JAZ MORRISON | dec 2016
It has long been believed that behaviour, like aggression, in films may be imitated by the consumer (Woods, p240). According to David Morgan, the link between ‘masculinity’ and ‘violence’ seem natural for many people (Morgan, p1), and this is perhaps due to the oversaturation of hostility in the media. Characters like James Bond, Batman, and Jake Sully are typical archetypes, being overtly violent or aggressive, whilst remaining the protagonist of a film. This has become stereotypical, or “Popular Masculinity”, with gentlemen spies, superheroes, and war-related soldiers becoming the standard of which to base a character, not to mention them being mainly Caucasian men. According to observational learning theories, these tropes are likely to be imitated as they are hegemonic (Woods, p46). If this is true, then any behaviour existing outside the spectrum of popular masculinity could be regarded as “femininity”. In Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, crime-boss Joe hires six men to complete a heist. As the film proceeds, the consumer is exposed to various degrees of white manhood, challenging this notion of popular masculinity. Tarantino also provides an interesting analysis of his target audience (white men) through his four main characters – Mr. Blonde, Mr. Pink, Mr. White, and Mr. Orange.
The concept of popular masculinity is an example of exnomination, where ideas are dominant to the point that they seem like common sense. Consequently, popular masculinity in film can hegemonically reinforce ideas of masculinity (Bainbridge, p230 -231). Through Textual Analysis, I will examine the types of behaviours the men exhibit, and break them down into expressions, actions, and visual cues, thus revealing the symbolic potential behind Tarantino’s choices, and why certain behaviours aren’t simple enough to be considered “feminine” if it doesn’t comply with popular masculinity (Fürsich, p239).
The film begins with everyone emulating popular masculinity, something that researchers have claimed men often feel pressured doing (Cohn, Zeichner, p180). Later, when the heist has gone wrong, the men congregate at a rendezvous point. It is here where each man’s masculinity becomes more distinctive, leaving Mr. Blonde, or Vic Vega as the only true hypermasculinist.
Whilst being hypermasculine – something that is often associated with higher levels of aggression, sexual prejudice, and the use of force against women (Cohn, Zeichner, p179), Blonde is still presented in a positive, or “attractive” way. ‘Everybody panics… I don’t care what your name is, you can’t help it,’ Mr. Pink says to Mr. White after the botched heist, but Blonde seems to directly contradict this through his consistently calm demeanour. Because of this, he makes the other characters, by default, seem overemotional, giving them more feminine connotations, and therefore causing them to be viewed by the consumer as less manly. Blonde also remains neat; by the time he arrives at the rendezvous, he is a stark contrast to his dishevelled, blood-laden colleagues. The fact of the matter is, Blonde had single-handedly started the bloodbath in the jewellers, kidnapped a police officer, and still had time to buy fast food, presenting a sense of irony and providing undertones of sophistication and professionalism. That is why Blonde is presented as the ideal white, male archetype. He has embraced much of the masculine gender identity: competitiveness, dominance, and emotional non-expressiveness (Cohn, Zeichner, p180). Rather than quelling tensions between himself and White, he challenges his colleague’s masculinity, ‘are you gonna bark all day, little doggy, or are you gonna bite?’ While his conduct is reckless, it is admired in society and reflected in the media. The concept that violence is manly, and that peril and competition are exciting becomes a dominant idea, playing a crucial role in the consumer’s desire to engage in similar behaviour (Cohn, Zeichner, p180). Unlike his colleagues, Blonde is not pretending; he is a representation of masculinities that are aspired to, not ones that actually correspond to the lives of most men (Connell, p90).
Mr. Pink differs from Blonde in this way. Rather than representing ideals of white manhood, he embodies the consumer’s fragile self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy. This perceived failure to conform to socially-prescribed masculine traits is referred to as Gender Role Discrepancy (Berke et al, p1). Pink’s behaviour is a reaction to those feelings, and thus, the negative tropes of masculinity are found in him. He finds his pseudonym ‘Mr. Pink’ synonymous with the word ‘Pussy’, which is a vulgar term for not only a vagina (insinuating that he may be less manly than he appears), but a coward. When the operation goes wrong, it is he who wants to abandon protocol and leave the rendezvous, believing he has been framed. His cowardice is probably why he is so aggressive, to the extent that the nature of his escape is akin to the video game Grand Theft Auto. He robs a woman’s car by pulling her through a smashed window, all while being pursued by the police. Additionally, he is overtly racist, comparing the unprofessional behaviour of White and Blonde to the demeanour of ‘niggers’, showing a sense of superiority he has adopted, presumably to quell his gender role discrepancy. In this way, he represents white masculinity, but not in the light that Blonde does. Self-discrepancy theory states that the incompatibilities between one’s “actual self” and one’s “desired self” can lead to negative outcomes. Violations of typical masculine traits are thought to cause these consequences (Berke et al, p2). Blonde may be destructive in his behaviour, but he is fearless. Pink is the opposite: he is the only character to survive in the film, but this is because of his fear, and so, whilst he avoids the negative consequence presented, the viewer does not see him as heroic, or admirable man.
Despite all of the main characters being childlike in comparison to Joe, Mr. Orange still stands out through his naivety, and dependence on a parental figure. Like this, he appears to be more of a boy than a man, and his masculinity fluctuates because of it. The police officers watching over him, comment ‘guys gotta have rocks in his head the size of Gibraltar,’ regarding his decision to go undercover, implying that Orange is new, and naïve. To the officers, he hasn’t been on the force long enough for his actions to be considered brave. Orange’s actions could be due to the desire to appear manly enough to be a policeman. Almost as if going undercover can qualify his masculinity. Here, it could be proposed that Orange believes “manhood” requires proof because “manhood” is achieved, not innate, two assumptions under Vandello and Bosson’s Construct of Precarious Manhood (Berke et al, p1). Mr. Orange tells himself before getting in the car not to cower from the challenge, ‘They believe every fuckin’ word cause you’re super cool.’ This is a sentence with strong childish connotations, from the word ‘super,’ to him using his “coolness” to praise his performance. This can also imply that behaving within popular masculinity is something he considers to be ‘cool’, suggesting a sense of enjoyment when mimicking the likes of Mr. Blonde. Even during the heist, Orange wears an oversized suit, further presenting himself as a caricature of popular masculinity. This is coherent with the Social Learning Theory of Sex Typing, where ideas of gender constantly develops due to continuous experiences (Woods, p45).
Concerning a parental figure, it can be argued that Freddy has two – Mr. White (maternal), and Joe (paternal). Joe is tough – ‘looks just like the Thing’, yet funny. Orange, who is on a mission to take Joe down, speaks fondly of him to a colleague, showing respect for someone with traditionally masculine traits, notably his disdain for behaviour that doesn’t fall into the category of popular masculinity. For example, when insulting employees, he would call them ‘broads’ and ‘faggot[s]’. Nonetheless, Orange plays the role of the tell-tale child in the beginning scene, where he informs Joe that Pink won’t tip the waitress, to the point that Joe hushes him. As for Mr. White, Orange spends time with him and seems to quickly form an attachment, like a baby to a mother. In one of their first interactions, White clutches Orange’s hand as he bleeds out in the backseat of a stolen car. Orange’s strained voice as he screams ‘I can’t believe she killed me,’ and White’s comforting response of ‘who’s a tough guy?’ further asserts the mother-child relationship between them. Overall, Mr. Orange is childlike, and is representative of the consumer’s influenced actions and/or beliefs in an attempt to behave like Mr. Blonde, or Joe.
As stated earlier, Mr. White is presented as ‘maternal’ and subsequently the most “feminine”. This is suggested when Joe asks him about his ex-partner, Alabama, and he replies that he got tired of the ‘woman-man thing,’ with the word ‘thing’ possibly referring to gender roles. Alabama likely had expectations of him that, over time, he felt an increasing pressure to fulfil. It is likely that he was experiencing cognitive stress when conforming to popular masculinity, otherwise known as gender role stress. This has been linked to increased levels of direct aggression, emotional liability, misogyny and sexual prejudice (Cohn, Zeichner, p179). Maybe it was that Alabama had found him too much of a burden to work alongside, justifying why she replaced White with another man. White’s affinity to women, notably the waitress in the first scene, and the ‘black girl’ Blonde shot in the jewellery store, could be due to identifying more with them than with his colleagues. If this is the case, then the company he keeps would further strain him. A study by Moore and Stuart (2004) found that men with high gender role stress displayed increased negative attributions and verbal hostility when in threatening situations (Cohn, Zeichner, p181), and often included situations where gender status was threatened, meaning that the aggression shown is designed to reaffirm one’s manhood (Berke et al, p1). A direct example of this is when Mr. White challenges Mr. Blonde, a man whose presence openly taunts White’s masculinity. White displays aggression towards him as soon as Blonde arrives at the rendezvous, shouting over him and brandishing his gun. Despite seeming prepared to shoot Blonde, White soon opts to take his frustration out on a policeman Blonde had kidnapped, inferring that his response to Blonde was due to feeling threatened. While acknowledging White’s struggle to physically adhere to popular white masculinity, he is very able to conform verbally. His humour is often racially or sexually taboo; the film’s first racist reference comes from him. Yes, it is true that he displays a motherly side when with Orange, and as a result endangers himself, but this is likely Tarantino’s way of showing the vast spectrum of masculinity. White contrasts Blonde because he is a more realistic representation of white masculinity. On a regular basis, he imitates popular masculinity, which is likely to produce a psychological challenge over time (Berke et al, p1). If he doesn’t conform, his behaviour is likely to be interpreted as effeminate and can be ignored or even punished by his peers (Woods, p177). This causes him to behave in crude and aggressive ways, even resorting to ‘destructive conflict resolution tactics’ to prove that he is masculine enough (Cohn, Zeichner, p180). White is the true embodiment of white masculinity, which is probably why Tarantino had labelled him ‘Mr. White’. In the most basic way, he is the consumer.
The onset of the film shows several men adopting characteristics of popular white masculinity, but most veer off as their circumstances grow more extreme, providing insight into the validity of masculine norms. Textual analysis has revealed how unique white masculinity can be, even when characters are trying to behave similarly. Popular masculinity is popular because of exnomination, and media texts are the best way to test these conceptions. If behaviour shown indeed influences consumers and their idea of gender, it is imperative to present alternatives to popular masculinity, openly challenging it as a norm (Berke et al, p7) and providing a less subjective idea of what being a man is (Woods, p50 – 51). If this fails to happen, stereotypes regarding popular white masculinity will become more rigid, causing any information that doesn’t fit to be “filtered out”, promoting the likelihood of self-fulfilling prophecy (Woods, p177).
Bainbridge, J. (2011) ‘Chapter: Media & journalism: new approaches to theory and practice - Tools 3: textual analysis and media research’, in Media and Journalism: New approaches to theory and practice. South Melbourne, VIC, Australia: OUP Australia and New Zealand, pp. 229–241.
Berke, D.S., Reidy, D.E., Miller, J.D. and Zeichner, A. (2016) ‘Take it Like a Man: Gender-Threatened Men’s Experience of Gender Role Discrepancy, Emotion Activation, and Pain Tolerance’, Psychology of Men & Masculinity, pp. 1–8.
Cohn, A. and Zeichner, A. (2006) ‘Effects of Masculine Identity and Gender Role Stress on Aggression in Men’, Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 7(4), pp. 179–190.
Connell, R.W. (2002) ‘On hegemonic masculinity and violence: Response to Jefferson and Hall’, Theoretical Criminology, 6(1), pp. 89–99.
Fürsich, E. (2009) ‘In Defense of Textual Analysis’, Journalism Studies, 10(2), pp. 238–252.
Morgan, D. (1987) ‘Masculinity and Violence’, in Hanmer, J. and Maynard, M. (eds.) Women, Violence and Social Control: Essays in Social Theory. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 180–192.
Woods, B. (1998) Discovering Psychology. London: Psychology Press.