The Masculine Mystique in Lost

Lost (2004–2010) is surely among the most phenomenal television series of all times and became a rare ABC success not only because it presented a “man against nature” stranded island adventure but also because the story of television series was simultaneously supported by predesigned websites, viral videos, and a huge stack of scientific, philosophical, and mythological references provided in discussion forums. Through flashbacks and time travel, plane crashes and ticking bombs, polar bears and raging clouds of the Black Smoke. Lost, as a sci-fi mystery, traditionally relies on a blend of scientific theories and ancient esoterism. It mainly deals with the archetypal feud between the good and the evil, constantly using Biblical and mythological references as well as references to the 18th century scientists and a dazzling set of scientific experiments and theories. However, the TV series also reinforces mythologies, in the sense Roland Barthes suggested, already transparent and evidently prevalent in American culture. A myth, according to Roland Barthes, is the product of both signification and mystification of taken for granted assumptions, which, therefore, are regarded as “natural” and “unquestionable”[1]. Significations and mystifications of gendered identities, in this sense, are the most natural and unquestionable of all myths and they communicate with the audience at the intersections of hegemony, power, ethnicity, and body politics.

Lost was broadcasted for six seasons and each season just added new questions to fearlier ones, each episode simply paralyzed the audience with theories of black smoke, time travel, parallel universes, whispering meadows and invisible monsters. However, the island unravels a bigger mystery; how to recover and deal with one’s lost masculinity? The survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 were almost all male with certain father issues and deprived of their masculine power in their flashback lives. The island, like all other island dystopias in Anglo-American culture, provides a homosocial playground for “wounded” men, a chance to retreat for the survivors to find the innerking, the warrior within or their wildman they long supressed[2].

Once a surgeon, a romantic lover, a torturer, a lottery winner and a crippled manager, all these men were drawn into the island when they felt powerless and besieged by mysterious forces outside of their control. The island promises them to be larger than life heroes once again, to overcome the trauma of their absent fathers and to resurrect as heroic archetypal models. The survivors of the plane crash were apparently suffering from the lost innocence of childhood and an uncertainty about the meaning of manhood. Women on the island, almost without exception, were unreliable and deceptive troublemakers, and an open threat for their life; the best way to survive on the island was to keep away from women and to regain their masculinity.

Islands in different myths serve as an asylum or a shelther for the hero to resurrect and restore the universal order like Zeus in Crete or Arthur in Avalon, the manly retreat of each character on the island also signifies a ritual of initiation and rebirth. Survivors of the island literally come back to life over and over again and their psychic umbilical relation to the island proves that the island itself ensures the sense of security and perfection of a womb for these frustrated men who were caught on the horns of a masculine dilemma; masculine hegemony is possible with a flight from the island/women, which is only possible with demystifying and controlling the island/women. Akşit Göktürk points out that an island can be a heaven or an exile for the castaway depending on their relation to the outer world[3]. Therefore, the island and men’s initiation into masculine order can only be understood in terms of men’s relation to each other and their relation to the island.

Each male character in Lost represents a different aspect of masculinity. Jack Shephard, for instance, literally acts as “the shepherd of his herd”. From the very moment of the plane crash, he becomes the natural leader of the crowd, saves their lives, commands and sometimes even physically confronts them. Jack boards on the Oceanic Flight 815 to carry his deceased father’s coffin from Sydney back to the States. Immediately after getting over the shock of the accident, Jack thinks that he has just seen his father walking into the woods and he starts searching for his absent father to make sure that he really died, which will become one of the greatest mysteries of the series and end up in Jacob’s house in the woods. Jack, like his father, is a surgeon and his disagreements and disappointments with his father are apparently beyond professional limits and he, like his father, obviously suffers from a “God complex”. Jack assumes the power to create and heal and to protect and destroy. His masculine prowess is constantly tested in his conflicts with other male characters like Sawyer, Locke, Desmond and Said as well as with the Others and the island itself.

Despite the fact that he sometimes fails to fulfill his taken for granted role as the de facto leader of his community and bursts into tears, he always pulls himself together and reclaims his authority and decision-making leadership among the others. As a good leader, he doesn’t hesitate to sacrifice himself for the good of his flock and he is penalized with eternal loneliness on the crucifix. All his personal traits and relations with other people point out to a certain religious reference; Jack Shephard is the involuntary Jesus of the island. His troubled relation with his God-like father, his natural born leadership, his miracles in healing people, his meeting with his father through a symbolical “Jacob’s ladder”, his dedication to his people and constant bertrayals of his own people, his self-sacrifice highlight him as a Jesus Christ archetype.

In fact, considering his hegemonic position and self-assertive masculinity, one might reasonably argue that his authority over people and unquestioned leadership have inevitable references to Biblical myths. Western masculinities maintain their hegemony and derive their historical and institutional power from religion. Jesus Christ has always been offered as a model for male political and social leaders from his being exemplum fidei in Puritan writing to the 19th century Masculine Christianity and to more recent sexist arguments about Jesus Christ’s being a “tough guy” not a docile sheep among the wolves. In this regard, Jack Shephard’s search for his lost father can easily turn into a Christian allegory in which he relies on a religious essentialism that indeed today provides a legitimate ground for hegemonic masculinity, which, according to Raewyn Connell, can be described as “a social practice that allows men to dominate women and other men and homosexuals” which is distinguished from other representations of masculinity in that “only a minority of men might enact it, it requires all other men to position themselves in relation to it creating gender hierarchies and it ideologically legitimates the subordination of women and “less men” to hegemonic men”[4]. Therefore, his confrontation with Locke as the metaphor of the Enlightened mind, with Sawyer as the metaphor of the American Adam, or with Benjamin Linus as the symbol of pure evil may reinforce his position as the chosen one and substantially create a network of hierarchy in which certain men are comparatively valued against other men.

However, Jack Shephard isn’t the only character in the series that relies on a historical and institutional set of masculinities. James Ford, or Sawyer, is a hillbilly with his obvious Southern rural accent and dark sense of humor, he always calls people with funny nicknames. He is the next powerful character to the arrogant city doctor and also his rival in love affairs and in managerial issues about how to deal with the challenges that the survivors confront. But unlike Jack, Sawyer is selfish, he doesn’t pay attention to other people’s feelings especially to those of women and he likes using people for his own purposes with a survival instinct and often makes fun of their weaknesses and disadvantages. While being epitomized as the ultimate example of rugged individualism, Sawyer also appears to be an archetypal American Adam equipped with “natural” talents and knowledge about how to survive in the wild. He is the only character who seemingly enjoys his time on the island; he is an ardent reader, collector of valuable objects and an absolute nuisance. In this sense, Sawyer is a modern embodiment of Tom Sawyer and the island is his escape from civilization and flight from all kinds of commitment. Michael Kimmel argues that from Rip Van Winkle to Ishmael and Henry David Thoreau, young men escaping domesticity in different ways either by being kidnapped, running away, enlisting in the army, taking refuge in nature or being shipwrecked actually search for their lost boyhood and the homosocial innocence of preadolescence. Kimmel goes on to argue that manhood is defined as a flight from femininity and its attendant emotional elements, particularly compassion, nurturance, affection and dependence[5]. Sawyer’s reluctance for domesticization and civilization, then, signifies his desire to create a neverland where he will never grow up and confront the harsh realities of life. However, Sawyer’s Peter Pan complex can also be explained with his protest against an absent father. Sawyer,when he was a little child, witnessed that his father killed his mother and then committed suicide because a conman named Sawyer slept with his mother and ran away with all their family savings. Yet, it turns out that James Ford becomes a conman himself when he is old enough, seducing and deceiving married women under an alias “Sawyer”, which indicates an ultimate Oedipal switch in his life, he turns into a man who kills his father and gets laid with his mother.

Sawyer, then, is the “illegitimate child” of his absent symbolic father and his irresponsibility and illegitimacy (in both senses) are based on a certain strategy to deal with the loss of his father(s). Men, according to Raewyn Connell, develop certain strategies to overcome the pressures of masculine hegemony, which ends up in excessive and aggressive representations of masculinity[6]. Chris Haywood also adds that “[it] is developed in relation to a position of powerlessness where the existing cultural resources for a gendered claim to power are no longer available. In response, men exaggerate, through the pressure of existing masculine conventions, their claims to masculinity[7]”.

As a result, individuals exhibit spectacular masculinities centred around sexuality, violence and bohemianism and consequently, they may transform into a violent monster against which they have fought all their lives. Such intriguing forms of protest masculinities drive men to take shelter in fantasies (like 30 year old men wearing shorts and playing Dungeons and Dragons) or in harsh reality (like hypermasculine motocyclists or outdoor campers); however different their reaction might be, these men, like Sawyer, marginalized by much stronger men feel secure and intact in their retreat from the civilization.

Not only handsome blonds with a straw hat and a banjo but also and particularly ethnic men are marginalized and demasculinized under the hegemony of White Anglo Saxon Protestant masculinity. Tim Edwards interpreted that according to Raewyn Connell:

 

“Men do not constitute a homogenous category and more particularly that men have the capacity to oppress ,and indeed violate, other men as well as women Most importantly, he highlights the roles of race, ethnicity, class and sexuality in constructing hegemonic and subordinated masculinities and argues, most fundamentally, that hegemonic masculinity depends on the domination of working-class and particularly gay and black masculinities as well as women for its supremacy[8]

 

Therefore, hegemonic masculinity particularly targets the domination of working-class and subaltern identities, necessarily including Black, Hispanic, Arab, Irish and Scottish, and Asian masculinities. Considering that American cultural heritage produced a variety of ethnic representations from noble savages to burlesque Africans, yellow perils and exotic and dangerous Orientals, it can deliberately be suggested that the perception of ethnic characters in the imagination of the American men is relational and conditional that relies on the changes in domestic economic conditions and foreign politics underlying the fact that ethnic masculinities can exist and play a significant role in society only in a subordinate relation to white hegemonic masculinities.

Indeed, Oriental characters in American popular culture have often been confined with Chinese or Japanese immigrants from “The Chinese must go” posters to Dr. Fu Manchu, and Arabs, until recently, haven’t been considered as a threat to American ideals, as terrorists and monstrous killers. Arab image in American culture was first associated with Valentino style passionate and imperious lovers in 1920s and later on with upstart oil kings during the oil crisis in 1970s always with a certain emphasis on their effeminate look and dresses. The sexual appetite and impudence of Arab male are often juxtaposed with the good manners and gentlemanly behavior of the white man, emphasizing the civility and moral superiority of the latter. An ex-torturer in Saddam’s army, Said Jarrah is depicted as a “natural born killer”. Said’s cold-blooded violence can’t be considered independent from the mass Anti-Arab frenzy of post 9/11 America and haunting shadows of Orientalism. Said is frequently involved in fights with other characters, he tortures Sawyer, Jack, Benjamin Linus and many others throughout the series. Despite his indomitable physical strength and the military know-how, he never claims the leadership in the group and prefers to remain as a sidewing because as an Oriental hero, his service is only valuable under the command of a white master. His submissiveness to the white hegemony and its relation to his violent character is further accentuated by Andrea Cornwall in Dislocating Masculinity. Cornwall maintains that “gendered violence is a consequence of people’s inability to control their presentation of themselves or how they are represented by others[9]. As a result, as an Oriental character who can’t master his own representation, he becomes a hitman in the service of Benjamin Linus because Benjamin appreciates his talents within and Said can’t simply resist his nature. Said is an unreliable and often aggressive animal that can’t be tamed, civilized, and negotiated. Especially in later seasons, Said is also depicted as the Sheikh of Araby, an exotic lover, and a sexual beast. He has affairs with two women, Nadia and Shannon, to whom he offers his deepest affection and protection. Those women civilize and therefore demasculinize him like Shamhat civilized Enkidu in the epic of Gilgamesh and bring him into a crossroad between his identity as a warrior and a lover. However, eventually, he is defeated by his animal instincts and becomes an avenger seeking the revenge of his deceased lovers, which can only be compensated by becoming more man through violence and self-sacrifice.

Desmond Hume, with his heavy Scottish accent, represents an Arthurian romantic who knows no boundaries to reunite with his girlfriend, Penelope, which brings forth an obvious Odysseus reference especially given that Desmond arrives in the island with a boat and Penelope starts searching after him in seven seas and oceans. Indeed, rather than a heroic sailor and adventurer, Desmond Hume, in his flashback stories, has dishonorably failed as a man several times. He was dismissed from a monastery where he was serving as a monk. He was similarly discharged from the Royal Scots Regiment. He failed as a businessman and as a lover when he confronted his future father-in-law. On the contrary, his failures in religion, military and business mark his stigma and his frailty as an outcast since these three domains, religion, military, and business, construct institutional practices in which hegemonic masculinities are primarily produced and essentialized. Stumbled in fitting into the given norms of masculinity, like Gautama Buddha or Neal Cassady, Desmond sets out an eternal journey to find a deeper meaning in life, to discover the core of his lost masculinity and regain his own promised land. Yet, Desmond, like all other disenchanted travellers in journey myths, is unable to recognize the symptoms of his failure in fulfilling the promises of hegemonic masculinity. Masculinity and manliness is an invisible, invincible, and ungraspable great white whale and, like Ahab, the harder he tries to attain recognition and acceptance as a man, the farther it moves away from him.

Ethnic charactes in American culture also provide a comic relief. Hugo “Hurley” Reyes is often presented as a nogood Hispanic young man throughout his flashbacks. Suffering from an eating disorder, a gift from his “practically lost father”, Hugo is easily recognizable for his huge body and clumsiness. As a grown up man, he spends his time working in fast food restaurants or watching quiz shows on television with his mother. The twist of fate comes in with a lottery whose mysterious numbers were once whispered to Hurley by a ghost in his mental hospital days. Indeed, fortune and misfortune, intuitions and visions, curses and blessings are an indispensible part of his ethnic character since in American culture ethnic characters have often been associated with a sensual and metaphysical world as the alter ego of the western logocentrism while White Anglo-Saxon characters have been regarded as the voice of reason and the material world. Hugo definitely has special talents; he can talk to the dead and he can see visions other people can’t see. His intuitions and unreserved warnings always raise the voice of the conscience and offer an insightful counsel for Jack and the others. In this sense, Hurley is nothing more than a Shakespearean clown, hiding a sharp-edged seriousness and wisdom under his motley and bells buffoonery and serving as a dedicated comrade, a Sancho Panza, and a mentor to the king of the jungle, Jack Shephard.

There is no doubt that textual analysis of any kind, particularly the analysis of folk tales, myths and legends, aims to unravel repeated patterns that would reveal the collective unconscious and yield a taken for granted universal truth of humanity. Nevertheless, as far as gender roles and stereotypes are concerned, speaking of archetypes and myths always carries a potential risk of essentialism and heteronormative universalism. Arguing that there are allegedly essential differences between men and women and each gender inherently demonstrates certain qualities of their own like men are “by nature” leaders and warriors while women are passive and nurturing eventually results in both devaluation and denial of access into a gender neutral order. A particular consequence of gender essentialism is that one can easily suggest that these qualities are taken for granted and not subject to change that will certainly reinforce gender inequalities and oppression. The poet Robert Bly and the mythopoetic readings of masculinity he pioneered, for instance, assumed that men’s superiority over women and other men and archetypal heroism is timeless and universal, and therefore essential and legitimate. On the other hand, myths don’t tell us anything about essential qualities of humanity but myths, like gender, are socially and therefore inevitably ideologically constructed. And indeed, it wouldn’t be surprising to argue that men have been visible in myths and mythopoetic imagination but their masculinity and problems it brought about has remained invisible in readings of mythology both ancient and contemporary. As Michael Kimmel brilliantly pointed out “invisibility reproduces inequalities and the invisibility of gender of those privileged by it reproduces the inequalities that are circumscribed by gender[10]”. As Kimmel further suggested, “it is practically impossible to speak of historical reconstruction of masculinity without speaking about power[11]” because masculinities are merely instituional practices embedded in networks of power and “different masculinities may be characterized as hegemonic or subordinate in relation to one another. In turn, these hierarchical masculinities are not fixed but continually shifting[12]” within a historical context. Therefore, hegemonic masculinity is necessarily historical and structural and thus necessarily political and institutional.

Consequently, interpretation of maleness, manhood, or masculinity in myths, even in contemporary myths like Lost, are not – can not be- neutral and essential but all such attributions and labels have political entailments and masculinity and crises that it induces may become visible only through demystifying and deconstructing notions of male power and domination. Understanding and tackling with the crises of masculinity in myths is only possible through developing an awareness that (any) crisis of masculinity is only a crisis of legitimation because masculinity as an ideological construction inherently produces everlasting crises and masculinity itself is crisis.

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

 

 

Barthes, Roland, Mythologies. New York: The Noonday Press, 1972.

Collinson, David and Jeff Hearn. “Men at Work: Multiple Masculinities/Multiple Workplaces”. Understanding Masculinities ed. Mairting Mac an Ghaill. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1996.

Connell, Raewynn. Masculinities. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005.

Connell, Raewyn and James Messerschmidt. “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept” Gender & Society 19, no:6 (2005) 829-859

Cornwall, Andrea and Nancy Lindisfarne. “Dislocating Masculinity: Gender, Power, and Anthropology”. Dislocating Masculinity ed. Andrea Cornwall and Nancy Lindisfarne. London: Routledge, 2003

Edwards, Tim. Cultures of Masculinity. London: Routledge, 2006

Göktürk, Akşit. Ada. İstanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2004.

Haywood, Chris and Mairting Mac an Ghaill. Men and Masculinities. Buckingham: Open University Press, 2003.

Kimmel, Michael.The History of Men. New York: State University of New York Press, 2005.

Kimmel, Michael and Michael Kaufman. “Weekend Warriors: The New Men’s Movement”. The Politics of Manhood. ed. Michael Kimmel. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.

Lost. Directed by Adam Davidson.204-2010; ABC Studios, CA. 2010, DVD

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Murat Göç is an assistant professor who received his PhD from Ege University American Culture and Literature Department and currently teaching at Pamukkale University English Language and Literature Department. His main areas of interest are contemporary American literature, critical theory, cultural studies, gender studies, and in particular, masculinity studies. He is also the editor of Masculinities Journal, an academic journal of masculinity studies published by a group of Turkish scholars specialized in gender studies and masculinity studies. His published articles include “Palahniuk’s Desperate Men and the Gender Angst” (Interactions), “Evil Gods, Lost Sons, and Ghost Ships: Angst and Masculinity in Sea Narratives” (IV. International Comparative Literature Congress Proceedings), and “Emrah Serbes” and “Murat Uyurkulak” (Dictionary of Literary Biography: “Turkish Novelists since 1960”).

 

[1] Roland Barthes, Mythologies (New York: The Noonday Press, 1972) 120

[2] Michael Kimmel and Michael Kaufman. “Weekend Warriors: The New Men’s Movement” in The Politics of Manhood. ed Michael Kimmel (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995) 15

[3] Akşit Göktürk, Ada (İstanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2004) 78

[4] Raewyn Connell and James Messerschmidt. “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept” GENDER & SOCIETY 19, no:6 (2005) 832

[5] Michael Kimmel, The History of Men (New York: State University of New York Press, 2005) 26

[6] Raewynn Connell, Masculinities (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005) 111

[7] Chris Haywood and Mairting Mac an Ghaill, Men and Masculinities (Buckingham: Open University Press, 2003) 39

[8] Tim Edwards, Cultures of Masculinity (London: Routledge, 2006) 51

[9] Andrea Cornwall and Nancy Lindisfarne, “Dislocating Masculinity: Gender, Power, and Anthropology” in Dislocating Masculinity ed. Andrea Cornwall and Nancy Lindisfarne (London: Routledge, 2003) 25

[10] Michael Kimmel, The History of Men, (New York: State University of New York Press, 2005) 6

[11] Michael Kimmel, The History of Men, (New York: State University of New York Press, 2005) 6

[12] David Collinson and Jeff Hearn. “Men at Work: Multiple Masculinities/Multiple Workplaces” in Understanding Masculinities ed. Mairting Mac an Ghaill (Buckingham: Open University Press, 1996) 66

 

 

 

 

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