Macho Catchphrases and Ascendant Feminism, 1971-1984

Hollywood circa the 1970s and early 80s spewed forth a slew of macho catchphrases. Here are a few examples; you’ll recognize every testosterone-laden specimen:

  • “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?” – Harry Callahan, Dirty Harry, 1971
  • “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.” – Vito Corleone, The Godfather, 1972.
  • “You talkin’ to me?” – Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver, 1976
  • “Go ahead, make my day.” – Harry Callahan (again), Sudden Impact, 1983.
  • “Say hello to my little friend.” – Tony Montana, Scarface, 1983.
  • “I’ll be back.” – The Terminator, Terminator, 1984.

Swashbucklers, cowboys, and tough guys had been Hollywood heroes for decades: Errol Flynn and John Wayne’s stock of masculine icons come to mind. Many even uttered catchy one-liners that became cultural mainstays, i.e. Rhett Butler’s “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” And some of said phrases were as aggressive as those above, such as The Honeymooners’ Ralph Kramden’s persistent threat of domestic abuse, “One of these days, POW!!! Right in the kisser!” But the Me Decade saw an unprecedented ejaculation of terse, violence-tinged retorts.

What drove this trend toward curt fury? Was this celluloid rage a reflection of a real-world torn asunder by Vietnam-era chaos? Did jaded, shock-inured audiences just need to be jarred and awed? Was it that Hollywood writers of that era were informed by television, a pithier media than the radio that nursed earlier scribes?  All are plausible possibilities. Yet it’s just as likely these macho one-liners were a reply to the ascendant women’s liberation movement.

After finding its footing in the early 1960s, the women’s movement was marching toward a new era in the 1970s. There were legislative and judicial battles for abortion rights, against work place discrimination, and in support an Equal Rights Amendment. And the male-dominated world was getting a remodel elsewhere, as well: once all-male enclaves such as Brown, Dartmouth, Duke, Amherst, and Harvard all went co-ed in this era; more women were entering the work force — Only 35% of the work force were women in 1965; that number rose to 40% in 1975, and another 2.5% in 1980, representing millions of new workers —; and in general a higher percentage of women were saying, “My turn” to pursue lives outside prescriptive parameters of the kitchen and the bedroom.

This upswell of emboldened women – and not to mention related social movement, i.e. civil and queer rights – created two sects of men: men who joined the cause for what’s right, liberating themselves from the patriarchy, and those who cowered in reactionary fear.

The most extreme expression of this latter cowardice is found in the so-called “men’s rights movement,” a coalition of males of who felt “discriminated against” by a more inclusive, “feminized” culture. They blamed women for their own failings — failings to find jobs, to achieve their dreams, to find a mate, and any number of other personal woes. Feeling they had to protect themselves from what “bossy” women, they coagulated into groups like The Coalition of American Divorce Reform Elements (1971), the Men’s Rights Association (1973); Free Men Inc. (1977) and Men’s Rights, Inc. (1977).

Yet whatever name they went by, their message was the same: men were maligned for women’s gain. They saw equal rights is a zero-sum game: if women are equal, men are somehow degraded.

I’m not saying movies created this climate. That would be as preposterous as the men’s rights movement itself. But the zeitgeist picks up and deposits cultural debris without knowing it, transmitting ideas in ways large and small, and that’s what was happening in these big screen expressions. The aforementioned flicks weren’t the only cinematic dissections of masculinity in this era: Straw Dogs, Deliverance, and The Deer Hunter are prime examples of a larger cultural conversation saturating celluloid outputs. But the movies/characters above — Scarface, Dirty Harry, and even The Godfather  — captured the male, ego-driven quest for dominance in a soundbite, guaranteeing it replay the American imagination. (That said, “…Squeal like a pig” is certainly akin to marquee lines with which we opened, and its anti-gay subtext gives it added texture.)

These characters and their witty retorts didn’t create toxic masculinity, but they spoke of and to it, and many of the male viewers saw these fictional characters as templates of personal character.

There are the men who framed sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh as an assault on all men. [As The New Republic’s Jeet Heer wrote, By using a “boys will be boys” rationale, “Republicans…transformed narrow question about a nominee’s fitness for the Supreme Court into a wider social referendum on gender equality and sexual misconduct in America today.”]

The men’s rights slop’s also evident in the terrifying rise of violent “incels,” so-called “involuntary celibates” who take their frustrations out on society, primarily women. And this retroactive mindset’s alive and well among men who agree with Donald Trump’s assertion that the #MeToo movement is “a very scary time for young men in America, where you can be guilty of something you may not be guilty of.” According to Trump and his ideological allies, women who accuse men of sexual assault must be forced back to their rhetorical place: “Push back on these women… You’ve got to be aggressive. You’ve got to push back hard.” That’s the stuff of horror movies.

Even more frightening, Trump’s misogynistic supporters don’t just lap up his comments; they’re empowered by them: A December 2018 Social Psychological and Personality Science report found Trump’s election bolstered their sexist ways: “Supporters of Donald Trump (but not of Hillary Clinton) expressed greater modern sexism post-versus pre-election — [this included] reporting lower disturbance with the gender pay gap, perceiving less discrimination against women but more against men, greater progress toward gender equality, and greater female representation at top levels in the United States.”

The cultural climate in America has changed since the 1970s, and so too has the Hollywood action archetype — The Rock’s more woke than Travis Bickle, and Captain America a better role model than Tony Montana — but the “men’s rights” malarkey remains in full effect off-screen, where too many American men see themselves as self-styled Dirty Harrys or similar anti-heroes.

Sadly, there’s no way to snap our fingers and make them background extras; the only way to keep them from taking over the American narrative is by fighting the good fight, just like a true big screen hero — like, say, Wonder Woman.

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