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Current Faith-Themed Movies Explore Masculinity (Part 2)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011 2:50 PM Comments (7)

Gerard Butler as Sam Childers in Machine Gun Preacher

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Although physical competence helps the family men in all three films provide and protect their families, each of the films recognizes that more is required. Good fathers must be available for their children, must enter into their children’s worlds. This can be as simple as a silly but familiar word game between Sam Childers and his daughter, or Brendan allowing his daughters to put a bonnet on his head and paint his cheeks like Raggedy Ann.

This scene in Warrior—significantly, Brendan’s first appearance in the film—illustrates a tendency in Hollywood films generally to depict family men as less emphatically masculine than their single peers. (Stella Bruzzi documents this in Bringing Up Daddy: Fatherhood and Masculinity in Postwar Hollywood.) Note Brendan’s comment on his daughters’ game: “I think Daddy’s become a princess.”

Although the film emphasizes the attractiveness of Brendan’s wife (repeatedly showing her in varying states of dishabille), Brendan’s struggles to provide for his family leave him unable to protect her dignity as he would like, and he watches in chagrin as she departs for a waitressing job wearing a revealing outfit that may occasion harassment from male patrons.

Compared to his bad-boy younger brother Tommy—a fierce, glowering alpha male, taking down opponent after opponent within seconds and unceremoniously quitting the cage without even waiting to be declared the winner—Brendan is less dominant and more sensitive. (In my review I called Brendan Faramir to Tommy’s Boromir.) In the cage Brendan is tentative and cautious, relying less on power than on endurance, patience and strategy, winning bouts with submission holds rather than knockouts. Warrior may ultimately affirm Brendan’s mode of manhood over Tommy’s, but Brendan’s the underdog all the way.

Even in Courageous, for all its celebration of square-jawed fatherhood, there are indications that a man may have to risk adopting a somewhat less masculine image in order to enter his children’s world. Director and cowriter Alex Kendrick plays a competent but emotionally semi-unavailable father named Adam who watches fondly while his daughter dances on the grass but self-consciously declines to dance with her, offering the excuse that he will dance in his heart. This paternal reticence, which will later haunt Adam, reflects a false or exaggerated masculine self-regard that fathers must dispense with. (On the other hand, being there for his teenaged son ultimately requires Adam to display greater masculine energy by sharing the boy’s passion for running and even competing with him.)

A subtle tension between masculinity and domesticity affects Machine Gun Preacher as well. For Sam Childers, religion is initially something that his wife imposes on him, and at first he looks scruffily out of place at a white-bread Assemblies of God praise service. Later, though, stopping by a bar in a striped collar shirt to talk to an old biker buddy, he looks almost as out of place. Respectability has taken a certain toll on his rugged image, at least for the moment.

Eventually Sam seems to figure out how to reconcile his customary Harley-Davidson mojo with his new-found faith—but as time goes on, Sam’s increasing militantcy about his African work and opposition to the Sudanese rebels undermines both his religious feeling and his commitment to his family. Thus, the tension between Sam’s masculinity and his domestic entanglements, including his faith, remains unresolved.

In Warrior, religion matters only for the father Paddy, whose Catholic faith informs his 12-step recovery from alcoholism. Even responsible family man Brendan shows no sign of religiosity, and his protectiveness of his family leads him to be harshly unforgiving with his father—an estrangement that shows little if any sign of healing.

For Courageous, of course, faith in Jesus is nothing less than the foundation for authentic manhood. The gang leaders offer an intimidating counterpoint, and an orphaned young man lacking male role models falls in with them rather than with, say, one of the heroic cops with whom he has a brief exchange.

Overall, despite some issues, religion is handled respectfully and is depicted as a positive force in the lives of Warrior‘s Paddy (and his wife) and Machine Gun Preacher‘s Sam Childers (it goes without saying that the same is true of Courageous). Notwithstanding the flaws of individual characters, masculinity as such and the importance of fatherhood in particular are constructively engaged. While none of these are perfect films, I’m reasonably encouraged by these positive trends.

Incidentally, next month will offer a change of pace from all this testosterone: a Christian-themed sports film about women, The Mighty Macs.

Further reading: Fatherhood and Hollywood: Dads in the Movies (Decent Films)

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About Steven D. Greydanus

SDG
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Steven D. Greydanus is film critic for the National Catholic Register and Decent Films, the online home for his film writing. He writes regularly for Christianity Today, Catholic World Report and other venues, and is a regular guest on several radio shows. Steven has contributed several entries to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, including “The Church and Film” and a number of filmmaker biographies. He has also written about film for the Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, Social Science, and Social Policy. He has a BFA in Media Arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York, and an MA in Religious Studies from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Overbrook, PA. He is pursuing diaconal studies in the Archdiocese of Newark. Steven and Suzanne have seven children.