Book Review of Troubling Masculinities: Terror, Gender, and Monstrous Others in American Film Post-9/11, by Glen Donnar

Sellers Johnson
Independent Scholar
Wilmington, NC

Donnar, G. (2020) Troubling Masculinities: Terror, Gender, and Monstrous Others in American Film Post-9/11. University Press of Mississippi. 248 pages, Paperback, $30.48.

Heteronormative ideals of masculinity and defense against the threats of the imposing yet elusive terror-Other have long been fixtures of traditional American male identity. From cinematic trends in the pulp sci-fi monster films of the 1950s to the melodramatic disaster films of the 1990s, screen media in American culture has long striven to foreground rationale, strength, and the endurance of the hetero-male figure in the face of overwhelming threats. Both the protection from and antagonization of political enemies abroad had long been a complex, yet ostensibly comprehensible issue in the minds of many American people. Our enemies, whoever they were and however dangerous, could at least be identified. But this perception changed drastically and with utmost clarity after 9/11. An ambiguous terror-Other force infiltrated the United States committing major acts of destruction that not only caused widespread death and cultural trauma, but also severely disturbed the popular consciousness of traditional American masculinity—something that was already innately volatile. In the following monograph, Glen Donnar details screen media in a variety of genre films, from horror to frontier Westerns mainly set in the decade following the attacks on September 11th , in order to explore depictions of masculinity, the futile efforts expended to truly regain its apparent loss of value, and its innate unraveling in U.S. cinema .

Donnar’s Troubling Masculinities: Terror, Gender, and Monstrous Others in American Film Post-9/11 analyses the threats of the obscure entities of the terror-Other, how they weigh on popular conceptions of American masculinity, and the inadequacies of masculinity and nationality that were troubled from the start. With this in mind, narrative characters who strive to regain a sense of lost masculinity often find that their efforts prove to be volatile and vain. These film narratives attempt to grapple with American identity and the efforts  taken to generate remasculinization. However, such efforts to rebuild a broken sense of normative masculinity are routinely met with challenges that indicate the presence of troubled masculinities that had already existed before the physical threats of the terror-Other—be they foreign extremist groups, giant monsters destroying a metropolitan, zombie-vampires overtaking a major city, or masked assailants dismantling the safety of the “protective home.” At times, Americans struggling to reassert their masculinity even discover that they are, in fact, monstrous Others themselves.

This refractive approach to American masculinity interrogates both its troubled and troubling nature. Donnar’s casual, yet determined tone in analyzing these issues of masculinity is not entirely sympathetic, nor is it reproving. Rather, he strives to illuminate that Hollywood’s endeavors to redeem or recover a sense of damaged cultural masculinity, which is overwhelmed by labels of terror, isn’t an issue with an easy resolution. As such, heteronormative masculinity in America continues to face its own anxieties, which were long apparent, even before the effects of 9/11.

Donnar’s book is organized into four major chapters, each examining a specific film made in the years following 9/11 while drawing on a few other films for comparative context. Starting with Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (2006), the narratives in Donnar’s monograph are initially located in and around Ground Zero, before rippling out across the United States and the Atlantic. They each configure different nuances to post-9/11 conceptions of American masculinity, shattered in the wake of national tragedy, and the desperation to reclaim and assert their place in autonomy and agency. Beginning with the disaster drama of World Trade Center, Donnar looks to other multi-genre films by discussing monster themes and found footage in Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008), post-apocalyptic action thrillers with I Am Legend (Francis Lawrence, 2007), and with a move abroad to study action-war dramas in The Kingdom (Peter Berg, 2007) and 12 Strong (Nicolai Fuglsig, 2018).

While World Trade Center is curiously one of Stone’s more politically muted films, it nevertheless signifies many of the contentions of troubled masculinity in the decade following the September 11th attacks. Stone’s film depicts these issues by highlighting tensions of masculinity depicted through fatherhood and paternal protection, and through the uniforms of the police and emergency responders. The film also explores the conventions of the “disaster film” before switching to a “mine accident” movie midway through the narrative. In the hole of the wreckage, Stone’s recurring characterization of holes as “the womb” signifies the police officers’ rebirth upon their eventual rescue. Interestingly, the officers’ masculinity is threatened by their inability to protect the city and nation. But surviving the ordeal turns their attention to somewhat ambivalent considerations of femininized domestic spaces embodied in the safety of the home. Paternity becomes a crucial part of their redemption from the immediate tragedy of 9/11. Donnar writes: “In World Trade Center, the trapped men’s survival, in contrast to their original mission to rescue others, becomes their heroism” (41-42). While the entrapment of Officers McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Jimeno (Michael Peña) underneath the fallen second tower renders them wounded and passive for much of the film, this sense of gendered self is reasserted by their continued agency and potency as fathers (44). While Donnar also discusses United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006) and Spike Lee’s 25thHour (2002), the majority of this chapter is geared toward textual analysis of World Trade Center.

Stepping away from the interior wreckage of Ground Zero, Donnar’s second chapter explores the monster/disaster film genre in the years following 9/11. The found footage featuring the aesthetic and visual destruction of New York City from a (mostly) unseen threat clearly evinces cultural anxiety following the September 11th attacks. And while the Cloverfield monster (“Clover”) does allude to Gojira/Godzilla, Clover is often obscured from the characters, who only see it by piecing together partial encounters with the threat, until it looms overhead of them during the film’s final moments. In connection to his opening chapter, Donnar discusses aspects of containment and the obfuscated threat in reading Cloverfield. In the Reeves film, the military fails to contain or capture the giant monster, and New Yorkers fail to fully capture the monster visually through their video footage. The camera is also always aligned with the male perspective.

Donnar further shares that “Catastrophe makes authority available to the hero” (73). However, he also writes how in light of this catastrophe, the emasculated urban male still strives for remasculinization. In detailing how a sense of male shame correlates with cultural anxieties of male inadequacy following 9/11, Donnar also briefly discusses the home invasion film The Strangers (Bryan Bertino, 2008). Ultimately, he contends that there’s an inherent futility to the remasculinization quest that reflects insufficiencies in military professionalism and American self-centeredness as ultimate vulnerabilities in attacks from the terror-Other.

Chapter three concerns paternal guilt, survivor’s guilt, and shame amidst the destruction and abandonment of urban centers. Here, Donnar focuses on I Am Legend and the film’s expression of capitalistic consumption, “postracialism”, regimentation, redemption, and masculinity threatened by a “profound lack of control” (125). He directs our attention to an ethos of certain post-9/11 films, where the “man” (i.e., Will Smith’s Robert Neville) inherently desires suffering and punishment for his failings and inability to foresee or defend his family/nation/home from the terror-Other. He also highlights an important complexity in Neville’s attempt to regain his sense of paternal-professional masculinity by effectively becoming a monstrous-Other, as he conducts dangerous experiments on the infected.

In his final main chapter, Donnar studies the impacts of military response action against acts of terrorism and the complications inherent in the idea of remasculinization via violent revenge. The Kingdom showcases a multiethnic FBI rapid response team deployed to Saudi Arabia to investigate the bombing of a housing compound for a US oil company. Donnar notes how the film serves as a frontier Western, as the Special Agents find themselves in a hostile desert locale, struggling to protect an insecure outpost, and using violence as a method for securing this area of the nation. More so than the prior three sections, this final chapter unpacks the problematic ethos of revenge by interrogating its inadequacies in the quest for masculine redemption, the residual shame from 9/11, and American sovereignty.  Numerous critics have signaled Western tropes within the film; and yet, these Western-adjacent, modern tales of revenge and retribution are, at best, deflated, as taking up arms fails to be recuperative. Donnar writes, “Remasculinization through the restoration of professional agency, reterritorialization of space, and taking up of arms is ultimately not recuperative” (183).

In summary, Troubling Masculinities attends to the depiction of cinematic screen masculinities of the mid-to-late 2000s. The text aims to detail the instability and uncertainty of normative American masculinity in Hollywood in the wake of 9/11. Donnar focuses on a few key films that each examine chaotic threats of terror, the horrific spectacle of 9/11, male monstrosity, dubious masculine redemptions, the ambiguities of the terror-Other, and the capacity of the American heteronormative male to defend and maintain a collective sense of self in combating overwhelming and confounding violence. He is considerably focused on textual analysis and each chapter centers on unpacking a particular post-9/11 film in which masculine persons contend with confusing and uncontainable forces of terror, muddled attempts at remasculinization, and their own monstrous selves. Donnar surveys different genres and subgenres in order to further explore these facets of troubled masculinity. One theme present throughout this text is the ostensible reclamation of masculinity. The male heroes don their uniforms, rescue their partners, and either survive the terror-Other or sacrifice themselves symbolically. But these affirmations of masculine control and pride are never fully realized and are usually undercut by other present factors. He also writes how this text “articulates how films across a range of genres underscore the grave consequences of an unwillingness or inability to engage the terror-identified Other” (187).

Some of Donnar’s terminology, such as that of describing subgeneric tonal shifts and narrative ambiguities within certain case studies as “genre schizophrenia,” are misplaced in their semantics. Also, the conclusion section briefly examines 12 Strong, but this merely seems like a missed opportunity to otherwise cover the overarching arguments for each chapter and how they cohere as a unified theme and contention. Despite these few critiques, he peppers in apt theory in just the right places to support the longer sections of textual analysis throughout the book. All in all, Troubling Masculinities: Terror, Gender, and Monstrous Others in American Film Post-9/11 offers a very detailed and reader-friendly study of ideologies of normative masculinity in film as the shock of the September 11th attacks continues to resonate today both socially and politically. In focusing on a concentrated period of time during the mid-to-late 2000s, Glen Donnar places his finger on the pulse of a very formative period of cinematic and cultural activity that remains an indelible part of American cinematic history.