I took this class, Film 80b: 80s Film and Television, taught by Prof. Gloria Monti in the Fall of 2001. I greatly enjoyed the class as it gave me an academic space in which analyze many of my own pop culture interests. The final paper assignment was to formulate a thesis which tied issues from the reading to a film from a given list of films from the 1980s. I chose to write on masculinity issues in Stand By Me. I received a 98% on this paper, one of the highest in the class, and received an A+ in the class overall.

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Asserting And Maintaining Masculinity in Stand By Me

    In his 1986 film Stand By Me, Rob Reiner made many interesting directorial choices which established his film as a coming of age classic. The film, through its mise-en-scene and other convergent elements depicts a multilayered view of masculine anxiety and relationships. First, there is the fear of association with the feminine or feminizing traits. Second, the film describes the process by which one maintains ones masculine identity by challenging the masculinity of another. Finally, the film shows the very real physical danger and the fear of castration which invoke the emotional and symbolic fears of emasculation. These desperate attempts at establishing and remaining in possession of an unchallenged masculine identity are juxtaposed with negative images of masculinity, and then are shown in contrast to the feminized masculinities of Chris, Denny, and Gordie. While these three boys are shown to possess a preferred interpretation of masculine identity, they are not exempt from the expectations and institutions within the scope of the film which cause anxiety, fear, and desperation that surround the maintenance of individual masculinity.

    A third of the way through the film, Gordie experiences a flashback to a moment from his family’s past. In this flashback he is seated around the dining room table with his parents and his older brother Dennis. The seating arrangement around the table is very deliberate: instead of sitting at the fourth side of the table, Gordie is seated next to his brother. Thus he is not only in his brother’s shadow, but his brother is literally positioned between Gordie and their father. By ignoring Gordie’s request to pass his a dish of food and retaining his full attention on Denny, Gordie’s father effectively conveys his negative opinion of his second son. In addition to this blatant ignoring of Gordie, it becomes apparent that at least one cause for this dislike is the father’s association of Gordie with feminine characteristics. This is most fully realized in that the dish of food which the father does not pass to Gordie is passed to him by his mother, thereby establishing a link between the mother and Gordie - a link between Gordie and female identity. Also, the family is seated in a domestic setting, eating food which has apparently been prepared by the mother, yet when the mother speaks, she is admonished by the father. It would appear that the negative reaction engendered in her husband at her participation in the dinner table conversation is not only inspired by her own femininity, but by its implied projection onto the two children. Mr. Lachance (the father) harshly informs her that Denny should not be thinking about girls, that the elder son has no time for such concerns. When, after this outburst, Denny interjects a comment about his brother’s writing, the father turns his anger toward the mother. He insists that once the subject of “girls” is broached, Denny’s mind is not concentrated on football. This can be seen to indicate that in the father’s mind, concentration on football is tantamount to cultivating a masculine identity and that writing is therefore a feminine pastime, linked as it is with the topic of “girls” and the mother. This is perhaps exacerbated in that the mother shows an interest in Gordie’s writing abilities and is scolded for that interest as well. Denny, however, does not hold with his father’s view of writing as being feminine. Or, if he does, he does not agree that such feminine activities are negative or should be viewed so. He sits close to his brother and leans in to confide and also physically connote that he will not challenge Gordie’s masculine identity. Rather, Denny will utilize his own masculinity to uplift Gordie and to validate him.

    In order for Mr. Lachance to maintain his own masculine identity, he alternately projects his masculine ideals onto Denny while belittling what he perceives as not-masculine qualities in Gordie. This follows the film’s recurring theme of one male forcefully attacking another’s masculinity in order to confirm his own. This is most usefully envisioned in the scene where the four friends (Gordie, Chris, Vern, and Teddy) first fall into the water where they are attempting to cross. The camera first shows Vern who asserts his own masculine prerogative by literally spitting out his contempt for the others’ decision to follow the path which led them to the water and his own correctness in having opposed it. Teddy is then shown to challenge Vern’s assertion by calling him “the world’s biggest pussy”. The two are both up to their necks in water, the fault of which Vern presumes to put upon Teddy, Chris and Gordie. Teddy, however, in the midst of challenging Vern’s challenge, takes the opportunity to physically assert his own masculinity at the price of Vern’s masculinity by dunking Vern under the water repeatedly. The film has changed from showing Vern and Teddy in opposing shots to showing them together in shots which juxtapose them with Chris and Gordie. Vern and Teddy are striving to overpower each other with their asserted masculinity while Chris and Gordie are shown to be outside of this competition. When Chris joins into the fray, having challenged Teddy’s masculine control of himself, the three are seen as compared to Gordie’s withdrawal. Gordie is then physically forced to join the fray as the other three pile themselves on top of him. Since he does not voluntarily join the battle for dominance, he is forced to the bottom both literally and symbolically. However, as soon as a common cause is discovered, in the form of leeches, the four boys scatter and become, no longer a pile of disorganized squabblers, but a collection of individuals who are aiding one another in the defeat of a shared foe. In showing the boys pulling leeches off of themselves and off of each other’s back, the film declares that there can be a mutual, community masculinity which does not require rivalry. In this realization of masculinity, the kind expressed by Denny and by Chris and ultimately by Gordie is a way of being in which one need not demean another in order to affirm one’s own identity.

    Stand By Me also addresses the topic of castration anxiety. While Mr. Lachance sees femininity and female gendered individuals as a symbolic challenge to his masculinity, and Teddy and Vern see other males as a means by which to further establish their own masculine identity, none of these threats are purely physical. But in the scene in the junkyard when Gordie is running from Chopper (the junkyard dog), very visceral castration anxiety is displayed. Allusions are made to the danger of Chopper, stating that he is rumored to “sic balls”, or attack a male’s groin - the traditional physical manifestation of a male’s power and masculine identity. When Gordie sees Milo Pressman, the junkman, and sees his friends scaling the junkyard fence, he flees, at first in fear of being caught by Milo. When Milo calls for Chopper, Gordie is shown running in slow motion as though to indicate his dawning realization of what the immediate danger is that he is running from. The film then shows a rapid close-up of Gordie's face as he runs and screams. What Gordie is screaming in fear of and running from is the physical threat of castration. That is, the physical removal of what he believes is the source of his identity as a male. The scream of fear asserts that this identity is more than important to Gordie - it is essential. Without that part of his anatomy, or with it severely damaged, Gordie would lose the defining characteristic of his life, thus putting the purpose of his existence into question. The sense of urgency is heightened by the anxious calling of his friends behind the fence to hurry up and run faster, as well as the threatening shouts of Milo behind him, urging him to stop, yet threatening violence if he does. Similarly, the scene in which Gordie removes a leech from his underpants is indicative of his fear of, if not castration, then formidable attack to his genitals and thus to his identity and to his sense of self. During this scene, Gordie and the other boys are dressed only in their underwear, rendering all of them to a vulnerable state. The sequence in shot primarily in close-up, focusing on each boy’s facial expression and reaction to what has befallen Gordie. When Gordie produces the leech, letting it drop to the ground, he lifts his bloodied fingers. The sight of this blood causes him to faint, maintaining that this attack on his manhood has indeed stolen some of his masculinity away from him. While in the first instance the threat of attack turns comical and is proven to be useless (as he is safely on the other side of the fence), in the case of the leech, Gordie’s anxious fears of attack have been realized and he must therefore reassert to the others his valid claim to a masculine identity. He does not, however, do this by directly challenging their masculinity, but rather by making a firm decision, to continue on their quest, and leaving it up to them to follow him or not. Gordie has begun to manifest his masculinity in the shape of Denny’s - not by likening non-masculinity with femininity and negativity, nor by boosting himself up through putting others down.

    Masculinity is dealt with in the film as a multifaceted identity: at once desirable and sought-after, yet distasteful and unjust. The film seeks to find a balance between the negative masculine forces in the boys’ lives (their fathers, Eyeball and Ace, Milo Pressman) and the progressive, or more positive ones (Denny, Chris). Gordie is exposed to the the violent, misogynistic masculinity of Ace’s gang and his own father, as well as the more sensitive, caring masculinity of his older brother and his friend Chris which seeks to lift up others instead of pushing them down. While no character in the film is portrayed as being without flaws (though Denny is idealized in his brother’s memories), there are definite good guys (relationally based) and bad guys (violence enhanced). However, who is to say that any of the practices of masculinity in the film is the “right” one? Who is to say that there is only one right way to express and experience a masculine identity? The film creates a dialogue for discussing these issues by depicting varying styles of masculine behavior through its visual signifiers.

This page last updated December 11th, 2002

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