For nearly half a century, we have been told that the question of how gender roles are policed and by whom, is essentially a one-way street – something men do to women, and often also to each other. And that's pretty much the end of it.
But a new film not only exposes another age-old, yet rarely-spoken truth -- that women also use shame to control men -- it also seems to say that this particular form of gendered expectation is perfectly OK.
In fact, Force Majeure goes even further, because it manages the extraordinary intellectual feat of implying that to shame a man for cowardice, is actually to strike a blow for equality.
In the opening scenes, the genteel skiing holiday of a perfect couple and their children is thrown into disarray as an avalanche threatens to engulf their ski resort. The disaster is avoided, but in the few moments of mayhem, the father instinctively jumps up from their table, leaving behind his wife and children.
The film explores how that split-second moment of fear strips a man of his wife’s respect, threatens to destroy their family and ultimately leaves him staring into an abyss of doubt and self-loathing.
But what’s most-telling, is that although the film lifts the lid on this uniquely male form of shame, at no point does it invite the audience to condemn the behaviour of his wife and their female friend who are entirely responsible for imposing it on him.
Instead, the film portrays a series of set pieces – all played for toe-curling laughs -- in which the husband is effectively put on trial by his wife and their friends, as they unpick the moment to expose his cowardice and knock down what are shown as his pathetic attempts to portray an alternative, less unforgivable interpretation of events.
Both in its treatment of the issue of male shame and in how it has been received, Force Majeure proves this most-ancient of taboos has lost none of its force.
Bloated male ego
But the film and its reviewers also manage a particularly modern hypocrisy -- often the very same voices who are happy to shame men for being afraid, are now also those who would never tolerate any attempt to impose traditional gender roles on women.
In fact, humiliating the lead male character for his fear is cast as a quasi-feminist act – a timely expose of the bloated male ego that long-suffering women have had to tolerate while doing the truly heroic work of holding together hearth and home.
In one scene, as a couple who are friends of the two lead characters go back to their room following the group excoriation of the husband's cowardice, the girlfriend of the couple asks: "I wonder how I would react if you did that to me?"
She then tells her boyfriend, that as he deserted his previous wife and children, why should she expect him to stand by her in a moment of danger?
Worst Man Cry Ever
For reviewers too, the film has been framed as a timely dissection of fragile male egotism and puffed-up immaturity.
Director Ruben Ostlund, told the Times, “It’s men who act egotistically when it comes to a crisis” and said he drew inspiration for one viciously humiliating scene from a YouTube video called “Worst Man Cry Ever”.
Salon, while acknowledging that the wife is far from perfect, maintains that "Tomas is the person who has displayed unforgivable cowardice and solipsism" and Slate describes the film as "a biting critique of modern masculinity".
But Force Majeure isn't the only recent piece of pop-cultural entertainment to embrace the idea that shaming men for cowardice is a powerful expression of female emancipation.
A satisfyingly grizzly end
In the latest and last of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit, one of the most repellent characters isn’t an orc or a goblin, he’s a man.
At the heart of the film’s opening sequence, is the comical greed and cowardice of a despotic chief and henchmen as they try to escape with coffers of the town’s gold.
The chief soon meets a satisfyingly grizzly end, but one of his henchmen, Alfrid, is washed up alive and goes on to become a source of derision throughout the film. The reason? He’s a man who is an unrelenting coward.
In one key scene, we're suddenly shown a group of townswomen huddled in a corner, before another woman charges in and declares they are as brave as the men and should go and fight alongside them.
'You’re not a man, you’re a weasel'
One woman however stays bent over and whimpering, refusing to go. The other woman pulls her round, only to reveal it’s the villain Alfrid dressed in women’s clothing. She spits in his face: “You’re a coward. You’re not a man, you’re a weasel.”
In one short moment, the film simultaneously celebrates a woman for emancipating herself from the traditional female role of being weak and in need of protection, while at the same time she shames a man who doesn’t conform to the traditional role of brave protector.
But the most astonishing example of this ugly sentiment, is Sky’s comedy series, Chickens, about how a village of women treat the only three men from their town who have not gone to fight during WW1.
The show is essentially a series of set pieces in which the three men – a conscientious objector, a man who is medically unfit to fight and man who is simply afraid – are shamed, laughed at and humiliated by scores of empowered and emancipated women, including those who are Suffragettes.
Not so revolutionary, after all?
In one scene, after a woman demands that Cecil – who incidentally is the one discharged as medically unfit – justifies why he hasn’t enlisted, he says: “I really believe in this war and I’m really keen to help.” She replies: “Rubbish, if you were really keen to help you would have killed yourself to raise morale.”
The writers describe Chickens as “a quasi-feminist sit-com” and according to one of the lead actresses: “What’s great is to see a village full of women who are just really getting on with it, just couldn’t give a toss that the men have gone, really, except for basic plumbing issues and the occasional need for someone to shag them.”
There's a line of argument that states feminism doesn't really overturn traditional gender roles at all -- that in both pre and post-feminist worldviews, women are seen as deserving of protection and it's men who must step up and prove their worth.
If these recent dramatic offerings are anything to go by, that analysis seems pretty close to the truth. The question is, why are men still prepared to tolerate it?
By Dan Bell
Also on insideMAN:
- Why The Hobbit shows we still think it's OK to shame men who are afraid
- A teenage boy shamed into combat isn't a hero, he's an exploited victim
- Why Kitchener’s finger gives me the arsehole
- Why does Sky’s comedy series ‘Chickens’ still think it’s funny to humiliate men who didn’t go to war?