As a legal scholar, I can tell you that the legal term “force majeure” usually refers to acts of God – earthquakes, hurricanes, and avalanches – that serve to relieve parties’ performance obligations in a contract. In a cleverly-titled film that should have been an Oscar contender this year – Force Majeure by Ruben Ӧstlund, now available for streaming on Netflix – the avalanche never really occurs and the performance obligations of masculinity are never really relieved. The film depicts a man who fails to live up to conventional expectations of manliness in the face of a threatened “act of God” but shows us something potentially more embarrassing still: that the command to be a man may itself be a literal force majeure; a superior force, emerging from the force of desire. Modern feminism has been slow to recognize that an unreconstructed female libido that reinforces male performances of masculinity threatens to stand in the way of a full and robust sexual equality.
Force Majeure presents us with the discomfiting challenge that the quest for sex equality – the commitment to unwind patterns of patriarchy and have a society that values men and women equally – may require much more than futzing at the margins of our laws. Instead, it may require rewiring libidinal urges. This isn’t quite like trying to undo a natural law but it may be a clawing away at the foundations of life in marriage and monogamy. The movie helps us see that marriage as an institution and women themselves are invested in performances of masculinity. This doesn’t mean we can remain resigned to material inequality caused by patterns of male domination. But it may mean that we need to have more uncomfortable conversations about the deep ways the desire for masculinity – by women, in particular – continues to structure male performances of masculinity. This structure of desire keeps us living in a gender conformist world that prescribes scripts feminists say they are eager to cast aside.