Cinema and Feminism

The feminist in love: Manwatching on Women’s Day

Five women tell us about the actors they admire for various reasons (including brains and bodies). The list includes Mark Ruffalo, Shah Rukh Khan and Christian Bale.

What kind of men do feminist-minded women like to watch on the screen – and why? Here’s why Mark Ruffalo, Christian Bale, Uttam Kumar, Shah Rukh Khan, Tom Hiddleston and Ryan Gosling have captured the imagination of our five writers.

Mark Ruffalo, by Genesia Alves

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Mark Ruffalo in ‘The Kids are All Right’.

There’s a photo of Mark Ruffalo and his wife Sunrise Coigney at an airport that makes my heart stop.

An end-of-journey luggage-carousel fatigue burdens their stances. Her hands are in her pockets, her body language slightly stilted and her husband clings to her, fingers grasping her arm, his face buried in her neck. To me, in that public display of vulnerability, the leaning-into his wife, Ruffalo looks like a feminist in love.

Ruffalo’s feminism is evident. His repost of writer Libby Anne Bruce’s short rant against the “I am not a feminist” phenomenon went viral. He scores second-generation feminist points in this video about women’s reproductive rights, where he remembers being a teenager and listening to his mum tell him about an illegal abortion she had to have. And he referenced the story again in this letter that was read outside the last abortion clinic in Mississippi during a pro-choice campaign across the US in 2013.

If you need more proof of the powerful force for good that Ruffalo is, you only need go online. Google “Hollywood feminist actors” and his name pops up reliably in lists that include Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ryan Gosling. There’re also details of Ruffalo’s causes like clean water and renewable energy. But what makes Ruffalo a very valid, vital personality for me is what you gather about him as a man, a husband, a father.

Google permutations of the words “male feminist marriage” and you’re likely to get alarmist pieces by men or shrugs by women. The cliché is that “Feminism in the Home” has the potential to emasculate “Alpha men” into “Beta men” (who will then be discarded by their wives). Or you sometimes catch a whiff of breeder-disapproval, as if you let the side down, naively believing in a work-able, equitable, marital partnership that includes raising children.

It is not reassuring for women who identify as feminist but also must realign their lives and careers to cater to the commitment they want/need to accord their families. The only thing that will preserve your sanity is if you’re married to that supposed unicorn, a male feminist.

In my years and years of conversations with married women across cultures and socio-economic strata, those who have had children and continue with their careers, we talk most about the men. Ideologies are superb, but what is the point of flying the feminist flag if you’re expecting your wife to launder it?

Outside of tiny little pockets, it is still very much a man’s world. And you cannot be sure that atavistic politics will not snatch what little progress has been wrought and fling us all back into the dark ages. So I’m going to hazard the theory that male feminists are not born, they have to be raised.

We let people associate feminism with assertiveness, boldness, “don’t be girly”-ness. But maybe if we could look at feminism as an expression of the all powerful mother – surging with animalistic instincts to protect, the ability to nourish, what Ruffalo calls “a common sense and a wisdom and a decency” – we could get the men to be less squeamish about aspiring to feminist ideals of equitability. (Also the sex is better.)

With Ruffalo (despite internet pages dedicated to his hairy chest), I see an easy, empowered man acquiescing to the power of femininity. Whether it’s his motorcycle riding, sperm-donor-ing, “I love lesbians” persona in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right or Joss Whedon’s telling little character pique in the relationship between Hulk and Black Widow in The Avengers or his real-life politics, Ruffalo is aspirational for feminists of all genders.

And when the paparazzi catches him goofing around and passionately necking with his wife of nearly 20 years and mother of their three children on the red carpet or at an airport carousel, it is such a turn-on, it is very confusing.

(Genesia Alves is a writer at The Swaddle and The City Story and occasional contributor to Scroll.in.)

Christian Bale, by Priya Ramani

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Christian Bale in ‘Knight of Cups’.

Christian Bale, 42, is the true postmodern hero, a blinding ray of light in a pimped and primped industry where most actors play themselves, film after film. He can acquire Batman’s perfect body without making you wonder what’s under that Kevlar suit. You aren’t able to drag yourself away from his tortured superhero mind.

Bale can play Moses without distracting you when he shows his legs (unlike Russell Crowe’s Maximus and Brad Pitt’s Achilles). You notice his body only when he wants you to – like when he gains 43 pounds, a comb-over and a male gaze for American Hustle, or when he loses 62 pounds on a diet of one apple and one can of tuna a day for The Machinist. Bale is obsessed with authenticity. He ate worms and maggots when playing a prisoner of the Vietnam war in Rescue Dawn.

He’s an English actor who can easily play the All-American saviour or schizophrenic. If the world is ending, it would be nice to have him on your side. He’s utterly believable as the ultimate post-apocalyptic resistance fighter John Connor and the American Psycho. He is beyond sex appeal; every performance of his is your most satisfying mind-fuck ever.

Fanboys may carp about that voice in the Batman trilogy, but director Christopher Nolan couldn’t have reinvented the caped crusader without Bale. Stephen Spielberg could see this blast of talent at 13, when he picked Bale out of 4,000 children for Empire of the Sun. When writer Aaron Sorkin was asked about who he thought would play Steve Jobs, he told Bloomberg, “We needed the best actor on the board in a certain age range and that’s Chris Bale.”

I’m so glad he didn’t eventually play Jobs in that 2015 Danny Boyle film or star in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, another role he was rumoured to be considering, or sign Michael Mann’s Enzo Ferrari biopic. He should save some iconic roles for the rest.

What’s not to like about his personal life? He’s been married to the same woman for the past 15 years, supports Greenpeace, Gloria Steinem is his step-mom. “I always tell my daughter to question authority,” he said in one television interview. “Because I said so doesn’t fly in my house.”

He may have lost this year’s supporting actor Oscar to Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies, but when he leaned across to get Matt Damon’s packet of mints you noticed he was sitting in the first row, right?

(Priya Ramani is a columnist at the Mint newspaper’s weekend edition Lounge and editor-at-large for the digital list of the Juggernaut publishing company.)

Uttam Kumar and Shah Rukh Khan, by GS Ajitha

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Shah Rukh Khan and Manisha Koirala in ‘Dil Se’.

Which male actor do I fancy? Hmm. Many, and it’s hard to pick one. But I’m going to say Uttam Kumar in Nayak. And I’m going to say this too: for all the many films that Soumitra Chatterjee and Satyajit Ray did together, there’s not one performance of Soumitra’s that comes close to this one by Uttam.

Why do I like him? Again, I’m not sure, but I think I like his gentle masculinity, his easy good looks. And I like him in Nayak in particular because he’s older (as I am now, though I’ve loved the movie and its protagonist for years), and his character is fighting and failing to hold it all together. He’s got a certain strength plus vulnerability plus restraint thing going there, and it’s kind of attractive. The update on that crush now is Prosenjit. Honestly, Shamya, my Bengali spouse, and my Bengali friends, are very embarrassed by this development. Oho, Posenjit, they say. So, yeah, maybe I won’t go on about it.

For many, many years, though, I’d have said Shah Rukh Khan. He is fun, he owns his charisma and he is so comfortable with his body. He has these big, brown eyes and he performs romance like he gets it (remember Paheli?) And he doesn’t have that super-male manliness that’s a sure turn-off for me (unless it’s on Toshiro Mifune). The younger actors these days all have excellent body language, but I think when I was younger that wasn’t so common on or off screen.

Back when I was still in school, I saw In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones, and while I didn’t recognise SRK as the Circus/Fauji actor I fell in love with soon after, I remembered the character vaguely. At the release of its screenplay in 2003, there was a screening of the movie at Siri Fort, probably the first ever. When we were waiting for it to begin, I told Shamya that I remember many small things about IWAGITO but not the thrust of the movie itself. I remembered, for instance, that there was this really beautiful college student in a very brief cameo (but not that it was a campy stereotype of a gay man). When the scene came on, I actually yelped. I so did not know it was SRK, not being one to search out trivia. All these years later, I still see that. Everyone else in the movie looks like us, only with weird hairstyles; SRK looks glamorous.

But it’s wearing off. The kitsch he doles out seems like less fun than it used to. Off-screen, there’s less and less about him I can admire. Maybe I’ve grown up and he hasn’t. Or maybe I’m being mean because he broke my heart when he signed on for that Fair and Handsome ad. Maybe that colours everything else.

(Ajitha GS is Commissioning Editor at HarperCollins India.)

Tom Hiddleston, by Sridala Swami

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Tom Hiddleston in ‘High-Rise’.

A friend recently posted an image of Tom Hiddleston on Twitter. It’s from the film High- Rise and though the image has been around for a while, it caused flutters on a small portion of my timeline. It reminded me that Hiddleston is a fine specimen of a man and to confirm this I spent a few very pleasant hours on tumblr.

I immersed myself in gifs of Hiddleston laughing, of Hiddleston clad in nothing but a towel, of him riding a horse, being slapped, and raising a single brow. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were entire tumblrs given over to celebrating Hiddleston’s right eyebrow because it is truly a very expressive brow with a life and mind of its own. As for that marker of tragic beauty in a female – that single tear tracking its way down an otherwise still and stricken face – it’s a thing Hiddles does very well.

(Notice how a couple of hours watching individual actions on repeat, produces much familiarity but zero contempt?)

Now you’re going to expect me to insist that Tom Hiddleston is also a good actor. And I am, because he is. It may have been a role in a multi-million dollar franchise that made him famous, but luckily for him, Hiddleston was an actor long before he became glamorous.

Watch him in Joanna Hogg’s Unrelated and Archipelago. Unrelated was Hiddleston’s first feature film and it’s a role that requires him to be cocky and cavalier even as the main character uses his beauty and youth to work through her own troubles.

I say “uses” but I don’t mean it in a grubby or transactional way. What Hiddleston becomes, in Joanna Hogg’s films, is a foil, a catalyst whose presence extracts some amazing performances from those around him. His most interesting roles are those in which he is directed by women: Hogg’s films, but also in Henry V (dir: Thea Sharrock) of The Hollow Crown series and most recently, as Jonathan Pine in The Night Manager (dir: Susanne Bier). How can one resist an actor who chews up the scenery but in a restrained, there’s-enough-for-everyone kind of way?

There is a particularly mirror-like quality to Tom Hiddleston. He has the silver exactness of Sylvia Plath’s mirror but it’s softened by his own beauty. When we see emotion and thought register on his face, we recognise ourselves and it is a more beautiful version of our selves.

Okay, fine.

I watch Hiddleston because he looks as good in a suit as he does in a threadbare t-shirt. Because of that child-like laugh with the tongue almost peeping out. Because of his uncontrollable excitement at things. Because of his beaux yeux and his voice. Because of his infuriating courtesy that makes you want to shake him and beg him to say something cutting that is not a line of dialogue from a script. And because of that eyebrow he will almost certainly raise in response.

(Sridala Swami is a poet, commentator and children’s book writer. She blogs at The Spaniard in the Works.)

Ryan Gosling, by Ankita Chawla

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Ryan Gosling, ‘Hey Girl’.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman with a beating heart and thinking mind must be in be love with Ryan Gosling. The child artist turned romantic hero turned indie-poster boy is known to inspire deep sighs and long “awws” from women (and men) of all ages, every time he is seen, heard or read about.

He took Nicholas Sparks’s Noah Calhoun and transformed him into a swoon-worthy lover-man most women dream is waiting and pining for them, sitting in a beautiful house by a lake. Then he followed that up with the intensity of Blue Valentine, the Photoshopped abs of Crazy Stupid Love, and the heart-wrenching passion of Place Beyond the Pines, apart from many other unforgettable roles and movies.

But it isn’t just his looks or his deep, lazy voice that have enamoured the thinking, speaking, feminist world at large. It goes beyond than the superficiality of his perfect appearance.

Gosling loves his mother. And when does that not make a man endearing? Gosling is known to voice his utmost respect and love for his mother, who home-schooled him after he was bullied at a Canadian primary school. And if that wasn’t enough, he holds a reputation as a monogamous romantic, currently in a relationship with Eva Mendes.

There’s more. In an interview last year, Ryan Gosling talked about the importance of feminism in his life and how that relates to him as a new father to a lovely little girl, Esmeralda, with Mendes.

“I mean, look, I have very strong female characters in my life, I grew up with strong women and the amount of them grows exponentially as time goes on, in my world. And that's my reality. So, I just tend to gravitate towards stories with strong female characters. ... I didn't make those [memes], you know? It’s not by design.”

The memes in question, are everywhere. “Hey Girl” is now synonymous with Gosling all over the internet. The trend that was initiated by a fun Tumblr page called F*ck Yeah! Ryan Gosling, was adopted as an inside joke by Danielle Henderson who then created feministryangosling.tumblr.com

She started the blog to discuss “Feminist Theory (as Imagined) From Your Favourite Sensitive Movie Dude” with her classmates, and before they could say “Screw Patriarchy,” the blog was an internet sensation. The posts have now been compiled into a book.

The most remarkable thing, however, is that not only is Gosling is a proud feminist, he inspires a positive change in opinion in men as well. A study conducted by Psychology Phd students Sarah Sangster and Linzi Williamson at the University of Saskatchewan claimed that the memes created a measurable effect on the feminist beliefs in men.

Much before the book deal, Gosling had called out the sexist double standards of the movie industry when Blue Valentine was threatened by an NC-17 rating. He wrote to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), challenging the blatant hypocrisy.

“You have to question a cinematic culture which preaches artistic expression, and yet would support a decision that is clearly a product of a patriarchy-dominant society, which tries to control how women are depicted on screen,” Gosling wrote. “The MPAA is okay supporting scenes that portray women in scenarios of sexual torture and violence for entertainment purposes, but they are trying to force us to look away from a scene that shows a woman in a sexual scenario which is both complicit and complex. It's misogynistic in nature to try and control a woman's sexual presentation of self.”

The movie was eventually released with an R-rating and was critically acclaimed for its raw and painful depiction of a marriage on the verge of a breakdown.

Also, did I mention, he saves lives? Literally. In 2012, Gosling saved a British journalist from being hit by a taxi in New York City. And that wasn’t the first time either. He had previously broken up a street fight in NYC. The hero was captured on video, which understandably went viral.

So from loving his family to being a proud feminist who goes around saving lives and interrupting brawls, Ryan Gosling does it all and looks awesome while he’s at it. What’s not to love?

(Ankita Chawla is a writer and Scroll.in’s television critic. She tweets @teeveetalker.)

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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