How The Martian challenges male stereotypes

07 Apr 2016 BY Matthew Hall

10 mins
The Martian
The Martian

Many applauded the character of Mark Watney in The Martian as representing a more progressive, non-violent form of movie masculinity - especially when compared to the punch-happy machismo of the Marvel universe. But is the ever-resourceful astronaut actually any less stereotypical than Captain AmericaIron Man and others?

The current crop of superheroes appear to symbolise very traditional, and not particularly positive masculine values. With pumped-up physiques (or enhanced exo-skeletons) they deal with every challenge using violence, literally attempting to pummel whoever is disagreeing with them into submission and usually decimating an urban landscape while they do so. Hostile, territorial, aggressive responses to the unfamiliar played out in extensive CGI battle sequences. 

Competition between peers is equally testosterone-soaked. In both Avengers movies, Joss Whedon's script does make fun of the way the male Avengers bump chests, jostling for the alpha male spot. Yet in playing up the blokey rivalry, it also celebrates it. In a weird scene that attempts to be both feminist and macho, Tony Stark and Thor even argue about who has the most impressive girlfriend. Further traditionally masculine values such as honour, and brotherhood are also expressed by punching each other through buildings. Iron Man and the Hulks relationship is framed as the wise brother guiding his more impetuous sibling through difficult times; which takes the form of David Banner 'hulking out' and Stark having to beat him repeatedly, persistently, until he is unconscious and stable again.

By comparison, The Martian shows us a far more emotionally balanced and intellectual action hero. Mark Watney's response to virtually every obstacle and challenge is composure and ingenuity. There is no super-villain with whom to trade blows - only the cold, deadly surface of an alien planet. There is no-one to battle except his own body and the situation he finds himself in. To rage and smash things up is the least productive thing for Watney to do. His strength and resilience feeds his intelligence and ability to solve complex problems and vice versa, his ability to think beyond the terrifying, emotionally over-whelming present supports his composure.

The first scenes when he awakens, abandoned on Mars, are great examples of this. The raw feeling of abandonment, of isolation and exposure, as well as the immediacy of his injury, are apt cause for frenzy or panic. Instead, with gritted-teeth resolve, he is cool and methodical: get inside the Hab, deal with the immediate problem... and then move on to the question of further survival. Later, when he can communicate and collaborate with his NASA colleagues there is a sense of co-operation, and mutual respect. Watney is rational about his situation and harbours no resentment towards his crew for leaving him behind.

One gets the sense in Deadpool that if the titular hero had been abandoned by his team, the rest of the movie would be about him chasing them through space to exact murderous vengeance. It's this almost infantile response to challenging situations that some have found distasteful in the Marvel (and other) superheroes. They display a kind of 'tantrum masculinity' - their mission, be it to defend Earth or wreak revenge, becomes an excuse to release cathartic bursts of ultra-violence. The Hulk is a personification of this, but so are the other male characters. 

Enormous CGI tantrums dominate the Marvel films: in many scenes gigantic bursts of baddie-wiping power are unleashed by characters literally smashing their toys into the ground (Thor's hammer, Captain America's shield). Ultron's evil plan amounts to picking up a chunk of his Eastern European play pit and bringing it crashing down again: a hissy fit on a globally apocalyptic scale, but a hissy fit nonetheless.

These representations of men have immense physical power, but little emotional self-control or stability and in the wake of their city-levelling outbursts, they defend their actions by citing stereotypical motivations of territoriality and protectiveness. In one scene, Stark even says he wants to put a suit of armour around the world.

Watney's response to stress and challenge in The Martian is far more mature and composed. He replaces rage and aggression at his situation with methodical intelligence. His whole narrative is one of extreme vulnerability, and the need to develop less traditionally masculine skills such as nurturing (his beloved potato plants) and dependence on others (NASA, the crew who return to rescue him) to survive. And yet, in many other ways he embodies many other traditionally masculine values: his character is based almost purely on what he does rather than thinks or feels. He is physically and mentally resilient and self-reliant, but quite old-fashioned in terms of emotional restraint. Even though much of the narrative is delivered through near soliloquies, with Watney talking to his video-log, he never mentions his emotional and psychological state. 'What must he be going through?' ponders Kapoor, the mission director, but beyond Watney's relentless solving of every physical problem, we never really see. Nor, apart from a brief mention of his parents being told of his death, do we ever hear about his personal life - he has no romantic partner, no children, no siblings that he longs to see; when he makes contact with NASA he doesn't ask for a message to be sent to his loved ones, he just starts to work with fellow scientists (most of them male) on the next set of problems.

By comparison, the superheroes of recent years are full of emotion and psychological complexity, with a tormented back-story as standard. Their inner lives may be painted with very broad strokes, but we do see this extra dimension. In UltronThe Dark Knight and Hellboy, the heroes' actions are misinterpreted and condemned by the public, and this disapproval weighs heavy on them. They feel isolated by their powers, attempt to reach out to others who are special, too - rarely with lasting success. But when superhero blockbusters start to push the past two hour running time, these explorations of inner demons begin to bloat and slowdown the narrative; like teenage boys in musclebound men's bodies, some superheroes have too many feelings.

In terms of narrative, The Martian is unburdened by these explorations of guilt, anxiety and grief. Unlike Interstellar (that put paternity at the emotional core of its narrative) or Gravity (where backstory about the heroine's dead daughter feels tacked on), The Martian gives us story and characters who 'just want to get on with it'. Damon's Watney gives us plenty of emotion -it is just mostly optimistic and confident rather than tortured.

He's mature and dignified, but confident enough to be self-deprecating; dealing with the challenges with good humour and positive attitude. There's a 'frontiersmen' spirit about him: tough and self-reliant; but also careful and nurturing. In the often pained expressions on Damon's face, we can fill in the emotional torment and darker moments Watney must face during his time alone on Mars. But it is the lack of self-indulgence in himself and the narrative which makes the film and character lean, effective, and enjoyable to be around.

In the end, Watney and the recent crop of superheroes are more complex than they originally appear. In some ways they personify certain traditional male values, in other ways they challenge or complicate them. In doing so, they represent very different facets of contemporary masculinity. And this raises further questions: Who do these representations appeal to? Do teenagers enjoy the more adolescent masculinity of the Avengers? Do more mature audiences prefer The Martian? Or is the way audiences enjoy these characters more nuanced and complex?

Head of Media-ICT at Seven Kings High School, Ilford.

Matthew Hall, Head of Media-ICT at Seven Kings High School, Ilford.

Matthew Hall is the Head of Media-ICT at Seven Kings High School, Ilford. He also lectures at the BFI on topics such as youth culture in cinema, British film and 'Web 2.0', and democracy.

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