Teaching The Hangover

Patricia Ventura

hangover

The Hangover (USA, Todd Phillips, 2009)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Students in my “Feminist Film Theory and Criticism” course are a bit surprised when I tell them we will watch The Hangover in the class. The movie is a what-happens-in-Vegas-stays-in-Vegas tale of white dudes going to “Sin City” for a bachelor party but who get dosed with a drug that makes them forget everything about their wild night, including the whereabouts of the groom, whom they have lost. Most of the movie is taken up with the adventure that ensues as they retrace their steps in a search for their friend; in the process they affirm their bros-before-‘hos friendship and spin off two sequels. This is all pretty standard Hollywood fare, none of which seems at first glance to present much to think deeply about. But as I show my students, The Hangover acts as an extended illustration of homosociality: that is, same-sex non-sexual social bonds. For men, these bonds traditionally work to shape and promote a rigid masculine gender and sexual identity that films promoting homosociality, like The Hangover, help us question and analyze.

The concept of homosociality was brought to widespread critical awareness by Eve Sedgwick in the 1985 text Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. Her addition of the term “desire” into the concept of male homosociality adds the affective charge that gives the idea its great explanatory and interpretive power by drawing “the ‘homosocial’ into the orbit of ‘desire,’ of the potentially erotic”[1]—even as male homosocial relationships enforce a rigid masculine identity built on heterosexuality.

As it promotes patriarchal heterosexuality and identification, male homosociality enforces a masculinity that obliges men to be emotionally detached as well hierarchical and competitive in most tasks including the task of assuming masculine identity itself.[2] The homosocial relationships that enable male dominance—for instance, in sports, business, clubs, military, and politics—reinforce these qualities and promote a rigid and restricting masculinity on all participants. And even though studies show that many men perceive this masculine realm as stifling, their homosocial networks obstruct their escape into a world of attachments with women.[3] Homosociality organizes men’s relationships with each other so that friendships with women are seen as dangerously feminizing and expected to take a backseat to friendships with the guys. Even sex with women becomes an avenue not for building relationships with women but for maintaining or enhancing men’s standing with their male friends.[4] The result is a socially enforced segregation that promotes clear distinctions between women and men.

I should backtrack here to note that I teach at Spelman College, an all-women’s historically black college (HBC). Abutting our campus is Morehouse College, an all-men’s HBC whose students are traditionally linked to ours. So teaching a film centered on the quintessential homosocial institution of the bachelor party in our particular context adds perhaps a different spin to the discussion than it might have in a mixed-gender or all-male classroom. When I teach this film, my students read articles about male homosociality, and then I give them a quiz aimed as much at testing their comprehension of the concepts as providing an important object lesson about the relative invisibility of women’s homosociality. The quiz includes questions asking students to identify various homosocial interactions and institutions. What I find interesting is that students sometimes misidentify these and find women’s homosociality much harder to label as such, as in the question below.

True or False: Morehouse is a homosocial institution, but Spelman is not because women’s institutions are more open to male involvement than men’s institutions are open to women’s involvement.

Some of my students can understand homosociality as it applies to The Hangover and to Morehouse but cannot see it as applying to their institutional context in the same way. Now obviously, it is definitionally true that an all-women’s college like Spelman is homosocial so the answer to the quiz question on some level is unambiguous. But after I first encountered this difficulty in registering women’s homosociality I began to wonder if a case could be made for a different answer. After all, women’s institutions can feel less defined by the strictures of gender. Certainly, contemporary women’s colleges tend to focus on instilling confidence in women, which pits them in some ways against the dominant patriarchal ideal for women—that is, an assumed timidity. If men’s homosociality is marked by a set of rules promoting dominant patriarchal norms that can be smothering, most students do not experience women’s homosociality in that same way, though they too exist inside a framework of gender and sexual norms. Indeed, the social pressure towards heterosexuality and a narrow version of gender identity generally presents itself in a much less aggressive and defensive way in women’s homosocial bonds than in men’s. As Sedgwick argues, “the adjective ‘homosocial’ as applied to women’s bonds need not be pointedly dichotomized as against ‘homosexual’; it can intelligibly denominate the entire continuum.”[5]

However, in the world of male homosocial relationships, women either affirm or challenge dominant masculinity, serving as a kind of sexual playing field in a competition between men. Furthermore, the more intensely male and homosocial the space is, the more intensely homophobic it tends to be, thereby creating the need for women to enter, at least peripherally as sexual objects, to redirect male sexual energy to insure and assure that the men, despite their intimacy and commitment to each other, are positively, definitely, not gay and also are totally straight!

This defensive homophobia is part of a male homosocial expectation of dominance over men who act outside the hegemonic masculine norm by sexually desiring other men. Indeed, we know that disapproval of homosexuality can “stem from a rigid notion of gender roles.”[6] Sedgwick maintains that the male homosocial bonds in the Anglo-dominant milieus she studies have been structured by a secularized and psychologized homophobia since the eighteenth century. But if Sedgwick’s trenchant analysis highlights the well-worn historical line on which men aspiring to homosocial approval have walked, we may well ask if the cultural scene has changed somewhat since the 1980s when she wrote.

Here so many questions arise: Is there more acceptance today of a spectrum of masculinity or is there a rigid separation between the hegemonic notion of masculinity and everything else? Is there a sense that showing emotion and vulnerability aren’t as threatening to male bonding as they once were? Can the representation of a man as masculine and gay be fully legible in dominant culture? Is there a growing separation between dominant notions of masculinity and homophobia? What is the relationship between them?

Just starting with the last questions, we know that there has traditionally been a connection between homophobia and male dominance, but this connection is not essential; we need merely consider ancient Greek ways of life which were generally androcentric but not homophobic to know there is no essential connection between the two. Given the changes in dominant attitudes towards homosexuality in our own times, we may well start by revisiting the connection between today’s dominant masculinity and homophobia. Opinion polling would suggest that the cultural climate has changed significantly regarding homosexuality. According to Gallup, 54 percent of American adults consider gay or lesbian relations “morally acceptable,” up from 38 percent in 2002. Today’s numbers show a disparity by gender, with 59 percent of women and 49 percent of men finding homosexuality acceptable,[7] and a disparity by age, with 62 percent of millennials maintaining that homosexuality is “acceptable.”[8] However, opinion research focusing on heterosexual attitudes toward homosexuals shows that while straight women and men hold similar attitudes about lesbians, heterosexual men tend to be more negative about gay men.[9]

The challenge I like to set for students then is to consider how the relative fluidity of femininity can operate as a contrast to shape the students’ understanding of The Hangover and of masculine gender roles as depicted in cinema generally. From this perspective, students understand that they cannot take for granted an understanding of just what masculinity is or should be; they begin to see the film as a product of our time in which the very definition of masculinity is a great social question.

This question can motivate a wealth of analyses of The Hangover, but it can also animate analyses of a relatively new genre of films produced in North America and Britain since the start of this century focusing on heterosexual male friends. David Hansen-Miller and Rosalind Gill label this genre the “lad movie.” A hybrid of buddy films and chick flicks, lad movies depict young people—or middle-aged people who act very young—as they experience some kind of conflict with the expectations of socially expected adult identity. The feature distinguishing this genre from other coming-of age cinema is that the definition of “masculinity itself is the central object.”[10] The protagonists struggle with competing definitions of what it means to be a man today and with living up to the requirements of masculinity.

For Hansen-Miller and Gill, these films are relevant because “they signal movement away from the subjective pleasures of masculine identification and towards examination of masculinity as a troubled cultural category.”[11] The authors identify a deep ambivalence in the texts that are “at once self-evidently sexist, racist, and homophobic, yet…also present critical perceptions of gender, race and homosocial relations.”[12] These films have not moved away from a fundamental heterosexual identification, but they do question the sustainability of dominant masculinity.

The Hangover’s characters reflect this suspicion and reluctant relationship with dominant patriarchal masculinity. Phil (Bradley Cooper) leads the group as a peaked-in-high-school prep-school teacher who funds his trip by stealing cash from his students and pushing the hotel bill onto his friend, Stu, a sheepish dentist (Ed Helms) who is physically abused and dominated by his harpy girlfriend; most removed from the ideal is Alan (Zach Galifianakis), the bride’s friendless and jobless brother who lives with his parents, and seemingly stopped his emotional development at age eleven. That the other major character who participates in their search for the groom is literally a baby boy evinces a reluctance to embrace dominant adult masculinity as a patriarchal provider. The “patriarchal dividend” of economic advancement or institutional power has not come to these characters by the end of the film and shows no signs that it will.

If the film illustrates a fraying of the bonds between dominant masculinity and male homosociality—indeed, if the ostensible benefits of patriarchal masculinity are increasingly questioned in the contemporary social milieu, The Hangover shows that the pull of homosociality remains intact. The film’s representations of heterosexual buddies plays to the collective male gaze of an audience who also live under the weight of homosocial expectations. Studies show men are expected to prioritize their relationships with male buddies over relationships with women. Frequent heterosociality continues to be associated with gay men; prioritizing one’s wife or girlfriend means a guy is “pussy whipped.” Ultimately, both actions are perceived as a threat to a man’s “masculine credentials.”[13]

These dynamics are certainly at play in The Hangover, especially with Stu who begins the road trip to Las Vegas with Phil pulling up to his driveway yelling out “Paging Dr. Faggot”—this after Stu had been repeatedly reassuring his overbearing, joyless girlfriend, Melissa (Rachael Harris), that he agrees with her that strip clubs and “boys and their bachelor parties” are “gross.” As she argues, “That little girl grinding and dry humping the fucking stage up there, that’s somebody’s daughter,” but the political significance of the comment is undercut as he repeats that statement with her in a call-and-response reaction, demonstrating that she has worn him down to the point where he has lost his independence and therefore his manhood. As a further sign of his complete de-masculinization, he thanks her when she threatens that she will “fucking kick [his] ass” if he steps foot in a strip club.

Throughout the film, Stu anxiously struggles to balance the expectations of his girlfriend with those of his male friends, but the scales keep tipping toward the homosocial as he learns more about his lost night, especially that he went to a strip club, married a stripper, and extracted his own tooth to prove his professional competence, building finally to the film’s climax when he breaks up with Melissa at his friend’s wedding. Given that the film revolves around the friends’ search for the groom, this break-up scene might seem out of place as the film’s denouement, but ideologically it is the only possible ending given the homosocial consciousness structuring the narrative and the assumed male gaze of the audience watching it. We come to understand that the source of the film’s central conflict was not the lost groom but any attempt to spoil the boys’ fun.

I like to teach The Hangover because the students all know it and mostly like it. It is a film they often take for granted, which makes raising awareness about the masculinist channels of discourse operating within the film interesting for the students to analyze. But there are plenty of lad movies that could be used to explore male homosociality and contemporary masculinity: The 40-Year Old Virgin, Think Like a Man, Knocked Up, Old School, and Entourage, for example. Women’s homosociality could be contrasted and compared in films such as Sex and the City and Bridesmaids. (A special generic category could be carved out just for the films of Judd Apatow; his movies illustrate a deep ambivalence about dominant patriarchy, though of course they always end with the protagonist—male or female—having to learn to embrace normative heterosexual gender roles and give away his or her bong in order to be happy and centered.) My goal in assigning these kinds of films is to teach my students to question the limited options for gender roles and gender relations that homosocial films offer their audience.

 

Patricia Ventura is associate professor of English at Spelman College. Her research and teaching center on  cultural studies, critical theory, and cinema and media studies. Among other publications, she has written Neoliberal Culture: Living with American Neoliberalism (Ashgate) and also guest edited a special double issue of the literary and cultural theory journal Genre entitled “Circulating ‘America.’”

 

Notes

[1] Eve Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, (New York: Columbia UP), 1.

[2] Sharon Bird,“Welcome to the Men’s Club: Homosociality and the Maintenance of Hegemonic Masculinity,” Gender and Society 10, no. 2 (1996).

[3] Michael Flood, “Men, Sex, and Homosociality: How Bonds between Men Shape Their Sexual Relations with Women,” Men and Masculinities 10, no 3 (2008).

[4] Flood, “Men, Sex, and Homosociality.”

[5] Sedgwick, Between Men, 3.

[6] Linda Mooney, David Knox, and Caroline Schacht, Understanding Social Problems. 8th ed. (Belmont, Ca: Wadsworth, 2013), 357.

[7] Lydia Saad, “U.S. Acceptance of Gay/Lesbian Relations Is the New Normal,” http://www.gallup.com/poll/154634/acceptance-gay-lesbian-relations-new-normal.aspx.

[8] Ritch Savin-Williams, “The New Sexual Minority Teenager: Freedom from Traditional Notions of Sexual Identity,” eds. Judith Kaufman and David A. Powell, The Meaning of Sexual Identity in the Twenty-First Century, (New Castle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014): 17.

[9] Mooney, et al, Understanding Social Problems, 356.

[10] David Hansen-Miller and Rosalind Gill, “‘Lad Flicks’: Discursive Reconstructions of Masculinity in Popular Film,” in Feminism at the Movies: Understanding Gender in Contemporary Popular Cinema, eds. Hilary Radner and Rebecca Stringer (New York: Routledge, 2011), 36.

[11] Hansen-Miller and Gill, “‘Lad Flicks,’” 36.

[12] Hansen-Miller and Gill, “‘Lad Flicks,’” 46.

[13] Flood, “Men, Sex, and Homosociality.”

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