Looking for mental escape on an airplane last week, I found instead two movies that, in different ways, dramatize male disposability. Neither is an avowedly feminist creation, but both show the imprint of our culture’s male-blaming and female-valuing assumptions.
“A Star is Born” is the third remake of an old story (originally a 1937 movie), and I haven’t re-watched earlier versions to see whether they were as overt in their emphasis on the theme of worn-out male talent being replaced by a vibrant and superior feminine creativity. In the modern version, the male star is not only an aging rocker nearing the end of his career, but also a pathetically self-destructive man who has never come to terms with his inner demons, most particularly the legacy of the abusive father who set him on his path to alcohol-fueled self-hatred and oblivion. To make matters worse, he is losing his hearing as a result of years on a deafening stage and his (typically macho) refusal to use the protective equipment recommended by his doctor.
The male role in the film—and it’s hard not to see it as symbolic of our contemporary moment—is to bring much-deserved attention to the awesome talent of the younger woman, and then to exit the scene. Though the woman loves him—mainly out of gratitude, it seems—she is legitimately powerless to supply the self-respect and self-control he so spectacularly lacks; and his love for her quickly comes to seem, both to the film’s characters and to the compliant viewer, as a drag on her career prospects.
His only decent option is the one he ultimately takes: to kill himself before she can come to hate him for his need and irrelevancy. Even for that, of course, he is blamed, in a scene in which his former manager reassures the grieving widow that she need take no responsibility for the despair that led him to suicide. Fortunately, he leaves her a song that she makes her own in a spectacular memorial performance. We are to understand that she will make of her fame something far more fruitful than the man ever did. In death, he is a greater artistic inspiration than he would have been in life.
I expected a far different take in Clint Eastwood’s acclaimed “The Mule,” but found instead a strikingly similar theme about male redemption through self-sacrifice and disappearance. The movie’s hero is a man near the end of his life who discovers, almost too late, that he under-valued his (entirely female) family and thus deservedly lost their love. In an act combining reckless indifference and financial desperation, he becomes a drug runner for a cartel after his flower business fails; at the same time, he begins to re-connect with his estranged wife, daughter, and grand-daughter. As he descends further into crime, risking his future on increasingly hefty drug runs, he embarks on an emotional and spiritual rebirth.
For what sins is he atoning? His family, especially his constantly nagging ex-wife, are bitterly vocal about their grievances: the man never made time for them and was always on the road or working at his business, failing to show up for many important family occasions. That he provided—and continues to provide—a materially good life that would likely have been impossible if he had been more physically present is never once acknowledged by anyone, not even our hero, who accepts without contradiction his family’s harsh judgements.
In an ironic moment of confession, the Eastwood character tells the FBI agent who will ultimately arrest him that he made a terrible mistake by not putting his family first in his life. That he loved his work and seems to have received affection and affirmation through it that were entirely lacking in his family is hinted at, but never directly explored. Near the movie’s end, the man’s redemption comes when he risks his life to stay by his dying ex-wife’s bedside. Shortly after, he is arrested, pleads guilty to drug charges, and is embraced by the remainder of his family as he is taken away to prison, where they joke affectionately that at least they will know where he is. He will not be in their lives any more than he was in the past, but he won’t have his own outer-directed life either, and that seems a just recompense for his earlier failures.
Both these films view their male characters almost entirely through a female lens, judging them by their (in)ability to provide emotional and other kinds of support for their women. The men’s own emotional needs and desires are presented as either irrelevant or morally wrong. When the men are no longer necessary to the women in their lives, they redeem themselves by quietly disappearing. It’s hard not to see them as parables for our man-shaming times.