“I’ve heard from a lot of men who say, ‘I’m so embarrassed being a man.’ ” So says Anita Hill, thereby touching a lot of nerves. The prominent activist, herself a victim of sexual abuse, has now been anointed to lead an elite group studying Hollywood’s contagion of sexual misconduct. Kathleen Kennedy, president of Disney-owned Lucasfilm, has mobilized Hollywood’s top names to the effort to analyze the phenomenon of “toxic masculinity.”
I found myself sufficiently puzzled this week by the rise and fall of the Alpha Male to pick up a new book about John Wayne, who arguably helped shape the image of the “man’s man” but would likely not share this sense of gender embarrassment. “Some of the confusion about masculinity stems from the fact that we no longer watch Wayne westerns,” writes Nancy Schoenberger, an academic who wrote Wayne and Ford: The Films, the Friendship, and the Forging of an American Hero. The Wayne character was courageous, stalwart in his defense of the underdog, bonded to other men and, while protective of women, was not a womanizer (his co-stars were usually strong, mature women like Maureen O’Hara or Claire Trevor).
“I’ve played the kind of man I’d like to have been,” Wayne once said of himself. Indeed, Wayne would surely have been appalled by some of today’s Alpha Males who seem obsessive about exploiting their power over women.
As with most Hollywood stories, of course, there was no real John Wayne, but rather a gangly kid named Marion Morrison who went to USC and considered studying law until he got a summer job on a set. Starting as a stunt man, Wayne was taken under the wing of John Ford, who, over time, helped him develop a new name and walk and cadence of speech. “John Ford and John Wayne taught us how to be men,” said John Milius, the action director, who emulated the star. “Wayne determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams,” wrote Joan Didion.
Wayne’s best-known Westerns like Stagecoach, The Searchers and Fort Apache were shot in the grandiosity of Monument Valley, and their plots always had Wayne bonded with other good guys. In Stagecoach he was protective of a charming if forceful hooker, falling in love with her, marrying her, then avenging his family’s honor by murdering the bad guys. In later films the male bonding seemed more important than the marriages. Though Wayne and Ford together forged an ideal image of masculinity, they actually hated each other, Wayne complaining of Ford’s drinking and abusive style. As it turned out, Wayne himself ultimately grew bemused by his own mythology. I got to know him late in his career, had friendly disagreements about Vietnam and finally gave him the manuscript to True Grit, which he liked a lot and saw as a send-up of the character he had created.
Finally, of course, the classic Western became obsolete, living its final days in the form of TV series like Maverick, Gunsmoke and Rawhide. Male bonding pictures were re-invented by Seth Rogen and James Franco in the form of stoner comedies like Pineapple Express, with women becoming hilarious props.
I don’t know if Hill was ever a student of Wayne or of Westerns, but her interlude with Clarence Thomas represented a historic collision of masculine misconduct. She now faces a moment when the #MeToo movement confronts a growing tension as allegations keep multiplying, careers are collapsing and stars like Matt Damon are getting pilloried for not being all in. “I reject the idea that misogyny is the true heart of this industry,” she now says. She shares with Kennedy the conviction that a cohesive group of industry figures should join together in a commission to explore the abuse problem. She also admits neither she nor her partners in this effort had developed a specific approach or methodology.
Hollywood’s growing concern, however, is that the tensions stirred by #MeToo could inhibit a key goal of the movement — establishing more important positions for women in the power pyramid. Men who are “embarrassed” about being men may all the more resist the notion of sharing power with women, and may bridle at the idea of working for them. That possibly would have included John Wayne.