University of Portsmouth's History Blog

“There comes a time when you’ve just gotta’ be a man”: An analysis of shifting on-screen representations of British masculinity in the post-Thatcher period

“Sam’s dissertation was an outstandingly researched piece of work. It synthesised contextual and historiographical issues regarding masculinity and film in the post-Thatcher era in a conceptually interesting way, and made great use of visual sources as a cultural lens from which to understand anxieties surrounding changing concepts of masculinity in the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Sam demonstrated an excellent understanding of film culture, not just in the period studied, but across the twentieth century, and the way in which he revealed how certain masculine filmic archetypes were shaped and modified in response to the shifting contemporary climate was nothing less than compelling.” – Dr Rob James, Sam’s dissertation supervisor.

Daniel Craig in Casino Royale (2006)

For me, writing a dissertation on film was a natural choice, as it has always occupied a central role in my life. I first became interested in analysing the longer-term consequences of Thatcherism on British masculinity after reading an article by Nichola Poulton, who wrote about masculinity in football hooligan films. Whilst reading her article, I noted the links between the football hooligan archetype and the ‘Angry Young Man’ archetype of the 1960s, and so decided that there was great potential in a study of masculine archetypes in British film and how they have evolved since Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.

I began my reading trying to identify the areas of British film and the masculine archetypes in which my study would be able to turn up original research. A problem I encountered during this stage was the disparate wealth of historiography focusing on American cinema. However, I found a key text which ended up heavily shaping and influencing my dissertation, which was Andrew Spicer’s study of representations of British masculinity throughout the twentieth century. From thereon, my dissertation was built upon analysis of Spicer’s archetypes. By examining how his archetypes have changed, I believed I could highlight just how dramatically and quickly masculine representations in British cinema had shifted under Thatcherism, doing so to represent the new social milieu, or address contemporary questions surrounding gender.

Still from The Football Factory (2004)

After reading Poulton’s work, the football hooligan became the obvious first archetype for my study, and I wanted to demonstrate that his hyper-masculinity was reactionary to the damage wrought upon British football by Thatcherism during the 1980s, drawing attention to key policies, and government responses to such events as the Hillsborough Disaster of 1989. For me, this was my easiest chapter, as the consequences of Thatcherism were glaringly explicit. My second archetype was that of the contemporary ‘New Man’. In Spicer’s work, he identified Hugh Grant as the embodiment of this archetype during the 1990s. Fortunately for me, since the publication of Spicer’s work, Grant had departed the British film industry and thus left room for research on a New Man. I quickly found my New Man in the form of Simon Pegg. It became evident that his antithetical representations of masculine archetypes in Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007) were both tasked with navigating contemporary gender issues raised by Thatcherism. Pegg was attempting to locate a new central position on the gender spectrum; a hybridised New Man, between two models of masculinity unable of social integration in the post-Thatcher period. I quickly decided upon using James Bond as my final archetype, and this was another easy choice as my dissertation would have been lacking had I not chosen to do so, considering his cinematic omnipresence since his introduction in the 1960s. With Pierce Brosnan’s Bond already being well-covered, Daniel Craig in Casino Royale (2006) was the obvious choice. At first, I had great difficulty in trying to pin-point just where Thatcherism was impacting upon his masculinity, and my reading of the film became too parochial and focused on his relationship with Vesper Lynd. However, I realised that my study was diverting from its original aim due to this distraction. So, I re-read the film and noticed the contradictory nature of Bond’s body in Casino Royale, which was caught between consumerism and hyper-violence, and so located his body as the site of Thatcherism’s long-term impact on the ideal representation of gender, traditionally personified through Bond.

Stlll from Hot Fuzz (2007)

I was presented with no real difficulties during my search for secondary sources, other than the original problem of texts being predominantly focused on American cinema. Whilst texts principally concerned with British masculinity in the post-Thatcher period were lacking somewhat, there was an abundance of texts concerned with British genres in the twenty-first century and I was able to easily use these to explore the masculine archetypes I had chosen. Primary sources were of no difficulty to find either, with most of these being archived interviews with actors and directors, from a selection of newspapers. However, I also used databases and government reports to my advantage, which were also easily accessed online.

Overall, I can positively say that I loved working on my dissertation and found it to be a satisfying and rewarding experience, which for me incorporated everything I had learned in my three years at Portsmouth university, and felt like a natural conclusion to my degree. I had great fun combining my History degree with my love for film and it motivated me to explore areas of history that I had never been concerned with before my time at Portsmouth, such as gender. Since finishing it too, I have found my overall experience of watching films to have been enhanced, after my dissertation had me reading films with different lenses and focuses.

Sam Tugwell is a BA (Hons) History student at the University of Portsmouth. His dissertation was winner of the Josephine Butler Memorial Prize, which is awarded for an outstanding piece of work on women’s or gender history.

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