Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Violent Masculinity in Harold Lloyd’s Grandma’s Boy

As I’m sure every foreigner rightly suspects, the United States is a violent country.  And although it is surely not the only country of which this can be said, there seems to be something uniquely perverse in the American insistence on defining masculinity in terms of one’s willingness and ability to perpetrate violence.  I was especially struck by this during my recent viewing of two Harold Lloyd films, Grandma’s Boy (1922) and The Kid Brother (1927). 
In both of these films, Lloyd plays a nebbish and cerebral “weakling” (as an intertitle in Grandma’s Boy describes him) who must prove himself by, in essence, beating the shit out of some people.  In The Kid Brother, he has to beat the shit out of some thieves.  In Grandma’s Boy, he has to subdue a dangerous “tramp” (nowadays, we would say, “He has to beat up a homeless person”) and then beat up the thug who is his rival for the hand of a remarkably airheaded young woman.

In Grandma’s Boy, more than in any other silent-era comedy that I’ve seen, I became keenly aware of the violence on display.  The fight between Harold and his rival isn’t just a comedic bout of fisticuffs, as one will find in almost any silent comedy; these men are assaulting each other and could get badly hurt (there’s a similar sense of real danger in the boxing scenes of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights).  This brings me back to the love interest in Grandma’s Boy, a woman name of Mildred.  Now, Mildred’s affections are divided between the mild-mannered Harold and his thuggish rival (the rival doesn’t have a name) and I can’t imagine why.  The rival is clearly a psychopathic asshole who beats people up.  What’s the appeal? Is there something more “manly” about him because of his willingness to hurt people? How sad that Harold has to render himself as dangerous as his rival in order to win Mildred over.  Why does he even want her?

The violence of American constructions of masculinity is still with us today, although it’s perhaps slightly less overt than an order to go out there and beat someone up.  Perhaps it’s not so much the act of beating someone up, as the willingness to do so that is still expected of a manly man.  Surely this is why assholes still get into bar fights because someone was “hitting on” their girl or saying something sexual about her or whatever the hell idiots get into fights for.  They’re “defending” “their” women (forgive all the scare quotes).  Hell, they don’t even have to be drunk.  The just have to have the “masculine script” in their minds; and that’s’ what it is; when these guys get into fights, they’re not acting sincerely, but rather they’re acting out scenarios of masculinity from movies and elsewhere.  They’re abdicating their reason in order to fulfill an expectation.  I’m sure America isn’t the only place where this happens, but it’s repugnant wherever it takes place.

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