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An analysis of Goodfellas (1990), Fight Club (1999) and Dallas Buyers Club (2013): how do their depictions of masculinity align with our new found modern consciousness regarding "what it means to be a man"?

Hollywood has always had an obsession with masculinity, likely due to the industry itself featuring almost exclusively men in its most prominent positions. It is a common belief that most films, with a male as the lead, feature a man of bravado, so inherently masculine that bullets effectively bounce off them, and any other portrayal of masculinity is viewed as effeminate, or weak. However, I wanted to evaluate whether this public perception was true. In an age where society has grown an increasing consciousness surrounding ‘what it means to be a man’, I wanted to know whether Hollywood had caught up, and whether Hollywood’s portrayal of masculinity has evolved, and if not, whether it seems like it ever will.

To do this, I selected three prominent Hollywood films, Goodfellas (1990), Fight Club (1999) and Dallas Buyers Club (2013). The three films spaced across twenty-three years, provided a good scale for me to evaluate masculinity, as the late 1980s and early 1990s marked the beginning of this consciousness around ‘toxic masculinity’, academically at least. The Independent credited the term ‘toxic masculinity’ to psychologist Shepard Bliss, with its first being used “in the 1980s and 1990’s” (The Independent, 2019).

Another point of interest, besides all three films’ critical acclaim, is the time in which they are set. Goodfellas (1990) is set between 1955 and 1980, with the action occurring in 1955, 1963, 1970 and 1980. The scope of this film afforded me the opportunity to see if the film acknowledged any changes in what a man was deemed to be. Furthermore, as with Dallas Buyers Club (2013) which is set in the mid to late 1980s, it offers a retrospective view upon masculinity. As both films were written and produced decades after they were set, they allowed for a modern lens of masculinity to be placed upon the times in which they were set, perhaps presenting them as flawed or ill-conceived. Meanwhile, Fight Club (1999) offers a different perspective, as it was both set and made in the late ’90s, creating a nice contrast to Dallas Buyers Club (2013) and Goodfellas (1990). The ’90s, however, also featured another crisis of masculinity, Michael S. Kimmel of the University of Miami remarked, “The 1990s will find men increasingly bumping up against the limits of traditional masculinity, yet unable to replace those archaic constructions with coherent new models” (Kimmel, 1992), a theme upon which the director, David Fincher, and the screenplay writer, Jim Uhls, draw upon greatly. The 1980’s setting of Dallas Buyers Club (2013) occurs during the AIDS crisis, a time in which homophobia was rife and there were very rigid preconceptions on how a man should act. Jean-Marc Vallée explores this in his film, drawing upon the real-life experiences of Ron Woodroof, and creative license as well, to craft a film that “elevate[s] this socio-medical drama out of the realms of the ordinary into something quietly remarkable” (Kermode, 2014). As for Goodfellas (1990), the men it revolves around, mob bosses and gangsters, make up the literal definition of toxic masculinity, “hyper-competitiveness, individualistic self-sufficiency, tendency towards or glorification of violence, chauvinism, sexism, misogyny, rigid conceptions of sexual/gender identity and roles, heteronormativity, entitlement to (sexual) attention from women, (sexual) objectification of women, and the infantilization of women” (Sculos, 2017), meaning that Scorsese had more than ample opportunity to critique this take on masculinity if he was so inclined.


1.0 First Impressions

How audiences initially perceive characters is important, first impressions count. Writers and directors are aware of this, and will look to formulate how we, the audience, should feel towards their characters. This initial perception shapes how we will view the character as a whole upon finishing the film, so, therefore, it is important to examine the initial presentation of the main characters in all three films.

1.1 Dallas Buyers Club (2013)- Peak toxicity

Dallas Buyers Club (2013) opens at a rodeo, Ron Woodroof is seen having sex with two women whilst snorting cocaine. We then see Ron escaping, with relative success, from a group of men whom he owes money after losing a bet. He escapes by punching a police officer, his friend, to ensure he arrested and therefore protected by the police. We then see Ron at work, in the oil fields, where he mocks Muslim women and Islamic countries before he is electrocuted in his attempt to help an “illegal” worker. The film cuts to the hospital where Ron is given his initial diagnosis, HIV and told he only has 30 days left to live.

Dallas Buyers Club (2013) wastes no time in introducing us to the kind of man the character Ron Woodroof is at the beginning of the film. The opening shot of Woodroof taking part in sexual intercourse with a woman at a rodeo, spliced between shots of bull-riding creates a not so subtle metaphor. Lead cinematographer, Yves Belanger, opts to use a high angle shot, placed almost in the corner of the room that looks down upon McConaughey and the female character, with McConaughey covered in shadow. As the scene progresses, we witness shots of McConaughey’s eyes, with the metal bars of the bullpen covering the rest of his face. This paints Woodroof as animalistic, the pants and groans we hear add to this, he is aggressive and evidently cares little for the well-being for the women around him, behaviour that continues throughout the first act. By choosing to open on such a scene, Vallée burns into the memory of the audience how Woodroof conducts himself, making his character progression later in the film all the more rewarding. Additionally, it introduces us, a modern audience, into the world Woodroof lives in 1986 Dallas, Texas is extremely different, in its societal values, to the society most audience members will be apart of; Vallée is aware of this and assaults the audience with a reminder of the stark contrast. The blend of extreme close up and high angled, almost voyeuristic, shots do not allow the audience to connect with Woodroof, in fact, it alienates the audience from him. The score’s high pitch ring can also be heard, a sound in which, as the film develops, the audience connotates with Woodroof’s failing health. Yet, when we hear it for the first time, its intention is to make us feel uncomfortable, an assault on the senses. It becomes clear that Vallée does not want us, a modern audience, to like Woodroof, initially at least. Woodroof’s toxic behaviour continues, upon his diagnosis, McConaughey continually looks away from the female doctor to the male doctor when she offers advice to him as if looking for another man’s opinion, not that of a woman. This clearly displays what Bryant W. Sculos describes as “toxic masculinity” as Woodroof appears to be “infantiliz[ing ]women (treating women as immature and lacking awareness or agency and desiring meekness and “youthful” appearance)” (Sculos, 2017). Vallée is aware that a modern audience will look down upon this type of behaviour so, put’s it front and centre, routinely using McConaughey’s reaction shots to be told the diagnosis rather than focusing upon the speaker. The audience is told: this is your protagonist but that does not mean you have to like him.

1.2 Fight Club (1999)- Fragility of the “New age man”

The opening of Fight Club (1999) is set in what turns out to be the climax of the film. The Narrator is tied to a chair, whilst Durden points a gun directly into his mouth. A terrorist plot is then revealed to the audience, enlightening us to the stakes of this confrontation. The film then flashbacks to the testicular cancer support group, the Narrator is held to Bob’s chest whilst Bob cries. We then view the Narrator at work, a boring office job, before viewing his apartment, furnished almost entirely with IKEA furniture.

From the moment we first meet the narrator, he is shown to be weak. The first shot we see of him is an extreme close up, all we can see are his eyes which have large bags underneath and he is sweating profusely. The next three shots are again close-ups, zooming out slightly to reveal a gun is being pointed into his mouth. It is clear he is not in control. Fincher then creates a contrast with Brad Pitt’s character, Tyler Durden. Durden removes the gun from the narrator’s mouth and moves across the lens, obscuring the audience’s view temporarily before moving into the background. Visually, the two characters could not appear any more different, they are polar opposites. Durden looks in good shape, muscular, sporting a shaved head and vest, his clothes are slim fit and his back is towards us. The narrator, however, remains in the foreground, the focus is on him. He is covered in sweat, his clothes are loose, his hair short but very messy, he is lit far more brightly, we can see what he looks like, Durden is just a shadow. Durden is presented as powerful, despite being in the background, the narrator keeps attempting to turn to him, drawing the audience’s attention towards him, even though he is out of focus. The dialogue is also key, Fincher blends narration with on-screen dialogue, the first line we hear focuses on introducing Durden, “people are always asking me if I know Tyler Durden” (Fight Club, 1999). Despite the narrator clearly being our protagonist, due to him being in focus and subject of the first few shots, all the dialogue centres around Durden, as if he were the main character. This creates a juxtaposition, going against audience expectations, subverting them, meaning the narrator appears inconsequential in comparison to Durden, weak, a man who lives passively, focused upon Durden rather than himself. This presentation of the narrator is furthered as the first act progresses. Edward Norton delivers a slow-paced, monotonous sounding monologue detailing the events in his life that led him to his life, he sounds defeated, deflated.

1.3 Goodfellas (1990)- Normalisation of violence

Goodfellas (1990) opens following a car, we cut to the inside where we meet our protagonist, Henry Hill, who is driving the car. We meet two other men, James Conway and Tommy DeVito before loud noises can be heard from the boot of the car. The three then lightheartedly joke about the noise before the film cuts to the car parked in a forest. The men open the boot to reveal a man, barely alive, soaked in blood. Tommy shoots the man several times, before Henry closes the boot and remarks, through narration, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster” (Goodfellas, 1990), the titles, in blood-red cover a black screen.

This initial introduction to Henry, and those he chooses to associate with, sets the tone for the film. What appears to be a very mundane scene, three men travelling in the car together, or even comedic at points as they muse over what the origin of the sound could be is disturbed by violence. Henry’s desire to be a gangster un-nerves the audience, its placement after such horrific imagery of a blood-soaked body illudes to a lack of compassion, a lack of respect for life itself. This alienates the audience, many could understand the desire to be a “gangster” in a romanticised sense, the nice suits, the money and power. Yet, Goodfellas (1990) does not appear to glamourise the role, we see dirty, horrific acts of violence, making Henry’s view all the more alien.

This scene in Goodfellas (1990) places importance upon the use of the colour red. There is a recurring motif in the film with the colour red foreshadowing acts of violence, within two minutes of the first scene, the red light from a brake light strikes across Henry’s face as they open the boot of the car to reveal a man, still half alive, covered in blood. The title cards then ensue, with the names all in white font, however, the first panel, the title “GOODFELLAS” is in all red. From this, we can interpret that Scorsese wants us to know that the colour red is directly linked to the colour red and that our protagonists are violent men.


2.0 Duality of Masculinity

Any assessment of the prevalence of “toxic masculinity” in cinema is reliant upon an understanding of the complexity of any presentation of ‘what it means to be a man’. Therefore, it is important to consider how each film presents these layers within their view of masculinity.

2.1 Fight Club (1999)- Duality in juxtaposition

A common theme in Fight Club (1999) is the duality of man. Fincher constantly creates juxtaposition between the Narrator and Durden, whom we later learn are one and the same person. This juxtaposition, of weak and strong, powerful and broken, materialistic and survivalist, could be interpreted as a metaphor for the struggles of the modern, 90’s, man. There is a continual commentary of man’s obsession with materialism: expressed through the character of the narrator. Within 5 minutes, Norton delivers a monologue about his desire for material gain, “like so many others I had become a slave to the IKEA nesting instinct” (Fight Club, 1999), before remarking he “had to have it” (Fight Club, 1999). This again presents the narrator as weak, he gives into materialistic urges, despite his own acknowledgement that it is turning him into a “slave” (Fight Club, 1999). The use of the noun “slave” (Fight Club, 1999) implies to the audience that the Narrator has no choice in these actions yet, Fincher contrasts this with shots of him ordering from catalogues, clearly displaying him purchasing of his own volition. This suggests to the audience that the narrator is not a slave, simply pushing the blame from himself to corporations, something which is exacerbated by his alter-ego, Tyler Durden. This duality is further expressed through the contrast between Durden and the Narrator. Whilst the Narrator lives in a plush, well-furnished apartment, Durden lives in a rundown and decrepit house. Durden, based on his choice of home, is somewhat survivalist, he sees little issue with the various faults of the house, namely it’s lack of furnishing and completed roof. It is therefore interesting that this presentation of function versus style is inverted between the two characters in regards to costume. Whilst the Narrators costume appears to be almost entirely functional, simplistic and plain shirts with a tie, Durden is an embodiment of excess. Throughout the film, Durden wears fur, leather, fishnet and other highly stylised items of clothing. He regularly wears red-tinted sunglasses, regardless of weather, suggesting it is solely a superficial styling decision. This juxtaposition within each character’s internal logic is an example of Fincher’s presentation of the duality of masculinity. There is a contrast not only between two separate men, but internally within each man on their own. This presentation of masculinity is not coherent, there is no defined logic or rules to adhere to.

2.2 Goodfellas (1990)- Balance of Crime and Family

As well as Fight Club (1999), again, Goodfellas (1990), also implies a duality of masculinity. Unlike Fight Club (1999), however, this is expressed not through two characters but one: Henry. In the opening scene, the red light casts only halfway across his face. This can be interpreted as a balance within Henry, the balance between his commitments to his family life and his role as a ‘wise guy’. In the first act of the film, our time spent with Henry is split between his job as a ‘wise guy’ and the beginning of his relationship with Karen. The red light symbolising the violence that comes with being a ‘wise guy’ and the white light symbolising the comforts of family life. Also, within the first act, this duality is expressed in the clothing of Henry. We see him wearing a cream blazer and tie with a black shirt. This two-tone costume symbolises the balance, the balance of light and dark, both figuratively within his character and literally with the clothes he wears. This is accompanied by a dim red light, illuminating the scene slightly, foreshadowing his descent from this balance. With the red lamp on one side of him, and a group of women, perhaps symbols of family life, on the other, Scorsese could be attempting to suggest a conflict between the two, with Henry caught in the middle. Furthermore, it is also notable that this red light seeps across the frame, potentially foreshadowing Henry’s succumbing to the violent nature of the mob.

However, as the film progresses there is an increasing emphasis on Henry’s exploits with the mob, which culminates with the murder of Billy Batts. This marks the turning point and beginning of the end for Henry as his involvement in the cover-up results in his isolation from the family. It is perhaps pertinent then that in their attempts to move Billy’s body, all three men: Henry, Jimmy and Tommy, are cast completely in red. This symbolises Henry’s loss of control, the loss of the balance in his life, as his criminal undertakings begin to dictate his entire behaviour. This could perhaps be construed as critique by Scorsese upon masculinity’s dependence upon greed. Throughout the entirety of the film Henry has been overtly materialistic, living an almost playboy-like lifestyle, that is dependent upon his criminal enterprise for funding. By using lighting in such a way, Scorsese evokes almost satanic imagery, which contrasts with the dark humour of Jimmy and Tommy who mock Henry for finding the whole ordeal of digging up a dead body somewhat revolting. Tommy and Jimmy refer to parts of Billy’s decaying body as “wings” (Goodfellas, 1990), by dehumanising a dead man in such a jovial manner Scorsese presents to the audience the true nature of these men. For most of the film the characters narrating often attempt to convince the audience the ‘Goodfellas’ are simply men trying to make a living, “cops for people who can’t go to the cops” (Goodfellas, 1990) as Henry describes. By the evoking of satanic imagery Scorsese appears to reject this, these men are not attempting to make a living, they are violent men who will do anything to maximise the amount of money in their pocket, they are guilty of one of the seven deadly sins: greed.

2.3 Dallas Buyers Club (2013)- Deconstruction of Bravado

Despite Ron Woodroof’s initial appearance of a man of substantial bravado and inherent toxicity, Vallée begins to introduce layers that contradict this initial preconception. For example, whilst threatening to “whoop” (Dallas Buyers Club, 2013) the male doctor’s “ass” (Dallas Buyers Club, 2013) upon diagnosing him with AIDS, McConaughey makes fleeting glances at the female doctor, Eve, suggesting to the audience that Woodroof feels the need to remind the only woman in the room of his stereotypical macho qualities, as he requires validation on his masculinity. Furthermore, upon being told he has 30 days to live, the glances at Eve cease, he looks down at the floor and his shoulders collapse in on themselves, he shrinks physically. This is mirrored by the shot choice. We, again, are looking down on Woodroof from a higher angle, this makes him look all the smaller, perhaps replicating how he feels. Alternatively, this could also be a commentary on Woodroof’s behaviour, exposing him to be a far more timid and broken man than he’s almost over-the-top persona appears to be. This is a man, who despite his somewhat questionable actions and attitudes, we should feel sympathy for, not anger against. This marks the first instance in which Vallée appears to present Woodroof as sympathetic when his overtly masculine persona is deconstructed. Woodroof then attempts to play the whole event off as a joke, standing up, a smile across his face, and marching out of the hospital. This suggests to the audience Woodroof is unable to cope with what he has just been told, he goes straight into denial, stating “fuck this….there ain’t nothing out there that can kill fucking Ron Woodroof in 30 days” (Dallas Buyers Club, 2013). The writers, Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack, perhaps chose to have Woodroof talk in the third person to not only highlight Ron’s ego but, a weakness within him: he distances himself from the issue by changing the perspective in which he speaks, moving from first to third, further away. To complement this, the frequency of shot changes increases. For most of the scene, the shot length is quite long, holding frequently on Woodroof to see his reaction to the diagnosis, however, once he begins to deny what the doctors are telling him there are 4 cuts within a small window of time, before cutting to a black timecard. This increases the pace of the scene, perhaps mimicking the franticness of Ron’s behaviour.


3.0 Attitudes towards women

As Michael S. Kimmel, of the University of Miami, argues, any attempt to comment upon or study masculinity must also take into account the role of the women’s rights movement and the impact it has had upon society, “The changes in the lives of women in the past two decades makes a return to the traditional model [of masculinity] impossible. The sexual revolution, the women's movement, and gay and lesbian movements have so utterly transformed the field upon which women and men play out their relations that we need to re-survey the land and get a feel for the new world in which we live”. Therefore, it is no surprise that all three films, in their attempt to present masculinity, inevitably have a running commentary on the relationship between men and women, particularly male attitudes towards women.

3.1 Dallas Buyers Club (2013)- Evolution of sexist behaviours

It is in Dallas Buyers Club (2013), we perhaps see the starkest contrast between the initial attitudes and the events of act three. As stated earlier, in act one, Ron Woodroof appears to be misogynistic and infantilise women. He views women as objects for sexual fulfilment, reinforced by the opening shot, in which the faces of the women he is engaged with are never shown, suggesting Woodroof has very little care for who they are. This attitude, however, changes as the film progresses, and as his relationship with Eve grows. Originally, Woodroof infantilises her, refusing to acknowledge her advice upon his diagnosis and then assuming she is a nurse when he comes back to the hospital in the hopes of gaining access to AZT. Woodroof then expresses his misogynistic behaviour again, after being corrected by Eve he waits for her to leave round a corner before pointing at her and saying “I like your style, doc” (Dallas Buyers Club, 2013). This very apparent attempt to reassert dominance over a woman whom Woodroof believes to have belittled him shows the fragility of his masculinity, he is almost afraid of her, as shown by him waiting for her to turn around a corner before replying. However, by the second act, well into his diagnosis, Woodroof recognises Eve as his doctor, refusing to see anyone else. This remarkable evolution in Woodroof’s character coincides with a change in his costume. In the first act, most of Woodroof’s costumes heavily feature dark colours or faded whites, there is a heavy use of denim. The use of denim appears to be a recurring motif in this film, presented as the most overtly masculine material, with all of Ron’s old friends heavily using the material, and frequently when Ron’s perception of masculinity is called into question it results in its inclusion in his costume, particularly his denim jacket. For example, for the first two acts of the film, anytime Ron goes to an AIDS meetup, or when he goes into the gay bar with Rayon, he is wearing his denim jacket. However, in the majority of other scenes, there is a notable softening of Woodroof’s wardrobe, often mirroring Woodroof’s surroundings. When he is stationed in the hospital in Dallas, a hospital with yellow walls, yellow accents begin to appear in his shirts and this is mirrored when he begins to attend the hospital in Mexico, with green walls, as we see many green accents in his clothing. This softening of the palette of Woodroof’s clothing from dark blues to pale greens and yellows could be interpreted by the audience as the change within Woodroof’s character. This attitudes towards women are changing as he becomes more secure in his own masculinity. This is perhaps best exemplified in his confrontation with one of his old friends, who, without knowing of Woodroof’s friendship with Ray, uses a slur against Rayon only for Woodroof to defend Ray and force them to shake hands and apologise. Whilst doing so, Ron is wearing a white and green striped shirt. Not only does Ron go against one of his old friends, he defends Ray, whom he, at the beginning of the film, mocked himself. This time, Ron’s use of aggression is to protect others rather than himself, as previously seen when he threatened to attack the doctor for diagnosing him with HIV. This could be interpreted as a nuanced commentary on the evolving state of masculinity by Vallée, as although Woodroof uses traditionally masculine means, threats and acts of aggression, to defend Ray, displaying more compassionate and accepting societal values in defending a marginalised group. This is perhaps what M.S. Kimmel meant when he discussed, “a map... to illuminate some of the road signs on a changed landscape [of masculinity]”, Ron has found his place in society, he is displaying similar masculine traits, such as the threat of violence, but within a new context. In this case, the defence of a transgender woman, a concept which would’ve been completely alien to Woodroof in act one. Alternatively, it could be a suggestion that masculinity is dependent upon the environment in which it harbours. Whilst Ron surrounds himself with homophobes and bigots, he expresses discriminatory behaviour, repeatedly using homophobic slurs and derogatory attitudes towards women. However, when his life begins to involve people from wider walks of life, such as Rayon (a transgender woman), he becomes far more tolerant, and even accepting, for example in act three he acknowledges Rayon’s gender identity, referring to the pair as “Bonnie and Clyde” (Dallas Buyers Club, 2013).

3.2 Fight Club (1999)- The objectification of women

This progression contrasts with the views presented in Fight Club (1999). The attitudes towards women in this film are far closer to the attitudes of Ron Woodroof in the first act of Dallas Buyers Club (2013), women are routinely objectified and even become the scapegoat for the behaviours of an entire generation of men throughout the film. This attitude is primarily presented through the character Tyler Durden. When we first meet Durden within the narrator’s flashback, upon his exit Durden remarks “ass or crotch?” (Fight Club, 1999), as he shuffles past the narrator on an aeroplane, opting to show the narrator, a man, his “ass”. However, as he walks past a female flight attendant, he opts to display his “crotch” (Fight Club, 1999). This subtle gesture implies Durden’s philosophy towards women, they are objects of sexual conquest. This is further exemplified when he casually discusses sleeping with Marla with the narrator in act one, “You know what I mean. You fucked her”, he assumes the narrator has, disregarding whether Marla would have any interest in him. He then remarks, “That’s good, ‘cause she’s a predator posing as a house pet”. This use of language dehumanises Marla, from a complex, layered individual into an animal, and an aggressive, manipulative one at that. Additionally, the description of Marla as a “predator” demonises women, Durden provides no further evidence to support his claim, treating his own assessment as a fact. It alludes to an idea that Marla is somehow dangerous or any sexual activity with her is somehow a ‘trap’, a way to lure men for some ulterior motive. Perhaps to Durden, the idea of engaging in a meaningful relationship, one in which Marla’s feelings are considered and she is listened to is that ‘trap’. He even refers to their relations as “sport fucking”, which, again, objectifies Marla, making her nothing more than a sexual triumph. This treatment of a woman as little more than an object of sexual conquest embodies “toxic masculinity”, it treats Marla as a possession, something to be passed between friends rather than a woman with her own desires and motivations.

Furthermore, Durden argues “we’re a generation of men raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer we need”. The use of the collective pronoun “we” pits women and men in conflict with one another. The suggestion that they’re a “generation of men raised by women” implies the results are negative, in context, suggesting if they had been raised by men they would have turned out ‘better’. This, it can be argued, is an example of ‘toxic masculinity’, within the parameters set by Bryant W. Sculos, “which are harmful to women, men, children, and society more broadly” (Sculos, 2017), we witness harm to men: both the physical injuries they suffer in Fight Club, including the death of Bob, harm to society: the destruction of the banks, encouragement of hyper-aggressive behaviour in all walks of life, from janitors to police detectives, and to women: Marla is emotionally damaged by the narrator and Durden’s actions, she is kidnapped and repeatedly neglected.

However, it can be argued that, in the film’s final moments, the Narrator begins to distance himself from this toxic attitude towards women. After the Narrator ‘kills’ Durden, he seemingly becomes more conscious of Marla. He reassures her he is okay, despite the bullet hole in his cheek, showing an awareness of her emotional interests, namely in his wellbeing. Additionally, he takes her by the hand, a level of intimacy never seen before. His alter-ego Durden is only shown to use Marla as a sexual object, displaying very little, if any, romantic intimacy with her. It is also significant that it is the Narrator who first extends his hand, rather than Marla, suggesting he has a newfound interest in Marla’s emotional wellbeing, rather than Durden’s focus on her availability for sex.

3.3 Goodfellas (1990)- The Patriarchy

It is within Goodfellas (1990) that we, perhaps, find the most patriarchal society. This is likely due to the time in which the film is set, starting as early as 1955, with the main body of the action set in the 1970s, over a decade earlier than Dallas Buyers Club (2013) and two decades before Fight Club (1999). In the ‘wise guy’ ruling world Scorsese presents to the audience; women are nothing more than housewives or girlfriends. We see this in the relationship between Henry and Karen. At first, Henry is repulsed by her, before standing her up, he pays little attention to the emotional impact this will have on her. It is only when she acts out against him in an aggressive outburst that Henry feels an attraction towards her. This is interesting as aggression is a trait commonly associated, and in this film displayed, with masculinity. Karen is further “masculinised” through the use of costume. Before their marriage, Karen is primarily seen in ‘feminine’ colours: whites, pinks, creams and vibrant reds. However, in the first scene after their marriage, Karen can be seen in deep red coloured pyjamas, this draws parallels to Henry, who frequently wears deep reds throughout the film. The use of the colour is a recurring motif in the film, often foreshadowing violence, in fact, the last time we see Henry in red before this scene is when he assaults a man with the hilt of a pistol who attempted to force himself on Karen, which could be interpreted as “chauvinism” (Sculos, 2017). So, by dressing Karen in red, this not only implies there is a tendency towards violence within her, perhaps foreshadowing her outburst at Henry later in the film in which he points a gun at her head, but also establishes a connection with Henry: she is growing to be more like him, more masculine. As the film progresses, and Henry and Karen’s relationship deteriorates, Henry exhibits further toxicity, he laughs as Tommy patronises and infantilises a woman he is on a date with, “I understand perfectly what you’re saying, but you have to watch sometimes how you say things” (Goodfellas, 1990). Henry supports this behaviour with his laughter, Scorsese highlights this by having a close-up of Henry laughing at the situation, clearly displaying his sexist attitude towards women. The sequence that follows displays Henry going back to his mistress’ apartment and staying the night whilst Jerry Vale’s song “Pretend you don’t see her” plays. Scorsese’s use of the song creates a somewhat on the nose allegory for Henry’s character, with lyrics such as “Pretend you don't love her / Pretend you don't see her at all”, however it creates a sense of irony as the song is about a man who’s partner has left them, something Henry is aware Karen will never do. Henry ignores his relationship and commitment to Karen, behaviour it is safe to assume he would not allow Karen to indulge in, this displays Henry’s sexist attitudes, men are allowed to womanise and sleep around, women must stay loyal for the sake of the family. This interpretation is further exemplified within this sequence as after Scorsese highlights Henry’s overnight stay, it cuts to Karen, child in hand, walking into Paulie’s with Henry, displaying the extent of Henry’s betrayal. Ultimately, Scorsese creates a world in which women are almost second-class citizens, wives and objects of sexual gratification first and foremost, their own personalities and interests come second. This is further exemplified by the scene in which Karen meets the other wives of the wise guys, the women talk about other wives of wise guys but only in the context of their husbands, they talk about “Jeannie”, however, with far greater emphasis on the men in her life: her husband and son. Henry’s toxicity escalates, developing into violence against Karen. Henry wakes with Karen pointing a gun to his head, Scorsese uses a shot-reverse-shot close-up sequence from the perspectives of the two characters. This creates a level of intimacy, the gun (a regular occurring prop in the film) carries a real sense of weight and threat, as it appears so close and centre frame. It unnerves the audience. However, when Henry regains control in the conflict and points the gun towards Karen, Scorsese employs a wide shot. This could be interpreted as an expression of Henry’s desensitisation to violence. For Karen, pointing a gun towards someone is abnormal, horrific, so the audience is allowed to witness this, the close-up shot highlighting all the minute expressions in the actor’s faces. Conversely, the use of the wide shot removes the audience from the conflict, they become onlookers as opposed to participants. This example of extreme aggression, particularly against a woman, is a textbook example of ‘toxic masculinity’, Henry’s use of force is entirely unnecessary, Karen has already given him the gun and began to apologise, it is not an act of self-defence, but an act of aggression.

4.0 Evaluation of the form of masculinity presented

Whilst it can be argued that all three films present toxic masculinity, we must consider and evaluate whether it is presented as a viable evolution of masculinity, and whether, despite it being exhibited by our protagonists, we as an audience should be in support of all their actions.

4.1 Fight Club (1999)- The Excess of Satire

For this evaluative purpose, I will be viewing the narrator and Tyler Durden as separate characters, as is presented for most of the film, rather than multiple personalities of one character. Durden’s attitudes to women, as discussed earlier, would be viewed, by a post-Me-Too movement audience, in a negative light, Durden’s objectification of women and his use for them as nothing more than objects of sexual desire, exemplified by him going to Marla’s apartment when she attempted suicide with the sole aim of sleeping with her, would be viewed as derogatory. However, we must evaluate whether Fight Club (1999) glorifies this behaviour or presents it in order to critique it. Fincher, during an interview with the author of the novel Fight Club at Comicon, stated “It’s a satire. Many don’t get that.” (STEDMAN, 2014). This supports the argument that Fight Club (1999), is, in fact, a critique of ‘toxic masculinity’, rather than a glorification of it. However, it’s nuances mean that depending on someone’s own personal views they either view Durden as a hyper-masculine man’s man, or the literal embodiment of the fragility of masculinity, over-compensating in response to “the birth of the "sensitive New Age guy," (Kimmel, 1992), perhaps a figurehead for the movement in the late 1980s in which “Some men are reacting sharply against women's heightened expectations” (Kimmel, 1992), as Michael S. Kimmel commented upon. Upon this reading of the film, one in which Durden is the embodiment of male fragility, the effect of the character’s actions is profoundly different. His speech in which he talks about an “entire generation [of men]… with no Great War, no Great Depression, our Great War is a spiritual war, our Great Depression is our lives”, ceases to become a rally-call, a war cry and can only be viewed as self-pitying, weak and representative of the fragility he embodies. Durden appears to be calling for “a return to the traditional model [of masculinity]” (Kimmel, 1992), a patriarchal society in which men ruled over women, dominated parliaments, education, science, and societal values. Durden is weak because of this, he is unable to adapt, stuck in his ways of rigid masculine roles, he is calling out for a return to the world in which consumerism, the ideal in which he critiques in this very speech, was designed, born and implemented. This sense of irony is utilised throughout the film to present this ‘toxic masculinity’ as fragile, routinely exposing the actions, of Durden in particular, as ill-conceived or flawed. Likewise, the Narrator is equally weak, he welcomes and encourages Durden’s hyper-masculinity for most of the film, only protesting when Durden proposes a terrorist plot. The Narrator appears to aspire to be Durden, we see changes in his costume to represent this: initially, Fincher and his creative team attempt to create a juxtaposition between Durden and the narrator is through the use of costume. The first time, within the flashback, we meet Durden he is wearing a red blazer, with an open wide-collared shirt, patterned trousers and red sunglasses. This is in complete contrast to the narrator who is wearing a white shirt, a poorly tied tie and grey trousers. The colours featured in the outfits draw very different connotations; red connotes with blood, violence and danger; grey, however, suggests monotony, corporate America and evokes a sense of staleness. Fincher further expands upon the connations of these colours within the fight club itself: Durden is wearing red trousers and wins his fight, the narrator, however, wears grey and loses his. From this point on, Fincher, somewhat subconsciously, creates a connection between the colour red and strength, or at least what the narrator views as strength. The structure of Fight Club (1999), with the majority of the events of the film being told through retrospective narration by Edward Norton’s character, means that Fincher is the presenting the world of this film through the lens of the narrator: the audience is seeing how the narrator feels. This means that the hypermasculinity presented through the character of Tyler Durden is what the narrator views as the epitome of masculinity. This contrast between the Narrator and Durden, visually at least, diminishes within act two, the Narrator begins to wear his shirt without a tie, his shirt half-open: evocative of Durden’s wide-collared shirts and jackets. The colours of his costume become more faded, perhaps symbolic of his own personality merging with Durden, as the Narrator loses his own individuality. The Narrator, like Durden, is weak. Whilst Durden is hyper-masculine and arrogant, the Narrator is almost a polar opposite, he mopes around the film, and is extremely introverted, submissive to Durden’s rhetoric. Upon this viewing, it could be argued that Fincher wants us to pity both Durden and the Narrator, both their interpretations of masculinity lead to self-destructive behaviour, literally. The viewer is not meant to feel emboldened by either character, they should be repelled by their beliefs and see the flaws in their ideology.

4.2 Dallas Buyers Club (2013)- Imperfect Nature of Personal Development

Dallas Buyers Club (2013) is perhaps less conceited than Fight Club (1999) in its presentation of masculinity. Vallée, aware of a modern audience’s likely more socially conscious views, allows Woodroof to presented as an almost anti-hero. The viewer is likely to dislike many of Woodroof’s behaviours and views, yet, we are also allowed to feel sympathy for him. The films breaks down and deconstructs Woodroof’s interpretation of masculinity, with careful attention paid to ensure he is not painted in broad strokes, avoiding black and white definitions of Woodroof. Whilst it is true that Woodroof’s attitude appears to change, such as his increasing acceptance of Rayon and his growing friendship with Eve, it is also apparent that Woodroof still displays many of his toxic traits. For example, when he defends Rayon from ridicule whilst shopping he still utilises violence, a trait commonly associated with toxic masculinity, to resolve the situation. This, therefore, would suggest that whilst the film condemns Woodroof’s initial societal values and interpretation of masculinity, it is not necessarily wholly in support of his new ideology. He still can be somewhat chauvinistic, he orders for Eve at a restaurant and their juxtaposing body language, Woodroof’s being very open, whilst Eve’s remaining slightly closed throughout suggests Eve is not entirely comfortable in the situation. Yet, Woodroof continues to compliment both her physical appearance and his own, compliments which are never returned. This displays how Vallée is cautious to present Woodroof as changed entirely. Dallas Buyers Club (2013) does not appear to present an ideal form of masculinity, as Woodroof still exhibits some arguable “toxic” traits, rather it attempts to show how damaging “toxic masculinity” can be.

4.3 Goodfellas (1990)- Failures of Toxicity

What is perhaps most pertinent in any evaluation of Goodfellas (1990) presentation of “toxic masculinity” is the fact that it fails. Henry’s life goal, to become a gangster, is relatively short-lived. He fails, and is placed into witness protection, whilst the other members of ‘The Family’ are arrested and presumably sentenced. Scorsese’s critique of the behaviour is almost obvious, it is not viable, in the long term at least. Henry’s marriage is weakened by his extra-marital affairs, he is isolated from his parents, he loses the only true family he believed he ever had, and he ends up broke. The sacrifices he has made throughout his life have not paid off; his arrogance costs him. However, this is not to say that Henry is completely unsuccessful. It is still true that Henry was able to evade meaningful prison time, unlike his fellow “gangsters”, perhaps suggesting his version of masculinity is less toxic than those of Tommy or Paulie, or that Henry’s self-interest overrides these other toxic elements of his personality to ensure his own survival. This interpretation would be less damning on the nature of toxic masculinity as it implies it can be successful, as long as the perpetrator does not live in excess. It is Henry’s desire for material wealth that leads to his capture, his insistence upon maintaining the lifestyle he has become accustomed to. This room for interpretation Scorsese leaves is significant in evaluating whether the type of masculinity presented is viable as it gives power to the viewer to make their own judgements, which would suggest Goodfellas (1990) is not wholly a condemnation of “toxic masculinity”.

5.0 Conclusion

In conclusion, it can be argued that all three films, Goodfellas (1990), Fight Club (1999) and Dallas Buyers Club (2013), elements of ‘toxic masculinity’, as defined by Bryant W. Sculos, are presented within the male leads of the film. In Dallas Buyers Club (2013), Ron Woodroof is, initially, homophobic, sexist, misogynistic and overly aggressive. The Narrator and Tyler Durden, the lead(s) of Fight Club (1999), appear to extremely fragile in their own masculinity, resulting in hyper-aggressive behaviour and the glorification of violence and suffering. Goodfellas (1990), presents the most conventional form of ‘toxic masculinity’, very much a man of his time, a sexist and infantiliser of women, who enables other toxic behaviour around him from the likes of Tommy. But to say they only present toxic masculinity would be false. Goodfellas (1990) shows this form of toxic masculinity to be fallible, all the men in the film receive their comeuppance, largely due to their obsession with wealth and arrogance in regard to superiority over the law. Dallas Buyers Club (2013), similarly, shows the destructive nature of ‘toxic masculinity’, as Woodroof’s most prosperous period, post-diagnosis, coincides with an increasing social consciousness and acceptance of marginalised groups. As for Fight Club (1999), this is the only film in which it could be argued ‘toxic masculinity’ is almost exclusively presented. However, this is not to say it is encouraging, in fact, in the director’s own words, the intention was to show the comedic value in the ideology’s inherent fallibility. We as an audience should not celebrate the behaviours of the Narrator and Durden, in fact, they could be interpreted as a pair of anti-heroes.

We must also consider, across these films is there a clear progression of the presentation of masculinity? It can be argued that there has been a progression, but not in the types of men portrayed but, in how films attempt to influence the audience’s perceptions of them. In Goodfellas (1990), Scorsese is far more ambiguous in his critique of the behaviour of the characters in his film. He presents the characters with a distinct duality, Henry attempts to balance his family and criminal life. The audience is permitted to feel sympathy for Henry, his decision to go into witness protection is neither presented as an act of cowardice or bravery, just an event in the film. This opens up room for audience interpretation: an action which Scorsese encouraged in one interview, “If you happen to feel something for the character Pesci plays [Tommy], after all he does in the film, and if you feel something for him when he’s eliminated, then that’s inter­esting to me. That’s basically it.” (Smith, 2018). This further focus on ambiguity in character presentation is emphasised as the interview continues, “I was hoping it was a documentary. [Laughs]. Really, no kidding. Like a staged documentary, the spirit of a documentary” (Smith, 2018). By treating the film as a “staged documentary”, Scorsese implies a lack of bias, he simply views the film as a tool to convey information to the audience from which they can draw their own conclusions.

This contrasts with Fight Club (1999), in which Fincher presents Durden as so hyper-masculine it reaches the point of “satire” (STEDMAN, 2014), in the words of Fincher himself. Whereas Scorsese acts like a documentary creator, presenting events rather than providing his own commentary, Fincher hides his own message within the narrative. Fincher does this through his use of stylised sequences, creating a film that appears to glorify the character’s ‘toxic’ actions and decisions. However, the use of over stylisation and irony implies, subtly, that these are not characters to idolise, but this nuanced commentary can be lost on the audience. Particularly its contemporary audience in which men in a crisis of masculinity may empathise with the narrator, in particular. However, due to the film's cult following and apparent fetishisation of Durden in particular, as Fincher himself alludes to: "'My daughter had a friend named Max. She told me ‘Fight Club’ is his favourite movie,' he said. 'I told her never to talk to Max again.'" (STEDMAN, 2014). This, inevitably, draws into question how successful Fincher's attempt at satire is. If the film draws in people, men in particular, who idolise the very characters and behaviours Fincher is attempting to satirise we have to ask, what's the point? To this group of people, the film is not a critique of this toxic masculinity, but a glorification of it, enabling them to carry out and/or accept the same destructive and damaging culture Fincher claims he was trying to mock.

Dallas Buyers Club (2013) leaves little room for ambiguity, on the other hand. Vallée from the outset plays upon modern attitudes towards gender roles and interpretations of masculinity, setting the audience against the protagonist, Ron Woodroof. However, unlike Henry in Goodfellas (1990) and The Narrator, for most of the film, in Fight Club (1999), we see a very clear evolution in Woodroof’s character. Woodroof evolves from a homophobic misogynist to a compassionate man of charity, signified by Vallée’s use of costume to convey this “softening” of Woodroof’s character. From this, we can conclude that Hollywood’s presentation of masculinity is evolving, however not in the way we would expect. Whilst it can be argued that we, as an audience, are still being presented with some spin of the archetypal ‘man’s man’ in modern cinema, the way in which directors are critiquing this presentation of masculinity is changing. The pattern these three films express would imply directors are becoming far more willing to influence the audience’s interpretation and reaction to characters, leaving less room for ambiguity and personal opinion.



Dallas Buyers Club. 2013. [Film] Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. s.l.: s.n.

Fight Club. 1999. [Film] Directed by David Fincher. s.l.: s.n.

Goodfellas. 1990. [Film] Directed by Martin Scorsese. s.l.: s.n.

Kermode, M., 2014. Dallas Buyers Club – review | Mark Kermode. The Guardian.

Kimmel, M. s., 1992. Issues for Men in the 1990's. University of Miami Law School Institutional Repository.

Sculos, B. W., 2017. Who’s Afraid of ‘Toxic Masculinity’?. Class, Race and Corporate Power, 5(3).

Smith, G., 2018. GOODFELLAS: MARTIN SCORSESE INTERVIEWED (1990) – by Gavin Smith. Scraps from the Loft.

STEDMAN, A., 2014. David Fincher: ‘Fight Club’ Sold 13 Million DVDs–‘It Paid for Itself’. Variety.


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