be better. The sort of man our fathers were isn’t good enough anymore. The sort of man Jim Stark is isn’t right either. Neither is the sort of man his father was. To be a man always seemed synonymous with strength…but what sort? And is that sort of strength what men should still strive for?
REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE has always come built with some interesting ideas surrounding masculinity. Sadly, this morning I don’t have time to get into the narrative surrounding Plato and his relationship with Jim – a pity, since that brings up a whole other angle on the topic of masculinity. Today, my thoughts revolve around Jim and his father.
In this moment, Jim has just returned home after his first day at school. It’s a day that began with taunts and ended with a knife fight. It’s a day where any teenage boy could do with seeing his father and being able to turn to him for guidance – be it spoken, or unspoken. Either parent could help Jim navigate through whatever confusion the day brought…but one has to admit that when it comes to questions of toughness, a boy wants to get the answer from his dad.
At the crucial moment though, Jim finds his father on his hands-and-knees. Having cooked Jim’s mother some food, he’s managed to drop the food on the floor. When Jim arrives on the scene, his father is feebly trying to undo his clumsiness with a frilly apron over his business suit. When Jim sees this, he pulls his father to his feet, and in not-so-many-words mocks his lack of manliness in that moment. He’s not about to discuss being in a knife fight with a man in a floral-patterned apron.
That explains the look of embarrassment on his face in this shot, juxtaposed nicely with Jim’s hand clenched in frustration around the apron strings.
The first interesting thing about this moment is that Mr. Stark’s manliness isn’t being undermined by the position he’s found in, nor that he’s made a mess of the situation. It’s the whole thing put together and dressed up with the apron. It’s his lack of backbone in the moment Jim finds him. It’s the way he thought nothing of trussing it up with a yellow apron. Part of “being a man” is taking care of the ones you love…but it should come with a bit more spine than what Mr. Stark is currently showing.
The interesting thing is that in many ways, Jim instinctually understands what it is to be a man. While he is still prone to getting roped into stupid acts of machismo when his courage is taunted, when the chips are down late, he taps into something approaching the right answer. He displays a soft-spoken connection with both Judy and Plato that speaks very much towards the man many men strive to be (cool, confident).
Even in this moment depicted above – while he’s already had arguments with his father and is clearly disappointed to find him this way, he doesn’t raise his ire, puff out his chest and show his mettle. He leaves the situation by making his thoughts known with a quiet bit of dignity.
Maybe that’s the key for “being a man” – quiet dignity. As much as men might have been taunted or sold an ideal of being physically tough, perhaps “being a man” comes down to quiet displays of inner and exterior strength of character…especially in moments when the chips are down. Maybe “being a man” isn’t about not backing down from a fist fight or bitching that your position is being usurped.
Could it be, that like Jim Stark shows us “being a man” means rolling with the punches…taking one’s lumps…quietly standing up for more…and not taking them out on anyone we care about?
Three more from REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE for the road…
This series of posts is inspired by the “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series at The Film Experience. Do check out all of the awesome entires in their series so far