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Thursday, February 15, 2007
Formative Masculine Images
I have been in a contemplative mood of late, and one of the threads I keep coming back to is images of masculinity that resonated with me as a child.
The Earliest Memories
I've talked about this before, buy my earliest notions of what men were was watching and hanging around sailors. Being a Navy brat, this wasn't difficult to do, as most of my parent's friends were connected to the Navy, and most of our shopping was done on base. Sailors were just always around and were the primary non-familiar men I saw around me every day. I don't know that I ever had any generalized impressions of what sailors were supposed to be like, but the imagery has always stuck with me.
How Men Act: Errol Flynn and Cary Grant
I wasn't an athletic child at all. I was probably nine or ten before I even learned to ride a bike. Most of my free time was spent reading, with occasional toy or cartoon breaks. The only prolonged television time I spent was on weekends, watching old movies on local television stations. Most of the movies they showed were old comedies and monster movies, with Godzilla movies on occasion and Popeye cartoons to pad out time. But more adventure orientated films made the cut from time to time, and I quickly grew to appreciate the swashbuckler films that Flynn starred in. There was a virile recklessness to his screen persona, particularly when playing Robin Hood, that appealed to me. Even today, my fascination with Flynn's Robin has created a fondess for Robin Hood stories over the more popular European and American folk heroes.
Cary Grant, by comparison, I was first exposed to in comedies, and it was some time before I associated him with dramatic acting. He had a strong appeal to, especially in his mannerisms and attitude. If Flynn was a reckless type, Grant was the mature, level-headed one. He was just enough of a dandy to be debonair.
Between the two of them, I formed a notion that men were meant to be elegant and dashing, eloquent and just a bit biting in their wit.
The Adventurers: Sinbad and Hercules
No matter how bad the movie was, if the name "Sinbad" was in the title, I was almost certain to sit through it. The swashbuckling elements appealed to me, as did the rogueish nature, but the sense of braving the unknown had a strong appeal as well. The Sinbad movies are probably largely to blame with my childhood fascination with mythology and fantasy as well.
I'm not ashamed to admit, that my fondness for Hercules films, and sword-and-sandal films in general, was almost purely aesthetic. Even as a kid, I know that the sheer physical presence of Steve Reeves and other actors in the genre excited me in a way that I couldn't articulate. Even more than sailors, these athletic, well-muscled men defined what masculinity meant physically. This is almost certainly the direct root of my still current fascination with physique photography from the period.
The Heroes: Tarzan, Zorro and the Lone Ranger
I was a teenager, practically, before I gained any interest in super-hero comics. Up until then, I mostly read Disney comics and horror comics. The only super-hero titles I read with any regularity were Wonder Woman, Batman and occasionally Hulk. There's a common thread to those three titles if you stop and think about it for a moment. My idea of an exciting hero figure than was more pulpy in tone. There was probably a strong aesthetic element to my fondness for anything Tarzan related as well, there were no shortage of handsome men in skimpy costumes to look at in a Tarzan movie or cartoon, after all. And though I'm a good post-colonialist now and cringe at the racist ideas and terrible "White Man's Burden" subtext of most Tarzan productions, as a kid the notion of the jungle was so exotic and alien that it may as well have been a fantasy film.
I always tended to think of Zorro and the Lone Ranger back-to-back as a kid. I probably was more enthusiastic about the Lone Ranger. He had a horse, and a toy gun was easier to come by than a toy whip, and I did in fact have a dress-up kit which I wore out, pretending to be the Ranger. That you couldn't get me out of cowboy boots until I was about six is pretty much his fault as well. With these two, you had the swashbuckling angle, and the Robin Hood aspects as well. Plus, they dressed really, really well. There goes that dandy-ish aspect to masculinity as well.
I Give In To Pop Culture: Han Solo
Eventually, the world at large intruded into my world, and I somehow got exposed to Star Wars. While other boys desperately wanted to be Luke Skywalker, or Chewbacca, or in at least one worrying case, R2-D2, I always wanted Han toys and to play Han with other kids. In light of earlier men who appealed to me, it's easy to see why. He's not quite a swash-buckler, but he is a charismatic rogue, who (eventually) does the right thing. He's witty and dresses fantastically, and he explores a world that's amazingly exotic and filled with strange creatures. Han was almost the perfect distillation of all the male images I had fallen for before. He was quite possibly the first person I wanted to grow up to be. That's almost an embarrassing confession, as I can't even stand to watch the Star Wars films anymore. But I liked them when I was eight, which is fair enough, I suppose, and I still won't let go of any of my surviving toys and artifcats with Han on them.