Box-office hit inadvertently addresses gender roles

This weekend I had the opportunity to see the gangster film “Lawless” – a Prohibition-era story of three brothers, the notorious Bondurants, who run a bootlegging operation in backwoods Franklin County, Tennessee.

In the film, an equally notorious and posturing special agent is brought in from the city to try to control (and profit from) the bootlegging in Franklin County. The Bondurant brothers react with aggression, and incredible violence on both sides ensues. The “runt” of the three brothers, Jack (played by Shia LaBeouf) is not considered by his older brothers to be on the same caliber as they are when it comes to violence and being feared.

As a result, his creative ambitions for his family’s moonshine business are dismissed and mocked, and he is continually excluded from the more “dangerous” activities of their occupation.

This sort of behavior is not unusual, considering that gender roles in the 1920s (and still today) were those that expected men to be hyper-masculine: rough, hard, emotionally detached, dominant and of course if challenged, violent.

Jack’s romantic, sensitive and imaginative nature does not fit into this old world, and so he is discounted by his own family as being fundamentally less of a man. After Jack is violently beaten by the special agent while trying to protect his handicapped best friend, his brother Forrest (played by Tom Hardy) shames him for his bloodied and bruised state and tells him he needs to learn to fight for himself: “We are survivors. We control the fear, but without the fear we are as good as dead.”

However, Jack accepts that he will never be validated as a man through the same strategies employed by his brothers, and instead follows his own beliefs and ambitions. Choosing to defy his brother’s instructions, he instigates his vision for the business’s future.

His plans are successful, and his subsequent happiness and prosperity puts off his brothers, whose patriarchal identity and beliefs are threatened by their little brother’s financial success, resulting in more violence in their attempts to reassert their masculinity.

The astonishing violence in the film (a relatively accurate depiction, as the film is based on a true story) can also be attributed to the gender roles of the time. The war between the law and the bootleggers is no longer about right or wrong, but is a microcosm of the unending competition among men to legitimize their place in a solitary, patriarchal world.

This masculine tragedy still continues in various forms today – men who have to fight, suffer and struggle in order to not be questioned and belittled by the men, and even women, in our society. They then often put aside their own ambitions and passions in order to avoid the appear weak or feminine.

What is the cure for this social condition? Maybe it’s a dirty word – Feminism.

The word “feminism” in our culture is associated with several other words, with imagery which serves to conjure up the notion of angry women seeking to emasculate the entire male population into some sort of reverse sexism.

Quite the opposite feminism is very simply the belief in the political, economic and social equality of the sexes. It is in this belief that feminism can help not only women, but also men, because feminism alters masculinity.

As shifts in gender roles and stereotypes allow for women to be strong and successful in a patriarchal world, a corresponding shift will occur for the men in our world, allowing for them to be softer, kinder, imaginative and more emotionally open and expressive.

Ironically, by acting out a belief in female equality, men can conversely create for themselves a world where their masculinity will not be so punitively questioned. Instead a place where they are under less scrutiny and pressure, and will not have to be guarded and fearful.

Through feminism, men can be agents of their own future happiness.