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Manhood Imagery in “Jarhead” by Sam Mendes Essay (Movie Review)

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Updated: Jun 15th, 2022

Hollywood, as America’s premier film industry, has shaped the thoughts, beliefs, material culture trends, fashion, and even language of many Americans.

The influence and impact of films in the American social life is undeniable and almost tangible. There are both positive and negative consequences of the influence of films on the American socio-cultural trends, beliefs, and lifestyles. Hollywood, as the ultimate producer of male ‘macho’ films, has entrenched a culture of relegating women to secondary passive roles in these films, a view that then becomes acceptable in the American society.

Males are often portrayed as all-knowing and all-powerful protagonists, with females in these films simply being used as secondary love and sexual tools of the macho male character. In the film “Jarhead”, the males are expected to portray their manhood in the face of real fear, to act brave and courageous, to adopt a sexually condescending attitude towards their women, and to conquer/overcome all their enemies through any means necessary as soldiers.

Given that, men in many American films play the lead role, their attitude and actions towards women in the films provide a hint concerning the status of the women – in their lives both in and out of the films and in the larger American society (Psako, Mayeda and Ramos 88).

In Jarhead, manhood is juxtaposed with the portrayal of women as cheap sexual objects. Antony Swofford, the lead character in “Jarhead”, is constantly consumed by the fear that the girlfriend whom he leaves back as he joins the Gulf War as a marine will cheat on him (Simpson 304).

Manhood is thus portrayed as being able to rein in one’s girlfriend or even wife. Women, on the other hand, as opposed to men who are willing and brave to sacrifice their lives and time for the sake of country – a powerful act for a man and thus an enhancement of the manhood experience – are portrayed as passive citizens more interested in acquiring as many different boyfriends as possible.

For instance, Dettman’s girlfriend sends him a homemade sex tape depicting her in an affair with another man, supposedly to get back at him for an unidentified transgression on his part. Swofford’s girlfriend, true to the negative depiction of women in the film in order to heighten the manhood experience, cheats on him, a fact he discovers when he gets back home from the war. The manhood status is also enhanced through the treatment of sex in the most casual and simplistic ways.

The male characters in “Jarhead”, during a football match in the hot Arabian Desert sun, mimic sexual acts much to the disappointment of the viewing press and the commander in charge. The macho male is thus depicted as being one who freely expresses his sexuality, a common thread in many Hollywood films.

Secondly, manhood in the film “Jarhead” is depicted as the male conquering all his fears and doubts; by any means necessary. This status of manhood obviously abhors demotions and all other instances that involve a ‘step-down’ either socially, economically, or even in rank. When Swofford is demoted for neglecting his night duty, the feelings of embarrassment and the subsequent depression drive him to near suicide.

The message sent to the audience is that the society believes in only socio-economic and political upward movement for the male with little downward movement in these sectors mentioned (Psako, Mayeda and Ramos 105). The aggressiveness expected in men in the film “Jarhead” is also depicted in the manner that Swofford and his collaborate, Troy, desire to find closure in their war experience by killing an enemy by their guns.

Having identified their target at one instance and ready to pull the trigger, their superiors change tack; implying that the two would not necessarily have to shoot their targets. Swofford and Troy then become hysterical, breaking into tears and pleading to be allowed to shoot their targets to death. For them, the ultimate war experience involves killing an enemy, an act that solidifies the manhood experience that may be expected of a soldier.

Thirdly, man is expected to handle all his fears, rational and irrational, without showing signs of cowardice or weakness (Psako, Mayeda and Ramos 247). When Swofford first joins the marine, his colleagues mockingly threaten him with a hot iron, an event that shocks him until he faints.

This instance shows lack of bravery that does not auger well for his soldier and manhood experience, and is depicted as an incidence to be frowned upon. Again, when Swofford and his partners are mistakenly left in the desert, they are expected to show courage and bravery even in circumstances that fear would be the expected feeling and reaction. Therefore, the expectations of manhood as portrayed in the film are “irrational courage in the face of rational fear” –man is supposed to have no fear.

In conclusion, the portrayal of manhood and its accompanying macho acts in many Hollywood films, for instance “Jarhead” as discussed in this paper, has an effect on the American society. Films are trendsetters and men behaviours in projecting their manhood and their treatment of women has an effect on the American society. As discussed in this essay, the portrayal of men as courageous and sexist and women as mere pawns in a man’s world has a negative effect in the larger viewing society.

Works Cited

Psako, Lisa, David Mayeda, and Chris Ramos. Celluloid Dreams: How Film Shapes America. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall Hunt, 2010.

Simpson, Mark. “Attackability.” Canadian Review of American Studies 39.3 (2009): 299 – 319.

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