Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Mailer's New Man: Differing Masculinities in the Film Tough Guys Don't Dance

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Mailer's New Man: Differing Masculinities in the Film Tough Guys Don't Dance

Article excerpt

Although iconic in many ways, Norman Mailer is not known for his films. Having only created four Hollywood movies, he has been criticized, hailed, and ignored as a director and screenwriter. What follows is a look at his last film, Tough Guys Don't Dance (1987), and the way in which it allows Mailer to explore the ideology of male masculinity in new and unexpected ways. Bolstered by the visual aspect of cinema, Mailer brings to life the convoluted, conflicted, and controversial natures of men, interrogating their identities and pursuing a way of presenting a "new man" through his character of Tim Madden. 

NORMAN MAILER IS AN ICON NO STRANGER TO CRITICISM. He battled constantly against critical readings of his work that lambasted his hypermasculine characters, their often complex relationships with sex and women, and his representation and interrogation of sexualities that verge from the narrow, culturally constructed lines of heteronormativity. And while many of his narratives can be read as antithetical to the feminist movement or even homophobic, depending on whose readings one engages with, in Tough Guys Don't Dance, Mailer offers

one of his formal calls for greater enlightenment on the psychological and physical dangers accruing to men's suppression of one half of their psyche. Here Mailer engages with feminist condemnation of his alleged fascistic tendencies, by treating biologically- and socially-engendered constituents of self-awareness as a means of pitting his narrator against a bigoted spokesperson for the stereotypical and dangerous ideas that made Mailer a looming ideological target for his critics. (Howley 32) 

The following analysis argues that Mailer, an ever-changing force in his exploration of gender, sex, and identity, offers through his own adaptation (released in 1987) of his 1984 novel, Tough Guys Don't Dance, a series of characters that each clearly represent different ways of being "masculine," setting boundaries between the absurd extremes of hypermasculine men and the masculinities present in women. (1) Emerging from this broad look at the ontology of masculinity is Mailer's protagonist Tim Madden, a man who forcefully, through a bout of self-inflicted amnesia (an alcohol-based blackout), has not only to find his way through the maze of a noirish crime drama in which he appears to play a central role, but also reevaluates his own persona, his own ideals of manhood, and his identity as a whole.

This film is an aggressive engagement with masculinity, as all of Mailer's works are aggressive in their interrogative nature. He seems to march forward through the narrative as both writer and director advancing to battle with his own former and present ideology of manhood, not in necessarily the self-reflective way most critics seem to assume, but as a man driven to solve a puzzle or tackle a mountain of ideas that remains untamed. It is reflective of what Christian Messenger discusses in his article "Norman Mailer: Boxing and the Art of His Narrative," when he recalls Frederic Jameson's discussion of Mailer's engagement with ontology.

[Jameson] best expressed Mailer's commitment to 'some more primary form of the agon or ontological combat' that points not merely to 'unresolved aggressive impulses' (a favorite psychoanalytic shorthand for critics dismissing what they believe to be Mailer's privatizing tendencies) but rather to 'some hypostasis of competition itself as a social and historical mode of being. It is as though within the competitive society Mailer had chosen not to repudiate the dominate value but to adopt it with the fanatical exaggeration of the newly-converted, to live it to its ultimate existential limits....' (86) 

Jameson sees how Mailer's search for answers goes beyond the personal with tendrils searching out for answers well beyond the boundaries of that which Mailer already knows. Using Tough Guy's Don't Dance as a primary example, he engages with men with grey concepts of sexual identity, men changing their own ideas of themselves due to age, illness, and circumstance. …

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