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The 1980’s was undoubtedly one of the best decades for film: pushing the envelope of nearly every genre and creating masterpieces that withstand the cruel test of time. And, as films stand to be a snapshot of the zeitgeist – a glimpse into the conventions and norms of the time of manufacture that are oft forgotten with forward-thinking progress – they remain uninterrupted cultural vignettes that reflect the values they were made with. Two such films that will be familiar to even the most ‘old film’ phobic amongst the cinema-going population are Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985 – the second Rambo film) and Aliens (1986 – the second Alien film).
Sylvester Stallone’s machine-gun wielding, shirtless, bandana wearing Vietnam War veteran, Rambo, has become a cultural phenomenon all of his own. The term has even been added to the dictionary meaning “someone who uses, or threatens to use, strong and violent methods against their enemies”. Rambo – by very definition – is a tough character, and through osmosis of such terms and societal constructs, a very masculine one. He exemplifies this through his practicality; his use of the environment around him; his forceful, determined, and assertive attitude; and his rugged, muscular physique.
Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) by contrast, is not typically feminine. If we take the alternate definition of femininity to be submissive; to be wary and watchful of her environment; to be soft and kind and heterosexually appealing as a woman. Ripley is resourceful, Ripley is tough, and Ripley takes the fight to the Alien. Ripley, to the 1980s audience, does not imbue the virtues of femininity. Ripley has short hair, keeps herself covered in baggy clothes, gets dirty, and adopts more masculine postures.
Judith Butler, a key figure in feminist theory, argues that the human body is a site of socially constructed gender norms – of masculinity and femininity. Rambo embodies the muscularity that showcases hard physical labour. The bulging muscles maketh the man. Rambo was not representative of every man in 1985, but he was the ideal upon which masculinity was judged. From the oversized weapons, to the oversized biceps, Rambo is an extrapolation of masculinity. Rambo – and by extension Sly himself – was the poster boy of what it means to be a man. Conversely, Ripley doesn’t embody the femininity that the male audience expects and craves in a two hour long film about shooting at space aliens, but instead embodies a different kind of femininity; one that itself adopts masculine traits. A woman can be considered strong and capable and go toe-to-toe with her male counterpart as long as she adopts his qualities.
The 1980s were a time of great social upheaval, especially surrounding the Vietnam War. The end of the war in 1975 still cast its tragic shadow across society and true loss was felt not just from the returning veterans, but through the cash-strapped government. The 1980s also brought about a rise in the number of women in the military, according to the Department of Defence Statistics Division. The military is an extremely patriarchal structure of power, and the influx of femininity into such a sacred masculine space was met with derogation as Kimmel and Aronson argued that women in the military would “corrupt and pollute the pristine homosocial atmosphere of untrammelled masculinity necessary for male bonding,” (Kimmel & Aronson; 2004; pg.36). In accordance to this, Ripley, through the events of the film, is forced to adopt the hard male body, and as such Ripley’s adoption of the masculine ideals undoubtedly shows her as a strong character.
Ripley’s debut in Alien (1979) developed the character – her steeliness, resourcefulness, and toughness in the face of great adversity- but the film also included a segment where, under the assumption that the Alien fighting is over, Ripley undresses. The scene, slow and deliberate, allows the audience to watch as Ripley exposes her inner femininity hidden underneath the overalls, the sweat and the tough exterior. She is alone in her underwear, her feminine body on show. Almost like a scene from Orlando, Ripley reveals ‘a-ha, I have been a woman the whole time, and I have been a strong, fully developed character who has survived all of the men in the crew and defeated the Alien.’ She is a woman and she is tough. But the scene almost seems to be a reminder that she is indeed a woman.
In Jackson Katz’s documentary Tough Guise: Violence, Media and the Crisis in Masculinity, he argues that during the 1980s images of masculinity evolved to a point of hyper-masculinity. The macho violence exhibited by Rambo is case and point of this. The Vietnam War backdrop also features as the story in First Blood Part II. The war is over, but the government believes that some POWs are still being kept by the Viet Cong. Rambo seems to be the best option to get them back. The loss of the Vietnam War was a huge propaganda loss for the United States to the point where they were in need of a hero. In charges the masculine ideal John Rambo. Katz reinforces this and states that the country felt feminized by the loss of the war (in that masculinity equates to domination and femininity to submission). He argues that the loss of the status of being a man in everyday life caused somewhat of a masculinity crisis in red-blooded gun-toting commie-hating American men.
In some respects the two films are almost a conversation between women and men in the 1980s. Ripley reflects the rise of women in patriarchal society and the what that they are prepared to do whatever it takes to stand shoulder to shoulder with the stalwart men, though usually this involves taking on the characteristics of men that have led them to the position of societal domination. Rambo reflects the masculinity needed to protect the everyday male’s place as top dog. This involves becoming more masculine and showing this through the body. In this respect, it’s no surprise that bodybuilding really found its groove in the 80s.
Were Rambo and Ripley to show up for the first time in 2017, they would receive a very different reception. Ripley wouldn’t be blinked at, with strong, masculine women being a staple of almost all genres, and Rambo would be regarded as a relic of an older time. People would no doubt be wondering what he is overcompensating for. Even modern day action heroes have been softened around the edges. Masculinity and femininity, and their interactions with audiences have changed a lot since the 1980s, and films that are coded so heavily in gender norms and attitudes allow us to properly identify social progression. But, that isn’t to say that masculinity and femininity in film have been explored thoroughly; at least not until a mainstream film heroine is allowed to embrace her womanhood and shun the semi-masculine in order to be taken seriously, and until a man can ditch hegemonic masculinity in order to be a strong man.