Jacqueline Reich, Ph.D., professor and chair of Fordham’s department of communication and media studies, is a scholar in the subject of masculinity. In addition to Marcello Mastroianni, Masculinity, and Italian Cinema, (Indiana University Press, 2004), she co-wrote, with Catherine O’Rawe, Divi. La mascolinità nel cinema italiano (Stars: Masculinity in Italian Cinema), (Donzelli, 2015).
We sat down with her to talk about how shifting attitudes in both the United States and Italy have affected her own work. Spoiler alert: Stear clear if you don’t want to know how the television shows Friday Night Lights and The Sopranos end.
And in a bonus track, Reich talks about her involvement with the Bronx Italian American History Initiative, and how she’s embraced community-based scholarship.
Complete transcription below:
Jacqueline Reich: One of the things that being in a Jesuit university has taught me is that you have to have tough conversations. Because you’re never, ever going to go anywhere if you don’t have them. We’re just going to be caught in a kind of cycle of what you would call, what a lot of people are calling toxic masculinity.
Patrick Verel: In the last year, the phrase Me Too has become shorthand for survivors of sexual assault and harassment speaking out against their assailants. At the same time, the term toxic masculinity has also entered the public conversation as a potential culprit for unrestrained, unresolved hostility towards women. Jacqueline Reich, a professor and Chair of Fordham’s Department of Communications and Media Studies was one of the first scholars to explore the subject of masculinity, most recently through a 2015 book, Stars, Masculinity in Italian Cinema. We sat down with her to talk about how shifting attitudes in both the United States and Italy have affected her work.
I’m Patrick Verel. And this is Fordham News.
What is masculinity studies and how does studying masculinity differ from the ways in which one studies feminism?
Jacqueline Reich: Well, masculinity studies grew out of feminist criticism. At least the way I practice it. I’ll tell you sort of how I got involved in it. I was a graduate student and I was working on my dissertation, which was on the representation of women in films during the fascist period. I started thinking to myself, well, I’m looking at female representations. Shouldn’t I be looking at the representation of men? So, at the same time that I’m starting to think about this, Marcello Mastroianni passes away, in 1996. And all of the obituaries in the United States started talking about him as this Latin lover and this great icon of style on the Italian screen. Italian ones focused on his overall star persona, his contributions, his work with actresses, his works with Federico Fellini. Not that the American ones didn’t mention that as well. But still, it was a different sort of paradigm.
So, the kind of way that I look at masculinity studies, in particular reference to cinema, is obviously about representation. We know that what we see on the screen is not real. We know we believe it is a representation of something. But when we interrogate this notion of masculinity, what we need to think about is that all gender is constructed. It’s also changeable. It’s negotiable. And it fluctuates from culture to culture. So we’re talking about a cultural construction here.
And this particular cultural construction of the Latin lover, I discovered, emerged more from American constructs of what Italian-ness meant in a masculine perspective, rather than what actually appears on screen. But if we’re going back to masculinity studies and its reference to and how it grew out of feminist criticism, we have to think about the ideas of the feminist critic and philosopher, Judith Butler, who talks about the whole performative of nature, of gender. It’s so much of our own identities are performative anyway, right? So if you are a daughter, you are expected to behave in a certain way. If you are a wife, you are expected to behave in a certain way.
In many ways, what you see in the films of Mastroianni is him performing certain types of masculine roles. And at the same time, undermining them. And if you look deeper, you see there’s just a lot of conflict going on there. There’s someone, as opposed to being this very cool, suave, debonair, ideal, is stylish as well, is really kind of a schlemiel, a guy who can’t get anything right.
Patrick Verel: Now, your area of research touches on depictions of masculinity on the screen. Has it changed in appreciable ways since you first started studying it?
Jacqueline Reich: I would say in Hollywood cinema, not so much. Hollywood films are written, the standard is this kind of three-act structure. The three-act structure has a status quo ethos built into it. Because it’s about conflict and resolution. Not that you necessarily have to have a happy ending of a film. But you can have a satisfactory ending of a film. When you see it changing, what we might call quality TV, which started the Sopranos, you see men who are imperfect, who are conflicted. Even so, another spoiler alert, you get to the end of the Sopranos, and the screen goes black. There is no resolution.
I just finished binge-watching Friday Night Lights, for instance. Now there’s an interesting representation. Football aside, I think what’s really brilliant about the series is the way in which the wife and the husband interact. She has a career and again, you’ve got … your listeners are going to hate me because I’m giving them all these spoiler alerts. I’m going to spoil everything for them. And mostly she has supported his career. At the end, in the last episode, she gets a really great job as dean of admissions at a college. And, it would require him leaving Texas and leaving his job. And he does. And that’s something, probably, we would have never seen.
Patrick Verel: Now a key aspect of your book about Italian actors, such as Marcello Mastroianni is this masculine anxiety, which is when masculinity manifests itself as an anger that is reactionary and defensive and destructive rather than productive. Tell me a little bit more about this anxiety.
Jacqueline Reich: I think everyone is resistant to change. In Italy, the post-war, and post-fascist, we have to remember, period was a time of reconstruction and rebuilding. But it was also a profound time of change. After the Marshall Plan, after the end of World War II, Italy’s economy started booming. What’s fueling this? New industry. You can’t just have men doing it all. Women go into the workforce. Also Italy, like the United States in the mid to late ’60s, it was a period of radical social and political change and political and social activism. That produces a lot of anxiety.
So naturally, some of this anxiety comes out in the roles that are represented on screen.
Patrick Verel: Where do you see it manifest itself today? And what do you think we should do to stop it?
Jacqueline Reich: I don’t know that we necessarily have to do anything to stop different kinds of representations of anxiety. But, I do see a real shift. And I think that this anxiety that we saw onscreen and a kind of general cultural anxiety is now shifting into anger. And so here I’m kind of referencing the work of Susan Faludi in her book Stiffed, and Michael Kimmel in Angry White Men. And their main thesis is that white men are angry. And what Kimmel has called this kind of anger, and he did a very interesting sociological study of it. He’s called it aggrieved entitlement. And he defines aggrieved entitlement as the sense that those benefits to which you believe yourself entitled have been snatched away from you by unforeseen forces larger and more powerful. He concludes that the social cure for angry white men involves challenging the ideology of masculinity that’s passed on from father to son.
What I think history has shown us, unfortunately, is that dialogue and understanding aren’t enough. That we kind of have to question the structures, the institutions, and the economic powers that not just perpetuate aggrieved entitlement, but entitlement itself. So you’ve got to ask yourself why is one person entitled to something anything other than another? I think in this case, I’ve been affected by my time at Fordham and thinking … and some of my experiences with Ignatian pedagogy. Ignatius would say that we are all human beings who deserve God’s love. Why did they feel entitled to begin with?
Patrick Verel: I mean, to me, that’s easy. As a white man, you say, well, white men have always had control of everything here.
Jacqueline Reich: Why? Right? And that’s the question. One of the things that being in a Jesuit university has taught me is that you have to have tough conversations. Because you’re never, ever going to go anywhere if you don’t have them. We’re just going to be caught in a kind of cycle of what you would call … what a lot of people are calling toxic masculinity. So you have to have these tough conversations that not only address why people are angry and why people are anxious but why people are entitled.
Patrick Verel: In 2016, you joined the Bronx Italian American History Initiative, which traces the history of Italians and Italian Americans in the Bronx in the 20th century. Can you tell me a little bit more about, how does this work?
Jacqueline Reich: On the one hand, it’s an example of what we would call community-engaged research, which is something the university is really prioritizing right now. And basically, what that means is that you go outside the university walls, and you engage with the local community. What we aim to do is collect stories from Italians and Italian Americans who grew up in the Bronx. But eventually, we’re going to involve them in the design of the project. It used to be, you would talk to them, and that would be it. But this whole idea of participatory design, and reaching out to the community, and engaging with the community, brings them back into the project.
So, we’re going to reach out to them as we figure out the larger architecture of how we’re going to design this archive. But we do want to think about their experiences and their memories and contextualize them in the racial and the big fabric of the Bronx and look at how their experiences compare with African Americans, with Latinas, and with other white ethnic populations. We’re also thinking about different experiences of men and women, of northern and southern Italians, of different generations.
Patrick Verel: So, how did you make the leap from being a film historian to community-engaged research?
Jacqueline Reich: I saw that my colleague, Kathleen LaPenta, in Modern Languages, was beginning this Italian American History Initiative. I teach a class on Italian Americans on American Screens, so I’ve done a lot of work in this area. I also wrote an article on Charles Atlas, who was originally named Angelo Siciliano, and how he, kind of, used bodybuilding to achieve not only success but whiteness, at a time when Italians were discriminated against.
But I really think I was profoundly influenced by two things. One, are my colleagues at Fordham, particularly, in the Communication and Media Studies department, who are all, in some ways, involved in civic engagement. So, I taught this class on Italian Americans on American Screens, taught it so many times at multiple institutions, but this is my third time teaching it here. So, we read an article about Little Italys, from a kind of anthropological and sociological point of view, and then we went to Ferragosto, which is the big festival here the weekend after Labor Day. But, we all went out, and we looked at how the neighborhood, through the festival, inscribes Italianness, and a kind of tension that exists between the sort of image, that it wishes to present, and the actual residential population of the area, which is much more ethnically diverse than Italians.
The other aspect is that I’ve recently been involved in a leadership program sponsored by The Association Of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. It’s called the Ignatian Colleagues Program. You attend different seminars and workshops, but you also do a service immersion trip, and I went down to the border. I worked with the Kino Border Initiative for a week, as a kind of witness, right? We worked five mornings a week in the comedor, the cafeteria, where they serve meals to recently deported migrants, people about to try to get through, people seeking asylum, and it was a profoundly moving experience, and I came back from that trip saying, “Okay. You know, am I just going to go back into the archive, and deal with my papers? Or am I going to try to somehow shift my work, so that it engages with contemporary issues, but also gets me and students and scholars, thinking about how we can do scholarship that’s needed.”
So, for instance, right? A lot of NGOs … I was just at a conference recently about refugee and migrant education and the relationship to universities, and how you can establish partnerships. What we’re doing with the Bronx project, is much more historical, but so many parallels exist between the way immigrants and migrants were treated during the major wave of immigration in the United States between 1880 and 1924, to what’s going on now. And so, can we learn from our mistakes? Right? I can bring, I hope, a historical perspective, and then with that historical knowledge, help to empower students and scholars, as well, to think about what it means to be an academic in the 21st century.
I think that it’s about choosing an issue that matters to you and trying to effect change with that issue. So, I’m dealing with a historical project on immigration. Shouldn’t I be working on immigration issues right now? Shouldn’t I be out there in the field? Shouldn’t I be working with migrant communities? Shouldn’t I be working to bring attention to these issues, so that we don’t make the same mistakes again? So that we don’t block a ship of immigrants like we did during World War II, right, a ship of Jewish immigrants, who had no place to go. Because again, right? It goes back to this issue of entitlement. What makes these people less entitled to safety, to human dignity? And I think that’s really the core issue for me, is preserving human dignity, and that’s both a human issue, but it’s also a Jesuit and Catholic issue.