2. Introducing Black Masculinity
2.1 Femininity vs. Masculinity
2.2 Black vs. White masculinity
3. Genre Definitions
3.2 Hood movies
4.1 Analysis of Shaft
4.2 Analysis of Boyz N The Hood
4.3 Comparison of Shaft and Boyz N The Hood
Anybody who has seen movies featuring black male protagonists in major roles – like Bad Boys or Django Unchained – might have noticed that often those black male characters are depicted in certain and often clichéd ways. This depiction can be described by another term which is ‘construction’. What those films actually do is a construction of a black masculinity through means of acting, filming techniques or even the choice of the actor, especially with regard to his outward appearance.
The black male character has been a very central figure in American literature and movies for a long time. Considering movies it can be argued that for roughly one century there have been constructions of African-American males in American cinema starting with the highly racist film The Birth of a Nation. Nowadays virtually everybody will know movies that feature black masculine main protagonists. Two periods which can be considered as highly influential with regard to the construction of black masculinity are the early seventies and the early nineties because they originated two important genres. These two genres will be referred to as ‘Blaxploitation’ and ‘hood movie’ throughout this text.
In this term paper the construction of black masculinity and black male characters in Blaxploitation movies and Hood Movies will be compared to analyze if the two periods of filmmaking have created another view on the black masculine. To make the two genres comparable in such a limited scope I will focus on two movies, each of which can be regarded as prototypical for its genre. Considering the ‘Blaxploitation’ genre I will focus on the movie Shaft (1971) by Gordon Parks. The Hood movie I chose is John Singleton’s Boyz N The Hood (1991), which will be called Boyz in the rest of this term paper.
To introduce the topic theoretically first the terms ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ will be distinguished and their relationship explained. Additionally to this differentiation on the level of gender a second level i.e. ethnicity will be introduced to show why and how far it is possible to talk about a ‘black masculinity’ and what might differentiate it from ‘white masculinity’. To give the reader an adequate knowledge about the two genres that are to be analyzed, the genres will be defined and some fundamental historical backgrounds that are important with regard to those genres will be provided.
2. Introducing Black Masculinity
2.1 Femininity vs. Masculinity
In order to define black masculinity, composed of the two central components gender and race and analyze the two movies with regard to black masculinity properly, it is necessary to have a consider the nature of the relationship of masculinity and femininity. The distinction between masculinity and femininity will serve as a means to point out what masculinity can be regarded as. Unfortunately the gender debate is a field of research which is by far a too large field of research to discuss it in its entity in this term paper. Therefore this analysis focuses on a short introduction of the topic and distinctive features and ideas that are applicable for the film analysis.
A first approach towards the differentiation between masculinity and femininity is the definition of the term ‘gender’. Judith Butler has used this term and established a border between gender and biological sex claiming that ‘sex’ as term refers to biologically innate characteristics of a human body whereas gender is a historical and social construct (cp. Butler 1988, p.520). According to Butler, gender “is in no way a stable identity […] [but] an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts” (Butler 1988, p.519). This means that gender is constructed through actions of a person. The reality of gender i.e. its actual practice “is only real to the extent that it is performed (Butler 1988, p.527). Consequently one can say that gender and its reality are dependent on how it is executed and performed and only the performance of gender is its reality. In other words: gender is not real but just a performance.
The structure of gender is a binary opposition (cp. Wiegmann 1993, p.177) between masculinity and femininity. Thus it is eminent to understand the relationship between the two opposites. Following from the above proposition, it is arguable that masculinity and femininity are constructions as well. The relationship between masculinity and femininity is one in which femininity has the role of the ‘other’ that is opposed to the dominant masculinity. Masculinity itself can be regarded as a set of practices and characteristics seen as masculine and hence is a “social location that individuals, regardless of gender, can move into through practice” (Schippers 2007 p.86). The dominant role in gender hierarchy according to Butler is established through sexual desire (cp. Butler 1990 in Schippers: 2007, p.90). In this context the possession of sexual desire is seen as masculine whereas the feminine role is limited to being the object of masculine sexual desire (cp. Schippers p.90). All this implies that masculinity or masculine practices only exist due to the fact that there are practices that can be regarded as feminine and the existence of a minor femininity.
This existent gender order has two important aspects namely hegemony and subordination. The hegemonic masculinity means the superior or prototypical masculinity and is connected to white middle-class masculines. It is important to mention the hegemony of masculinity because it can be regarded as a “superstructure of domination” (Schippers, p.88) as well as it offers men the opportunity to benefit from masculine dominance even if they are not on the “front line” (Schippers 2007, p.87) of masculinity. Since it defines the role between different masculinities together with marginalization this idea will be picked up in the discussion of black masculinity and in the following the idea of subordination which is maybe the most important aspect of gender order is introduced. Connell (1987 in: Schippers 2007, p.89) claims that “femininity […], by definition, [is] a position of subordination in relation to masculinity.
The subordinated role of women in relation to men is marked through a set of characteristics, which are seen as typically masculine or feminine and amongst which we find the aforementioned sexual desire. Masculinity as an image “can include physical strength, the ability to use violence in the face of conflict, and authority (Shippers 2007, p.91) as well as economic success or support of women (cp. Schippers 2007, p.91). Nevertheless these characteristics only lead to a dominant masculine role if they can be paired with complementary and inferior feminine characteristics (cp. Schippers 2007, p.91). Making use of this assumption one could conclude that femininity is connected to physical weakness, the complete absence of physical violence, submission and economic dependence on men. Schippers (2007) provides us with more feminine features like “compliance, nurturance and empathy (p.94). To stick to these characteristics is a main idea of gender subordination. If women embody characteristics or practices (e.g. if a woman is violent) they threaten the dominant masculine self-concept. This can lead to a stigmatization and sanctions e.g. calling a woman who disesteems the gender-typical features a ‘slut’ (cp. Shippers 2007, p.95).
To conclude this discussion and lead to the topic of black masculinity and how it is defined, it is important to denote that “subordinate masculinities are often conflated with femininity” (Connell 1987 in: Schippers 2007, p.88).
2.2 Black vs. White masculinity
As pointed out in the previous chapter a demarcation between masculinity and femininity runs through defining femininity as the ‘inferior other’. The means of feminizing other groups to maintain male dominance therefore is quite common among different groups of men. I will shortly analyze what differentiates black masculinity from white masculinity, which takes the question of gender on a second level, namely race.
In his work “Masculinities in Theory” (2010), Todd W. Reeser claims that masculinity can be regarded as an ideology which various institutions create according to their various interests (p.20). Therefore (as also the title of his work suggests) one can assume that there are different masculinities and different interests for constructing and promoting a certain masculinity. Providing the idea of a “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (Hooks 1996 p.84) we can identify at least two institutions that could be interested in the construction of white and black masculinities: the dominant white society and the black society.
In a white patriarchal society with a white masculine middle-class man as hegemonic masculine ideal (Schippers 2007, p.88) the aforementioned ideals of authority and economic success might be central. To separate the hegemonic white masculinity from black masculinity, several stereotypical views on black masculinity have been promoted with the help of the media. Among the most famous stereotypes are the “submissive, docile [Uncle] Tom or the morally corrupt, conniving, sexually threatening drug dealer” (Harris 2008, 52). Applying the idea of submitting other masculinities through femininizing them, it becomes obvious that only the Uncle Tom stereotype might be regarded as feminine character being submissive and docile. The means which is used here can be referred to as “castration” (Wiegmann 1993, p.181). By contrast, the construction of a sexually threatening, hypermasculine black villain who is also referred to as the ‘Brutal Buck’ (Lendrum 2005, p.366) can be the basis for the supposition that there is an heroic white masculinity which is opposed to the Buck and rescues the white women from black villains. A central movie for the promotion of the ‘Brutal Buck’ character was the highly racist T he Birth of a Nation (1915).
To discern the bad and the good black hypermasculine character there are two interesting terms namely “the ‘bad nigga’ and the ‘baaad niggga’” (Dickerson 2005, p.615). The ‘bad nigga can be equalized with the ‘Buck’ whereas the ‘baaad nigga is the positive hypermasculine black hero used to establish a black masculinity focused on “machismo and traditional, dominant masculinity (MacKinnon 2003, p.58). This black masculinity was used to contrast it with a white masculinity that indeed was socially dominant but physically and sexually regarded as weak and feminine (cp. Wlodarz 2004, p.14). Consequently one can argue that the try to construct a positive black masculinity highly focuses on physical features like strength or sexuality, presumably because the higher economic and social status of white men in a white patriarchal society is regarded is inviolably. A last point to add to the positive black masculine image is the loyalty or love to “his people” (Dickerson 2005, p.615).
Consequently it may be said that there has throughout time been a dominance of white men in white patriarchal societies such as the USA and that the social and economic dominance of white men is opposed to the either positive or negative construction of a highly sexual, strong and violent black masculinity. The analysis of the two chosen movies will reveal in how far Shaft as a Blaxploitation movie and Boyz as a Hood movie contribute the described struggle between black and white masculinity.
3. Genre Definitions
The Blaxploitation Genre prospered “roughly between 1969 and 1974” (Guerrero 1993, p. 69) and featured a set of more than 40 low-budget-movies that qualify for the genre (cp. Maynard 2000). The term itself derives from the term ‘exploitation’ which was used during the 40s to label “films geared towards a specific audience” (Cultural Politics, Representation and the Music of Shaft). In order to understand the criteria which qualify a movie as a Blaxploitation movie and to explain the prominence of this particular genre during that period it is necessary to examine the social and political background of this period and carve out typical features of Blaxploitation movies.
Ed Guerrero describes the young, urban black audience at the end of the sixties as “thirsting to see winning, heroic black images (Guerrero 2009, p. 90). This audience was strongly dissatisfied with the ‘Sidney Poitier image’ which fit too well into the “traditional, white dominated star system” (Guerrero 1993, p. 71). Poitier was an actor who was seen as “ebony saint” (Guerrero 1993, p. 72) and was not appealing to the angry aspirations of “the new black social consciousness” (p. 72). The “consumer power of the black audience” (Guerrero, 1993, p. 83) was noticed by Hollywood’s filmmakers. Meanwhile the studios faced a financial crisis and a downturn in profits (cp. Guerrero, 1993, p.84) and had to look for a way to get people back into the theaters to spend their money on movies. Thus they decided to make profit with this black audience and started creating films with heroic black images.
This trend was accompanied by a huge increase of black political activism. By 1967 there was a shift “toward separation and cultural nationalism” (Guerrero 1993, p. 71) leading to riots and rebellions since black people were frustrated about their “marginal place in the American economy” (Guerrero 1993, p. 71). During this rather violent period the civil rights movement declined and the Black Power movement gained influence not only in social and political matters but also affected the film industry, calling “not only for more human and complex representation of blacks on the screen, but also for a fair share of jobs and training in the film industry on all levels (Guerrero 1993, p.84). Thus the time can be characterized as a period of angry and conscious young African Americans lusting for strong black characters in Hollywood cinema. Concerning the image of masculinity it is important that the Black Power promoted a patriarchal and phallocentric ideology as well as homophobia which carried over into the Blaxploitation films (cp. Lendrum 2005, p.363). These social and political developments together with the financial crisis in Hollywood forced filmmakers to give their audience what they were asking for – Blaxploitation movies. The profits resulting from the Blaxploitation movies were indeed sufficient to “literally [save] Hollywood from total bankruptcy” (Guerrero 2009, p.91).