Rehabilitating Hegemonic Masculinity With the Bodies of Aging Action Heroes

Rehabilitating Hegemonic Masculinity With the Bodies of Aging Action Heroes

Kelvin Ke (Shelton College International, Singapore)
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 19
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-0128-3.ch010


The aging action hero has become an important figure in post-millennial action cinema. Its significance can be seen in how aging heroes can be seen in such franchises like The Expendables (2009 – 2013), Taken (2008 – 2014), The Fast and the Furious (2001 – 2017), Mission Impossible (1995 – 2018), and James Bond (2006 – 2015). In the following chapter, it is argued that the aging action hero and the aging male body is significant because they provide an opportunity to rehabilitate the tropes of hegemonic masculinity and the indestructible male body by emphasizing the benefits of the aging male body and where male toxicity is replaced by wisdom and maturity; egocentricity is replaced by allocentrism. As a result, the presence of the aging hero shows the dynamism of action cinema in offering different and alternative visions of heroism and heroes.
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The aging hero has become an important figure in post-millennial action films (Boyle & Brayton, 2012). This is significant because the idea of heroic masculinity tends to be associated with an image of young or matured men as its personification and not with aging or middle-aged men (Gates, 2010). If nothing else, the stories of Hercules and Achilles suggest that youthfulness, virility and physical prowess all play a role in shaping our ideas about heroic masculinity. Therefore, it can be jarring to see middle-aged or greying actors continuing to play the role of a virile and vigorous action hero. But then again, it should not come as a surprise because (a) action films tend to generate a lot of money at the box office, and (b) men generally have a longer time span as leading men (Terry, Butler & Armond, 2011, p. 145). But more importantly, so long as the actor continues to be bankable at the box office, their positions as action heroes remain secure. But put aside the idea that the studio executives and Hollywood filmmakers are a capricious bunch of people who are only interested in profit and money, it may occur to the viewer that under the right and appropriate conditions, that casting older actors and allowing them to explore the issue of ageing can ameliorate some of the negative tendencies of action cinema; particularly the toxic representation of maleness and masculinity of action heroes. That is because the heroic figure “requires us to recognize, for example, that the hero is inherently an overcoded image: he bears meanings about justice, morality, and law, and about being a man, in the same layered iconography” (Sparks, 1996, p. 354).

So while it is an oft-repeated claim that Hollywood is a young person’s game (Jermyn, 2012), the reception and box office records of big-budget action franchises such as The Expendables (2009 – 2013), Taken (2008 – 2014), The Fast and The Furious (2001 – 2017), Mission Impossible (1995 – 2018) and Daniel Craig’s James Bond (2006 – 2015) strongly suggest that audiences are not only attracted to action films, but that they do not mind that men of a certain age continue to play action heroes. But while some may conclude that the reason older male actors continue to be cast in blockbuster films is because of sexism and ageism (Erigha, 2015), such a perspective may overlook the benefits of such a phenomenon. While gender inequality does exist in Hollywood and it is an important issue, it is perhaps timely to pull back and adopt a more conciliatory tone in looking at the positive aspects of the aging action hero and how aging engender certain positives changes in the genre.

But what are these changes? Firstly, the issue of age gives filmmakers and actors, if they so choose to embrace it, an opportunity to critically examine the myths of the action hero. Second, it allows the older actor to re-examine some of the assumptions of his younger action persona. Third, it gives the viewer an opportunity to watch and experience the development of both the actor and his action persona as they age on screen. While wider cultural pressures might be the cause of such changes, the reality is that the leading men of Hollywood like Tom Cruise, Vin Diesel, Sylvester Stallone, Liam Neeson, and Daniel Craig are also growing older in real life. And while some actors are not able to maintain their relevance and currency with audiences, it does not mean that age cannot be used in a productive way to advance the narrative of the male action hero (King, 2010).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Heroic Masculinity: It refers to an ideology and a set of ideas regarding what constitutes a hero in a given society and culture. These include qualities or attributes that are regarded by cultures as characteristics of heroic men.

Hegemonic masculinity: It refers to a practice that legitimizes the dominant position of a certain type of men in society and justifies the subordination of both men and women in accordance to a certain standard that may include sanctions against those who do not conform or adhere to said standards.

White Savior Narrative: It refers to a cinematic trope that portrays the need for white characters to either rescue or assist non-white characters when they meet with problems.

Hardbody Film: It is an action genre that was popular during the eighties and early nineties. It can be defined as a group of action films that usually feature a central male hero as the lone protagonist that has a tendency to fetishize the display and visualization of the actor's muscularity and deadly skills.

Persona: In Jungian theory, it refers to the mask or appearance one presents to the wider world.

Genre: It refers to a classification system that categories films into groups which are usually categorized based on stylistic criteria, subject matter, themes, or even on the basis of actors or directors.

Archetype: It refers to a very typical example of a certain person or thing. In Jungian theory, it refers to a primitive mental image inherited from the earliest human ancestors, and supposed to be present in the collective unconscious. It can refer to a recurrent symbol or motif in literature, art, or mythology.

Trope: It refers to a figurative or metaphorical use of a word or expression. In creative works, it is used to describe recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs and clichés.

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