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Masculinity as a Concept in the Reagan Era Essay

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Updated: Sep 18th, 2021


To say that masculinity was more prominent as a concept in the Reagan Era than it is now or earlier, would not be entirely true. All through the ages, there have been men (and women as well) whose perceptions of the male body have been influenced by the physical attributes of public figures. Masculinity and femininity are two basic concepts that are likely to create a debate in any kind of society. Whether the discussion takes place in a society that lives below the poverty line or whether it is taken up in a very high and affluent society, there is no doubt that there will be more than one view on the subject. To understand what these terms mean to different people, it would be essential to look at the political scene that has been referred to – the Reagan era.

Historical background

No study would be complete without a thorough background study. From 1980 to 1992, which is referred to as the Reagan Era, the views of this Republican were both praised as well as made fun of. There was a general tendency among his people to push things under the carpet for reasons best known to them. There was always an underlying thought that most Americans had during his tenure: practically everything was fine and there was nothing much to worry about. They were given the impression that everything was also under control and that nothing was very wrong with the politics or economy of the US. His introduction of “” seemed to put people at rest at least temporarily.

Masculinity – an issue?

It is very important to understand why masculinity is an issue that people have to debate so much. All through civilization, there has been a kind of pattern that has evolved. It would usually be the males in any society who would try to show their maleness and their manliness by taking part in all sorts of fights, competitions, and anything to prove that they were physically a lot more powerful than females. This was done, whether or not the person was rich or poor, black or white. It was necessary to show their superiority over others. Therefore, the males in all societies tried to make their mark either by killing other people or by taking over villages and sometimes even countries.

Also, masculinity came to be considered an important thing from the very beginning because, the men who wanted a particular woman as his wife or bride could do so, by proving their masculinity or in other words power as a man. He would try to impress her with acts of bravery and courage and try to overcome all sorts of problems and obstacles all for his sake.

This is probably one of the most debatable points that have been raised by people right through the ages. To understand how and why masculinity is so important, it would be good to go back to our descent from the apes. There are quite a few authors who have spoken about how as primates we tend to do the same thing as monkeys. We try to make a mark on other people by following socially accepted standards for looking good. In the case of monkeys, the alpha male in a troop likes to mark his territory and his authority within a troop; he also tries to do the same by courting the female of his species in other troops as well. To do this, he might have to prove his physical strength over other males like him.

There are many tribal communities in many parts of the world, that still have a few customs where a man is asked to make a show of physical strength before he takes a bride. He might have to fight another person, or he might have to do something to prove his physical strength. Today, this has changed. Only a symbolic show of strength is done today, as there are very few tribal communities today who follow all the customs that their ancestors used to.

Till very recently, most people thought that only women were concerned about looking good; it was the generally accepted idea that most women, irrespective of age wanted to ensure that they were physically attracted to the opposite sex and in some cases to the same sex as well! It is the same even now, though the circumstances are different. Nobody fights duels or wrestles with lions anymore, instead, there is a conscious effort made by a man to impress the woman who he would like to have as his companion.

Hard vs. soft

Being an actor, Reagan was looked upon as a kind of symbol of what masculinity should be. He seemed to project the idea of every man being very powerful and also a no-nonsense individual. Most of his movies portrayed him as a typical American hero, who was strong enough to put down any resistance. What added to this image were his political beliefs and economic policies. Since he was constantly trying to tell the men of the nation that they should stand up for their rights, most people felt the need to identify with Reagan’s idea of a full-blooded male. Susan Jeffords in her book, Hard Bodies, speaks about how the physical image of Reagan could have influenced people in such a way as to make his economic policies more acceptable “the correspondences between the public and popular images of ‘Ronald Reagan’ and the action-adventure Hollywood films that portrayed many of the same narratives of heroism, success, achievement, toughness, strength, and ‘good old Americanness’ that made the Reagan Revolution possible.”

Maybe, Reagan was also trying to be better than one of his predecessors, Nixon, who was generally known for his not-too-harsh reactions to the problems faced by most Americans, such as the Vietnam issue.

There has been a constant debate on what was right and what was wrong about America’s involvement in Vietnam. Many feel that people did not openly oppose what the government tried to do. Therefore the idea of softness in the attitude of people is mentioned. In her book, Susan Jeffords speaks about the hard body which symbolizes the hard and firm attitude of the America of the Reagan era thus: “that America had entered a period of fundamental decline, reversing its history. This prompted new worries about the people’s vigor and ambition, industriousness and will” (Jeffords, Susan. Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994).

Impact of films

It would be relevant to mention here an important contribution from the field of cinema: Rambo, which was based on the life of a person who impressed people with his masculinity. Most of the films that are mentioned by Jeffords in her book talk only about the male heroes, their masculinity or their maleness, the fact that they are male and feel good about their bodies. She does not mention other movies that showed men in different roles like Tootsie where the man is dressed up like a woman or Amadeus which talks about the life of the famous composer Mozart or other movies like The Elephant Man. These movies did not show men as “hard bodies”; instead they showed images of men who were not the same as what people expected a man to be. Most people expect that men should be strong and muscular and be capable of coping with any kind of stress or problem. They also think that it is not good for a man to cry. If he does cry, then he is said to be a weakling who cannot take the problems of life. This is the reason why Jeffords says that people were more concerned or influenced by these images: “were largely and consistently concerned with portrayals of white male action heroes.”

Jeffords also analyses Rambo as a character in tune with Reagan’s thinking of a man and his physique, which represented the power that he could have over his enemies. She opined that through films like Rambo, Reagan was able to put across to people his foreign policies, especially about the Soviet Union. Apart from this, the movies like Rambo also helped to get people to cope with internal and domestic issues like terrorism. Jeffords says: “the Rambo films worked out the Reagan foreign policy through battles with the Soviet Union, these films work out the Reagan domestic policy through homefront battles with internal enemies of Reaganism: terrorism, lawlessness, disloyalty and the deterioration of the family”.

The gender issue

Despite the obvious references to ‘hard’ and ‘soft’, it is quite interesting to know why this has become such a hot topic for discussion. To understand this better, it would be necessary to think of the psychological makeup of those who have some fixed ideas about the gender issue. Many people all over the world associate the word ‘strong’ with man and the word ‘weak’ with a woman. The point that I am trying to make here is not whether this is the right attitude or not; the point is to find out why this attitude came up in the first place.

Many centuries ago, there was a time when the man went out to hunt and the woman stayed back to tend the young. The roles were more or less demarcated and hence a man needed to be physically strong; if he was not so, he would be killed by the beast that he went hunting and hence not be able to take care of his family.

Over the years, this feeling of physical strength in a man has become more and more emphasized in various fields. Whether it is the defense forces, or in any other job, physical strength is looked at as a good attribute. Today, things are far more different than what they were centuries ago. This despite the fact, that men like Reagan tried to promote themselves and his officers as physically fit people, capable of taking on the most fearful enemies. Jeffords, therefore, speaks about this in her book thus: “Reagan, like Robocop, touted himself as the defender of the average citizen who needed a break from too much government.”

It is interesting to note, that not everybody was impressed by this apparent show of strength. People felt it was like having all froth and no beer when they realized that Reagan’s policies both at home and abroad did not achieve what they promised to. The administration under Reagan was accused of a lot of fraud and scandal, something that came to light, rather late.

The Contra scandal and other such problems, made people sit up and think of all the promises that Reagan had made in the earlier past. He had tried to portray himself as a powerful person, in whom the whole idea of masculinity was personified. He also ensured that most of his lieutenants followed in his footsteps. He thought that by showing the American male to be someone capable of vanquishing all his enemies just with physical power, he would be able to convey to the world, that no country could mess with America. This is as an attitude seemed to be quite unreal for Jeffords. She does not seem to have much respect in actual terms for the masculinity demonstrated during the Reagan era – “[The] articulations of bodies constituted the imaginary of the Reagan agenda and the site of its materialization.” This statement makes it very clear that Jeffords is a person who analyses an issue before taking it at face value. She is keener on pointing out the problems that should have been faced by Reagan and his crew, which were instead glossed over.

Conclusion and further research

Whether it is Rambo or Hard Bodies, there is no doubt that the overall idea of masculinity or what a male should be, influences the thought and writing of many people in America. This is certainly not confined to the Reagan era and can be applied even now.

There are a few points that need to be researched and explained in greater detail, to get a better idea of the topic. They are listed as follows:

  • The psychological factors that influence a person’s idea of maleness or masculinity.
  • To use the study of some of the psychologists like Sigmund Freud. This will help us understand why being male is important and what are general ideas people have about masculinity.
  • To find out if there are specific differences between the terms masculinity, maleness, and male-domination.
  • To study the impact of other movies like Rambo or other books like Hard Bodies, so that it will be possible to get a broader view.
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