“Waking Up Without My Penis
is My Worst Nightmare”:
Masculinity in the Post-Reagan Parody Film
by Bryan Cebulski
Reagan era action-adventure films like Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987) and Rambo: First Blood Part 2 (George P. Cosmatos, 1985) display men as tough, well-muscled, independent, pain-enduring, and quick-thinking. In 1993, the same year that Bill Clinton was sworn in as president, their parody film counterparts National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 11 and Hot Shots! Part Deux (Gene Quintano and Jim Abrahams) were quick to mock the traditionally masculine heroes of these films. In Loaded Weapon, for instance, evil henchman Mr. Jigsaw (Tim Curry) sneaks up on rugged protagonist Jack Colt (Emilio Estevez) and points a gun at his head. A telling exchange of dialogue ensues:
JACK COLT. Who the hell are you?
MR. JIGSAW. I am your worst nightmare.
JACK COLT. No. Waking up without my penis is my worst nightmare.2
Here Colt displays a curious indifference to death threats, more afraid of losing his capacity for sex. This sets the tone for the multitude of jabs directed at American 80s masculine standards throughout the film and, more broadly, throughout other films and TV shows of the early 90s.
If parody is to be understood as a mocking imitation of a source and if we are to understand mockery as a kind of comedic criticism, then parodies of popular American action-adventure films operate as a criticism of the masculine standards that these source movies support. With the above example we see a comedic extreme in Colt’s views on sex and mortality. This sort of hyperbole is characteristic of the post-Reagan parody film. While numerous examples exist3 this essay focuses on the two aforementioned films, as they draw directly from two of the strongest examples of Reagan era masculinity. Moreover these parodies form a link between 80s and 90s forms of American masculinity by placing these 80s heroes within the context of early 90s sensibilities. This essay will analyze these films by both observing how exactly they critique Reagan era action-adventure films and by how they inform developing trends in 90s masculinity. I argue that through mockery, these filmmakers form an idea of what they view as outdated, untrue, and unrealistic in Reagan era masculine standards, as well as engage with concepts that will eventually bloom into the Clinton form of American masculinity in the early 90s.
While parody in film has its own unique aspects, it is important to begin with the idea of parody more generally. Simon Dentith in his work Parody analyzes parody in novels and poetry. Dentith begins with the rather obvious fact that parody is a response to a pre-existing work. He uses an excerpt from George Eliot’s Middlemarch to demonstrate this idea as a “scoffing repetition” of another’s words. “At some level […] parody involves the imitation and transformation of another’s words.”4 Expanding on this observation, Dentith unveils various uses for this imitation and transformation, most notably as criticism. He moves into a preliminary definition: “Parody includes any cultural practice which provides a relatively polemical allusive imitation of another cultural production or practice.”5 One might simplify this definition by stating that parody is when one makes fun of a source by imitating it in a mocking way. The reason why one chooses to make fun of a source can never be narrowed down to one ultimate reason, of course. “Parody itself is socially and politically multivalent,” claims Dentith, “its particular uses are never neutral, but they cannot be deduced in advance.”6 For instance, parody may work as an insult to a source or as an affectionate nod to one. In many cases, especially in the films discussed in this essay, parody can work as both.
Parody is not a highbrow art form, thus a defense of its use as social criticism is necessary. Dentith elaborates upon this point. “One of the typical ways in which parody works is to seize on particular aspects of a manner or a style and exaggerate it to ludicrous effect. There is an evident critical function in this, as the act of parody must first involve identifying a characteristic stylistic habit or mannerism and then making it comically visible.”7 The aspect in question for our purposes here is American masculinity. An account of how Loaded Weapon 1 and Hot Shots! Part Deux take masculine practices in Lethal Weapon and Rambo and exaggerate them to ludicrous effect offer an argument for how ludicrous they are in the first place.
Wes D. Gehring in his book Parody as Film Genre succinctly explains what a parody film is. He breaks down seven basic characteristics of the parody genre, only the first four of which are relevant to this essay. First, a parody film is supposed to be above all else funny. This is important to keep in mind, as it prevents the viewer from reading too deeply into the film. Second, the parody film is also criticism, albeit “the most palatable of critical approaches, offering insights through laughter.”8 This too is important to keep in mind to balance the first point—although parody is light cinematic fare, it is not empty. Third, parody is not satire. One would not consider a satirical black comedy like Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964) and a fourth wall-breaking over-the-top spoof like Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974) as belonging to the same genre. “Spoofing has affectionate fun at the the expense of a given form or structure; satire more aggressively attacks the flaws and follies of mankind.”9 Essentially, then, parody is more lighthearted and good-humored. This again balances parody’s position between intelligent criticism and surface-level entertainment. Fourth, Gehring separates parody into two subgenres: “the broad and obvious puncturing of a genre or auteur, and a more subdued approach that manages comic deflation with an eventual reaffirmation of the subject under attack.”10 The films discussed in this essay belong in various ways to both subgenres, a conflict which will be elaborated upon later. The ultimate point here is to observe that these films are not pointed arguments against Reagan era masculinity. Rather they are rapidfire comedies that make easily identifiable jabs at a trend in popular films. Though lacking the intellectual depth of a satire like Dr. Strangelove, the jokes in these parody films nevertheless demonstrate the beginnings of an important shift in pop culture depictions of and opinions on American masculinity.
Film as Cultural History
The development of American masculinity from the 80s to the 90s was not a linear progression, yet scholars of the popular media of the two decades have worked to describe a telling transition in the general outline of masculine ideals. These scholars find this predominantly represented by the president at the time. “From TR’s rugged masculinity to Jimmy Carter’s soft-spoken, sensitive maleness, a president’s manhood can serve as a barometer of the nation’s visions of masculinity more generally.”11 The Ronald Reagan man, discussed in Susan Jeffords’ Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era, is robust and patriarchal; the Bill Clinton man, discussed in Brenton J. Malin’s American Masculinity under Clinton, is a set of contradictions, retaining the Reagan man’s toughness yet adding sensitivity and softness to his character.
Hollywood films arguably reflect larger trends in popular American thought at the time of their production. This perspective gives films credence as a means to tell cultural history. As this essay and both Jeffords’ and Malin’s books are based upon this concept, its veracity must be defended. One sees this explored in another important book that fuses American history with Hollywood: J. Hoberman’s The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties. In this book Hoberman forms a narrative around the most popular Hollywood films of the 1960s to tell the story of the United States at that time. For instance, he uses the films Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960) and The Alamo (John Wayne, 1960) as representations of conflicting viewpoints on the Cold War.12 These films told relevant stories about the fight for freedom and liberation from oppression that directly appealed to the sensibilities of large swaths of the U.S. populace.
Films are essentially ideas writ large. They are so pertinent in the cultural history of the United States because they are so widely consumed by the general population. As Hoberman states in the introductory chapter to his work: “A movie is an idea that accumulates meaning as it is conceived, produced, exhibited, and reviewed. Because it is an idea consumed by millions, a movie can also be a source of group identity.”13 Thus in order to appeal to the widest audience those ideas have to reflect and affirm the beliefs of the population at large. The film then becomes a rallying point to which supporters of that film’s idea flock.
In this essay’s context, the rallying point is American masculinity. Of course not all popular films of the era fit the same mold, but a pattern within a certain type of popular film offers a idea of the culture that existed at the time these films were made. Jeffords grants this as well: “I chose to examine some of the most popular films—by box office figures—of the period precisely because their popularity must, I believe, indicate something about what kinds of stories mainstream audiences were interested in seeing, what characters they found compelling, and what images they found worth repeating […].”14 This essay works upon this premise as well. Both examine Hollywood films and extract a broader meaning about American cultural history from them.
The difference between this work and Jeffords’ is that Loaded Weapon and Part Deux were not as successful as Rambo or Lethal Weapon by box office figures. Lethal Weapon received a domestic total gross of $65,207,127 and Rambo: First Blood Part 2 received a whopping $150,415,432. Loaded Weapon and Part Deux only received $27,979,399 and $38,922,972 respectively.15 The simplest reason for this difference is that parody is not a popular genre. But both Loaded Weapon and Part Deux have developed strong cult followings, a fact that is not to be undermined. Hoberman finds a strong basis for a cultural narrative here. “Cult films writ large—their meanings determined by the reception and metaphoric use given them by their audience, whether counterculture or silent majority—these are movies that America could be said to have given to itself, films that emanated from, and returned to shape, the nation’s dream life.”16 Thus despite these films not being a mainstream rallying point, they are still important, illustrative of a growing trend rather than a solidified one. The ideas expressed in Loaded Weapon and Part Deux have gained more and more support as the cult following grew stronger, shifting out of the trends that Jeffords finds in her work and moving toward those that Malin finds in his.
The Old Manly Men of the 1980s
Ronald Reagan served two terms as U.S. president from 1981 to 1989. A conservative idol, Reagan believed in “maximiz[ing] personal freedom and private enterprise and minimiz[ing] the role of government.”17 Reagan encouraged a form of masculinity that is most easily identifiable in the popular action-adventure films of the era. These films portray “hard-bodied,” manly men as role models. Jeffords’ Hard Bodies is devoted in its entirety to deciphering what exactly these films are saying about masculinity. The book is especially “about the correspondences between the public and popular images of ‘Ronald Reagan’ and the action-adventure Hollywood films that portrayed many of the same narratives of heroism, success, achievement, toughness, strength, and ‘good old Americanness’ that made the Reagan Revolution possible.”18 Jefford’s book reveals the most important characteristics of Reagan era masculinity, which is an important source of the humor in our parody films. Thus it offers important context for the argument to follow.
The Reagan era man is marked most acutely by his exterior presence. This “hard body” reveals “strength, labor, determination, loyalty, and courage […]” and is not “subject to disease, fatigue, or aging.”19 This man endures adversity and masters his surroundings. John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) of the Rambo series and Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) of the Lethal Weapon series serve here as the models for Reagan era masculinity as they are two of the era’s most iconic heroes.
Rambo for his part is the epitome of the hard body, a national symbol of toughness. Rambo “wins” his films on a basic plot level by “defeating enemies through violent physical action.” On a broader symbolic level for Americaness he essentially “defeats national enemies.”20 These enemies are understood as the “soft body,” and they are internal as well as external: “From welfare recipients to homosexuals, from Cuban refugees to university professors, Reagan succeeded in establishing a domestic equivalent to the ‘foreign terrorist.’”21 Rambo embodies toughness through and through. As an “emblem of the national body,”22 he fights off symbolic enemies and comes out on top, beaten and bloodied but victorious.
Riggs is a more curious figure—clearly tough and on the side of justice, but as a suicidal narcotics cop with a tragic back story, he is more psychologically troubled. Understandably Jeffords doesn’t use Riggs as a national symbol in the same vein as Rambo. Still, she portrays him as an extremely masculine figure. The audience is meant to admire him for his bravery and stoicism during a scene in which he takes out an unstable sniper shooting at children in a playground. The sniper takes a few shots at Riggs and misses. Riggs stands still, unfazed by the bullets flying past him. Riggs may not fit into the same category as Rambo, but he does fit into another trend of Reagan era action-adventure heroes: “[The Lethal Weapon series] work[s] out the Reagan domestic policy through home-front battles with internal enemies of Reaganism: terrorism, lawlessness, disloyalty, and the deterioration of the family.”23 The enemies in Lethal Weapon are American Vietnam War veterans who have betrayed their country and gone into illegal drug trafficking—a seriously unpatriotic act. Disloyalty and lawlessness are clearly their vices. Riggs, a veteran himself, represents the vehement opposition to these vices. While his methods may be unconventional, they are nonetheless viewed as admirable because he is still on the side of justice.
Since Riggs’ unstable personality cannot support lawfulness and family values, the films use his “too old for this shit” partner Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) to achieve this end. He is a by-the-books cop who upholds the traditional family structure. He has a loving family, a warm home environment, upper-middle class economic standing, a career that he can be proud of, and is well respected by his peers. This duality balances Riggs’ instability with a healthy dose of good old Americanness.
Race also plays into the characterization of these two characters, with whiteness reigning superior. Murtaugh’s blackness is situated within a law abiding bourgeois context, making his race palatable for a white 80s audience. Riggs is also the film’s central protagonist and its primary masculine ideal, with Murtaugh acting as a supplement. Even in the promotional posters Mel Gibson is positioned closer to the front of the shot than Danny Glover. Murtaugh’s stable patriarchal role is used to compliment and balance Riggs’ more tortured masculinity. The plot pays special attention to Riggs’ conflicts, raising Murtaugh’s stability only in relation to them. Both are admirable characters, but the film draws the audience toward Riggs. Murtaugh’s nonthreatening black masculinity supports and balances Riggs “real” white masculinity and not the other way around. So, although Riggs is damaged, with Murtaugh to balance him and with his allegiance to justice, he is still a true American hero by the standards of Reagan era masculinity.
The Goofy Manly Men of 1993
Hot Shots! Part Deux was directed by Jim Abrahams, who is most known for his work with David and Jerry Zucker (the ZAZ team) on such classic comedies as Airplane! (1980), The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), and Top Secret! (1984). The film was cowritten by Abrahams and Pat Proft, the screenwriter of the original Police Academy (Hugh Wilson, 1984) and for the Naked Gun trilogy (David Zucker for 1 and 2, Peter Segal for 3; 1988, 1991, 1994). These men were well-established within the comedy genre, and the parody genre more specifically. Their collective filmography demonstrates a penchant for showing men who appear competent as incredibly incompetent—whether through the childish antics of the trainees in the Police Academy series or the overly literal dialogue (“Cigarette?” “Yes, it is.”) and slapstick comedy of The Naked Gun. Both have experience in comedic revisionism: the ZAZ team’s Airplane! mocks the melodramatic and overly serious characters in 50s disaster films, namely Zero Hour! (Hall Bartlett, 1954), and Police Academy challenges the audience’s trust in the boys in blue by having them act more like the characters from Animal House (John Landis, 1978). Their filmography is so deeply committed to poking fun at the men of a bygone era, one expects the Hot Shots! films to be no different.
Part Deux concerns Topper Harley (Charlie Sheen),24 an American veteran who retreats to a southeast Asian monastery to live a life of peace and seclusion.25 He is called back into service for a rescue mission, infiltrating Saddam Hussein’s military base to “go in to get the men who went in to get the men who went in to get the men.”26 Alongside this basic plot there is a side story regarding Harley’s romantic history with the mission’s contact Ramada Rhodham Hayman (Valeria Golino), a returning character from the first film. Battling personal demons, instability within the team, his affections for Ramada, and hordes of Iraqi soldiers, Harley has to deal with much more than he bargained for on this mission.
The most crucial aspects of 80s American masculinity mocked in Part Deux are the casualness with which the Reagan man deals with war and the Reagan man’s “hooray for homicide” spirit. The comedic observation that men remain inexplicably unfazed by senseless violence is demonstrated in one instance by the mission’s demolitions expert Rabinowitz (Ryan Stiles). He delivers a tongue-in-cheek monologue to Harley in the helicopter prior to the mission’s commencement:
RABINOWITZ. You know what I’m going to do if we make it? I’m going to go back to Eagle River and marry my gal, Edith Mae, I’m going to get us a nice little place with a white picket fence. You know the kind—two-car garage, maybe a fishing boat. And in fifteen years when they’re all paid for, I’ll set my charges and blow the shit out of them.27
Gehring makes an excellent analysis of this scene, comparing it to the stereotypical pre-war spiel made to establish what the good guys are fighting for. “[H]is flawless delivery and inflections are an effective takedown of all such patriotic drivel.”28 This monologue demonstrates the deranging effect that war has had on Rabinowitz: he’s been so psychologically wired to blowing things up that it is all he can think about.
This point regarding the Reagan era man’s penchant for violence is further elaborated upon in a scene in which fellow commando Arvid Harbinger (Miguel Ferrer) has a breakdown midfight. “All these years… fighting and killing… I just can’t go on,” he cries. Harley consoles him with hilarious diminutive nicknames like “big bad G.I. Joe” and “rainy face,” and eventually convinces him to become a proud warrior once again. “Thanks Topper,” Harbinger says. “I can kill again. You’ve given me a reason to live.”29 This scene brings uncomfortable comedy out of the ease with which these men can kill. “The film satirizes the war film’s ability to compartmentalize killing and have the soldier suffer no psychological problems”30 In making such an obvious display of belittling serious psychological scarring—Harley is able to get Harbinger back on his feet by reassuringly calling him cute pet names and giving him a hanky to blow his nose into—the film brings light to how war films like the Rambo series underplay the psychological impact of killing.
In a brilliant scene parodying Rambo III, Harley takes down wave after wave of enemies with a machine gun as a “kill count” adds up in the corner of the screen. An on-screen tally announces that the death toll exceeds that of RoboCop, then of Total Recall, and finally in big, bold letters the film glorifies itself as the BLOODIEST MOVIE EVER.31 This sort of blook-soaked pissing contest is a jab at what constitutes quality in the “masculinity” films of the 80s. It is more about bloodshed and mayhem, the quantity of deaths giving some adolescent pleasure to the viewer. This is especially apparent in how the sound designers make use of pinball machine noises, suggesting that Harley is racking up “points” instead of bodies. This masculinity-as-mayhem is similarly mocked in another scene earlier in the film, in which Harley takes out an enemy patrol boat as his own boat sinks, culminating with him barely afloat standing in a chest-high pile of machine gun shells. Time after time Harley brings the Reagan era masculine hero’s bloodthirst to comic extremes, thus arguing for its ridiculousness in the first place.
President Reagan himself is parodied in Hot Shots! Part Deux. While a decidedly nonpolitical parody,32 the film’s president Tug Benson shares Reagan’s forgetfulness, salt-of-the-earth attitude, high levels of patriotism, and image of robust health. On one occasion Benson mistakes his own wife for a spy because she happened to be standing in front of the door to the oval office. He doesn’t understand why every time he appoints an ambassador, they leave the country. He makes comically inappropriate political moves, such as suggesting that they bring the Iraqis to Minnesota to get some good ice fishing in while they continue the war. He swings from a chandelier into a burning fire and miraculously emerges unscathed. Finally, he saves the day in a sword-cum-lightsaber duel with Saddam Hussein. “We’ll settle this the old Navy way,” he says. “First guy to die, LOSES!”33 Benson represents a parodic extreme of Reagan machismo. He holds much in common with the deadpan humor of Leslie Nielson, in particular his performance as the U.S. president in Scary Movie 3 (David Zucker, 2003). This sort of comedy stems from the actor’s self-seriousness in any situation, no matter how silly, and is perhaps a jab at presidential hubris. In any case, Benson is a case of old school toughness brought to extremes. Not too bright, way too confident, quirky,34 sort of insane, and inexplicably strong and healthy.
Although director Gene Quintano lacks the credentials of Part Deux‘s Jim Abrahams, National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1 shares the same brand of humor. Quintano is the screenwriter for the third and fourth Police Academy sequels (Jerry Paris, 1986; Jim Drake, 1987), which conveniently places him alongside Pat Proft in subject matter. Both write about policemen acting goofy and childish, a subversion of the expectation one has of a society’s peacekeepers. The film’s choice of actors is also telling. The villain is played by William Shatner, most known for his portrayal of Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise in the original Star Trek TV show and film series. An emblem of 70s heroism then turns into a nefarious villain in the 90s, suggesting the change in times. The hero is meanwhile played by Emilio Estevez who, free of his brat pack beginnings, starred in the Young Guns films (Christopher Cain, 1988; Geoff Murphy, 1990) as Billy the Kid,35 thus establishing himself as a masculine western man-boy in the late 80s. Much in the same way that Charlie Sheen’s performance in Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986) stands in stark contrast to Part Deux, Estevez’s performance in the Young Guns series contrasts to Loaded Weapon. Their ability to play the masculine hero straight makes a believable transition when, in these parody films, they play similar characters hyperbolically.
Loaded Weapon is the story of two cops: Jack Colt and Wes Luger (Samuel L. Jackson). Like Riggs, Colt is a loose cannon on the edge who doesn’t play by the rules. Like Murtaugh, Luger is a good, by-the-books sort of cop. The two are both dealing with recent interrelated tragedies: Colt’s cop-dog partner mysteriously vanishes and Luger’s ex-partner on the beat (Whoopi Goldberg) is murdered. The two team up to unravel and bring down a drug trafficking scheme wherein cocaine is transported through innocent-looking Wilderness Girl (essentially an analogue for Girl Scout) cookies. The dysfunctional duo manage to find common ground and work as a team to take down the evil project.
The Reagan action hero’s bloodthirst is again seen parodied in Loaded Weapon. This is primarily done through Colt’s near-sexual obsession with guns. In the first scene he enters a convenience store, goes to the magazine rack, and picks out a magazine. He flips through the magazine and finds a fold-out image. “Oh, baby,” he exclaims, suggesting that this is perhaps a picture of an attractive woman. The camera then switches to an over-the-shoulder view, revealing instead an image of a large semi-automatic rifle.36
As if this were not blatant enough, the erotic fascination with firearms is taken a step further in a scene between Colt and femme fatale Miss Demeanor (Kathy Ireland). The two have an exchange of “dirty talk” in Colt’s trailer home:
DEMEANOR. Squeeze me. Squeeze me like I was an S&W seven forty-seven double-action magnum with an extended chrome eight-inch barrel just begging for a few squirts of gun oil…
JACK COLT. Is this a come-on?
DEMEANOR. Blow in my ear like you were blowing away the metallic blue discharge wafting from your barrel after you’ve spent your full load…37
The parallel between eroticism and guns is obvious. Demeanor correlates sex and violence as a turn-on for Colt, the masculine hero, and he responds positively.
The film’s first scene points out the often over-destructive nature of the gun-happy Reagan era hero. Colt is caught in the middle of a convenience store robbery. Like Riggs with the sniper, Colt walks directly into their line of fire. “You scuzzballs mind if I join in?” he says, then pulls out his gun and fires. An elaborate gunfight ensues involving machine guns, shotguns, gun turrets, and flamethrowers. This scene is an exaggeration of the unnecessarily grandiose displays of power that Reagan action heroes often perform. Harley’s body count scene is similar in this regard. By the end of the scene Colt has dispatched of the would-be-robbers, but the store is half on fire and in shambles. The owners yell at him furiously. Colt pays no attention. “I know, don’t thank me. I’m just a cop doing his job,” he says and walks out proudly.38 The act was less about protecting the store than it was about performing his masculine occupation, which he does to an extreme and even destructive degree.
The most relevant facets of Loaded Weapon‘s comedy that were not covered as explicitly in Part Deux are the Reagan man’s insecure heterosexuality and the facade of the traditional family structure. The former is subverted several times during the film. For instance, this exchange of dialogue between Miss Demeanor and Colt displays his insecurity with his sexual performance:
DEMEANOR. Colt, please. I want you, I’m burning for you, I’m on fire.
JACK COLT. And I’m late.
DEMEANOR. It’ll only take a minute!
JACK COLT. Who told you that!?39
The contrast between Demeanor’s explicit verbal expression of her sexual appetite is humorously contrasted with the fact that the only thing Colt is concerned with is his sexual reputation.
Colt is also the focus of many jokes regarding gender bending and sexual ambiguity. His overly masculine attitude is often turned upside down when he nonchalantly reveals his sexual history with men (a Hannibal Lector parody assists the heroes in tracking down the villain by pointing Colt to “a man with whom you were once involved”; misinterpretation ensues) or when he accidentally puts on Miss Demeanor’s lingerie.40 This theme also occurs in Hot Shots! Part Deux. After a scene in which Harley has sex with femme fatale Michelle Rodham Huddleston41 he puts on a frilly white nightgown and begins to brush his hair. These gags are references to the sort of “soft-bodied” characteristics that the source protagonists Martin Riggs and Rambo usually worked to suppress: vulnerability, vanity, femininity. The films mock heteronormativity, or “hard bodiedness,” by showing feminine or homosexual characteristics within these stereotypically masculine men. Neither the gayness nor the femininity are being mocked directly; rather, the humor is found in their relation to the viewer’s expectation of these “masculine” heroes. They are comfortable in their occasional androgyny or sexual variety, but the viewer’s expectations of what they are supposed to look like makes it funny.
These displays of violence and sexual insecurity are acts of masculine performativity. As explained in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, masculine performativity is the theory that in order to be considered “manly,” one must prove it through reaffirming action. In other words, manhood is a act rather than a stable identity. “The effect of gender is produced through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and styles of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self.”42 As already observed, these films take masculine performativity to comedic extremes. Violence, a general tendency of the Reagan era man, is parodied by ridiculous displays of it and by its sexualization. Colt’s perceived heterosexuality is consistently undermined by jokes regarding past sexual encounters. Both Colt and Harley’s manly appearances are subverted in scenes in which they wear women’s clothing. These parodies essentially take gender performativity and turn it on its head. This is played primarily for laughs, but one may also derive an idea of masculinity as a mere facade. These gags introduce the feminine sides of our manly parody protagonists, thus demonstrating an inner fluidity in gender previously ignored by 80s action-adventure films.
Roger Murtaugh’s parody counterpart Wes Luger is the brunt of many jokes regarding the stability of the traditional family. In Lethal Weapon, Murtaugh’s family offers a supportive anchor for Riggs, showing him what a warm, welcoming familial presence can do for a man, reminding him of the good old Americanness that he is fighting for. In Loaded Weapon, the intention remains the same, but the result is the opposite. Luger’s family could not be more dysfunctional. Colt and Luger arrive at the house, unaware that it is Mrs. Luger’s “bowling with the teamsters night.”43 The wife arrives late, drunk, and with her arm around another man, an assistant produce manager named Ted. She flirtatiously greets Colt, whose leg is meanwhile being suggestively stroked by the feet of Luger’s daughter, son, and dog. Mrs. Luger then tells her husband that she was thinking of taking Ted to visit her mother’s for the weekend. Luger replies, “Dear, I know you’re just trying to block out the memory but come on, now… your mom’s been dead for over six months.” Mrs. Luger looks at him incredulously. He adds: “Did I forget to give you that message?” His wife screams and falls into Ted’s arms, prompting Colt to rush out of the house.44 Here the film takes a contrarian perspective on the traditional Reagan family. This family’s dynamics are brought to ridiculously dysfunctional extremes, the suggestion being that the “good warm family environment” of the traditional Reagan family is just as much of an extreme on the other end of the spectrum.
This undermining of the traditional Reagan family was widespread through American media at the turn of the decade. These are helpful supplements to the case made in Loaded Weapon. Malin cites Married… with Children and The Simpsons as the strongest cases of the transition. These TV shows parody the 80s family in subtler ways than Loaded Weapon, but the overall suggestion remains the same: Families are far from perfect. Malin points to the fathers in these sitcoms as revisions of 80s manhood. “In contrast to ’80s dads Cliff Huxtable or Steven Keaton, Al [Bundy and Homer Simpsons are] here celebrated as the smelly fall-out of the ‘dysfunctional family’ talk of the late ’80s and ’90s, a satiric stab at the delusional marital and familial bliss of Reagan’s ’80s.”45 Thus, Wes Luger’s trainwreck family is mirrored by the underlying motivations of two of the most popular TV shows of the new decade, suggesting the American public’s disillusionment with a vision of perfect patriarchal families.
What the Goofy Manly Men Retain from the 1980s
As previously discussed, the parody film can be both a celebration and a criticism of its source material. So despite the films’ steps toward advocating a more sensitive male in their criticisms of 80s action films, they take many steps back toward Reagan masculinity in their celebration of them.
Part Deux is not kind in its representations of non-American men. Saddam Hussein (Jerry Haleva), the film’s villain, is portrayed as a metrosexual buffoon. His private home under attack, Hussein jumps out of bed still wearing his nightmask and flails his guns around wildly. As his soldiers fight efficiently, Hussein runs blindly through his house until he is outside, where he hits himself on various gardening equipment before finally slipping into the fountain on his front yard. This is not to mention his bikini tan, his tiny effeminate dog, his use of a portable vacuum for masturbation, and his girlish nightgown. The film both makes fun of Hussein by emasculating him and drawing him as incompetent. Showing Hussein as incompetent is in a way a patriotic gesture, something that pro-war Americans in the wake of the Gulf War would support and something that the Reagan era masculine ideal would support wholeheartedly. Mocking him by feminizing him upholds the traditional idea of masculinity as well, as it suggests that men are wholly divorced from femininity.
The film is no more forgiving to its sole Englishman, Dexter Hayman (Rowan Atkinson). Hayman is the film’s main MacGuffin—an especially important prisoner whom Harley needs to rescue. He is also Ramada’s husband, which causes tension between the two men. Luckily for Harley, Hayman is a soft-bodied creep. Ramada explains his stalker proclivities in a line of dialogue: “He used to come around the schoolyard, day after day. I so admired his persistence. Even the restraining order my parents slapped on him was no deterrent.”46 Not only is he a stalker, the fact he stalked her at her schoolyard suggests that he is a pedophile as well. When Harley at last discovers where the Iraqi soldiers are holding Hayman, Hayman claims he is unable to leave on account of his shoelaces being tied together. Harley is then forced to carry Hayman out of the building. Hayman exacerbates the difficulty by asking Harley to be more gentle. At one point he demands to be lowered so he can get a drink from a drinking fountain, then complains that it is not very cold.47 These fussy actions display a dichotomy between Hayman and Harley. Despite his position as a parody of masculinity, the plot clearly points to Harley, the tough American man, as the ideal. By the time we reach the end of the film, Hayman is easily discarded by his own absentmindedness, as he backs up to take a photo, takes one step too far, and falls off of a cliff. The main characters’ reactions to his death are indifferent at best:
HARLEY. He really was a wiener.
RAMADA: Tell me about it.48
Thus, despite its many parodic criticisms of the Reagan man, Part Deux‘s parodic representations of foreign men perpetuate a sense of American superiority.
Loaded Weapon meanwhile fails to fully balance the racially diverse lead protagonists. The film reacts to the black-white buddy cop binary of Lethal Weapon in an interesting way: by ignoring it almost altogether. Race is simply not brought up in the film. While in Lethal Weapon the lack of racial discussion leads to the assimilation of a stable bourgeois black family into a predominantly white culture, the lack of a stable environment for both Colt and Luger creates the potential for balance between them. Moreover, Luger does not take a background position in quite the same way as Murtaugh. That said, Colt still maintains the predominant ideal masculine characteristics: bold, strong, and brave. It is a masculinity to be parodied, true, but the film handles the white protagonist’s masculinity more thoughtfully than the black man’s, throwing the two men’s mocked masculinities off balance.
To return to an earlier point, one must not forget that this is merely parody and not satire. Part Deux and Loaded Weapon are not actively racist or anti-foreign. These observations merely support the argument for the predominance of white masculinity in film, and show how these parody films missed the mark in their comedic criticisms.
The New Manly Men of the 1990s
On January 20th, 1993, Bill Clinton was sworn in as the United States’ 42nd president, a position he would hold for two terms until George W. Bush was inaugurated in 2001. On May 21st, 1993, Charlie Sheen starred as Topper Harley in the movie Hot Shots! Part Deux. The connection may not be immediately evident. But both in fact inform the movement toward a new popular form of masculinity.
In 1990 Robert Bly published a book titled Iron John which outlined what Bly viewed as a “crisis of masculinity” in the contemporary American man. He observed that the 70s gave rise to a man more in touch with his feminine side, which, after the toughness of the 80s man, was regaining prominence in the new decade. While he posited that being in touch with one’s feminine side was in some ways a positive development, he was anxious about men becoming too subservient to women and argued that this sensitivity was not the end of the road in a man’s development.49 Malin cites Bly extensively, outlining the popular films and television programs that illustrate this complicated teetering between the masculine-feminine binary in the 90s.
To reduce Malin’s work on the subject to a sentence, the 90s effectively saw a transition away from Sylvester Stallone and toward Patrick Swayze. This entails the manly man’s newfound sensitivity and deeper spirituality, yet a conflicted retention of his hypermasculine domination. In this way the 90s man is both a subversion and a continuation of the 80s man. One sees this in Road House (1989): Patrick Swayze rips out an opponent’s jugular in one scene yet is shown in another as a calm, spiritually centered tai-chi practicioner. The characters that Swayze portrays are “dangerously destructive on the one hand while keenly sensitive on the other.”50 Modeled on Jeffords’ work, Malin’s book traces this anxiety over what is effectively a man’s masculine and feminine sides through 90s films while contextualizing them within Clinton’s presidency.
Malin describes Clinton as a set of contradictions, and a strong representation of popular expressions of masculinity during his presidency. “Sensitive to our pain, but tough on crime; wealthy graduate of Yale, but down-home Arkansas boy […] Clinton seems precariously positioned between redneck power-hungry patriarch and sensitive man of the 90s.”51 Malin draws a direct line from these contradictions in Clinton to the contradictions in white American masculinity of the 90s more generally. Unlike Stallone, Swayze is in touch with his emotions. However, like Stallone, he can just as easily dispatch of any opponent without remorse. Men are more sensitive, yet they approach this sensitivity with caution, still finding it necessary to perform their masculinity through acts of brute force.
As discussed, Colt, Luger, and Harley act as comedic celebrations and criticisms of certain Reagan era action heroes. As the above section indicates, certain aspects of the way the men are situated within the film perpetuate the Reagan era man’s masculinity. This is the celebratory aspect of parody. On the other side, however, these films also demonstrate an advance toward the new form of Clinton era masculinity.
The gender-bending antics of both Harley and Colt inform an important mid-90s American film named To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar (1995). This film stars two of the 90s’ most iconic masculine heroes, Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipe52, as New York drag queens. Swayze and Snipes are able to encode their drag queen characters within a hypermasculine context. This external affirmation of being in touch with their feminine side is consistently juxtaposed by reminders of the men’s inner hard-bodiedness. “[T]his transvestitism can eventually be absorbed by hypermasculine heroes like Snipes and Swayze, bringing it within their repertoires of their negotiated sensitivity.”53 One sees this happen in Loaded Weapon and Part Deux as well. The difference between Estevez and Sheen’s negotiation of gender-bending and Swayze and Snipes, however, is that the former is played for laughs due to the seeming irreconcilability of femininity within Reagan era heroes. The latter, on the other hand, is still humorous in tone but discards the assumed inability of a man to express himself femininely. To Wong Foo demonstrates that the Clinton era man is more comfortable with gender-bending, if only along the lines of the masculine-feminine binary. And as previously mentioned, signs of this new conflicted gender exploration can be viewed in Loaded Weapon and Part Deux.
Loaded Weapon and Part Deux also help to inform the Clinton era man’s conflicting views on violence. While Loaded Weapon and Part Deux critique the Reagan era man’s bloodthirst by driving it to parodic extremes, 90s films instead typically balance violence with spirituality. In the tradition of Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid (John G. Avildsen, 1984), 90s heroes use violence conservatively and with precise intention. They are also less likely to use guns and more likely to use their fists in a show of martial arts prowess. “Miyagi’s inner sensitivity seems to balance his violent capabilities.”54 The predominant example that Malin offers is Steven Seagal in the film On Deadly Ground (1994). An environmentalist action film, On Deadly Ground is the story of a man’s fight against a corrupt oil corporation in defense of the Native American communities they threaten to destroy. Malin describes a scene in which Seagal is taunted by oil workers in an Alaskan pool hall. The Reagan era man would likely have not stood for such talk, but Seagal’s character remains nonaggressive. “Whereas the oil worker is overly aggressive and insensitive as demonstrated by […] his willingness to taunt Seagal through feminizing and homophobic slurs, Seagal’s unwillingness to participate seems to stress his empathy and multicultural sensitivity.”55 That said, he does finally react violently when he is physically threatened. This is Seagal’s contribution to the Clinton era man’s conflicted masculinity: pacifistic only to an extent, with a display of physical prowess still ultimately necessary. On Deadly Ground responds to the parody bloodthirst of Loaded Weapon and Part Deux in that it too acknowledges the overly destructive nature of many Reagan era heroes. Violence is conserved through both fewer firearms and through only using what the film deems necessary force. Both are conflicted in that they still glorify violence, with the parody films using it for entertainment and On Deadly Ground still finding it a necessary aspect of manhood, albeit in subdued form. Regardless, the parody films are here seen connecting to the 90s action-adventure film through their problematizing of grandiose displays of violence.
Loaded Weapon and Part Deux operate as both criticism and celebration of the Reagan era films that they mock, connecting to both the form of masculinity it mocks and the masculinity it informs. These parodies use humor to criticize the 80s American male penchant for violence, rigid adherence to heterosexuality and heteronormativity, and the unrealistic ideal of the traditional patriarchal family. In creating men who are overly violent, potentially or explicitly bisexual, gender-bending, and incapable of leading their household, these films are brought into the context of a pop-cultural movement toward subverting or discarding a bygone era’s standards for American men. They inform the 90s trends in American masculinity that explore a man’s feminine side and emphasize a conservative use of violence. These early 90s parodies overlay the Reagan era action hero with Clinton era sensibilities. They do not fully break from the Reagan tradition, as seen in their treatment of foreigners and in their undermining of black men, but this too fits into the conflicted sense of masculinity that permeated the 90s. Parody, in their silly, lighthearted way, offer representation of the development of this shift in masculinity, in effect adding an important piece to the narrative of American cultural history.
- Bly, Robert. Iron John: A Book about Men. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2004.
- Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York City, NY: Routledge, 1990.
- Dentith, Simon. Parody. New York City, NY: Routledge, 2002.
- Gehring, Wes D. Parody as Film Genre: Never Give a Saga an Even Break. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999.
- Hoberman, J. The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties. New York City, NY: The New Press, 2003.
- Jeffords, Susan. Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1993.
- Malin, Brenton J. American Masculinity Under Clinton: Popular Media and the Nineties. New York City, NY: Peter Lang, 2005.
- Reeves, Thomas C. Twentieth-Century America: A Brief History. New York City, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000.
- Hot Shots! Part Deux. Directed by Jim Abrahams. 20th Century Fox. 1993.
- Lethal Weapon. Directed by Richard Donner. Warner Bros. 1987.
- National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1. Directed by Gene Quintano. New Line. 1993.
- On Deadly Ground. Directed by Steven Seagal. Warner Bros. 1994.
- Rambo: First Blood Part 2. Directed by George P. Cosmatos. Tristar Pictures. 1985.
- To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar. Directed by Beeban Kidron. Universal Pictures. 1995.
- Hot Shots! Part Deux box office statistics. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=hotshots2.htm.
- Rambo: First Blood Part 2 box office statistics. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=rambo2.htm.
- National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1 box office statistics. Accessed March 12, 2015.
- Lethal Weapon box office statistics. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=lethalweapon.htm.