Raising reel men

Media scholars debate about the effects that media and films have on the lives of average citizens.  Although the debate is far from over, one SIUE College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) professor turned a sabbatical research project into a book, “Reel Men at War: Masculinity and the American War Film,” recently published by Scarecrow Press.

Ralph Donald, professor of mass communications at SIUE’s College of Arts and Sciences, along with Karen MacDonald, a clinical psychologist, examined how media, in particular war films, contribute to the socialization of young boys in modern society.  Donald believes motion pictures help form what it means to be a man in the minds of young boys.

“If you stop and think about it, between movies, video games and other kinds of things similar to that, boys tend to spend more time with that than they do with their fathers learning how their father wants them to grow up,” said Donald.

Donald used what he called ‘a hefty sample of war films,’ more than 100, and examined the different elements that are found in the films.  Most of the films were “A-list” films such as “Platoon,” “Patton,” “The Green Beret,” and “Full Metal Jacket.”  In the films, Donald and MacDonald found many common themes to support their hypothesis.  An example of what Donald and MacDonald found was the similarity between war and sports metaphors.

“Sports and war metaphors are somewhat interchangeable.  When you stop and think about it, when there’s not a war around, we as men need a substitute for manly achievement and sports can provide that.  You subsume your own needs and interests to the team and the win,” said Donald.  “You play hurt.  You subject yourself to the possibility of injury.  There’s great similarity in participation in sports [and war], especially team sports.”

Dr. Ralph Donald presents on images of masculinity in war films to an undergraduate in feminist studies.

Donald said he also chose to look at the business of leadership, which is often seen as an important aspect of manliness.  In sports and in war, men who step into leadership roles are viewed as more more manly and more courageous.  Donald devoted an entire chapter to this concept because of how it translates into the different films.

“The early Greek philosophers made the word courage synonymous with manliness.  So, to be courageous is to be manly in Greek terms and a lot of that is translated into the films,” said Donald.

Donald stated that he decided to work with MacDonald on this book because of her background in clinical psychology.  MacDonald has worked with a number of soldiers on issues such as PTSD, and was able to bring this knowledge to bear on the psychological aspects while Donald focused on the sociological aspects.  Donald said that MacDonald was able to provide a great deal of background on the important characters of the various films, and that she found many of the main characters to be narcissistic with delusions of grandeur.

The book is the result of a sabbatical that Donald took in 2005, but has its impetus in Donald’s childhood.  Donald said that he grew up in Los Angeles (L.A.), CA during the 1950’s when the entire output of Hollywood Studios, much of the output being war films, was shown by the three independent stations in L.A.  Donald said that he watched many of the films and was effected by them.  This laid the groundwork for much of Donald’s academic work.

“I looked at the illusions that I had about war, about being a warrior and everything else, and then how I was so disillusioned by them when I was in the Air Force for four years during the Vietnam War and decided there was something there that needed to be looked at,” said Donald.  “How did those war films set my course and dictate the actions and behaviors that were appropriate for the heros of these movies?  So, thinking about that over the years is what guided some of my early articles and then finally decided I need to put this into a book.”

What Donald discovered was that much of the behavior of the “war hero character” bleeds over into the lives of many teen and adult males.  Donald said the example that can be found in many John Wayne films is a prime example of this.

“Every once in a while a character like Wayne says a line, which [Wayne] says in about five different movies, in which a young troop, as they are about to assault an island or something, says ‘I’m scared.’ and he says ‘So am I.’  And then young troop says ‘You? Scared?’  And Wayne says ‘You’d better believe it.  I don’t trust anybody who says he isn’t,’” said Donald.  “But what it’s also saying is that men are obliged not to show their emotions if they are going to be deemed heroic.  They are going to subsume their emotions and not show them in any way.  Unfortunately, this bleeds over into personal relationships and everything else, where men have to be more covert about the way they feel and show feelings.  For every positive thing where men have to perform certain behaviors to be thought of as manly by men, they need to not perform those behaviors in interpersonal relationships with their children or with women.”

Donald stated that the topics he covers in his book can be found in any movie that fits into the war genre.  He doesn’t see this concepts changing in newer films.  Donald stated that in many of the world War II movies the story line objectives included men working together to achieve the objective.  Each soldier had the same goal.  However, the plot lines changed following the end of the Vietnam War.  Now, many of the story lines involve getting all of the men out alive.

“Protecting the men is the new war objective, giving everyone home with all their limbs intact and everything.  Narrative wise and theme wise the stories are changing considerably,” said Donald.  “Even through all this, you can read my book, and then go and see “The Hurt Locker” and see all of the same masculine principles that we’ve seen all along.”

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