Female leading roles in film have long been the subject of debate. As women’s roles in society changed, so did their big-screen counterparts. But there’s less discussion around what it means to be a leading man nowadays. Stephanie B. takes a look, and finds there’s much more to it than just girls and guns…
Up until the late 20th century, the leading men of Hollywood didn’t stop smoking, drinking and shooting long enough to show any emotion, and even if they did, it was to gruffly admit their love and indulge in a quick smooch before getting back to business. Even as late as the 1980s, Schwarzenegger, Willis and their ilk remained bound to the ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ set. But after the turn of the millenium, a new generation of Alpha Males begun appearing on the silver screen.
The change became most notable to me while watching 007’s latest outing in the critically acclaimed Skyfall. Daniel Craig’s portrayal of James Bond since taking on the role in 2006 has added that je ne sais quoi to the series, and the character has developed into a more rounded male icon. When you strip back the fancy gadgets, car chases and glamorous excess that have dominated Bond’s persona since the 60’s, Craig’s Bond has something the others didn’t. He has a Sensitive Side.
Yeah, that’s right. Bond is an orphan, he’s had his heart broken, and he’s even been known to cry in the shower (in Casino Royale). Is this taking away from 007’s masculinity? Has a man to be admired for his killer instinct, awesome cars and ability to seduce any woman in sight gone soft? Not at all. In fact there’s something admirable in the writers showing us that at the end of the day, he’s still a mere mortal.
Another male action hero story to come out of the noughties was Bourne. The trio of Matt Damon-fronted agent-on-the-run adventures focused on character and plot above spectacle (although there was never any shortage of that either). Bourne’s mission to find his true identity is a parable of the male experience – wet-behind-the-ear youngsters suddenly landing in adulthood and trying to find their way – and the realistic style of the movies reflects this growth in the portrayal of the masculine hero as more than just a tough guy.
2012 saw the conclusion of the latest Batman reboot, and the launch of a new Spider-Man. Although superheroes can easily be passed off as brainless brawny types in silly costumes, director Christopher Nolan had Mr Wayne grappling with emotional and moral pain as well as the physical, examining how could Batman be a role model, protect Gotham and the people closest to him, while still kicking ass at work. Meanwhile, the new Peter Parker (played by Andrew Garfield) gets the ‘origin story’ treatment, complete with teen angst, love and family issues.
This change hasn’t happened overnight, though. Many Hollywood blockbusters still feature the traditional strong, one-dimensional Alpha Male, complete with car/gun/sword (delete as applicable). For example this summer saw the action sequel Expendables 2 open in a storm of gunfire, testosterone and sweat, and The Avengers save the day with no more than a glimmer of bromance.
So it looks like although the traditional Alpha Male remains, there’s more to life than stereotype on the big screen. But are men better off as tough, unyielding knights in shining armour, or have their roles changed for the better, just as our females have?