2014 was a year for a new, fervent wave of feminists. With powerful, inspiring lists such as Mic’s 39 Most Iconic Feminist Moments of 2014, movement endorsements from celebrities like Taylor Swift, Emma Watson, and Joseph Gordon Levitt, and films like Reese Witherspoon’s Wild, there is no doubt that this past year indicated a shift in forthcoming conversation about gender equality. Of course, with great change comes uproar with some disgruntled males identifying themselves as “meninists” and questioning the need for change in regime. Hashtags over Twitter furthered this conversation, ranging from #YesAllWomen and the harrowing response #NotAllMen. Although there is no question that gender inequality is still a major issue with polarization on both sides of the argument, a good place to start these conversations can happen through film. While 2014 was indeed a fantastic year for feminists, it was also – more quietly so – the year of the boy. This past
year gave audiences an introspective view on a simpler time in male humans’ lives; a place where these raging issues of the world are subdued and a time when the focus is on the shaping of identity, fostering the ability for boys of all kinds to define themselves into whatever they wish to be.
Boyhood is one of the most idiosyncratic aging periods in a male’s life. So much emphasis is put on this time as it is seen as a fantastic odyssey from youth into adulthood. It can be said that while little girls are automatically expected to become women even prior to puberty, boys are given more time to explore their identities, run with the wild things of this world and decide exactly when they will embark upon their final journey into manhood. While some might deem this as sexist or as one of the many pitfalls of societal expectations forced upon genders, it was portrayed as something far different in several notable films of 2014. From Boyhood to The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to The Theory of everything to Unbroken, a common theme runs through each film: the concept of choice in what man each of the leading boys will become. Choice, whether intentional or not, was a theme so interwoven into each film that it reminded audiences that boys have a choice as
to what they want to become even if what they want rebels against social expectations.
Boyhood perfectly captures the odyssey of the great feat of growing up. The lead character of the film, Mason, rebels against societal constraints. We watch as he transitions from a rough and rowdy young boy into a disgruntled teenager with gauges, a professional camera and none of the right answers. Mason does not aesthetically resemble what society might envision as an “All-American boy,” which is an important aspect of a film that solely focuses on what it means to become a man. Instead of making Mason a character who plays football and is at the top of the class, director Richard Linklater depicts a boy who likes to take pictures and is not always sure about his next step. Film needs more diversity of male characters; boys who don’t feel the need to exemplify the societal ideals of an American male: strong, emotionless, acne-free, and robotic.
One moment in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is particularly definitive of changing gender roles. When faced with the possibility of his girlfriend Gwen Stacy moving to London, Peter Parker feels torn between his responsibilities to the city as Spider-Man and being with the love of his life. He decides to give up his “job” and makes the decision to follow Gwen to London. While this was probably not intended to be a screaming statement about feminism and breaking gender roles, it is a groundbreaking moment – specifically in the Marvel franchise. We see a male who has been characterized as a typical strong leader and hero making concessions so that the girl he loves does not have to give up her dreams. It is an important transitional moment for Peter Parker as well; in order to understand what it means to be in an adult relationship, he has to make compromises.
In The Theory of Everything, a young Stephen Hawking has to surrender all physical power due to the paralyzing conditions of ALS. He has to rely on his wife Jane to take care of him, giving up his bodily independence. Redmayne’s portrayal of Hawking shows a type of strength that is not often attributed to males: emotional strength. Although it is often through his wife that he finds his greatest will to continue on, the willpower and fortitude can be seen in the film’s most raw moments, especially when Hawking is first diagnosed. Considering the film focuses on the progressive years of his illness, the emotional strength hat Hawking expresses is not something often seen in film. A film focused on the vulnerability of a man’s physicality is rare as well. It is films like The Theory of Everything that show audiences that males do not always have to be dashing superheroes, but often have heroism that comes from the heart.
While it is impossible to argue that Unbroken is a film about breaking gender roles, there are many moments within the film that can reinforce shifts in dialogue. The true story of Louis Zamperini is filled with grit and moments that some would truly consider definitive of the transition into manhood. Director Angelina Jolie focuses on something different than what may be anticipated in a war film: the ties Louis has to the people he loves back home. Again, emotional vulnerability is not tiptoed around in this film. There are many moments in which Zamperini breaks down before continuing on his mission to survive. Jolie utilizes flashback to lead the audience through Zamperini’s psyche as he recalls memories from home. The emotional breakdowns of Zamperini and other men of the film are moments when typified male gender roles are subdued. Without compromising the overall theme of the film, Zamperini has to choose how his struggles will define him. It
is apparent by the end of the film that his ability to survive did not come from his physical strength—as it was greatly diminished in Japanese prison camps—but from his emotional will to live.
2014 did not get it completely right with its films, but it did signify a change in pace for male characters. We saw boys becoming men on their own accord, without society pushing down on them to be “manly men”. There is still much work to be done in the film industry regarding sexism and gender roles (specifically with films such as Neighbors, Let’s Be Cops, and the like), but with characters such as the ones mentioned previously there is a beacon of hope. With 2015 and the awards season on the horizon, moviegoers can hope for a new era of characters who make their own choices: both male and female.