Questions of Masculinity in Force Majeure

Print More

A traffic sign suggesting for men to hold women's hands as they cross the street.

The film Force Majeure forces us to examine exactly what masculine stereotypes we are trying to abolish, and why. Credit: CreativeCommons / Keoni Cabral.


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.

* * *
Tomas and Ebba and their two kids need some time away from Sweden together; Tomas has been working too much. They decide to go skiing in the Alps on a family vacation. On the second day of the trip they pause for lunch at a venue overlooking a beautiful mountain. What at first seems like a “controlled” avalanche begins to seem like it is snowballing out of control – and it threatens to bury Tomas and Ebba’s family. Ebba scurries under a table with the kids as chaos ensues at the restaurant. Tomas, however, appears to run away, attempting to save his own skin without helping his family. It turns out the avalanche comes shy of the restaurant and everyone is physically fine. But the psychological trauma leaves bruises.
The rest of the movie charts Tomas’s effort at first to deny and then come to terms with his failure to perform masculinity when the situation gave him an opportunity to be a man. A superficial reading of his failure – and Ebba’s disgusted reaction – could focus upon his apparent selfishness. But that doesn’t capture both why Tomas is ashamed of himself and why Ebba can’t look at him the same way.
Indeed, lest we were confused about what Tomas’s failure was in fleeing the scene, Tomas only gets redeemed at the end of the film when he abandons his kids in a dangerous snowstorm to perform a rescue of Ebba. And there are other hints throughout, too – including a menacing “real man” from another socio-economic class whose performance of masculinity is clearly threatening to Tomas. The longstanding trope of the sexual vitality of the lower classes continues to loom. It was only surprising that Ebba didn’t end up fucking the real man. In real life, that may be more how it goes. Certainly, other movies with similar themes – consider Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet from 2011 – use the specter of the lower class “real man” to help further feminize and emasculate men who fail to puff up properly in the face of danger in the mountains.
* * *
It is worth observing that Force Majeure is made by a man, even if it would be very hard to see Ӧstlund as sympathizing with his leading man. Ebba rarely comes off badly – and Tomas hardly has a triumphant moment at all. The Loneliest Planet, by contrast, is made by a woman. But the female protagonist’s inability to get over her lover’s failure as a man – leading her ultimately to kiss the manly ruffian – is not something Loktev seems to be celebrating at all; the force of desire isn’t something Lotkev is endorsing (or denying). If there is bias in Force Majeure, it isn’t from gender. Nor does nationality seem especially important. This is clearly a Swedish movie and not an American one – but the gender politics are familiar. Loktev is a Russian-American who was partially educated in Canada; her film, with a German production company and Georgian, Israeli, and Mexican actors, highlights something universal about these themes. But that doesn’t make the perspective on gender in these films a view from nowhere.
Indeed, one senses that this vision of gender trouble is refracted through socio-economic or cultural class. The class that makes movies reads articles about the supposed “End of Men” in The Atlantic and about women’s especial difficulty with monogamous living in The New York Times Magazine. Your mileage may vary.
Class is evident and relevant. This is a vacation movie, a story about the sorts of people who have the money for ski resorts. Among the members of this class, feminism has had real impact. Ebba chooses her domestic life – and could choose against it without risking poverty. No one in this class believes gender roles are rules of nature; it would be retrograde among this class to think men and women ought to be living out their assigned gender scripts.
This doesn’t, of course, mean that life lived in this class is hunky dory for women: they still suffer from sexual assaults, domestic violence, unequal pay for equal work, discrimination in the workplace, unacceptable pressure to perform femininity. But the movement for sexual equality has gained meaningful traction among class members. These women can demand sex, can demand respect in the work place, and can demand of their partners a substantial share of the work in the home. Yet too often they also demand or desire performances of masculinity, too. The movie can’t help but make us wonder whether these demands – which can work at cross-purposes – place too much pressure on the domestic lives bourgeois feminists want to live. Equality in the boardroom can lead to problems in married bedrooms.
* * *
Force Majeure‘s optimism at the end of the film that mini-performances of masculinity can reset a relationship back on course seems to be only half-hearted. To be sure, we are led to believe Tomas and Ebba’s marriage will survive this disruption. Tomas’s rescue of Ebba at the end gives him the opportunity to reestablish the equilibrium of a certain power dynamic, a dynamic that sustains the marriage.
Yet it can’t be ignored that just as Tomas appears to regains his manhood, Ebba brushes the snow off herself after being carried by Tomas, ostensibly capable of having walking all on her own all along. Even if Ebba is able to stay true to Tomas, it is very hard to believe she won’t have in her mind Tomas’s failure to perform masculinity for the rest of their time together. Even if she forgives him his effete running away from the avalanche, we know she won’t likely shake the image of Tomas bawling on the floor, crying in front of his children and in front of the proverbial “real man” in a caricatured display of being unable to bear his own failures. Once lost, masculinity is very hard to regain.
A bust of Antinous.

Credit: CreativeCommons / Herb Neufeld.


Ebba – like many women before her, no doubt – tries to help her husband rebuild his sense of himself as a man. But one has the sneaking suspicion that this favor to Tomas, much like faking orgasms, is not going to solve her problem, nor, finally, Tomas’s. She walks away after the rescue with a smug sense of self-satisfaction. She thinks she saves her marriage by being helpless and by letting Tomas save her, all while saving Tomas from his tailspin into self-loathing. But looking at her from above her perch, we have to suspect another avalanche is in the offing.
One senses that it is only a matter of time before Ebba, continuing to be fascinated by her non-monogamous friend we meet in the lodge, starts looking for ways to be with real men, who aren’t – at least within the scope of her sexual relationship with them – sullied by a child’s poop, household chores, or carpooling responsibilities. It is in this way that women’s libidinal demand for performances of masculinity can lead to the undoing of the equal partnership household. Domesticity breeds the desire to transcend it. The etiology of the boredom may be something more complex than just repetition. Husbands eventually learn: never send to know for whom she waxes; it is not for thee.
* * *
When the masculinities literature got underway during one of the feminism waves – yes, there is such a field and, yes, they pluralize it because there are different kinds of masculinities for whites, blacks, Asians, gays, etc., you get the point – it was first emphasized how much performances of masculinity were really about proving one’s manhood to other men. It was men who were thought to be enforcing and policing masculinities; women were instrumentalized in this intra-gender competition. This is referred to as the “homosociality” of masculinity. Of course there is something to that. It is at least in part a fear of other men – and a fear of being outed as feminine in front of other men – that drives performances of masculinity. Michael Kimmel – a father of the field – calls this dynamic, only partially as a provocation, “masculinity as homophobia.” As Andrea Dworkin’s husband John Stoltenberg suggests in Refusing to be a Man, much of our geopolitics can be traced to these performances: “The military postures of patriarchal nations are modeled exactly on the psychosexual needs of men to defend themselves against personal assault by other men, which can be understood as eroticized violence between males exclusively, and therefore homosexual.” Maybe.
Yet what seems to be missed too often in this academic literature, perhaps because scholars in the field are eager not to piss off the feminists from whom they gained inspiration to pursue the “gendered” nature of being a man, is that women’s investment in these performances drives a not insubstantial amount of “acting like a man.” If it turns out women are more likely to cheat on their emasculated men – or at least be disgusted by them sexually as they continue to try to hold together their sexless or lust-less marriages – perhaps it remains unsurprising that “boys will be boys.”
There is a thin slice of data suggesting that egalitarian marriages are ones with more sex. But just like we can ask about hookup culture whether all this liberated sex is really good sex (or are women still having sex in fraternity houses under men’s terms and faking their orgasms?), we can ask whether this domesticated sex is really the kind of sex anyone really wants. If it isn’t, this slice of data doesn’t undo the challenge the ongoing demand for masculinity poses to the simultaneous demand for equal households, where men will be – quite reasonably – asked to pull their weight. Even if men who do the dishes and diapers are still getting laid, we can ask whether it is enough that they are either getting pity fucks or are having to roleplay being anyone but themselves. And if they are getting laid but their wives are still fucking or fantasizing about the contractors working in our homes, what is the domesticated man supposed to do? Indeed, the latest data suggests that the housework most likely to increase sexual frequency in marriage is “traditionally male labor.”
This is no celebration or justification for performances of masculinity; they can be ridiculous as often as they can be malignant. It seems undeniable that a world with more gender nonconformity would be a more truly equal world, where men and women can live more freely without feeling any pressure to perform masculinity or femininity, scripts so often enforced by men and women alike. This world of sex equality is what feminists say we want and we are right to want it.
But, in the final analysis, films like Force Majeure and The Loneliest Planet force us to face an uncomfortable set of questions. Can desire be reconfigured so that we can have sex and domesticity with equal partners in the home? Can women demand equality and masculinity, which so many self-identified feminists seems to command without recognizing serious tensions? Don’t these movies, after all, remind us that a full feminist agenda must find a way to defuse common libidinal impulses if the vision of sex equality is going to be rendered friendly to marriage and domestic life?
Of course, some radical feminists have already raged against marriage and domestic life – and some have put monogamy on the chopping block. Better to have material sex equality than to keep alive some monogamish family structure. But it seems that the mainstream feminism most of us live with and acknowledge as having won the day supports a form of sex equality that has not fully come to terms with the way the focus on the material conditions of women does not, by its nature, reconfigure desire – and the desire for masculinity itself. And without reconfiguring desire, we may be putting more pressure on marriage and monogamy than it can bear. A force majeure and a lonely planet, indeed.

Ethan J. Leib is a professor of law at Fordham Law School. His latest book isFriend v. Friend: The Transformation of Friendship – and What the Law Has to Do with It(Oxford University Press, 2011).