Performing American Masculinity

Curator's Note

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.



Brian, I really enjoyed this overview, particularly the way you map Cruise's various roles in relation to shifts in American politics and culture. I wonder if there's a way to bring together your post with yesterday's ruminations on Cruise's "couch jumping" episode. I wonder if, perhaps, showcasing a more complicated and contradictory manhood actually served a rehabilitative function for Cruise in terms of his star appeal? To be frank, I pretty much thought his career was finished after he denounced Brooke Shields for taking anti-depressants, but that clearly wasn't the case. Given your terrific ideas in this post, you've got me wondering if the "emotional and conflicted" sort of masculinity he's come to represent has helped to make him palatable again to mainstream audiences.

Suzanne, Thanks for your comments. I think what has made Cruise relevant and continues to make him so today is the connection between this sense that Cruise is the All-American boy next door whose charm and disarming smile make him seem authentic and non-threatening compared with other male stars. Also I believe that his screen persona is indelibly linked to an image of American masculinity that is "cocky" "self-assured" and active on the outside but inside the 'real' masculinity shines through which is the idea of a vulnerable self that must be hidden from the world, especially other men, lest his masculinity would be questioned. Finally, I would argue that his couch jumping episode and whirlwind romance with Katie Holmes was designed to not only rehabilitate his image but also to connect him to a more contemporary sense of American masculinities where qualities such as "compassion" "tenderness" and vocality that were derided as evidence that a man was effeminate have since been embraced as a result of progressive social and political movements.

Thanks for this map, Brian! It got me thinking back to Jerry Maguire as another example of Cruise's 90s "softer" masculine image, with the popular scenes between him and Jonathan Lipnicki that were used so frequently in trailers and TV ads. Cruise also seems to be performing "himself" so much in that film--cocky and well-put together on the outside, mysterious, emotional turmoil on the inside.

Thanks for the post Brian. Indeed, Cruise's wild/soft performance of "bipolar" masculinity is something I dedicate a chapter to in my book Masculinity and Film Performance, in relation to Magnolia and the couch jumping episode. Sadly, I'm not sure I agree that Cruise has produced anything complex and contradictory in recent years and certainly not enough to rehabilitate his star persona after the damage done in the mid 2000s. He seems to have retreated to playing bland and uninspiring versions of his more popular eighties and nineties roles. Perhaps if the actor took a few more risks, as he does in Magnolia and, dare I say it, Tropic Thunder, he might be able to put the Oprah-Shields-Scientology blunders behind him and regain some credibility. Until then, we have Mission: Impossible 5 to look forward to.

I agree with Brian that Risky Business, Top Gun and Born on the Fourth of July are the key entries in Cruise's screen oeuvre in terms of pointed embodiments of values of nationhood as they intersect with those of masculinity. A useful visual that I use to teach this with (I also use Donna’s chapter as the reading) is the one-sheet for BotFoJ in which Cruise’s face in extreme close up is blended with the stars and stripes. Something else that arises from Donna’s writing on this period of Cruise’s stardom and that also speaks to Brian’s observations here about tensions in the multiple modes of masculinity that he embodied in the transitional millennial phase of his career (best exemplified by his role in Magnolia as both of them speak to) is the extent to which his emblematic masculinity embodied the values of the Mythopoetic men’s movement. And how noticeably this manifested in his screen roles as well as his extra-cinematic persona. Specifically I am referring to the striking extent to which his screen roles played out most of the key elements of the Iron John myth (most obviously the traumatic impact of fatherlessness on the maturation of the eternally youthful young man) again and again. Donna makes the applicability of this essentialist myth of masculinity to Cruise’s star persona very clear in her analysis of Magnolia, but I would add that the same basic scenario plays out in relation to his traumatized-son-of-an-absent-father character in *every single one* of his vehicles from Top Gun in ’86 through Mission: Impossible in ’96, as well as the odd one thereafter (e.g. Vanilla Sky). This bled into his wider publicity image throughout this period (notwithstanding the fact that he was loathe to discuss it – much like Frank TJ Mackie of course) vis-à-vis Cruise’s experience growing up estranged from his absent father. Also, picking up on Brian’s observation about the elevation of the ‘nurturer’ in Cruise’s hierarchy of discourses of masculinity, I’d reiterate Alice’s identification of Jerry Maguire as the turning point here in what became a much more pronounced shift in this direction that can be seen in roles where the performance of emotionally charged fatherhood is key (i.e. Minority Report and The Last Samurai). This was cemented by his role in War of the Worlds (arguably his bankability and the cultural traction of his stardom peaked with the huge success of this film coinciding with his romance with Katie Holmes), the marketing campaign for which similarly capitalized on images of Cruise and Dakota Fanning, not dissimilar to what Alice mentioned in relation to Jerry Maguire.

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