Media & Entertainment

Toxic, Tough or Tender? Exploring Masculinity in Movies


Cinematic depictions of masculinity tend to closely resemble one another. The majority of movies are still dominated by the same view on masculinity and by the same archetypal male characters. However, in recent years there have been a few characters which embrace a more tender form of masculinity. The essential and long-awaited change towards a healthier and more diversified portrayal of male roles appears to be slowly coming into effect. 

Masculinity in Movies 

If you made it to reading this article, you either personally know me or you are, which is admittedly a bit more likely, interested in movies. Assuming that the latter one is the case, let’s remember the movies you have seen during your lifetime. Take a minute to think about what they have taught you about masculinity and about what “being a man” should look like. Most likely, you have mainly been exposed to the man as a breadwinner, the man as a bully, or the man as some other unemotional entity. 

Thanks to the movie industry for their predominant reliance on stereotypical attributes in their creation of male characters, it is surprisingly easy to break down the cinematic depiction of an entire gender. The “traditional” male movie character is emotionally repressed, sex-driven, inclined to objectify women, and afraid of showing any form of femininity. By following this pattern, the movie industry aligns with what could be considered the epitome of toxic masculinity: “Real men don’t cry”. Regardless of the genre, the same attributes come to mind when thinking about male movie characters: Self-reliance, dominance, aggression, strength, and so on. Next to obvious examples like John McClane (Bruce Willis) in Die Hard, and Tony Montana (Al Pacino) in Scarface, even characters in Disney movies and Rom-Coms share these behavioral and attitudinal characteristics.

The Consequences 

Precisely the men that other men look up to reflect an unrealistic idea about the way males should think and behave, reinforcing strong stereotypical beliefs about gender. The movie industry is setting expectations which are, to say the least, antediluvian. This depiction of hypermasculinity (the exaggeration of male stereotypical behavior, emphasizing physical strength, aggression, and sexuality) in mass media is not only awfully boring, it also has real world consequences on male and, consequently, female lives. 

Boys and men who adapt the hypermasculinity from movie characters possibly experience negative effects on their individual and interpersonal lives (…)

One of the core theories of media effects, Gerbner’s cultivation theory, posits that the exposure to media images has the ability to change the audience’s thought processes and behavior (Why else would companies budget so much on advertising?). Boys and men who adapt the hypermasculinity from movie characters possibly experience negative effects on their individual and interpersonal lives, especially on their health and relationships. Among others, an increase in risk-taking behaviour, body dissatisfaction and depression has been observed. Worryingly, while the affected are more likely to suffer from depression, they are less likely to seek help. Furthermore, in terms of the relationships, men who conform to hypermasculinity have an increased likelihood to struggle to form balanced, open and respectful intimate relationships. Overall, the resulting pressure to “be a real man” can prevent boys and men from living their lives at fullest. 

Tender Masculinity

The media, especially movies, shape our societal norms which, in turn, shape our understanding of gender roles and masculinity. Therefore, we should be aware that there is not only “one masculinity”. Instead, several masculinities can evolve, change, and even coexist depending on different external influences. Because of toxic masculinity and the seemingly deadlocked views on what “manlihood” should look like, we are in desperate need for more healthy, more nuanced, and more sensitive male characters in movies. 

Beyond tough and cold men, there is a lot of space for real emotions, kindness, femininity, sensitivity and literally anything else.

If the masculinity that is predominant in the current cinematic environment would be more frequently replaced by other approaches to masculinity, the movie industry might finally have a positive impact on male socialization. While archetypal male characters still prevail, in recent times there have been some examples of rather tender, healthier and more emotionally complex characters. In this context, we need to, of course, talk about the personification of a softboy (in its most positive sense): Timothée Chalamet. Starring as Elio in Call Me By Your Name and as Nic in Beautiful Boy, Chalamet’s roles challenge traditional masculinity through fostering vulnerability, queerness, and femininity. To name another great example, the protagonist of Boy Erased, Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), fights the idea of “manning up” and heteronormativity and lets his emotions flourish. Oh, and just to quickly acknowledge two series: Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) in Brooklyn Nine-Nine and basically every boy and man in Stranger Things!

None of this is to say that men cannot be strong, independent, and unemotional. However, movies need to provide more than one idol for boys and men to look up to. Beyond tough and cold men, there is a lot of space for real emotions, kindness, femininity, sensitivity and literally anything else. Slowly but surely, a change in the movie industry is taking place, away from the stereotypical alpha-male and towards more emotionally-complex characters. While masculine representation in motion pictures can reinforce the existing patriarchal male image, it can in turn also help to challenge and change it. We need new models of manhood and a redefinition of masculinity and the movie industry seems to be here for it. 


Cover: Adrien Olichon



You may also like

Comments are closed.