In search of masculinity without patriarchy

May 17, 2022    feminism media

Alternative title: “Why The Shawshank Redemption is a feminist masterpiece despite containing no female characters”

Content Warning: This article discusses physical violence, rape, and suicide.

I am a man. This has always been a reality that I’ve felt comfortable with. What I’m less comfortable with is explaining to those that ask what it means to be one.

This sits in sharp contrast to other aspects of my chosen identity: I have no such trouble explaining what it means to be an athiest, a socialist, or a feminist. When I talk about these aspects of myself, I find it easy to point to examples of those I consider role models: not simply because they circumstantially occupy the role I find empathy with, but because they exude it publicly and proudly.

But, in my masculinity, I find no such examples to point to. For sure, there are plenty of men that I look up to (being male, I inevitably have an enormous corpus of media representation to choose from), but none of them are, first-and-foremost, a man. I look up to them for their role in society or their accomplishments, and I find it difficult to imbue these aspects of them with any inherent masculinity. Albert Einstein may have formulated the theory of General Relativity, but the formulation of General Relativity is not, in itself, a masculine act. I look up to him simply because society’s bias towards men in academia and the sciences has made it more likely that the discoverer of General Relativity be a man, and that he be publicly recognised for doing so. Why is this, and can I find any examples of male role models that are first and foremost men rather than anything else?

As a self-describing feminist, I am keenly aware that the role of men comes with heavy historical and social baggage. The patriarchal society that we live within coerces and oppresses women, but more than a fraction of that is also reflected back at men. Men - almost uniquely - struggle to articulate their emotions, engage with social support structures, or seek help during times of emotional and mental stress.

I believe that the decline of organised labour movements - organisations in which working people (but in particular men, historically) might find genuine social relationships defined by solidarity and mutual respect rather than coercion - has exacerbated this situation. This is a topic that I don’t wish to dive into here, however.

These harmful habits derive themselves ultimately from the model of masculinity that we consider canonical, oft portrayed through media. I know that I regularly devalue my own mental health, often misconstruing my own anguish as laziness, stupidity, or overreaction. It is difficult to fight this urge. All men must fight it, and many sadly do not succeed. This model is one in which we see men as isolated, stoic icons of violence and power that go out of their way to shun social relations with others, particularly those that require vulnerability and trust. Even more positive portrayals of masculinity struggle to disentangle themselves from the idea that violence is uniquely male and that, conversely, men are uniquely violent. Where female violence is portrayed, it often dresses itself up in masculine stereotypes.

As a libertarian socialist, I believe that unchecked power is inherently corrupting and harmful - not just to subjects, but also to the moral and emotional character of the subjugator - and there is nowhere that this phenomenon arises more visibly than in the relationship between men and women, expressed through patriarchal violence.

It is clear then that if the feminist cause is to be furthered, it must happen not only by raising the aspirations and power of women, but also by disentangling the harmful association between men and violence that acts primarily to perpetuate cycles of oppression, as well as deconstructing the power structures that act to instigate it. Male violence is not a problem to be solved by women, but by men.

For a long time I struggled to imagine examples of media that effectively deconstruct this relationship of abuse and present an alternative that is not only pro-woman, but also hands agency and empathy to men without relying on the societal scaffolding of patriarchy to do so. That was, until I finally got round to watching The Shawshank Redemption last month.

For those that have not watched it, I ask you to stop reading this article until you have. For those that need only a reminder, The Shawshank Redemption is a mid-90s film set in a men’s prison in post-war North America, based on the similarly named book by Stephen King. The film’s protagonist, Andy Dufresne, is (wrongly, although this is not revealed until the end) convicted of murder. Adapting to prison life is painful and alienating, and it forces him - along with the film’s other inmate protagonists - to come together to overcome the pressure cooker of hostility and violence imposed upon them by the prison warden and his guards. Not only do the prison guards enact violence upon the inmates, but they also deny the inmates agency and identity in a similar manner to that experienced by women in our society.

The film is almost aggressively realistic in its portrayal of characters, if not its storytelling: every character we meet is a maelstrom of virtues and vices (even Andy, despite his innocence, has obvious character flaws), and we watch each of them struggle to maintain their dignity and humanity within the inhumane context of the prison. Almost immediately, we encounter shocking violence: as convicted men, all have at some point in their life been perpetrators of violence, but this relationship is quickly turned on its head as they are forced to suffer now as victims of male violence, enduring beatings and rape by both guards and inmates alike.

Despite this fact, the film goes out of its way to demonstrate that these men have learned not only to survive their circumstances but to flourish, without the expectations that patriarchy would otherwise impose on them outside the prison gates. Brooks, an elderly inmate, is shown nurturing a crow hatchling throughout, displaying empathy and almost motherly compassion that would not otherwise be socially permitted in wider society. With a monopoly on violence imposed from above by the prison guards, each inmate must instead acrue social standing and favourable relations through mutual respect and dialogue in an environment where resorting to violence leads only to isolation and suffering at the hands of the guards. This focus on comradeship and mutual aid eventually leads to the film’s protagonists expanding the prison library, providing opportunities for self-education and fulfilment for fellow inmates.

Another recurring theme is that of assumed guilt. The inmates joke that ‘everybody in Shawshank is innocent’, a sarcastic reference to the way that inmates use self-exceptionalism to evade guilt over their past actions. Despite Andy’s innocence, he too is painted with the same brush: the environment constrains the social identity of inmates and acts to justify the violence of the prison by assuming guilt. It’s hard not to interpret this as a reflection of the way men must coerce their identities into the roles provided to them by our own patriarchal society.

While watching The Shawshank Redemption, I found myself coming to terms with something surprising: the violence I saw within the film was atypical, almost alien. It did not fit neatly into the boxes that normally define violence in media.

In most books or films, violence imposed upon men usually fits within one of three narrow categories: ‘redemptive’ violence where male antagonists are punished for their wrongdoing, ‘sacrifical’ violence where men stoicly choose to undergo suffering in favour of a cause (that cause usually being to avoid the suffering of a woman), or ‘constructive’ violence where the suffering experienced by a protagonist acts as a plot device used to fuel their future motivations. All of these forms of violence have something in common: the agency of the man is never removed. Redemptive violence is simply comeuppance for the evil previously chosen by an antagonist. Sacrificial violence is chosen by a protagonist to prevent a ‘greater’ evil (often devaluing themselves in the process, another harmful habit). Constructive violence is not always chosen, but it inevitably acts to increase the agency of the male protagonist after the fact, justifying their choices down the line.

Violence in The Shawshank Redemption often does not fit into any of these boxes. It is frequently meaninglessly cruel, unjustified by the actions of the victim, and acts only to better the perpetrator. When Andy is raped repeatedly by ‘The Sisters’ (the film’s portrayal of homosexuality is painfully clumsy, at best), the violence of the rape does not act to increase his agency. Instead, it isolates and belittles him, and it requires the compassion and solidarity of his fellow inmates to heal the lasting damage this act of violence imposes upon him. The comeuppance that comes for the lead Sister, Bogs, does not come from Andy, nor any character that sympathises with him. Instead, it comes in the form of brutal, life-altering violence dealt out by the prison guard patriarchy in the name of law and order. The audience feels no sense of victory at this violence, and the film is careful to avoid glorifying it by showing us the broken, permanently disabled figure of Bogs after the ordeal. Bogs is, perhaps most starkly of all, simultaneously a perpetrator and a victim of patriarchy. Violence in The Shawshank Redemption is always treated with disdain by the film, and this deliberate choice is, I believe, the source of the discomfort I felt while watching. The film holds a mirror to male violence without filter or valorisation, and this has a lasting impact on the audience.

Suicide features heavily in The Shawshank Redemption, and it acts mainly to underline the struggle that men in the film find in reconciling their identity with the socioeconomic role imposed upon them from above. Of particular prevelance is that of Brooks, the eldest of the protagonists. As the prison librarian, he has adapted to prison life by garnering respect and sympathy among the inmates without resorting to violence. He is often portrayed as a motherly figure (it is unfortunate and telling that the best vocabulary I possess to communicate this is inherently gendered), happy to come to the aid of his fellow inmates where he can. For Brooks, the artificial patriarchy of the prison’s guards is almost liberating: it frees him from the partriarchal role he would have otherwise held, permitting him to live his life beyond the standards we usually expect of men. Although he is explicitly a man, he displays no habitual behaviour typical of traditional masculine stereotypes.

When his release date nears, Brooks threatens to cut the throat of a friend in order to remain within the prison: but it is horrifyingly clear that this violence is unnatural and alien to him, and Andy finds no difficulty in talking him down from the position. For Brooks, becoming a perpetrator of violence is something that is forced upon him by his social conditions, and is not an act with which he has much proclivity.

Upon his eventual release, Brooks finds himself estranged and alienated by how the world beyond the prison walls has changed. This is inherent in his experience: superficially, he appears surprised by the rapid progression of technology, but the film makes it clear that it is his work and life without the support of his friends within the prison that is the primary cause of his isolation. Eventually, he chooses to end his own life. It’s an emotional moment, and also a moment of deep empathy for male audience members. I, and many other men, experience this alienation and isolation on a regular basis. Despair and depression are, I believe, inherent to the human condition, but it is through the support of others that we find the tools to hold it at bay and replace it with self-fulfilment and self-actualisation. It is this emotional support and compassion that patriarchy robs men of, and that society denies to Brooks within the film.

The Shawshank Redemption is a thematic fractal: the film explores the relationship between patriarchy, men, power, and violence with a clarity and complexity that very few other pieces of media possess, and I believe that I have found within it the seeds of a model of masculinity that I can use as a basis for my own identity: one that acknowledges the existence of patriarchy, the social role of violence and its existence as a manifestation of male alienation, but permits men to grow beyond its limitations.