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Rita Kempley

Fellowship Title:

Millennial Men: The Product of Mass Marketing, Technology and Testosterone

Rita Kempley
February 27, 2003

Fellowship Year

Mick Jagger had it wrong: You can always get what you want. These days all our desires are gratified instantly. Seven-Eleven has become 24-seven. The Sabbath is for shopping and Christmas comes every day. There’s everything to do, but little of it matters in a society devoted to, divided by and dying of acquisition.

Everywhere we turn, somebody is selling something: Movies, television, magazine covers, spam, telemarketers, catalogs, Jesus fish, celebrity shills, arenas named for corporations.

“The media begins to mold us before we’re out of kindergarten,” writes David Denby in The New Yorker. “By the time they are 5 or 6, [children] have been pulled into the marketplace. They’re on their way to becoming not citizens but consumers.”

No wonder obesity, STDs and credit card debt are America’s trendiest new diseases. No wonder we have become so numb we have to pierce our tongues.

With few exceptions, the Hollywood mainstream shuns tales of rampant materialism unless the Grinch is involved. Given astronomical budgets and marketing costs, studios can’t afford to risk income from their merchandising deals or product placements.

“Minority Report,” a collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise, is something of a rarity. The thriller centers on the perils of a futuristic police state, but it also lampoons the invasive marketing apparatus circa 2054.

Privacy went the way of VHS after retinal scanners were introduced. Your nationality, credit record, favorite color, medical records: Now everything about you is available in the blink of an eye. Virtual clerks welcome customers to the Gap by name and talking ads personalize each pitch.

In the end, “Minority Report” is as guilty of corporate chicanery as those futuristic entities. The film is brimming with product placements including Reebok, Lexus, Aquafina and Bulgari. Tom spends as much time checking his watch as he does running from the bad boys.

Independent filmmakers aren’t exactly innocent when it comes to promoting consumer goods either. “Fight Club,” a savage satire of mall culture, is one of the more ironic examples. Directed by David Fincher (“Se7en”), this muscular adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s bleak, comic novel proclaims the melt-down of Iron John in our consumer-driven society.

To make its case, the movie must first promote a brand of furniture before blaming the company for the downfall of western civilization and the wussification of modern man.

Ed Norton stars as a nameless yuppie drone (Ed Norton), who gives voice to generation-X, “a class of young strong men and women [who] want to give their lives to something. Advertising has these people chasing cars and clothes they don’t need. Generations have been working in jobs they hate, just so they can buy what they don’t really need.”

In “Fight Club,” the protagonist’s meaningless work involves so much travel that he has permanent jet lag. No matter how many cups of airline coffee he gulps, he never really knows when he is. Then again, he doesn’t know where he is either, for urban centers, like many people, have lost their identity.

Sure every city has its theme-park type historic sections, but even these are chock-a-block with Starbucks, Borders and Banana Republics. The areas around airports are even more anonymous with their fake lakes and hotel chains.

Upon returning from one of his trips, Norton realizes that his apartment, like the building that houses it, is just as impersonal as a room at the Ramada. The furniture comes right out of an Ikea catalog and for all he knows, he might have stumbled into his neighbor’s mass-produced, Swedish-modern nightmare.

His life undergoes a radical metamorphosis when he gets into a fist fight with the mysterious Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). Afterwards, the hero is surprised to find that he feels much better. With Tyler’s help, he founds a circuit of underground clubs where young white-collar men reconnect with their machismo in no-holds-barred, bare-knuckled matches.

Pitt and Norton set up headquarters in an abandoned building, which gives them enough space to make the sweet-smelling, pretty pink soap that supports the enterprise. The secret ingredient: giant bags of fat pilfered from a liposuction center.

Tyler, just slightly to the right of the Unabomber, has another, more explosive secret. He plans to bring down the system by blowing up the city’s financial district. All credit card records will be blasted to confetti, all debt will be forgiven and “do you take plastic” will be but a distant memory.

Women may not endorse all-out consumerism, but they are gatherers by nature. Without a doubt, a woman coined the phrase, “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.” Their husbands and boyfriends had to be dragged along. Now increasingly the women are holding the bags while he is in the dressing room.

“Fight Club,” satirizes the post-feminist crisis in masculinity, says Max Alverez, film historian of the National Museum of Women. “It’s not a new theme in films. Whole aspects of film noir dealt with male anxiety spurred by social changes following World War II and Vietnam.”

Although it doesn’t quite look the part, Fincher’s film does address many of the same issues of classic noir: alienation, existential dread, bourgeoisie hypocrisy and the threat to the individual in an increasingly callous, technocratic society.

And let’s not forget the seductive, man-eating femme fatale. Although Helena Bonham Carter does have a provocative, punk-ass role here, she isn’t the story’s deadly diva. That role is played in absentia by Martha Stewart, she of the duvet covers, cookie cutters and pastel soaps.

Martha the Emasculator tips her hand big time in a recent ad for Stewart stuff. Some poor schmo practically has an erection at the sight of a four-poster clad in the house goddess’s fussy linens. “You just can’t get a good night’s sleep unless the sheets match the shams and the bed skirt,” he trills.

The joke, albeit a lame one, spoofs gender roles, but it also exemplifies society’s bumbling efforts at redrawing masculine and feminine boundaries. These have been blurring since the end of World War II when the men came marching home and expected Rosie the Riveter to get back to waxing the linoleum.

“Instead, the wife, the previously unpaid CEO of the family, goes to work outside the home,” says Robert Thompson of the International Popular Culture Association. “Well, it’s going to take a long time to absorb all this.

“The revolutions that began in the 1950s, finally hit the mainstream as we began to move into the ‘70s. There were cataclysmic changes in gender roles,” Thompson adds, “And so far we have not come up with a new alternative. We have not come up with a viable way to replace or reorganize the American family.”

Don’t look to the movie industry for solutions. The majors are as set in their ways as the cement footprints at Grauman’s Chinese. “The Hollywood producer was never one to rush into the breach and embrace revolutionary ideas, especially if the carriers of the disease were women.” Molly Haskell observes in “Reverence to Rape.”

But not even the tycoons of Tinseltown could ignore the social upheaval forever. After all, women were now angling for their jobs, smoking their cigars. The moguls had no alternative: they would fight fire with with fire. In their movies, men would make better mothers, wives and girlfriends anyway. That way, no matter how this fuss played out, men would still be on top.

So along came “Tootsie,” in which Dustin Hoffman became the first man to walk a mile in a pair of support hose. He plays an actor who can’t land a role until he pads his chest, slips into a skirt and becomes a soap opera diva.

Hoffman, an Oscar-winning thespian for heaven sakes, made it safe to impersonate females, so the drag race was on.

Cross-dressed to die for were Robin Williams in “Mrs. Doubtfire,” Patrick Swayze in “To Wong Foo: Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar,” Johnny Depp in “Ed Wood,” and Jaye Davidson in “The Crying Game.” Even Timon, the vegetarian meerkat, wears a hula skirt in Disney’s “The Lion King.”

The phase went as far as it could go when Arnold Schwarzenegger became “the world’s first pregnant man” in the 1994 comedy, “Junior.” It was a snap for Schwarzenegger who had already proved a better mother than Linda Hamilton’s post-modern Madonna in 1991’s kinder, gentler “Terminator 2.”

Apparently the fashion industry took this for some sort of statement. Perhaps it was. At any rate, designers saw “a new market in men [who] were drawn into the ever-widening vortex of 20th century consumerism,” writes Susan Bordo in “The Male Body.”

In the late 80s, Gucci, Versace and Calvin Klein brought “naked bottoms and bulging briefs onto the commercial scene,” she continues. “[The ads] suggest it’s fine for a man to care how he looks and to cultivate an aggressively erotic style,”

Bordo, a professor of English and women’s studies at the University of Kentucky, has noticed the marketing’s impact on her male students. “Fifteen years ago, men had nothing to say about their bodies. It was the girls who hated their thighs or whatever. Now men and boys are saying, ‘I’ve got to work on my six pack.’”

Syracuse’s Thompson looks for a silver lining. “Maybe all this change will result in consciousness raising among those who never thought about treating people as commodities. Men were blind to it. Now they are under scrutiny and they are alarmed. They are beginning to suffer what women have endured for centuries. All of a sudden they are comparing themselves to the idealized male. They’re taking steroids, living in the gym and having their backs waxed.”

Sam Keen, author of “Fire in the Belly,” is surprisingly phlegmatic. “The glorification of things female and the denigration of things male, reversed the pecking order, reversed assumptions of western culture from the Garden of Eden on. Men, I guess it was their turn.”

Worried, white males found a champion in Michael Douglas, who devoted the late 1980s and early ‘90s defending family values from liberated career women, sexual harassment in the workplace and bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Actually his lovely wife (Anne Archer) saved the nuclear family — except for the bunny — from her straying husband’s vengeful lover (Glenn Close) the 1987 thriller, “Fatal Attraction.” After a passionate one-night stand, the she-demon expects Douglas to leave his wife and child for her. When he doesn’t respond to her pleas, she turns to increasingly scary tactics to wrench him from his loved ones.

Clearly director Adrian Lyne sees Close’s character as a casualty of the women’s movement. She’s 38 years old — ancient to a Hollywood executive’s way of thinking — and she has nothing but a career. Alas, she will never be a contented suburban homemaker like Douglas’ missus.

Douglas draws grasping harpies the way a can of soda draws yellow jackets. In 1994’s “Disclosure,” an old flame (Demi Moore) resurfaces as his new boss, who expects to take up where they left off. Douglas, playing a happily married man as usual, fends off the bombshell’s advances and she turns around and accuses him of sexual assault.

Family is once again at stake in 1993’s “Falling Down,” a reactionary action drama advertised as “the adventure of an ordinary man at war with the everyday world.” This time, Douglas is a laid-off defense contractor who loses it when he gets stuck in a traffic jam without air-conditioning on the hottest day of the year.

Desperate to get home for his daughter’s birthday, he gets out of his car and sets off on foot. En route, he trashes an Asian-owned convenience store, beats off a crew of Hispanic gangbangers, shoots up a fast food joint, kills a Neo-Nazi surplus store owner and takes on the LAPD.

Douglas describes the character “as a man who truly personified the best America had to offer. He defended his country as a soldier, worked in the defense industry and did his best to help end the Cold War. And you know what? He was successful. Now here he is without a job, lost and resentful.”

Warren Farrell, the reformed feminist who wrote “The Myth of Male Power,” sees the character as a “stage one” male. He can’t make the transition to “stage two,” in which communication and cooperation are essential to survival.

“[He] is finding it difficult to adapt to the ethical and economic realities of changing social structures. He clings to the notion that she will stay home and he will be the provider,” Farrell says.

It’s also true that modern science has not only lightened women’s work, but given her reproductive freedom. Women were liberated by the Pill. But men got Viagra. Now whether they are in the mood or not, men feel they are expected to perform, to get it up and keep it there.

Science has eliminated so many male traditional roles, his only control over reality anymore is the TV remote.

Hollywood has responded with cautionary tales like “The Matrix,” in which mankind prevails over machine and those like “A.I.,” in which he is replaced by robots. And then there are the mythic epics such as “Waterworld,” “Star Wars,” and “Lord of the Rings,” celebrate the triumph of good over evil, of nature over science.

Luke Skywalker’s final chance to destroy the Death Star is an example, says Howard Suber, a professor of UCLA’s School of Film and Television. “Luke has been relying on a computer, when he hears Obi Wan Kenobe: ‘Trust the force, Luke.’ Obi Wan represents the voice of God, urging him to trust the ancient wisdom, to use his gut instinct, to earn his reward through his own strengths.”

However, it is possible to get in touch with God and nature without access to a souped up X-Fighter. You can leave the present behind. Three men and their families did just that via “Frontier,” a recent reality-based PBS series “set” in the 19th century. Outfitted in period clothes, provided with livestock and equipped with simple tools, the group live as settlers newly arrived in Montana in 1883. Their challenge–to gather enough wood, hay and food to survive the first winter.

The men built cabins, strung fences, cut and baled the hay, while the women cooked, cleaned and helped the kids with such chores as tending the chickens and milking the cows. Five months later, the settlers were filthy, weary and starving. The wives could hardly wait to get back to the future with its coffee-makers and mascara, the kids had mixed feelings, but the menfolk got teary-eyed as they looked out on all that they had accomplished with their own two hands.

“In September, you could walk out on your porch, look out at all the fencing you put up, see that the sheep are safe, the chickens are in their coops and the horses are fine,” says Mark Glenn, a teacher from Tennessee who was profoundly changed by his time on “Frontier.”

“The landscape automatically gives you a sense of physical and mental freedom. I had the freedom to think unencumbered and I realized that I was just trying to survive in the 21st century: The pace, the noise, the envy, the excess and the egotism.”

Tom Hanks’ beleaguered hero undergoes a similar epiphany in 2000’s “Cast Away,” a more accessible film than “Fight Club,” but one that shares the same concerns. Hanks is an efficiency expert with FedEx, who absolutely, positively has to be there on time, every time when the company calls.

Work always takes precedence over family, friends and his long-suffering girlfriend (Helen Hunt). He has acquired the accouterments of the good life, but is never around to enjoy them. It was high time to teach this yuppie stinker a lesson.

He is returning from Moscow, when his plane crashes and he is stranded on a desert island somewhere in the Pacific. Suddenly he has all the time in the world and there’s nobody to spend it with, except a Wilson volleyball that washes ashore with other FedEx flotsam.

His skills are those of a desk jockey and altogether irrelevant now that he is obliged to adopt the lifestyle of a Neanderthal. When he is rescued four years later, he has become adept at fending for himself and “Wilson.”

Though he tries to go back to business as usual, he is overwhelmed by the demands, the speed, the racket. He quickly grasps that he no longer has anything in common with his old friends and colleagues. In the end, he sets out in search of a future, accompanied only by his volleyball.

Thus, begins the new millennium: Man has only one ball and it is his only friend.

©2003 Rita Kempley

Rita Kempley, a film critic for the Washington Post, is examining sexual mythology in American cinema during her Patterson year.

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Rita Kempley