2019 Film Essays

Fight Like a Man: The ‘Rocky’ Series and Masculinity

Editor’s Note: This essay is the first in a series about the Rocky franchise.

“Why do men fight? What makes some of us want to get hit in the face? What makes others show up to watch?

What makes a man?” Thomas Page McBee, Amateur: A True Story About What Makes a Man

We go to the polling booths to choose our leaders. We go to the movies to choose our heroes. 

We understand the world through the stories we tell, and we understand ourselves through the heroes we pick. From classic mythology to comic books, our heroes always act as visions of ourselves viewed through the most aspirational lens. Our heroes represent the beliefs of a present moment, inflated and altered into a state of larger than life perfection. They become avatars of our best selves, or at least what we think our best selves should be. You can chart our fears through their enemies, our beauty myths through their lustrous hair and bulging biceps. To understand who someone is, you have to know who they want to be. You have to look at their heroes. 

The cinema is the natural setting for these stories. On its vast screen, our wildest imaginings can be laid out, our dreams drawn as big as our imaginations. Heroes are beamed out before us, engulfing our entire field of vision, 20 feet tall and made of pure light. All the while, we sit in a darkened room, part of a silent congregation. In such a setting, how could anyone not look heroic?

In the pantheon of modern cinema, there can be few characters sitting higher than Rocky Balboa. 

The mumbling, shuffling, kind-hearted southpaw achieved the kind of viral spread that makes him recognisable across the world, past language barriers, down through generations. Play the first few bars of “Eye of the Tiger.” Yell the name “Adrian.” Watch the footage that rolls during the end credits of Rocky Balboa, the countless imitators bounding up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, chests heaving and eyes ablaze as they hurl themselves into their hero’s footsteps. You’re bearing witness to a true phenomenon of popular culture.

When Creed II hit last year, Rocky’s protégé, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), had to be tempted back into ring by a shady promoter. Of all the heavyweight champions there have been, he asked, how many do you think anyone can name? He has a point. Most people couldn’t name Riddick Bowe or Hasim Rahman or Charles Martin. But give them a glimpse of Rocky Balboa’s silhouette: you won’t have to tell them his name. 

Rocky is a series that will not quit, one that doesn’t know how. Everyone keeps telling it that it’s beat, that it’s too old, that it needs to retire before it tarnishes its legacy. But it keeps coming back. Some bouts go better than others, and at least one ends in a heavy, humiliating defeat. But it keeps coming back. Refreshed, renewed, ready to go again. 

The world fell in love with Rocky and its protagonist, pretty much at first sight. The film’s underdog story of a down-on-his-luck slugger getting his shot at the big time was mirrored perfectly by Stallone’s own rags-to-riches tale: a one-two combo that no audience could resist. It swept the box office and the Oscars, turning Stallone into an overnight superstar. The rise of the Italian Stallion and his superman physique set the mould for the next decade of cigar-chomping, punchline-growling, mega-muscled action heroes. The commercial-critical domination the movie achieved revealed a hunger for fight films that remains unsatiated: hardly a year goes by without at least one movie about a boxer with a good heart and bad luck, battling valiantly against the odds. 

Arriving at the back end of 2018, Creed II crowned a pop culture year that was largely about second glances, about re-evaluation. More and more names were added to the list of talented people with hideous secrets. We were pushed to look at some of the works we loved most and to ask difficult questions. Can you separate the art from the artist? When do we forgive people? Who decides, and how? How much do we chalk up to “a different time,” and how far do we hold older works to our current standards?

The first and easiest step in this process is to realise that many of our favourite shows, songs and movies are problematic. It’s easy to look at media from 20, 30, 40 years ago and point out that there were no black Friends and nothing but White Saviours and that all the women were in refrigerators and that non-straight/cis people were apparently non-existent. We can slap on a “problematic” hashtag and feel a little smug about how much more sophisticated, empathetic and woke we are than our crude, ignorant ancestors. It’s good to want to do better, to call-out the mistakes of the past. A lot of the time, it’s also the easy part. The hard part is deciding what to do next.

The Rocky films are sweet underdog dramas and fist-pumping blockbusters. They channel the over-the-top, “Let’s do it!” energy of a classic sports film more powerfully than any production before or since. Across a million small gestures and quiet moments, Stallone builds a character with the warmth and sparkle of a classic Hollywood lead and the lived-in heft of a guy you might walk past on the street. When they go big, the Rocky films rise to the kind of heart-pounding crescendos that raise you up off your chair, producing a slew of modern cinema’s most iconic moments in the process. In short, they are movies worth cheering for. 

But we should be able to cheer for something and speak clearly of its flaws. Most of our heroes are deeply imperfect and we need to own that. Art can tell us a lot about ourselves, but only if we let it. 

One of the great second glances of 2018 was Thomas Page McBee’s Amateur: A True Story About What Makes a Man. It tells the story of McBee’s quest to become the first trans man to box at Madison Square Garden. It details his gym sessions and sparring practice, the grind of turning his body into something dangerous. More than that, it tries to get to the heart of why he is drawn to the ring in the first place. What makes him want to climb into an enclosed space with someone hell-bent on hurting him? What makes him want to hurt them back?  It tries to understand how it is that we define masculinity and why it always seems to exist in such close proximity to violence.

Because if there was one thing which 2018 begged us to take a hard, unblinkered second glance at, it was masculinity. So many of the worst headlines — in a year filled with horror stories — grew out of some putrid conception of what it means to be a man. Across the globe, “Strong Man” politicians rose to power by waxing nostalgic about some golden past, some better time when men were men. Pseudo-philosophers and Neo-Nazis put different costumes onto the same idea, reaching out across the internet to find lonely, angry, insecure young men and offer them new targets for their rage. Throughout every imaginable power structure, men abused their positions to make demands on other people’s bodies, with countless incidents of men seeing rejection, criticism, unpopularity and failure as violations of their birth-right — countless incidents in which they responded with savagery of one kind or another. Weaving all these narrative threads together, one story was formed: there is something deeply rotten in our idea of what it means to be a man. 

Rocky is a fantasy, a dream only ever half-rooted in reality that grew rapidly bigger and sillier with each new sequel. It’s easy to use that as an excuse not to look too closely, not to worry about what it has to say. But films like this are our Grand Narratives, our great myths. They’re the ones everyone sees, and they are the ones that speak the loudest, dressing up their idea of a hero in a scale and glamour that makes them all but irresistible. At a certain level, no grown man models himself on Rocky Balboa or James Bond or Han Solo or Batman. But another level, some men absolutely do.

In the first film, Rocky’s great victory is his ability to “go the distance” — to stand and soak up punishment, knowing that he might never recover from the injuries he’s incurring, that any of the blows snapping back his head might end his life or shatter his mind beyond repair, leaving him a fractured ghost inside a broken body. This is the premise of every film that comes after. Whether it’s Rocky or Creed, whoever is fighting, whether they’re looking to win or just make it to the final bell, the point is for them to endure. They’re not doing it for money or fame, those things are incidental. They’re not doing it for the woman cheering from the stands, they too can be brushed aside when they threaten to impede the hero’s journey. They are doing it because, in their eyes, a man’s worth is anchored in his ability to withstand punishment. The value of a man is in his capacity to suffer without surrender. 

“But it ain’t how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward. How much you can take, and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.”

It’s a powerful idea, conveyed so effectively that we find ourselves cheering, begging Rocky and Creed to get back up when they go down, pleading with them to rise again and get hit some more. Endurance is a valuable quality, one we would all like to have. We want to believe that we can withstand whatever life throws at us, that we too can endure with grace and courage, standing tall in the face of adversity. Rocky, with his stoic commitment to his task, with his humble desire to prove that he too is worth something, epitomises this kind of endurance. It’s a huge part of what has made him a hero to so many: he offers a vision of a deeply human quality on an incredible scale.

This kind of endurance is something anyone, anywhere on the gender spectrum, might aspire to have. It is a core part of what makes Rocky one of our greatest heroes, of what makes his story so thrilling. 

But when it becomes twinned with masculinity, this reverence of physical endurance also takes on a different dimension, because the male gaze is drawn endlessly towards suffering. Men define themselves by their capacity to inflict it on others and to defend those they care about from it (ideally, they inflict it upon others). One of the most common male fantasies is the intrusion of some event that requires them to act violently to protect others: a chance to prove their own power, their violent potential, without appearing cruel. Brawls are started in the name of protecting sisters, girlfriends and daughters, but their safety is rarely what is being fought for. In reality, starting a fight usually puts everyone in more danger. Usually, the men involved are fighting for themselves, for their idea of themselves as powerful, fearsome. 

“I’m dangerous!” Creed bellows in the series’ latest instalment. He’s terrified that it might not be true — it’s that fundamental to his sense of who he is. 

These essays will try to get to the heart of this relationship between masculinity and violence as it appears in the Rocky series. Across the films, we see heroes who are willing to risk more and more for the promise of less and less. We see a need for white masculinity to triumph over black, for hardened, blue-collar machismo to beat out pampered, effeminate wealth. We see woman brought into the spotlight in complete adulation, heralded as the most important thing in the hero’s life, the apple of his eye, his heart itself, until a chance to fight again presents itself and such childish things as love, commitment and family must be put away… all the things that matter less to the hero than his desire to beat up another man. 

A large part of the attraction of boxing is its sparseness. Two men are stripped down and locked in to a limited space, left with nothing but the strength of their muscles and the will of their minds. They put everything on the line, they show us everything they are, everything they have. They leave themselves completely bare, and in doing so, they earn our highest respect.

The Rocky films have given us great heroes. Their protagonists are sweet and kind, courageous and indominable. They have given us so much to cheer for. But they’ve also grown out of an idea of masculinity that is deeply, meaningfully flawed. To understand ourselves, we need to understand them. We need to strip them bare, to see them as they are.

Ross McIndoe (@OneBigWiggle) is a freelance writer based in Glasgow. Other bylines include The Skinny, Film School Rejects and Bright Wall/Dark Room.

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