The New Hollywood Leading Man-Child

by Sabrina Farhi

Over the last five years there has been a noticeable shift in contemporary cinema and the Hollywood leading man. One need only look at the roster of new actors carrying both big budget comedies à la Judd Apatow as well as independent cinema fare to see the evidence of a change. Gone are the stoic, classically handsome, able-bodied, and witty men of the golden age of cinema. They have been replaced with a new breed of leading men—a breed of doughy man-children unable to grow up, man up, and commit. It is important to examine why there has been such a change and what it means. Does it reflect transformations in our current society? Donna Peberdy, author of Masculinity and Film Performance, states that “ a number of film scholars have discussed masculinity in popular American film according to a number of tropes or types exhibiting certain characteristics at particular moments in history that can be said to reflect or embody a specific cultural moment or decade” (101). In addition, David Hansen Miller in his article Iconic Masculinities: Popular Cinema and Globalization states:

… masculinities that successfully appeal to audiences would be symptomatic of our collective aspirations for masculinity. They can also be understood as performative or productive – in being proffered to the audience as an ideal, the audience is compelled to recognize and accept them as such. This means that to achieve successful identifications and pleasurable spectatorship the film industry must at least intuit a version of masculinity that is both familiar enough to resonate socially with who we think we are, and new enough to resonate with our aspirations. (33)

My aim in this essay is to investigate what current societal factors have led to this modification in the new model of masculinity and the new Hollywood leading man.

The Hollywood leading man and the paradigm of masculinity has undergone many alterations over the years. Before we examine the new leading man-child, it is important to look at how the leading man has changed throughout cinematic history. First and foremost, there is the classic trope of the “Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” characterized by such actors as Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart in the 1940’s. These “Men in Grey Flannel Suits” set the Hollywood standard for the quintessential leading man: traditionally handsome, stable, masculine, adept at witty repartee, and skilled in the art of seduction. Since then, the leading man has undergone several changes. The classic type gave way to the dangerous, often misunderstood, rebels with raw animal magnetism like James Dean and Marlon Brando in the 1950’s, the wild men and cowboys like Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman in the 1960’s, and the muscular hard-bodied action heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone in the 1980’s. While these types all vary wildly, they each exhibit powerful hegemonic masculine qualities—qualities that can be described as forming a culturally normative ideal of male behavior. They are all strong men in control of their environments, which is argued to be the prevailing ‘American image of masculinity’ – an image reinforced by the visual avalanche of Marlboro Men and Dirty Harrys and Rambos (Faludi 10). However, in the 1990’s we started seeing a shift towards a more sensitive and domesticated leading man (Peberdy 101). Not only has this move towards vulnerability grown exponentially in the mainstream media over the past five years, but the levels of male sensitivity have reached new heights.

If, as we have noted, there is a new emergent model of masculinity, what does the leading man-child look like? If we examine movies released in the past five years, the leading men can often be described as aging fraternity boys, slackers, emo boys, or geeks in their mid-twenties and thirties. These men are categorically in a state of arrested development, playing too many video games, and living in their childhood homes while they figure out who they are and what they want in life. They are unwilling to commit to the women they date, women who are not only surpassing them in levels of maturity, but in career advancement as well.  In Kay Hymowitz’s Manning Up: How the Rise of Women has Turned Men into Boys, she uses the term “preadulthood” to describe this man-child phenomenon sweeping the predominantly white, upper middle-class, current generation of young men. Although she discusses preadulthood as overwhelming television programming, the same can be said for its prevalence in modern cinema: “Preadulthood, then, is the new adolescence not just because it has taken over the prime-time sitcom schedule but also because it is the contemporary stage for young men and women to deal with the big questions about their lives” (Hymowitz 7). Preadult men do not follow in the footsteps established by the generations of men before them. They take time to question and figure out what they want in life. While this is all well and good, as a result young men in their twenties are delaying their search for a mate. They are no longer looking to secure a job, settle down, and start a family. They have pushed back their schedules and given themselves time and space for self-reflection. While these men may look grown-up, their behavior and priorities are decidedly not.

I have chosen three different films (all released in the last five years and all starring diverse lead male actors) to illustrate this new leading man-child paradigm. To begin with there is Seth Rogen in Judd Apatow’s mainstream comedy Knocked Up. Rogen plays Ben Stone, a slightly overweight young man in his mid-twenties, living in a large house with a bevy of roommates, smoking pot, playing video games, and planning the launch of a new pornographic website.

Ben’s slacker life is upended when a drunken one-night stand with Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl), a successful career entertainment journalist, results in an unplanned pregnancy. With Alison’s decision to keep the baby, Ben pursues the relationship, and is ultimately forced to confront the decision to either man up and provide for his new family or continue living his bachelor life. In tried and true romantic comedy fashion, this road to commitment is not an easy one, but commit he does, and in the end Ben and Alison drive off into the sunset with their new baby. The character of Ben Stone possesses many of the traits on the prototypical man-child checklist: a lack of stable employment or drive, immaturity, over-usage of recreational drugs, and a fear of commitment. In Jeff Who Lives at Home, Jason Segel plays the title role in the serio-comic mainstream film. Jeff is a thirty-year old unemployed man with no prospects who spends his days smoking pot in his mother’s basement, watching movies, and contemplating his destiny.

Inspired by M. Night Shyamalan’s movie Signs, he spends the duration of the film searching for direction and a purpose in life. Even though Jeff gets his “aha” moment the audience never sees him change his man-child ways. In the independent film Your Sister’s Sister, Mark Duplass plays Jack, a kind and funny yet unemployed, thirty-something man. Still reeling from his brother’s death a year earlier, Jack is invited to his friend Iris’ family’s cabin to do some much- needed soul searching.

The film is rife with themes of complicated interpersonal relationships, intimacy issues, and the fear of commitment. Jack struggles to find his path but ultimately gets back on track and takes a chance with Iris, the woman he has loved for some time but was afraid to commit to. While it can be argued that Jack’s man-child characteristics stem from the grief over his brother’s death, it does not stop him from being one. These three films are just a few in a long string of recent movies that feature a central man-child protagonist. While they each eventually grow up or commit, they do not fully shed their man-child trappings.

As evidenced by the commercial success of these films, we can no longer ignore this new Hollywood leading man trend, and it speaks volumes to where we are currently as a society. In American Masculinity Under Clinton, Brenton Malin explores conceptions of masculinity in the late 1990’s and early 21st century:

For advertisers, filmmakers, television producers and even presidential candidates, shedding the trappings of the stoic, hardened macho man of the past for the heart of the sensitive “new male” seems a way to draw larger audiences by tapping into this desire for a transformed masculinity. (26)

There are several possible contributing factors to the pervasiveness of this new leading man-child/preadulthood model. When the economy collapsed in 2008, many people, both young and old, found themselves out of work. Young men and women were forced to move back into their family homes when their unemployment and options ran out. In addition to those who lost their jobs, a new crop of young men and women were graduating from higher institutions without any realistic job prospects. With increasing numbers of young men and women being encouraged by their families to go to college, obtain higher education degrees, and pursue their dreams, a “knowledge economy” has been created. A knowledge economy can be defined as a system of consumption and production that is based on intellectual capital—an economy in which growth is dependent on the quantity, quality, and accessibility of the information available, rather than the means of production. What this means in our current period of economic turmoil is that these young men and women who grew up being encouraged to pursue their dreams and passions are graduating without any real world skills and are unable to find work. The work they can find is not the kind they want, nor is it the kind of work they have been told to expect, and so, they choose to delay adulthood:

The Great Recession will doubtless temper youthful optimism on this score, but the knowledge economy gives the educated young an unprecedented opportunity to think about work in personal terms. They can seek out careers—not just jobs, mind you, which are a far less existential matter—to exercise their talents and “passions,” an unlikely but commonplace word in the contemporary twentysomething career discussion. They expect these careers to give shape to their identity (Hymowitz 7).

In the current economy, pursuing your dreams, earning a living, and supporting yourself are not realistic aspirations. Rather than take lower-wage jobs, young men and women are postponing the conventional path to adulthood as “traditional notions of adulthood seem a straitjacket to those who’ve been taught they are each unique snowflakes, capable of having it all, pursuing their passions, and living the dream” (Olsen 34). The result is the state of preadulthood in which young people are living at home, trying to sort out their lives, and find themselves. This road to self-discovery is lined with trial and error, often resulting in young people going from job to job while they test out different careers and roles. If their careers do not provide the satisfaction they are looking for, they move from place to place looking for their spot in the world. This constant searching and meandering applies to their relationships as well. With the popularity and ubiquity of online dating, young people no longer rely on their social circles to find a mate— thanks to the Internet a veritable cornucopia of potential partners are right at their fingertips. As Zygmunt Bauman says in Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds “internet dating…is not a last resort. It’s a recreational activity. It’s entertainment” (65). If the person you are dating does not meet your standards, another one is merely a click away. Since finding a partner has essentially turned into a shopping spree, with the newest version always around the corner, settling down and committing is no longer on the agenda.

In addition to the economy and preadulthood, the increasing feminization of current American society might also explain the change in the Hollywood leading man. “At least two generations of men have grown up very comfortable with the power of women in all spheres of western life” (Moss 101). Women are no longer stay-at-home mothers reliant on their husbands to provide for them. They are equal partners and breadwinners in relationships. Not only can they support themselves, but in some cases family dynamic roles are reversed, with the woman working to support the family while the man stays at home and cares for the children. Therefore, new family dynamics and structures have been created:

As the male breadwinner model became increasingly outmoded, women also began seeking greater autonomy. The post-nuclear family is thus the culmination of these trends, manifest in changing definitions of what counts as family and in movements for democratic kinship relations (Hoerl & Kelly 362).

With women advancing and choosing to raise children on their own, the provider husband and father model is rendered unnecessary, as are possibly the hegemonic masculine qualities of strength, valor, loyalty, and courage. If women no longer need men to start a family, then why do men need to grow up?

There is no denying that this new Hollywood leading man-child is here to stay. The current economic state, the continuing rise of women, and the new stage of maturity development known as preadulthood, have all contributed to the popularity of this new Hollywood trope. As our economy rebuilds and our future changes, it will be interesting to see how the Hollywood leading man evolves yet again—whether he will continue further down this man-child path, or whether a backlash will occur, creating a resurgence in traditional masculine men. One thing is certain: for the time being, the Hollywood leading man-child is staying in the basement.