Masculine Mystique Commentary

In a playful reaction to the National Film Board’s Studio D, which focused on nurturing the careers of women filmmakers, two NFB producers, Giles Walker and John N. Smith, produced The Masculine Mystique in 1984.  This cheeky docudrama formed part of the “Alternative Drama” era at the NFB and spawned two further films, 90 Days (1985) and The Last Straw (1987). Such hybrid films were part of a modest boom in “truthful fiction” projects at the NFB in the 1980s and 90s.

Walker and Smith talked four other male NFB employees into being part of The Masculine Mystique, which uses a series of role reversals in order to explore the evolution of gender politics. The film presents us with four, fairly un-liberated men who do not know what is going on around them, or to them. Their marriages and relationships have crumbled and they are not sure why. They meet regularly in a kind of informal group therapy session to support and challenge one another, in an effort to find answers to their shaky personal lives.

Blue (Stefan Wodoslawsky) is an obsessive-compulsive, neat freak who feels as though he has to un-do all the harm that men like his inconsiderate father have caused. Blue has decided that he will never take his “woman” for granted, that he will do for her all the things that his mother once did for his undeserving father. Blue cooks and cleans and gives pedicures and remembers birthdays. When he is thinking about what a “good” husband should be and do, he smothers and controls. But when Blue has had too much to drink, his antediluvian father rears up out of the swamp: Blue tells one stupid sexist joke after another to the independent girl he is trying to impress. She walks out on their date. He spends the rest of their time together trying to prove that he really is a good guy.

The interesting thing about Blue is that he probably takes no more notice of his girlfriend, Amurie (Char Davies) than his father did of Blue’s mother. Amurie is an artist and likes her freedom; she is not neat or tidy; she does not like healthy food. After Blue convinces her that she should move in with him, she begins almost immediately to regret the decision. Her autonomy is slowly whittled away under the guise of love and caring.

Alex (Sam Grana) is married with children, but he can’t stay away from extra-marital affairs. His wife, Shelley (Eleanor MacKinnon), who dutifully looks after the home and the children is starting to lose patience with his irregular hours and long absences. He is so self-absorbed that he doesn’t realize that she is about to leave him. And, he is so uninvolved and insensitive with his family that he yells at them whenever he is actually around. His excuse is that they do things purposely to annoy him. We first see this family at breakfast; Shelley is trying to get the children to behave in a way that won’t provoke their father. But, of course, no matter what they do or don’t do, he will be angry. He tells the other guys that he loves his family, but that they hem him in.

In a revealing scene, the family is having dinner with Alex’s mother, who can only speak Italian (after all her years in Canada). It is clear that Alex has unthinkingly expected Shelley to be like his mother – to cook and clean and look after his needs. It is also clear to the audience that Shelley has about had enough. She demands that he actually take the family on the holiday he promised instead of continually cancelling their plans due to work.

Mort (Mort Ransen) is in a similar situation to that of Blue. His wife has left him. He is also compulsive, but in a different way. Mort is into commitment. He wants a family around him; his ideal is to be not just a father, but a father figure. He sees his children regularly and any woman he dates is introduced to them very quickly. Mort is a package deal. His problem is that he has fallen for Bet (Annebet Zwartsenberg) who is not domestic and who wants her own space. Bet is mostly interested in good sex; commitment is not her priority. Mort tricks her into coming to live with him and meeting his children, but it is clear that there are limits as to how much of this manipulation Bet will put up with.

Ashley (Ashley Murray) is the oldest of the four men. His wife has just left him and the children. Ashley is a man whose ideal had been to live with his family on the land, gardening and raising chickens. He now finds himself completely confused, alone with the kids, and wondering what life is all about. It feels meaningless to him. He philosophizes as he puffs his pipe, repairs things on his farm, cleans, and looks after the children. In the therapy session, he gives advice to the younger men.

The approach that Walker and Smith take to the sexual revolution of the late twentieth century is obviously tongue-in-cheek. Each of the male characters represents at times a woman caught in the same situation. The funniest scene is when Alex crashes over night at Blue’s house. The next morning, Blue follows Alex around with a vacuum cleaner, complaining that he was late, didn’t phone home, has left a mess. He tells Alex to flush the toilet and to put the seat down. When Alex approaches Blue, he backs off and says, “Don’t touch me, you smell!” Alex says he might as well be at home. Blue agrees, but presses the point by telling Alex (in his male persona) that he is a jerk and doesn’t realize what he has got. The Directors balance this farcical scene with the real homecoming of Alex, where Shelley makes the same points as Blue, but in a reasoned and mature way.

Ashley’s final word of advice to them all is to love the woman they have and not to waste time on ideals. It is not clear that any of the others is actually listening. And so, the question of whether or not the mutual therapy sessions will have any lasting effect on the four friends is left open-ended.

Evelyn Ellerman