In the 1980s fresh-faced Tom Cruise’s clean, boyish, and polite screen persona signaled a return to an image of masculinity that was structured around the strong male body and the ability to make strong and sound decisions. In effect, Cruise was the embodiment of the Reagan Era and its effort to restore American confidence and masculinity that conservatives felt had been weakened by the “soft body” politics of the Carter administration. In each of his key roles of the decade: Joel, Maverick, and Ron Kovick in Risky Business, Top Gun, and Born on the Fourth of July Cruise depicts an image of American masculinity that is both a rebel and a conformist. In short, Cruise’s stardom and his screen presence demonstrate his desire to be viewed as his own man.
The 1990s saw American men transformed by a desire to be more caring fathers, and committed to their wives and children. Susan Jeffords argues that the Bush presidency celebrated an image of masculinity that rejected the hard body of the Reagan era and instead celebrated the idea of screen masculinity as heroic through the expression of genuine emotion. The use of emotion to express masculinity forms a type of bi-polar masculinity that Cruise exemplifies in Magnolia as Frank T.J. Mackey, whose masculinity is defined by his muscular image that in truth hides his deeper masculinity that is softer, and gentler, than his wild exterior image. In this role Cruise highlights the conflict between soft and hard masculinity and how they impact American men.
In the 2000s Cruise has embraced the image of masculinity as complex and contradictory, in roles such as Ethan Hunt, Jack Reacher, and Stacee Jaxx perhaps to reflect his own image as well as the multiple shifts that have occurred for American men politically, economically, and culturally. In each of his performances Cruise has embodied these changing faces of American masculinity even as he struggles to locate his own identity.
Tom Cruise’s sense of boyish American masculinity matched with his sense of professional cunning have solidified his screen persona as well as his status as one of the true major male “stars” in Hollywood. As Cruise has aged and his style of cocky, self-assured masculinity onscreen shifted to a more complex and contradictory model of American masculinity it has often represented the ever changing shifts in male roles as American men have also seen their understanding of their roles in society and the home shift from the ideal of the self-made man to that of a nurturer who is adept with words as well as action.