Men’s Lives
The oppressor’s oppression

by Richard Freudenheim

from Jump Cut, no. 10-11, 1976, pp. 24-25
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004

MEN'S LIVES, a documentary film by Josh Hanig and Will Roberts, is about the men in our culture: denying their fears, playing tough, performing—performing not just in order to provide, own, consume, but in order that these activities signify manliness. This material is not new, not unexpected, but the film is good evidence that the most familiar experience is often the most trenchant locus of oppression, the most difficult to grasp critically and change.

The core of the film is a series of interviews. A high school student, gymnast and dancer, talks about his anxiety that his peers will think him a sissy and about displeasing his parents, but concludes that a man has to do what he thinks is right. Jerald, who works in a factory in Dayton, speaks of alienated labor, lets us know (in so many words) that he knows his employer has bought his labor as a commodity, demurring though that he’s never personally attended a board meeting. So this is not really an analysis, does not for Jerald involve a political perspective.

Jerald is also worried about security—having money, about providing for his family, about playing the man’s role. He won't let his wife work—though she wants to and although she'd rather work so that Jerald wouldn't work overtime and they could spend more time together. For Jerald a woman’s place is in the home, children need their mother, and he’s not the type to mop the floors, etc. Yes, he admits, he drinks, sometimes too much. Men don't talk much with each other about emotional things.

Little girls want to be boys, boys get to mow the lawn, although factory work is dirtier than housework. No little boy wants to be a girl, a sissy. The grammar school teacher admits that she pushes the boys harder than the girls because boys grow up to economic responsibilities, competition. A black youth in a poolhall talks about wanting to own a car and a house and about how he would take care of them so that people would see and know. Across town the kid with the hotrod values it because people—not just the girls—notice. He leaves a strip of rubber. Puberty is a tough time, boys have to act like men. The shy, smiling football star plays to kill—kill or be killed—and to get to college on a scholarship.

The radio talkshow personality, complacent ideologue, cites Scripture as authority for the natural superiority of men, and the law of survival of the fittest validates competition. A high school basketball coach who teaches a course that is supposed to prepare students for family life believes that a man’s responsibility to his family is financial success—the $20,000 house, the new car. He thinks that there’s just something wrong with anyone who isn't bothered by losing and he says that he’s not the emotional type, doesn't cry, while the camera catches him gripping the arm of his chair.

A barber is the psychoanalyst and sociologist in this film; he overhears it all, he hears things even the father-confessor doesn't. He confirms this reality: men do suppress their feelings; they talk about the car, the house, the kids, about frustration on the job; the only place most men are touched by another man is sitting in the barber’s chair. There can be no success because there is always another guy around the corner who’s got two nicer cars in his driveway, explains the black educator at Antioch College. “Can't get no satisfaction...,” likewise, at the freshman mixer where there are “those girls who do and those who don't,” and the point is to get one up to your room.

A man does what he thinks is right. These typical, quite poignant images of everyday life in America display in sum: alienated labor or the relations of production of surplus value, the fetishism of commodities and private property, competition and individualism, sexual repression and the commodification of social relations, the sexist religiosity and vulgar scientism of bourgeois ideology—although these are not the terms, not the rhetoric, of the film. The filmmakers believe, they say in the conclusion of the voice-over narration that ties the interviews together, that an economic system which requires competitive, repetitive work produces such lives and values, and the montage of images that provides the background to the interviews underscores this point throughout the film.

MEN'S LIVES is an important film because it is the first of its kind, for what distinguishes this film from the presentation of rather similar material in a film like HEARTS AND MINDS and from innumerable other treatments of alienation in capitalist society is that MEN'S LIVES focuses on men’s oppression as a subject in its own right, rather than as an aspect of another story. Such a focus suggests that an awareness of men’s oppression is a necessary component in and part of the justification for the struggle for radical social change, though not in itself sufficient. Personal change, as the filmmakers say toward the end of their narration, is not enough, nor does it substitute for class struggle. MEN'S LIVES is indelibly a middle class film, a film made by two Antioch students developing the slide film they made in a course in Media and Social Change. Nevertheless we hope to be able to look back on MEN'S LIVES as a milestone in the emergence of a men’s movement in much the same way that feminists look back to GROWING UP FEMALE (1971), one of the earliest films to take the oppression of women as a focus in its own right.

MEN'S LIVES draws much of its strength and timeliness; from the example of the women’s movement. The voice-over narration begins by explaining that the film is made by two men about to graduate from college, that at this transitional point in their lives they wanted to look at the kinds of roles available to them as men. Women, they note, have already begun to question their assigned place in the social structure.

MEN'S LIVES is in fact closely modeled on the formula used in GROWING UP FEMALE, and shares some of the problems of that format. It looks into the process of male socialization and the values promulgated thereby in order to begin to go about answering the question that informs the film—what alternatives are possible? Predictably, and like GROWING UP FEMALE, the film doesn't really answer the question that ostensibly generated it, but it does reveal the isolation of men and their entrapment in an ideology that disguises the regimentation of work, idealizes competition, and renders them politically powerless. So although the film fails to present real alternatives, the clarity of its diagnosis has a certain political value in providing a basis for discussion and consciousness raising For the same reason it is excusable that the film doesn't present much of the material that immediately comes to mind as pertinent—e.g., the lives of other classes of men (gays, prisoners, the elderly, etc.), men’s intimate sexual experience, the structure of family life, men who are experimenting with alternative life styles. The film delineates the social and economic structure in which men live and work, and its dominant ideology, as the core of the matter.

If the limitations of the film are in this sense its strengths, it is similarly true that the film uncritically reflects to some degree the very contradictions it aims to expose. The filmmakers have chosen to make a professional, straight forward, readily accessible film—the sort of documentary that might and hopefully will be seen on PBS television. In doing so they have implicitly defined their audience and scope of effectiveness.

With its emphasis on adolescence the film will probably be most effective in provoking discussion in high schools and on the campuses. Perhaps far this reason there was an element of smugness in the applause of audiences with whom I saw the film in Berkeley and San Francisco. These audiences, to judge by the discussion following the screening, were already familiar with the topic and committed to the struggle around sexual politics. The point is that in aiming to make a film that would appeal to a broad audience the filmmakers have produced a film that remains vulnerable to being assimilated and depoliticized by the very ideology it seeks to confront.

MEN'S LIVES is an undeniable achievement, and in talking about its vulnerability to the dominant ideology I don't want to detract from that achievement. But its success raises some questions that reach beyond the film and the intentions of the filmmakers. MEN'S LIVES speaks directly to a relevant issue, but it has not adequately accounted for the overdetermined context within which this communication is taking place. Bourgeois ideology is overdetermined, a beast with a lot of heads; its potency and predominance lies after all in its ability to absorb contradictions and challenges. It is only in the interests of potentially more effective political documentaries that MEN'S LIVES needs to be criticized in terms of the relationship between form and ideology.

[The example of Godard’s work (especially the films of Godard-Gorin) is pertinent here as a kind of model of the way a film might resist assimilation to the dominant ideology and of the way the automatic, conventional and self serving responses of an audience might be inhibited. Every political film does not have to, defend itself formally with the rigor and inventiveness characteristic of Godard’s work, but the problematic within which Godard’s work is inscribed is also the ideological context of political documentaries like MEN'S LIVES.]

Neither the alienation depicted by the film nor the ubiquity of bourgeois values in which it is situated are new insights, but they are both difficult to keep in mind. We live in what Marcuse has called a one-dimensionality, even though the varieties of individual personalities and the plenitude of available sensory stimuli often seem to pose more differences and more alternatives than we can cope with as individuals. Perhaps unwittingly, the documentary objectivity of MEN'S LIVES records the one-dimensionality of bourgeois ideology. It reminds us that you can hold a microphone before virtually any U.S. male and record more or less the same message. Whether the man interviewed has a critical perspective or is trying to convince himself and others of the propriety and eternality of the status quo doesn't really matter. The camera reveals the pathos and powerlessness of the one, the contradictory foolishness and realism of the other.

But such filmic objectivity is not enough to reveal possible alternatives. Moreover, because in MEN'S LIVES it is focused on individuals interviewed and never records the interactions of groups of men, the film allows for a response that denies the possibility of alternatives. There is a tendency to get overly involved in the personalities interviewed in the film, to clutch to individuality, perhaps as a defense against their representative typicality. Similarly, because we seem eternally capable for nostalgia for even the worst of past times, the scenes from an U.S. boy’s childhood lose their critical edge.

In the discussion following the screening one man in the San Francisco audience rebuked those who made the more political comments by saying that there was a lot of joy in the film. There really is; but the film fails to defend itself against the potential for depoliticization in this response and in some ways encourages it. Like the focus on individuals in the interviews, the voice over narration is spoken from a subjective point of view. Doubtless this is a better choice than the impersonal, objective narration that the filmmakers tried and discarded, but on the other hand, the narrator limits himself primarily to the description of subjective experience. The voice of this narrator belongs to Will Roberts, who also does the interviewing, but again in these interactive situations the focus is on the subject being interviewed, the more or less isolated man, rather than on the exchange of experience and insight. When Roberts sits in the barber chair having his hair cut, interviewing the barber, he again only asks questions and looks away from the camera in a conspicuously self-conscious way.

This is all the more discouraging because it is, after all, the fact that a film like MEN'S LIVES is being made that contains proof of the possibility for change and alternatives in a most immediate way. By its very nature film is a collective and social activity, but MEN'S LIVES in aiming to be a professional type of product has cut away the social interactions that surround the final text. More information of the kind that Josh Hanig gets into in the accompanying interview could have been incorporated into the film—information about the way the film came into being, the way material was gathered and edited, the way such films are distributed, etc. Such a greater emphasis on the process of making the film could have helped to inhibit the film’s vulnerability to the dominant ideology, particularly the ideology of individualism.

At the same time this emphasis on process might have extended the film in a self-reflexively critical way. As the audience we meet a number of men in this film who from our point of view have something in common by virtue of having been interviewed for the film, something in common hot wholly given by the dominant ideology and therefore a possible common ground for alternative kinds of interactions. Not only would we have liked to have seen the interviewer and his subject talking more as equals, we would have liked to see the men interviewed talking with each other, perhaps about the film, or perhaps only about their resistance to doing so.

Formally, MEN'S LIVES tries to be objective about subjective experience, but in doing so it denies that filmmaking, and making a film about men’s oppression particularly, is a potentially radical form of social activity. Certain aspects of the movie industry that serves as the instrument of the dominant ideology—the Hollywood star system, and auteurism, for example—also entail a denial of the collective effort that goes into any film. Similarly, in. the background montage of images in MEN'S LIVES the typicality of the social setting it presents fails to define any common ground for social interactions. A greater local specificity here, giving for instance the names of the film sites, their social composition, etc., would have at least helped to put the interviews in their real social settings. This would have helped to distinguish film sites of MEN'S LIVES from the on-location mise en scene of films like AMERICAN GRAFFITI.

For these reasons the talk in the narration about change and alternatives has an element of ingenuousness and is also vulnerable to assimilation by the film’s ideological enemy. There is a place in bourgeois ideology for sympathy with subjective suffering and frustration, and also a place for reforming commitment to its amelioration. On an ideological level it is in fact not oppression, or suffering, or frustration, per se that makes men powerless, it is paradoxically the idea that they as individuals have power to change their condition. This is precisely the false consciousness that gets men, and especially men who like Jerald in the film have a kind of analysis, trapped into competitive and aggressive modes. Conceiving of themselves as individuals, men will continue to be sexists, continue to be objectively though perhaps unconsciously the victims of an oppressive social order. Personal change is not enough, but is also certainly not irrelevant. The appropriate areas of personal change, however, need to be carefully delimited and the relation of personal change to social change carefully defined.

The notion that things can be changed is built into the dominant ideology and serves to disguise the extent of the terror of our alienation. There are certainly ways of changing personally that entail no alteration whatsoever in the structures that produce ubiquitous alienation. There are on the other hand possibilities for radical changes that originate in a full awareness of individual powerlessness, an awareness for instance that it is capitalism not personal failure that produces unemployment.

Alternatives to men’s lives as we have known and lived them will bring men into social relations for which there are not now models, nor preconceived formulae. The film shows no such experiments and it is not made in such a way as to suggest alternative modes of male sociality. Nevertheless, despite its complicity with the dominant ideology both in form and substance, it remains a political film in the context of an emerging men’s movement in the struggle around sexual politics. MEN'S LIVES does not itself bring men together in new ways, but it does instigate men to admit at least to the sexism, unhappiness, hypocrisy and powerlessness of their lives. This is a place to begin.