The James Clayton Column: Macho Les Miserables and gender-coding genres

Feature James Clayton 4 Jan 2013 - 07:14

As the makers of Les Misérables pitch their movie as being "for blokes as well", James ponders the topic of gender-specific genres...

Les Misérables, then. “There’s a lot of testosterone in it,” says director Tom Hooper, thus pitching the film as a French soul brother to Arnie’s Commando or, perhaps, upcoming Michael Bay bodybuilding blockbuster Pain & Gain.

Hooper’s statement sets up certain expectations and simultaneously has me lamenting the fact that no one’s turned YouTube hit Conan the Barbarian: The Musical into a full-length feature. Still, leaving hopes of Singalong-a-Schwarzenegger to one side, let’s return to Les Misérables - the major motion picture musical of the moment. If Hooper speaks the truth all those envisioning the film as a one-dimensional warbler made entirely out of oestrogen are mistaken. Fellas, this motion picture event is going to be mantastic.

Admittedly, the testosterone claim is just one of several plus-points mentioned by the British director in a recent issue of Empire magazine. Says Hooper: “You’ve got the Hugh Jackman-Russell Crowe rivalry. You’ve got incredible battle sequences. You’ve got the students and their cause. You’ve got some very hot women. What’s not to like?”

Indeed, hundreds of horny history students have just slammed laptops shut (they were either looking at Renaissance-era erotica or masturbating while playing Medieval II: Total War) and gone out to storm the multiplex. That might not actually be true but who cares about the truth? We’re in the realm of cinematic suspension of disbelief and running several French revolutions through song-and-dance sequences here!

I’m not interested in testing Les Misérables to see how it measures up on the testosterone-o-meter. What I am interested in doing is drawing out the hidden devils hiding behind Hooper’s informal remarks and scrutinising the cultural atmosphere that informs them.

If you’re struggling to read between the lines, the film’s producer Eric Fellner makes it plain: “I would argue there’s enough in this for blokes as well”. The moviemakers are on a mission to lure men into movie theatres to experience Les Mis on the big screen. Whether it’s conscious or unconscious, they figure that they’ve got to make statements like this because musicals are a hard sell for male audiences due to the assumption that it’s a feminine genre.

This notion is misguided, especially when you remember that the manliest character in movie history appeared in a musical film. (“Perfect, a pure paragon” of masculinity, it’s undoubtedly Monsieur Gaston of Disney’s animated version of Beauty And The Beast).

Gender-coding genres is a dubious, dangerous practice and the idea that song-and-dance cinema isn’t for men is inaccurate. Likewise, there’s the misconception that females can’t enjoy action films or other material that’s got a ‘masculine’ edge to it. This boxed-in mentality also goes beyond sex - see, for example, how animated films are still widely dismissed as ‘kids’ stuff’. A lot of assumptions, expectations and prejudices are perpetuated and still get pushed around even though we allegedly live in a more enlightened age of open-hearted, open-minded cultural awareness.

Because I’m an idealist carrying a conviction that films can transcend boundaries and bring human beings together, this cuts me up and sticks in my craw. The film industry and the marketing machine are reinforcing archaic, irrelevant barriers and doing a bad job at representing the actual films themselves in the process.

I was on board and excited about the new screen adaptation of the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel but the “testosterone” claims have turned me off a little. My penis doesn’t pick which movies make it onto my watchlist and this direct appeal to my gonads and sexual identity feels even more personally perturbing than the regular hard sell if I ruminate on it further.

This case serves to remind me of the tragic truth that film isn’t necessarily conceived as a mystical creative arts experience but as a product specifically designed to sell to a consumer marketplace and make money. It’s a sad reality check - a moment where you see the cynical charlatans behind the curtain pulling the strings and dividing so that they may conquer.

As I said, I’m a naïve idealist who believes in having a deep soul-stirring symbiotic relationship with cinema. That’s undermined if audiences are only viewed as part of a machine process or business transaction - cash sources ready to be milked or simply pigeonholed demographic units to target and push product on.

Cold-hearted commerce kills creativity - both the actual creating and the end enjoyment of it. Filmmakers and studios understandably want as many people as possible to see their work, but there’s a risk that the business end and PR push skews everything. With too much focus on features, box office figures and brand presence, films are reduced to commodity status and cinemagoers cease to be multi-dimensional human beings.

Returning to Les Mis, I’m now entering as a film fan increasingly aware of his position in the producer’s estimation, and that taints the experience. I am a part of an ‘interesting’ demographic outside of the target audience of women and die-hard musical theatre fans. I am, possibly, what Hooper and Fellner refer to as “a fanboy”.

I and other men have been specifically lumped into a category. As someone who likes freedom and dislikes being judged or labelled, that grates, and I go to the cinema to enjoy great films, not to be grated. (And I do feel like grated cheese because all these ‘actual nature of the film industry’ epiphanies shred my soulstuff and I know that some rich businessman is putting it in a burrito and eating it with relish.)

Overall, I’m left incensed, shouting “to the barricades!” and brandishing my wrath at the bean counters, marketeers and commodity peddlers who reduce cinema to a shallow consumerist exercise. I have extra reserves of antipathy stored up for those who try and define us all along demographic lines, preying upon and propagating lazy generalisations and stereotypes in the process.

The makers of Les Misérables obviously want to reach as many people as possible, so it’s understandable why they’d play up the film’s testosterone quotient in the pre-release buzz. It’s not my intention to bludgeon Hooper for trying to promote his movie. What I wish to do is bludgeon the commodified, categorised, dehumanised culture we live in that characterises movie production and the interaction between studios, artists and audiences.

These are big issues - way too serious and vast if you only wanted to hit the cinema to see hot women emoting. Perhaps I’m oversensitive and have taken exception here because I’m personally affronted as someone with both an enthusiasm for musicals and a pair of testicles (at time of writing, they’re still there). I felt similar indignation when Bridesmaids was built up as a “ballsy” chick-flick that men were “allowed” to like. I’m sure I’d feel the same if I was a woman being told I’d enjoy The Hobbit because “it does actually have some oestrogen! Hey, pretty scenery and a cute CGI hedgehog!”

In summary, gender-coding genres insults everyone’s intelligence, messes up the movie experience and encourages arbitrary divisions that should have died eons ago. Your sex shouldn’t affect your cultural choices, and I’ll be seeing Les Misérables because I’m a film enthusiast - not because the macho aspects make it an ‘acceptable musical’ for males.

Alternatively, I could stay at home and play on Total War and play with myself at the same time. That’s what members of the horny history student demographic do, right?

James Clayton has a lot of testosterone, several musical numbers, a few comedic flourishes and some shocking moments of outstanding brutalism so really has something to appeal to everyone. You can see all his links here or follow him on Twitter.

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I'm not sure how to respond to this. I thought, when I opened it, that it would be an argument against promoting gender boundaries through film (and there is a bit of that in here, admittedly), and I would certainly rally with you against that because goodness knows how many times I've had odd looks off female employees in cinemas when I've gone to see films like The Dark Knight Rises or Dredd on my own.
But what comes across more strongly in the article is that you feel affronted by the money-grubbing attitude of cinema in the modern age. This is, of course, a completely valid thing to be affronted by, it's just not what I was expecting from the article.

I think the gender promotion/expectations is something found across loads of forms. I've had someone ask me why I was reading Michael Herr's Vietnam book Dispatches because 'it's not the type of book girls should be reading', which I found incredibly patronising. I also got told that I might not like The Raid because it was a 'manly' film. I haven't seen it yet, but I'm guessing my opinion will not be formed on whether my delicate feminine sensibilities are offended by all the violence.

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