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To what extent is Rambo: First Blood Part 2 typical of Hollywood mainstream cinema’s treatment of gender in the 1980’s?
Action films in the 1980’s reflected the changes and insecurity’s within American society. There had been a rise in feminism meaning that the masculine form and dominance was being undermined and white working class males did not know where their place was in society. It was also in the immediate time after the Vietnam War and confusion and anger still lingered. The Vietnam War divided the American nation as a whole because, as it has been in recent times with the war in Iraq, people didn’t fully understand why America needed to impose their presence in a country where they felt they had nothing to gain. The action film in the 1980’s introduced a hero that differentiated masculinity and femininity using the form of the body as a way of ensuring power, dominance and self-respect. Rambo: First Blood Part 2 is a typical film of this era in terms of masculinity and the ways in which men and women are portrayed.
In the film Rambo: First Blood Part 2 Sylvester Stallone portrays a typical action hero of the ‘war film’ genre in the 1980’s but also an outcast of society after the Vietnam War. He is a veteran of Vietnam and came home to find that everything he had known had changed and he was no longer considered an honourable soldier but more as a war criminal. Rambo’s mission in this film is to go back to Vietnam and see if he can find a camp that he is told has many POW’s. If he finds the men, he can only take photographs but he has a problem with this and risks his own life to save them. He is very strong and muscular and is able to defeat the soldiers, Russian and Vietnamese, single handed. Douglas Kellner states that the film;
‘Follows the conventions of the Hollywood genre of the “war film”, which dramatizes conflicts between the United States and its “enemies” and provides a happy ending that portrays the victory of good over evil.’ (Kellner, 1994, p.10)
This means that America always won no matter who the enemy was. In reality this is something that America could not accomplish. There was no happy ending and there were no immediate heroes. Rambo is allowed to bring glory upon America and diffuse a situation that could have cost the American military even more respect and dignity. America had lost some of its power within the world and they strived to get it back. It had lost its first war and it had become important to remasculinize America. There was a growing fear of communism in the country and displaying male heroes which went against the communist regime was their idea of establishing the ideal throughout the world by a means of globalization.
Globalization had been taking place throughout the history of cinema by a means of film that was imported and exported to places around the world. In effect most of the action films set in Vietnam, and other films which hold a strong view of patriotism and heroism within America in the 1980’s, can be seen as propaganda films against the rise of communism.
The purpose, with or without the knowledge of the audience, was to get the idea across to a mass audience that communism was against the principles of the country. In Rambo the ‘evil’ characters are the Vietnamese and Russian soldiers and ironically, it turns out that the greatest threat to Rambo is not the Vietnamese, although they do pose a strong force, it is the Russians. The Russians are shown as being extremely strong, relentless, and willing to put a man through torture to get what they want. Nevertheless, whatever the Russians do you cannot beat a man with as much physical and mental strength as Rambo. This follows a pattern throughout action films in the 1980’s. One film that is suggestive of this is Rocky 4.
Rocky 4 (1985) also stars Sylvester Stallone but this time he is a boxer. He is fighting against a strong Russian fighter named Ivan Drago. Drago is very tough and stands at over 6ft tall. The Russian crowd all stand behind their fighter but when the final fight is over and Rocky defeats him with all of his strength the Russians begin to show support for Rocky and boo their fighter. This is the film industry’s way of evoking patriotism and the ever-growing fear of the communist regime after the Cold War. Philip L. Gianos states that;
‘The advent of Vietnam in film provided an opportunity for filmmakers who were denied an actual shooting war: a parallel, surrogate setting in which cold war themes could be played out.’ (Gianos. 1998, P.159)
The first response from the film industry during this time was a set of anti-communist films to respond to the changing political environment. The villains are almost always portrayed as foreign internationals such as Russian, German, and sometimes English and they are usually a communist operative. They are never American in these films because the hero is American. He is fighting for his country and if it were another American he is fighting against he is effectively fighting against America.
Other action films that were released at that time include, The Terminator, Rocky, Predator, and Die Hard. Millions of people worldwide, mainly consisting of young males went to see these films at the cinema. They gave them a chance to ‘latch on to big, muscular, violent men as cinematic heroes.’ (Katz, 1994, p134) These heroes gave the audience the chance to gain self-respect and security as it represented a masculinity that was unaffected by the rise of feminism.
Gender roles had been reversed due to the growing rise of a feminist movement that showed women were increasingly moving into the workplace rather than staying at home. The displaying of the male physique and the physical torture it goes through to enable glory and victory over evil is further suggestive of masculinity in crisis and the gain of global respect. Women could not gain this kind of respect because they could not attain that degree of physical strength and endurance so therefore this was one thing that they couldn’t take away from men.
The female role in the action film of the 1980’s appears at first glance to be on equal footing with the male. However, there are some differences in the ways in which they go about their missions. In Rambo: First Blood Part 2 the main female character, Co Bao, is strong, resourceful and a very capable fighter. She is Rambo’s contact in Vietnam and later becomes his love interest. During the film she cautions Rambo to follow his orders and when she goes to save him from the Russian’s in the POW camp she uses a different technique than Rambo. While Rambo attacked her captor from behind and overpowered him she sneaked into the camp as a prostitute. Therefore the issue of strength and power is present in the male character but in the female character it is more about subtlety and intelligence.
Rambo is the definitive male of 80’s cinema and was joined by characters such as John McLain (Die Hard) and Rocky Balboa (Rocky). In these films the main action centres around one hero and the female character is usually the love-interest or accomplice. In previous war/actions films and Vietnam films the veterans were seen as either psychopaths, such as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, or tragic characters, Bob Hyde in Coming Home. In the films of the 1980’s, however, the hero fights back.
In Rambo Part 2 Rambo can be seen as an anti-hero because of his rebellious behaviour by going against his orders to leave the POW’s and by telling Murdock that he will come and get him when he gets back from the jungle. This makes his character more dangerous and exciting to the audience as you don’t know what he is going to do. He has many people after him in Vietnam but he also has enemies at home. He has to deal with ‘home-grown discrimination’ because of the war and in effect he is no longer fighting for his country. He is doing it for the comrades that he fought with;
‘In these films the enemy is not the enemy in a war that is officially over but rather the civilian and military leadership that failed to win the war’ (Gianos. 1998, p.166)
After Co Bao is killed Rambo channels his emotions into retaliation and thus becomes a fighting machine that is only out for revenge. Before she was killed he was ready to leave after finding that Murdock sent him out just to get free of him and stem reports that there were POW’s still in Vietnam.
The style of the film helps to build the perception that he is a ‘god’ and that he is invincible. The use of lighting and camera angles are used to enhance his physique and the fast paced editing in the action shots are used to show that he is fast, strong and practical in the ways he attacks his enemies. Rambo shows us the ideal, very well-built muscular body of the white male in a place where he appears to belong. Commonly used iconography for Vietnam films included dense jungle, camouflage equipment and hi-tech weaponry. He uses the jungle to an advantage and appears to know it better than those who live there. He uses his initiative and intelligence in the jungle and is able to use it to gain the upper hand in a battle. One example of this is the scene in which he attacks a US soldier after he hides in a bank of mud with his eyes being the only thing visible.
The male body in these films ‘constructs the white man as physically superior, yet also an everyman, built to do the job of colonial world improvement’ (Dyer, 2002, p.269) The fact that the superior build of the hero’s body establishes him as an everyman means that it is something that any man can attain – as long as you are white. Black men are rarely portrayed in this manner and if they are they are usually the villains of the movie and end up being defeated.
In conclusion, the gender representation in the film is an effort from the United States to fulfil the growing need of remasculinizing American society, in particularly, in the dominant white majority of the working class. With the rise of feminism, fear of communism, political scandals and the Vietnam War, it became imperative for America to try and rebuild the image of men in a positive light. Rather than focusing on men as a collective these films focused on one individual and therefore a view of machismo, strength and determination became the ‘norm’.
The films of the 1980’s became a kind of vessel of the ideal and most of these films are still popular in today’s society and may still be what some men aspire to be. If you were like these men you were considered to be manly and if you weren’t you were understood to be weak and not the ‘typical’ American male. The male hero in these films was put there to win. America needed a hero and they found him in these films. The masculine form was in crisis and the wholesomeness and fearless heroes could make an impact on the male audience who would then seek to be like the characters they watched on screen.
Gianos P.L (1998) Politics and Politicians in American Film, London, Greenwood Press
Dyer, R, (2002) The White Man’s Muscles in Adams. R and Savran. D (eds) (2002) The Masculinity Studies Reader Oxford, Blackwell Publishers
Jeffords S. (1989) The Remasculinization of America: Gender and the Vietnam War Indianapolis and Bloomington, Indiana University Press
Kellner D. and Katz. J (1994) in Dines G and Humez J.M (eds) (1994) Gender, Race and Class in Media London, Sage Publications