Chris Pine and Evolving Hollywood Masculinity

One of the famous dudes named Chris had a birthday over the weekend, although he definitely has more reasons to celebrate in 2017.
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By  · Published on August 29th, 2017

One of the famous dudes named Chris had a birthday over the weekend, although he definitely has more reasons to celebrate in 2017.

Chris Pine has had a gargantuan year, and it’s amazing to think he’s had so few projects released in 2017. This year, Pine graced our screens with extremely memorable roles in both Wonder Woman and Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later, alongside a 3-episode stint on Steve Carell’s Angie Tribeca. These things may be on polarizing ends of the media spectrum – targeting different fan groups – but if anything, they seem to have boosted Pine’s status in that never-ending “best-of” debate surrounding the four white Chrises of Hollywood.

However, beyond that lies a different debate, and possibly a more interesting one. Pine’s onscreen ventures over the years have undeniably spanned a vast range. Yet, especially in 2017, he seems to have discernibly scratched the surface of a refreshing brand of depicted masculinity.

If this comes across as trivial in any way, I get it. Hollywood is overrun with masculine icons at this point. It’s just a fact that (straight, white, cisgender) men have had no trouble seeing varying versions of themselves onscreen. But watching the way people react to Pine supposedly being a “damsel in distress” opposite Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, as well as observing how journalists question him about working with esteemed women like Patty Jenkins and Ava DuVernay, makes it clear that there is a thirst for different perceptions of masculinity itself. Or at least, when an audience is given such perspectives, it feels like waking up: an awareness is drawn towards a market ready for a twist on traditional masculine ideals.

Whether it be subtle or overt, Hollywood has maintained different representations of men for different generational concerns. Looking at much of what graced and graces the silver screen – between classic westerns and modern-day superhero movies – supposedly aspirational men are everywhere. These are desirable perceptions of masculinities, those that may not be remotely real or even possible, but reinforce a certain hegemony in the way men are encouraged to view themselves (Connell and Messerschmidt, 838). This is especially so for fiction and the free availability of idealization.

Over time, myths about masculinity deconstruct themselves to form new conceptions. The isolation of Classic Hollywood stars – lone rangers a la Humphrey Bogart in noir films and John Wayne in western flicks – presents a narrative of men’s self-reliance. Overarching, external plots (mysteries to solve, communities to protect) revolve around men in order to ease their internal turmoil. (Greven, 23)

These portrayals moved towards the hypermasculine as a form of critique. Following the gritty crime movies of the 1970s, a key icon when discussing Hollywood masculinity is undoubtedly Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose big break with The Terminator coincided with a 1980s surge of blockbuster films featuring male action heroes. Nevertheless, for his part, Schwarzenegger is a complicated masculine figure. His movies may feature flexing and gun-toting, but there is a case to be made for his subversion of these exceedingly macho tropes – namely because he doesn’t always invite singular readings of his movies and roles.

“…[Schwarzenegger] appeals to those nostalgic for John Wayne engaging also those who see the promise of a brighter future for masculinity in the young John Connor. He appeals, too, to those who appreciate a caricature of the muscular macho man who is not so macho, or of the new, sensitive man who wants to understand motherhood.” (Alegre, 93)

Action movies then paved the way for the cinematic universes that continuously populate the general public’s filmic consciousness today. Franchises are everywhere, from superheroes to the supernatural to monsters.

At least where superheroes are concerned, the turn towards darker stories based on the struggles and “inner demons” of their respective male protagonists hark back to a sense of romanticism to men’s identities. The men portrayed in these films are problematic but distinctly reined in. Per J. M. Tyree about Iron Man, Tony Stark works because Pepper Potts is his rock. But even if a protagonist like him garners any sense of awareness throughout his journey of self-discovery, ultimately, he is the one vying for reward. In Tony’s case, Pepper could be part of that, even if that immediately implies that everyone else settles while his own character development is the most at stake.

As such a movie builds into such a cinematic universe, it becomes clear that introducing a myriad of men with a(n ostensible) myriad of Issues (yes, with that capital ‘I’) is like saying, “At least he tried.” There isn’t anything inherently wrong with this except for the fact that it repeats itself far too often. Many of these men are tortured souls but beyond that, not much else.

Maybe one could say that straight white masculinity has been knocked askew somewhat thanks to the ever-increasing focus on perspectives that do not concern them, but that’s a giant ‘maybe.’ The current climate of mainstream movies seems to placate rather than solve any of the issues regarding disparities of gender representation. For instance, the rush to include “strong female characters” in a large number of blockbusters doesn’t actually end up with the most nuanced of representation. Leading men aren’t always imposing and present in the same way Arnie was in the 80s (although the requisite shirtless dude scenes in basically every MCU movie should point something out), but they still take up a hell of a lot of space.

Where does Chris Pine fit in to all of this? How does he buck a masculinity trend – if he does at all? Well, if anything, he fills onscreen space differently.

Interviewer: Do you think [bringing specific attention to female directors is] a necessary conversation?

Pine: I think you have to ask them. I choose work because of the people involved and I really love these directors, I love the take that they have on this material, of the themes that they wanted to put out in the world.

Far be it for anyone to judge an actor’s mettle and talent solely by what he says when he isn’t in character, but the remarkable thing about an answer like the one above is that it shows in Pine’s oeuvre. In Wonder Woman, Steve Trevor is a remarkable supporting character in that he is definitely a masculine hero – gratuitous shirtless scene included – but is also pragmatic enough to recognize when his Amazonian warrior counterpart knows better, does better, is better. Steve has all the fixings of a self-conscious, modern-day hero but those concerns do not bleed into, let alone take up swathes of space. His issues with male identity don’t affect Diana Prince’s own – it is used for her to better understand “the world of men” without Steve himself being relegated to a typical sidekick. The fact that his presence doesn’t take away from the sheer level of Diana’s importance on a representational scale and doesn’t negate his status as a suitably well-rounded character is a much better example of equal screentime than many other superhero films.

That’s not to say Pine has not had his share of utterly traditional, male-centric stories. For example, David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water lit up film circuits in 2016. This film – which could be a considered a “double-protagonist” movie – featured no women of note. Instead, Pine’s character finds his counterpoints in mirrored and antagonistic men (Jeff Bridges and Ben Foster). As a neo-Western crime thriller, Hell and High Water portrays men who “compete over narrative power,” and whose dire circumstances apparently justify the crime, bloodshed and death left in their wake.

Pine has played more conventionally dashing hero types too – perhaps they are what he’s most known for. Between James T. Kirk in the rebooted Star Trek (with Star Trek Into Darkness being the series’ peak grimdark moment), and films like Unstoppable and The Finest Hours. But thanks to the franchise format, his iteration of Jim Kirk particularly goes through considerable development. Jim starts out as a loose cannon – deviant, boyish, rule-breaking – and grows into a more measured version of himself, stepping out of his father’s shadow. In an interview with SFX about Star Trek Beyond, Pine revealed a desire to move beyond the explosions and action sequences of the films: “I would like a slower film. That’d be kind of fun. Kirk and team land on a planet and go explore.” Perhaps it’s a hint that he would prefer to discover the wondrous qualities of space in a more levelled environment.

Pine further balances out his filmography through his penchant for the comedic. This is evidenced not only through his work in the Wet Hot American Summer series for Netflix but in utterly ridiculous roles like Rex in Horrible Bosses 2 and the parodic Prince in Into the Woods. He’s also done a fair share of romantic comedies, especially at the start of his career. Films such as The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement and Just My Luck solidified a heartthrob status that Pine subsequently unmakes and appreciates in his later work. It seems especially pertinent that his career is coming full circle wherein he may not always be taking center stage to his co-stars, but he is undoubtedly okay with that. When speaking to DuJour Magazine, Pine iterates a sense of exhaustion with explosive, imposing masculinity:

“Action is so synonymous with violence and revenge and eye-for-an-eye; the masculine footprint in the world is so violent and obviously it hasn’t really gotten us anywhere… I think we can start injecting this world with a little bit more of the ideology of compassion, love and positive moral strength rather than something destructive.”

Furthermore, an interview with Yahoo! Movies dispels the notion that equality cannot be met between representations of gender:

“This is a movie about two people bringing a lot to the table with completely disparate qualities. She happens to be a superhero; I happen to be … definitely not. But there’s no judgment or discussion or conversation in the narrative about a hierarchy.”

Chris Pine may not be the first and only white man to aid in the continual evolution of onscreen masculine identity, but in 2017, he appears to have gotten further than most. The landscape of Hollywood isn’t so much made to rid itself of masculine identities, but more than anything, it displays a lack of motivation towards reaching some level of parity between differing frameworks of gender representation. Pine doesn’t just speak of the importance of equality – he’s gone and done it without so much as a fuss. That, in turn, makes people notice, even if it feels counterintuitive to do so. Pine would argue that these things should just happen and we’ll be on our merry way. However, if masculinity stays – and it obviously will (also, white masculinity isn’t the only form of it out there) – it would be pertinent to move it beyond being synonymous with self-inflicted violence and chasing inner demons.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)