The necessity of discerning the subject as the agent of radical criticism informs Paul Smith’s work since the publication in 1987 of Men In Feminism (Methuen). Co-edited with Alice Jardine, that anthology explores the location of the male subject in relation to the issues raised by feminism. The following year he scrutinized the notion of the ‘subject’ in the humanities and social sciences (Discerning the Subject, U of Minnesota P). In his book on Clint Eastwood the male subject returns as a central concern. Here Smith examines the ways in which this exceedingly popular actor exemplifies a broad cultural construction, while at the same time contributing to the cultural construction of masculinity. More generally, Smith looks at “what happens when the purportedly ‘outlandish’ nature of representations of masculinity in popular culture are apprehended, not as immediately and irredeemably contemptible, but as something by and through which some of the realities of male-sexed subjectivity is registered.” He focuses on the reception and the production of Eastwood’s films in order to comprehend “the nature of the [cultural] meanings that are circulated [and exchanged] in public discourses . . . and . . . to specific ways of acting in and understanding [End Page 407] the social world in the United States over the last quarter of a century.”
Smith’s astute political reading of Eastwood’s movies, up to and including Forgiven, unfolds the subtle racism of the westerns, along with the more blatant appearance of racism in Bird. Seeing the spaghetti westerns as “the response . . . to colonizing models on the part of . . . a subaltern culture,” Smith examines Eastwood’s attempts to restore the genre to its original racist and imperialist representations. Smith underscores the ideological complicity of Eastwood’s war films with “the right-wing agenda of eradicating the memory of Vietnam by fighting again, but this time winning.” After the charges of sexism and misogyny against Dirty Harry, Eastwood’s cop movies become part of “an ongoing project to explore masculinity.”
Eastwood as male star, as male icon, flexes his muscles over women as well as over minorities. Although the function of women in Eastwood’s movies is to “represent a resistance to the masculinist ethos, politics, and violence of the hero . . . the women’s role is also to finally alter their relation to that ethos and give their consent to its heroics.” This sexism becomes a more overt misogyny in his later movies, most explicitly in Play Misty for Me, in which the narrative proposes that “if women expect sexual liberation, they cannot also try to tie men down into committed relationships; women’s punishment for wanting both is madness and then death-as, of course, it has often been.”
Representations of masculinity in Hollywood movies are more complex than just the male hero’s relationship to the female characters, and reach beyond what Smith identifies as the two key elements of masculinity: male sexual violence and power. “Male masochism” and “the cinematic erotics of the [objectified] male body” focus and enlarge his critique. He sees the masochistic moment as a temporary rite of passage that men know they have to go through, but questions why it seems “to be less a question of how we might negotiate our sexuality in lived experience, and more a question of how symbolic dramas are channeled and recuperated.” The male body out of control, “and the hysterical symptoms we have written on our bodies-symptoms that no ironically masochistic regard for ourselves can completely erase,” help to construct American masculinity.
Tightrope introduces another problematic situation. A critique of [End Page 408] the underlying cultural experience of heterosexual masculinity as “obstinate, violent, and unreflexively vapid,” the movie, as a commodity, cannot be successful unless it also negates “exactly the critique that it allows itself to embark upon.” This kind of dialectic, this ambiguity, informs Smith’s engagement with Eastwood’s movies, and guides his desire to talk about “the social relations of Hollywood production without ignoring the films as individual texts that call for . . . specific acts of interpretation...