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The Hero’s Journey

Beowulf, Film, and Masculinity

By Katherine Marie Ismeurt

Let me tell you a story. It is not a new story, nor is it one that is very complicated. It is a story about the way the world is. It is a story about why thousands of young men continue to enlist in the army and the story about why television shows about conflict and combat continues to be so popular. This story finds its way into the crevices of our lives, influencing behaviors, attitudes, and cultural norms. The story is about a hero who must overcome challenges, face unparalleled dangers, and remain virtuous throughout his pursuit of glory and honor. The hero will be subject to his own personal flaws, but the hero will also be victorious. The hero can assume many different forms: he can be a Greek god, a gladiator, an outlaw, or even the modern businessman or athlete. Yet despite all of his different images, the hero remains inherently the same, governed by an epistemological framework and clothed in a rhetoric that has evolved over time to create the idealized masculine image. Though it can be subtle, the story and its rhetoric continue to dominate American cultural beliefs, and is indeed so ingrained in our daily lives that is difficult to distinguish and impossible to avoid.

Just the single word hero conveys an entire epistemology and set of characteristics regarding what it means to be an honorable and respected individual – most specifically an honorable and respected male individual. Within this rhetoric, men and women are denoted as having specific tasks and expectations, and there is an understanding that these men and women will not deviate from these expectations. The rhetoric of the hero describes both behavioral and physical expectations for the male hero, which has been reinforced in ancient epic tales as well as modern cinema. There seems to be a growing trend in popular film to depict “hypermasculine” characters from ancient worlds battling to the death using their swords and brawn. Such films (listed with their writers) as Zack Synder’s 300 (2007), David Franzoni’s Gladiator (2000), David Benioff’s Troy (2004) and most recently Beacham and Hay’s Clash of the Titans (2010) are all blockbuster films that follow the model of the “ancient epic” and whose central theme can be encapsulated into a single word: hero.

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