Blue Valentine and manliness

by on Feb.17, 2011, under Movies

Blue Valentine is a mirror image of (500) Days of Summer. Both tell the story of a relationship’s rise and fall; both hop back and forth in time. The latter movie, a comedy, front-loaded the joy of the beginning of the relationship, then showed most of that joy to be one-sided. It had a great feel for infatuation but had less to say about sorrow, and ended up something of a slight novelty item because of that.

Spoilers, big blocks of screenplay, and the c-word all below the fold…

Blue Valentine makes its bed in the grim end of the marriage. The joy of the relationship is long gone in the present-day scenes, which unfold in Aristotelian compactness in a very bad 24-hour period that include a badly fumbled attempt at sexual connection (in the wake of a dog’s death!) and a raving, violent blow-up. But the “happy” early days, spread over a long courtship, already crack under the weight of foreshadowed misery. Even at his most charming — for example, persuading Michelle Williams’ Cindy to dance to a Tin Pan Alley tune on the ukulele — Ryan Gosling’s Dean is obviously  a bad bet.

Dean is slippery and defensive, using apparent vulnerability as a shield and a weapon to always maintain an advantage. Another Peter Pan figure, his playfulness captivates Cindy, but even at the start there’s an edge: he starts off with a classic neg, “In my experience the prettier a girl is, the more nuts she is. Which makes you insane.” She sees right through it, saying “I like how you can compliment and insult someone at the same time. In equal measure,” but he’s in. His manipulations don’t let up —

CINDY

Why don’t you do something...

DEAN

What do you mean?

CINDY

I don’t know.

DEAN

What does that mean? Why don’t I do something?

CINDY

Isn’t there anything you want to do?

DEAN

Like what?

CINDY

I don’t know. You’re so good at so many things, you could do anything you wanted to do, you’re good at everything that you do, isn’t there something else you wanna do?

DEAN

Than what? Than be a husband, to be Frankie’s dad? What do you want me to do? In your dream scenario of me doing what I’m good at, what would that be?

CINDY

I don’t know, you’re so good at so many things, you can do so many things, you have such capacity.

DEAN

For what?

CINDY

You can sing, you can draw, you can dance.

DEAN

Listen I didn’t wanna be somebody’s husband and I didn’t wanna be somebody’s dad. That wasn’t my goal in life. For some guys it is... Wasn’t mine. But somehow, I’ve found what I wanted. I didn’t know that and now it’s all I wanna do... I don’t want to do anything else, it’s what I want to do. I work so I can do that.

CINDY

I’d like to see you have a job where you didn’t have to start drinking at 8 o’clock in the morning to go to it.

DEAN

No, I have a job that I can drink at 8 o’clock in the morning. What a luxury, you know. I get up for work, I have a beer, I go to work, I paint somebody’s house, they’re excited about it. I come home, I get to be with you. That’s like... this is the dream!

CINDY

It doesn’t ever disappoint you?

DEAN

Why? Why would it disappoint me?

CINDY

Because you have all this potential.

DEAN

So what! Why do you have to make money off your potential?

CINDY

Look, I’m not even saying you have to make money off it. Don’t you miss it?

DEAN

What does potential even mean? What does that mean, potential? Potential for what? To turn it into what?

This is Dean at his worst — he presents himself as a kind of open-minded “new man” while he’s really arguing in bad faith to avoid uncomfortable emotional connection.

This scene also brings out one of the least discussed aspects of the movie, which is both microscopically intimate and impressively social. However, the critics I’ve read have avoided the social parts of it. Dean’s stew of self-loathing has a base of uncertain masculinity. There’s something honorable in his rejection of masculine expectation, but without a model to replace it, he’s an asshole.

In a long interview in Salon after the publication of Indecision in 2005, Rebecca Traister and Uncle Kunkel riffed on the situation Dean finds himself in, investigating a “broader sense of male apathy” that “has to do with the difficulty of finding something that seems meaningful to do in the world.” Kunkel sees men foundering in the gains of feminism:

I suppose because the fact that nearly the whole universe of jobs is open to women is a tremendous gain in possibility for them. For men, there’s been no corresponding gain. In fact, we live in this world that for reasons that are kind of hard to explain, [though] I think Hannah Arendt has gone some distance in explaining them, it seems that meaningful action is harder to take than it has been in previous historical times. I think this is the sense even of people who have no historical sense. It’s something that they feel.

and Traister wonders about

a crisis of masculinity in our generation, a generation in which opportunities were truly available to at least middle-class women. We weren’t just told we could do anything; we were expected to do everything. But we were always told how difficult that would be, that we would confront challenges and pay high prices for our satisfactions. I don’t know that men of our generation were sent the same message. So when things get tough, women don’t enjoy it any more than men, but they are not surprised. Whereas men — at least some of the ones I’ve known — have been paralyzed by life’s hardships.

Kunkel:

To really aggrandize these generalizations we’ve been making, you could claim that a great historical crossover has occurred, that a sense of tragic, dignified realism has become the [mark] of femininity while men have become head-in-the-clouds dreamers who want things to be ideal if they’re to be at all.

This is precisely what’s going on here. Critics have raised eyebrows at Dean’s ukulele playing, a fashionably hipster choice pasted on a character who’s supposed to be genuinely working-class. Blue Valentine explains it reasonably well — Dean’s father was a janitor who loved music. It’s not hard to imagine this father as a paragon of an earlier, stoic manliness, a union member with health benefits who could support a family in a blue-collar, menial job and add music to his head-of-household duties to fashion a self. But Dean can’t.

And Cindy knows it:

CINDY

Fuck you, fuck you! I’m more man than you are, you fucking cunt.

DEAN

Don’t say that shit about being a man.

CINDY

I am, I am. I can handle it.

DEAN

What is it with this shit and being a man? What is that? What does it even mean?!

CINDY

Yeah, what is that?

DEAN

What does it mean?

Mimi hurries towards the door, through the glass we see her struggling to get inside...

CINDY

You’re scaring us, you’re scaring us.

DEAN

Don’t say that stuff. “Be a man!” What is that shit?

CINDY

Don’t bully people.

DEAN

I’ll be a man. You want me to be a man?

Dean swings around, sweeps his hand across a nearby desk, knocking various items to the floor, a child throwing a temper tantrum...

DEAN

Here, is this what men do?

CINDY

Oh, just stop it.

DEAN

I’m a big man!

Blue Valentine shows a couple lost in the swirl of unstable gender roles. Dean struggles to tailor manliness to his own needs with a patchwork of semi-responsible stay-at-home fatherhood, intermittent employment, vague artistic gesturing, and violent aggression. It’s a bad fit.

Cross-posted slightly more concisely at Alyssa Rosenberg

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5 Comments for this entry

  • Leonie

    I just finished watching Blue Valentine and that line from Dean about making money from your potential was stuck in my head, I wanted other opinions and went searching… And that brought me here :) It really struck a chord with me… And now, after reading your blog I think I was brain washed by Dean too! I found the film incredibly upsetting and was really hoping for the happy ending! In that scene you quote first about him finding all he wanted was to be a husband and father, I thought, yeah that’s totally admirable, he’s just doing his best and he’s committed… why can’t she see that! I totally sided with him and hoped they’d stay together! How naive! Your discussion of gender roles is interesting. They’ve obviously swapped roles, and that’s not necessarily wrong. She wanted a ‘man’ in the end… But seems she also wanted to be the man. Complex film… I was surprised she would leave her daughter with her father after such a shitty childhood. I think in a lot of ways he was much more honest and honourable than she was. I think she was still hiding.

  • Josh K-sky

    Thanks for coming by, Leonie. Glad you liked!

  • Leah

    Cindy suffered from her childhood, and the lack of love in her life growing up. I was surprised you didn’t mentioned than she said she’s had over 20 sexual partners at such a young age. She couldn’t trust herself being in love, because honestly, how could you after growing up like that? I think she is a very dishonest character, but I’m not saying that Dean wasn’t bad. It was nice reading your blog though!

  • Kayla

    Great article! Just watched this for the first time last night and have been thinking about it since. You’ve brought up some extremely interesting points that make me want to watch it again. Thanks for posting! :)

  • Eric

    I really don’t understand your point about Dean at all. I just watched the movie and I think Cindy was simply an asshole who used him. She is the one not accepting who he wants to be. He always had to be more in order for her to be happy? Screw that. She just couldn’t accept her own choices and eventually bailed on their marriage, when it finally meant she would have to work at it. The only fault I will put on Dean is that he should have known better than to believe her. Her vow was always going to be meaningless. She uses men. She is hollow. This divorce isn’t even remotely going to fix what is wrong with her because she will just chase the next guy who now fits what she needs. Dean, in the mean time, is walking away from this scarred and with a huge lesson learned about life. He lost everything that mattered to him. He was the same guy through the whole movie. She married and divorced the same guy. She changed her needs. He didn’t. She failed him and her child. She is a sad sack of shit and a user.

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  • Potentiality. | ningology

    [...] scene is, as critics have pointed out, intimately personal, yet social in its implications. Putting aside the [...]

  • GEORGIE › More Secondary Research

    […] Blue Valentine shows a couple lost in the swirl of unstable gender roles. Dean struggles to tailor manliness to his own needs with a patchwork of semi-responsible stay-at-home fatherhood, intermittent employment, vague artistic gesturing, and violent aggression. It’s a bad fit.- http://joshuamalbin.com/2011/02/blue-valentine-and-manliness/ […]

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