- Hard Bodies
In many ways the books of Peter Lehman and Susan Jeffords read well together. Both books are concerned with representations of the male body in popular media and how these representations become part of the prevailing ideologies of contemporary life. Both books are concerned with the implications of “hard” or the “phallic” representations of masculinity in particular. Both writers argue convincingly that the machismo which these representations reflect, encourage, and perpetuate, “work[s] to support patriarchy” (Lehman, 5). While the books share in this important fundamental concern, the books come to possess an interesting difference in their efforts to link popular representations with actual political and social conditions. This difference points to an important methodological implication for the study of masculinity in a patriarchal society.
Jeffords’s interpretive reading of Reagan era films chronicles the stunning confluence of cinematic representations of the masculine “hard body” and the official ideologies of the Reagan administration. Neither the films nor the ideologies evolved in an historical vacuum. One of the strengths of Jeffords’s work is its ability to bring the films and the ideologies into mutual focus by interpreting them as part of a broader historical narrative of postwar American triumphs and errors which both undergirds and is produced by the films and ideologies.
In brief, the narrative maintains that America in the 1950s experienced a glimpse of utopia which was soon eclipsed by lack of resolve during the later-Vietnam War period. The country came to a crisis of purpose which was marked by Nixon’s resignation and the fall of Saigon. The Ford and Carter years were a period of anxiety and malaise in which indecision and femininity came to the fore in public life. The narrative maintains that this period of weakness came to an end with the election of Reagan and the imposition of his agenda of national restoration, individualism, and technological advancement. That this narrative is not unfamiliar to any American who has lived through the past decades is, in part, testimony to the power of movies such as those of the Rambo series (1982, 1985, 1988), which, as Jeffords reads, depict and reinforce a longing “that only a return of the ‘physical king’ could resolve” (11).
The “return of the ‘physical king’” in the guise of Ronald Reagan was both prefigured in the writings of people such as Richard Nixon and Robert Bly and reinscribed through such films as the Back to the Future trilogy (1985, 1989, 1991). For as Jeffords states: Ronald Reagan fulfilled “both Nixon’s and Bly’s desires for the United States and for men by restoring economic and military as well as spiritual strength” (11). While it is certain that Bly and Nixon would agree on few things, Jeffords’s reading tellingly reveals shared presuppositions about just what a male (and the state) is and should be: i.e., sharply delineated, assertive, tough, and, when necessary, violent — in short, a “hard body.” Once the “hard body” was in place, the narrative was reinscribed both on the literal body (through the survived assassination attempt) and on film, through such ideologically obvious films as the Robocop series (1987 (1990) and in less obvious films such as the Back to the Future series. Jeffords’s fascinating reading of the Back to the Future films illuminate how Marty McFly, when he returns to the past in order to save the present of the people of Hill Valley, actually mirrors the reworking of the past that was a part of political life during the Reagan era, thereby legitimating the practice and the narrative. In the first of these two films, McFly returns to the 1950s. By intervening on behalf of his wimp father, he alters the course of history, changing his family from dysfunctional to prosperous. This forgetting and reworking of the past, which was prefigured by Bly and Nixon, was central to Reagan’s ability to capture the public imagination through...