Film |

A Man in a Man's World

Film | 4 November 2016

In Hollywood, many films and discussions have talked about the hardship of being a woman in a man’s world—indeed, still a relevant topic to this day, because no matter how times have changed, women still have to work extra hard to prove themselves, especially in a predominantly male environment. But is it true that women are the only ones going through such hardships in a man’s world? These films might offer a different perspective.

A Man in a Man's World (3) Billy Elliot Stephen Daldry’s classic centers around an 11-year-old boy in Northern England’s coal mining community, who is enrolled for a boxing lesson, but instead finds himself fascinated by a ballet class next door and decides to pursue his passion, stirring turmoil for the people around him. The film is a interesting study of masculinity in working class England, which is amusing due to Billy’s deadpan doggedness in his unorthodox fascination, and made all the more refreshing because Billy’s sexual orientation is never once an issue. It is always made clear that Billy, played by Jamie Bell, is not gay—or that he simply couldn’t care less about it. If anything, he only serves as an inspiration for his best friend, who is later revealed to be having doubts about his own sexual identity. The film was made in 2000, but has become an enduring legacy, thanks to a transfer to the West End stage in 2005 and Broadway stage in 2008, turning it into a Tony-winning and long-running crowd favorite, and lives on to be an evergreen inspiration for gay and straight boys alike in its celebration of being different. A Man in a Man's World (1) Saving Private Ryan Steven Spielberg’s war drama has been celebrated as an homage to the valor, honor and heroism of America’s finest men during World War II, in which a band of soldiers work together to brave the odds and rescue the titular character. Many have loved the central character, Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), for his bravery and determination. The same can be said for the men in his squad. But there is one character that is often not included in this circle of esteemed men, and that is Corporal Timothy Upham, played by Jeremy Davies. Upham is almost universally detested by moviegoers. I remember when watching the film in the cinema, variations of the word “coward” was repeatedly heard among the audience (and some of them didn’t even bother to lower their voice). Indeed, compared to his fellow brothers in arms, Upham is the only one consistently showing his fear and reluctance to be in the war. This hatred for Upham culminates in one of the most frustrating scenes in the movie–or cinema history, for that matter–where Upham cowers in the next room while his fellow soldier is being stabbed to death by a NAZI officer, when he could have saved his friend. Aside from the Germans, Upham is practically the villain in Saving Private Ryan, whom everyone hates. And I remember thinking at the time, why is that? The war is a cruel and brutal world where not all men, or women, are prepared to find themselves in. And in the world of Saving Private Ryan, where bravery and male camaraderie are celebrated, yes, Upham sticks out like a sore thumb. Sure, it’s easy for us to yell and curse at Upham from the peaceful and cool comfort of the cinema room. But if we were in his situation, are we able to guarantee that we would do better than him? Are we labelling Upham a villain simply because he is being human? A Man in a Man's World (4) Fight Club There are countless angles to interpret and discuss David Fincher’s stylish cult film that was based on Chuck Palahniuk’s novel. One of them is that the unnamed narrator, played by Edward Norton, tries to compensate for his lack of masculinity by living vicariously through his newfound friend, Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt. The film is rich in symbols and details to analyze and interpret using various theories. This theory is no exception. For example, in the beginning of the movie, the narrator visits a support group for testicular cancer victims, which can easily signify men that are robbed of their manhood. He then meets Durden, physically a very different man than him. Durden is rugged and suave, exuding machismo. Psychologically, too. Cocky, confident, dangerous—he likes to engage in recreational fighting and mastermind acts of vandalism to give a finger to the system. Bottom line is, the narrator wants to be Tyler Durden, which leads to a major plot twist—one of the most memorable reveals in the history of modern cinema. It’s like the film is saying, “Yes, it’s a man’s world out there, and, if you’re a man, society’s expectation can be quite a burden on your shoulders, and eventually, it will mess with your mind.” A Man in a Man's World (2) The Fifth Element Korben Dallas, the hero in Luc Besson’s sci-fi cult film, is your typical action hero. He is a man, well-built, full of machismo and played by Bruce Willis, no less, whose Die Hard franchise has cemented his status as a Hollywood’s macho man. So why is this film even on our list? It’s because this film, with a hero like this at the center, also questions masculinity with one small but memorable character. I’ve always loved The Fifth Element because of Besson’s fresh, quirky and meticulous interpretations of the future (the film is set in the 23rd century). But perhaps the most intriguing of these interpretations is how Besson creates a  representation of a male celebrity in the future: Ruby Rhod, played by the scene-stealing Chris Tucker. Ruby is depicted as a total heartthrob—women swoon around him and he is insanely popular. However, contrary to today’s perception of a male heartthrob, Ruby is the total opposite of Korben. His appearance and demeanor is an erratic mix of masculine and feminine energy, with campy shrieks and pansexual tendency as he flirts with women and men alike. In the midst of the candy-colored and almost two dimensional world that Besson built, Ruby’s presence presents a thought-provoking discourse. It’s like Besson is throwing us an intriguing point of discussion about two very different identities: Korben the average nobody and Ruby the celebrity. While Korben is an ideal representation of maleness in our time, what if in the future, we perceive manhood and masculinity in an entirely new way? Can “the man’s world” evolve with time and civilization? Now there’s some food for thought to ponder on.