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Using Rodney Dangerfield to Rethink Masculinity in Reagan-Era Hollywood

Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo in "First Blood" (1982)

In her important 1994 Book, Hard Bodies, Susan Jeffords writes that in the 1970s Hollywood masculinity was in crisis.  Increasingly, she writes, Hollywood cinema was concerned with narratives of “disintegration and breakdown”, especially of traditional sociopolitical orders, and especially of patriarchal masculinity.  By 1980, she argues, audiences were hungry for “spectacular narratives about characters who stand for individualism, liberty, militarism, and a mythic heroism” [1].  Jeffords uses this premise to mount her broader argument that during the 1980s, and especially during the Reagan administration, the cinema was engaged in a Reagonian project of remasculinization in the wake of Vietnam, Watergate, and the women’s movement, which had shattered the nation’s faith in masculine authority figures.  Jeffords situates this masculinizing project within the blockbuster action films of that era, and especially within its muscle-bound superstars: men such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.  These bodies, she argues, came to stand “not only for a type of national character – heroic, aggressive, and determined – but for the nation itself” [2].

Charles Napier as Marshall Murdoch, Rambo's bureaucratic foe in "Rambo: First Blood Part II" (1985)

While Jeffords’ work is thorough, and informs much of my own, I wish to explore other aspects of the Reagonian remasculinization project, going beyond the hard body as an object of identification.  While doing my own research on hard bodied cinema, it occurred to me that the largely white middle-class, middle-aged audience that swept Reagan to office, might not have found such bodies easy to identify with.  This becomes particularly evident when one realizes that Rambo’s enemies were often situated precisely within this demographic.

Rodney Dangerfield, a soft-bodied hero. "Caddyshack" (1980).

Thus, perhaps masculinization can, and must, go beyond a mere body type.  This is where it becomes evident that Rodney Dangerfield is a particularly apt, if unlikely, avatar for the ethos of Reaganism:  A soft-bodied hero for the conservative and center-left masses. Dangerfield’s comedy during the 1970s articulated the anxieties of the middle-class white male during that era, and this helped catapult him into the national spotlight.  During this same era, Reagan was also beginning his rise to national political prominence.  Both did not attain their greatest success until later in life, after suffering career setbacks, and both reinvented themselves in their middle age.  Both spoke to a white male audience that was increasingly suffering from anxiety about a perceived loss of place.  Jeffords invokes right wing social critic Robert Bly, who in 1980 observed that “’the United States has undergone an unmistakeable decline since 1950,’” as a result of “the increasinging power of women and the parallel ‘deminishment and belittlement of the father.’” [4].    Dangerfield’s comedy was predicated on a perceived, increasing lack of respect for patriarchal authority figures.  In one gag he laments, “I don’t get no respect, at home my kid sends me to my room for talking back!”  [5]

In 1980, both men were elevated in their old age.  Reagan became the oldest man ever elected president, and Dangerfield attained his first starring role in a film at age 59. The peculiarity of this career development, however, goes beyond Dangerfield’s age.  With Caddyshack, Dangerfield went from being the harried, working-class family man of his stand-up act, to playing a bellicose, nouveau riche millionaire.  Dangerfield would take on a similar habitus in several roles thereafter.  The elevation of Reagan and Dangerfield indicate a change in the representational regime, a reversal of the trend of disintegration and breakdown.

Dangerfield bares his corpulent corpus in "Back to School" (1986)

While any discussion of cinematic masculinity must consider bodies, the hard body does not have a monopoly on masculine aggression or patriarchal virtues, as Dangerfield demonstrates.  Jeffords writes of the hard-bodied hero that they embody “the will and desires of the ‘average’ citizen against the self-serving empowerment of government bureaucrats who are standing in the way of social improvement” [6].  These same traits can also be located in Dangerfield in his two most popular films: Caddyshack (1980), and Back to School(1986). Dangerfield is coded as heroic in these films despite his clearly soft body.  In Caddyshack, he wears garish clothing that emphasizes his corpulent physique, and sweats profusely on the golf course.  In Back to School, he is the CEO of a chain of “tall and fat” clothing stores who attributes his success in part to his intimate knowledge of his product, and even appears shirtless briefly.  These bodily attributes and adornments do not at all diminish his heroic qualities in these films, in fact, it is hard to imagine this larger than life attitude in a slimmer, low-key habitus. His body makes him an easy object of identification, an every-man hero, as he shakes up the world of high society, and takes on repurposed, defunct villains, such as the aristocrat, and the pompous academic.  In doing so, he establishes a new, ostensibly egalitarian, capitalist social order, in which even an uncouth slob from a poor family can attain power and influence, and push back against perceived oppressive social orders.  Dangerfield comes to represent the type of man that Ronald Reagan was talking about when in 1987 he told employees of an aeronautics company: ” We’re in an age when the common man can do and experience what in past times was enjoyed only by royalty, aristocracy, and the elite” [7].

Paxton Whitehead as Dr. Philip Barbay in "Back to School" (1986)

His enemies in these films are slim and proper, but also preposterous, similar to the bureaucratic soft-bodies that Rambo confronts in First Blood and Rambo: First Blood Part II.  Both heroes have bodies that project different inner states that work in concert to defeat their enemies.  Rambo’s well trained, battle hardened physique, reflects a toughness, cunning, and pure will-to-survive that drive him to victory.  Dangerfield’s corpulent, garish façade reflects a larger than life, individualist machismo that allows him to cut his straight laced, blue-blooded foes down to size.

Perhaps the most representative example of this comes from Back to School.  In the film, Dangerfield returns to college in order to convince his son that he should stay in school.  In the process, he falls in love with his English professor (spurred, initially, by a sexual fantasy he has while she reads aloud from the last chapter of Ulysses), and seeks to steal her away from Dr. Philip Barbay, a stodgy economics professor.  He finally convinces her to have dinner with him, and after enough wine she laments of men: “Ever since the women’s movement they go out of their way to show you how sensitive they are.  Before they were too macho, now they’re too… soft.”  Nevertheless, the very soft bodied Dangerfield passes his classes and wins her heart, showing up Dr. Barbay and his soft-bodied attitude in the process.  For the middle-aged, middle-class white American subject, the hard is not necessarily located in the body, but in a highly aggressive capitalist ethos.


Dangerfield courts Dr. Turner (Sally Kellerman) "Back to School" (1986)

To those viewers for whom the hard body is no longer a realistic or conceivable goal, Dangerfield provides a model of cinematic masculinity that can participate in the broader, Reagonian project of re-establishing national masculinity in the United States.  This is not to say that middle-aged men cannot have hard bodies (they can), or that they did not enjoy Rambo or Commando (they did).  Rather, that the Reagan imaginary presented several avenues for masculine participation and reconstitution in reaction to the disintegration of the 1970s.


[1]  Jeffords, Susan.  Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era.  New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.  1994. Page 15.

[2]  Ibid. 24.

[3]  Ibid. 19.

[4]  Ibid. 9.

[5]  Berger, Arthur Asa.  Jewish Jesters: A Study in American Popular Comedy.  Creskill, NJ: Hampton Press.  Page 65.

[6]  Jeffords.  19.

[7] “Remarks on the Strategic Defense Initiative to Martin Marietta Denver Astronautics Employees, Waterton, Colorado.” November 24, 1987.  The Public Papers of President Ronald W. Reagan.  Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.  Accessed 5 Apr. 2014.   Link.