Before current expectations of gender equality, men and women have often had very different perceptions placed upon them due simply to their sex. Women were expected to be compliant, nurturing and passive and societal expectations included marriage and primary responsibility for child-rearing. Men were typically expected to be strong, decisive and brave, with the ability to take care of and protect their family. People who did not conform to these stereotypes were often marginalized by society.
Films often represent women and men in ways that challenge the traditional gender roles held by our society. One such film, Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino”, challenges the audience’s views about the independence of women and the leadership roles and masculinity associated with men, young and old.
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In the film we are presented with four main characters; the older male Walt Kowalski who is a strong and dominant man; the young male Thao Vang Lor, a submissive, feeble man; the older woman Grandmother Phong, the matriarchal leader of the Lor family; and Sue Lor, a free-spirited young woman with the courage and will to stand against the aggressive gang culture around her.
Eastwood constructs his female characters to embody ideas of social independence and leadership, which challenges traditional values about women in society. Sue Lor and Grandmother Phong, stand up for themselves against their male counterparts in the film when they try to assert their dominance. This can be seen in the scene where Walt confronts Grandmother Phong, attempting to emphasise his dominance by spitting, traditionally a habit associated with strong men. The expectation is for Phong to back down from the show of dominance, but instead, she spits an even larger amount than Walt; a direct signal to the audience of Phong’s sense of equality.
Grandmother Phong is the head of the Lor family and the female equivalent of Walt, as Walt is the head of his family. She is often portrayed sitting in a rocking chair on the Lor’s veranda, watching the neighbourhood, and chewing beetle juice, a substance chewed by men in Myanmar to show dominance and leadership. These activities are similar to the activities that Walt is revealed to do, such as drinking beer on the porch and chewing beef jerky, and the similarities shown between the two characters direct the audience to not only equate Phong with Walt’s character, but with the masculinity, he displays, and to see female leadership as natural and right.
We can see that Eastwood means to portray the females of “Gran Torino” as intelligent, quick-thinking girls who have the courage to stand up to men when Sue is confronted with Spider’s gang for the first time.
“Spider: This is my little cousin, Sue.
Smokie: Hey, Sue… how old are you, girl?
Sue: Mentally, I’m way too old for you. I’m going inside.
Spider: That’s right, go inside while the men talk.
Sue: Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m doing, Fong.”
Her snappy, sarcastic comments, even when Spider suggests she should listen to men and leave, which would re-affirm the traditional representation of woman as submissive, illustrates how Sue is intelligent and independent; she doesn’t follow the orders of her family and especially not the orders of older men in her household. This female independence shown goes against the traditional representation of women as weak and submissive characters that should always follow the orders of men.
Female dominance is also seen when Sue is on the streets and is surrounded and threatened by three men. Instead of submitting, Sue fights verbally back at the three attackers, insulting their masculinity and provoking their anger.
“Tall gang member: This Oriental yummy for me? Don’t worry; I’ll take good care of her.
Sue: Great, another asshole with a fetish for Asian girls. God, it gets so old.
Tall gang member: What’s your name, girl?
Sue: My name? It’s ‘take your crude, overly obvious come-on to every woman who walks past and cram it.’ That’s my name.”
From these scenes, we are shown a woman who believes it is her right to be able to walk down the street without being assaulted. This portrayal of women as fighters who can hold themselves against men and are considered to be equal is prevalent in the film, and the idea of strong women challenges a traditional societal view that woman should be submissive to men and that men are the stronger sex who should be the protectors.
However, Gran Torino also presents women as vulnerable and unable to protect those that they love when we are presented with Sue’s encounter with the African American gang, and then the sexual assault of Sue by the Hmong gang. In both scenarios, Sue is singled out, because of her attitude towards abusive men or her connections to Thao, and is assaulted, verbally and physically, by the gangs.
The assault of such a strong woman as Sue, by a gang of males, shows to the audience the idea that woman is physically vulnerable and need to be protected, as they cannot do it themselves. The assault of Sue intends to show the audience that no matter how emotionally strong a woman is, men, can always use physical strength to dominate, therefore acknowledging the notion that women are weak and in need of protection. The idea of vulnerable women reinforces a traditional society’s expectations of women in need of protection. The portrayal of Sue’s loss of strength and power is included in the film as the catalyst for her brother Thao to transform from a weak male character to a stronger one who can be seen as beneficial to society.
Men, such as Walt Kowalski, are represented in the film as aggressive, judgmental, crude, forceful characters who dominate; they are the strong leaders who are needed to protect the society they live in. They are presented as essential to society as the women and those with women like qualities and too weak and cannot protect themselves. This is seen when Sue is being assaulted by both the African American and Hmong gang members. Walt, who holds racial prejudice towards Sue and her family, drives by and rescues Sue from the verbal assault from the African American gang, rescuing her from a dangerous situation that she could not have escaped from herself.
Walt also warns the gang about the consequences of crossing a man such as himself;
“Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn’t have messed with? That’s me.”
Walt is also shown as a hero after the sexual assault of Sue and the drive-by shooting on the Lor’s house; he defeated the Hmong gang by sacrificing himself and is killed so that Sue and Thao are protected from the Hmong gang in the future. The act of sacrificing himself to save others invites the audiences to see Walt’s character as brave, loyal and fiercely protective of Sue and Thao, and these characteristic reflect back upon the representation of men.
The threatening warning and the self-sacrifice, as well as many other of Walt’s actions, sets him up as the alpha male of the neighbourhood; the leader and the protector. The assertion of Walt as a leader and a guardian reinforces traditional societal views of males as dominant individuals and invites audiences to relate to Walt as his characterisation supports society’s expectations of men.
The scene after the birth ritual of the family, when Grandmother Phong is discussing how her daughter should remarry, addresses the idea of men who do not possess strength.
“Phong: There’s no man in this house, that’s why my daughter should remarry. Being a second wife is better than having a woman be the head of the household.
Man: What about Thao?
Phong: What about him?
Man: He’s the man in the house.
Phong: Thao’s not a man. Look at him in the kitchen, washing dishes like a woman. Even his sister gives him orders and he obeys.”
Phong’s description of Thao doing jobs “like a woman” is meant as an insult to Thao, illustrating that it is weak and passive to be a sympathetic male character; this characterisation goes against society’s traditional views of strong male characters. However, it also shows us that even though Grandmother Phong has assumed the leadership role in her family and her granddaughter Sue is following her lead, she still believes it would be beneficial to have a man as the head of her household; one more stereotypically ‘male’ than her grandson who practices obedience and submissiveness to the women in his family. This re-affirms the idea that a strong male leader is needed for families to be successful, and it also reaffirms societal views of males.
We can see that male characters in the film are represented as both strong, manly leaders of society, such as Walt, and weak, submissive individuals such as Thao, and therefore both reinforce and challenge traditional expectations of men by society.
While we see the two older characters of Walt and Grandmother Phong ultimately maintaining their traditional gender roles, we see a caring and self-sacrificing side to Walt’s nature and a stoic side to grandmother Phong. We also see the two younger characters of Thao and Sue display gender roles that encompass both typically male and female characteristics.
The film “Gran Torino” ultimately shows us four characters that, through a tragic series of events, display a range of gender identities that challenge and reinforce the traditional views of society.
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