By Joe Kelen
What does it mean to be a man? In an age of increasing gender equality, it’s no longer easy to say. We all perform our gender, but for the middle-class man, who isn’t the Trump supporter type, what we perform isn’t so clear. Men are like the jailer and the prisoner at the same time. They all look at each other and at themselves to make sure they don’t step out of the proper male behaviour. As Grayson Perry, the well-known man’s man says on Loose Women, it’s all really about fear:
‘When you become a man, you patrol. If you step out of line, you touch an electric fence which says, sissy.’
To be a man is to be scared of loss. What that ‘loss’ is meaningless. Men (of course I mean we, and by we I mean me) are not fearful they have lost their power in the male-female relationship, but somehow that it is being taken away.
Now, like most men, I think that’s a good thing, but it also goes against every single James Bondesque hero I’ve ever grown up with. Machismo comes with power and 1950s mentality. In many ways, that ideal has never passed. Yet the reality of it is being lost. Wholeheartedly, willingly, to go the way of racist and homophobic beliefs that our grandparents used to own. Yet losing that sense of testosterone-powered dominance, that’s losing our manhood. This sense of loss has driven British men, in our self-depreciating manner, to instead find our lost manliness in everyday objects. One interesting quirk of the English language has always been the gender neutralism of our nouns.
Unlike the continent, we do not refer to ‘le café’ as if somehow a coffee had grown a male genitalia.
Nor do we find our ‘la poubelle’ pink with fairy lights around it in the dump. Rather, the tedious neutrality of ‘the’ has prevented objects from being wrapped in the exciting world of gender stereotypes. So instead, we’ve had to decorate them, as if they are. From ‘man-sized tissues’, with their dark grey and daring orange packaging, so you don’t embarrass yourself with the DU Lacrosse girl at the checkout, to a Yorkie with their oh so ‘not for girls’ logo, or the men’s caffeine shampoo, in case you didn’t feel buzzed enough from all the morning wood you’ve been chopping.
The issues of living in a post-gender society have led to an increased push to define our gender in increasingly deliberate acts. On the one hand, the concept of the ‘sartorial gentleman’, with their tweed and tailored moustaches have begun to dominate Men’s high fashion, whilst on the other side, white-collar boxing has become entrenched parts of suburban man’s after-work activity. We crave the stance which confirms our manliness in front of others. No longer felt as a given, as gender-equality policies (albeit slowly) begin to affect our lives, there as a feeling that somehow male identity needs to be made explicit as if it wasn’t felt daily enough in many women’s lives. It’s this contradiction in the middle-class man’s sentiment between being a conscientious supporter of feminism, and the unconscious trauma of what we have to lose, which makes a small Swedish foreign language film ‘Force Majeure’ such an important movie about being a man.
The film is about a upper-middle class family skiing, who get caught in an avalanche. The businessman Tomas, addicted to his phone, his beautiful, conscientious wife Ebba, easily flipping between English, french and Swedish, their young daughter and preschooler boy in tow. They are in many ways the perfect family, placed on snow artificially generated by cannons and groomed to smooth perfection by ploughs in the night. Skiing by day, whilst sitting with friends drinking wine by night.
Then the aforenamed ‘Force Majeure’, or avalanche, hits. Or doesn’t.
A quiet bang goes off in the distance, and over four and a half minutes, the pile of snow starts to building up in the background. Instead of rushing to save his family, Tomas panics and runs, and the emotional fallout from this momentary failure becomes more and more excruciating to observe throughout the film.
Tomas at first questions his wife’s perception of events, forcing her to out him for his cowardice on two consecutive nights out with other couples, putting her husband under increasing pressure, until a video recorded on his mobile phone finally decides the matter, sending him into a crisis. He then sits, crying at the table. Like Tiger Woods publicly confronting that he was a sex addict. To the belligerent arrogance of the captain of the Costa Concordia, who flew from the ship. Other examples of masculinity in the film are equally ridiculously true. Tomas’s friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju, famous as the ginger wildling from Game of Thrones), wearing an immense faux lumberjack beard.
The film shows how the hyper-masculine confronts a gender-neutral society, and how silly it is. It’s the impotence of Tomas’s acts which make the film. From roaring into the alps, with no reaction from the empty Alpine barren wilderness. To the half-naked absurdity of an entirely male techno rave.
Force Majeure highlights how absurdly men react to try and regain their masculinity without female supplication.
They get approached by a girl, who passes on a message of her friend’s interest, only for her to return a few moments later apologise that she meant another man. He tries to gain pity by crying in the corridor to his wife, sobbing into his hands, only for Ebba to pull away his hands to reveal no tears. Eventually, he gives up, and his kids find him crying into the sofa in self-indulgent misery, the wife clearly annoyed, acquiesces more out of embarrassment, to his need for redemption and briefly gets ‘lost’ in the fog, so that Tomas can rescue her, carrying her in his arms.
After glowing in his masculinity, Ebba stands up and walks back to get her skis. At the very end of the film, as the male bus driver gets the bus stuck and winding alpine roads, all the passengers disembark and slowly make the long walk back up. In the midst of this, Tomas accepts a cigarette, a psychoanalytic female substitute for a dick, and for the first time in his life smokes it. The old concept of masculinity is dead, modern men now have to artificially substitute for their own lack.
In many ways, it’s the last few moments of the film which paint a bridge from where we go from here.
The issue that men in our culture now face is finding a socially acceptable tap in which we can express our ‘manliness’ without going back to the old misogyny, or electing Donald Trump. By offering a chance for Tomas to regain his masculinity, whilst showing she is more than capable of looking after herself, the director Ruben Östlund was able to find a modern replacement, where being masculine means more than being just dominant and cold-hearted. It’s this ‘new’ masculinity which will have to provide for men’s sense of indulgent self-pity. In a sense, therefore what the film is really about, is an exploration of our long farewell to established masculinity.