The words strong, courageous and powerful are attributes which we normally associate with the stereotypical male figures of modern society. Throughout history the masculine typecast has been born through folktales and myths, presenting the conventional male and his many defining characteristics and qualities. It is not often therefore, that the masculine label is related to with such words as incompetent, weak and cowardly. A rare example of this challenge to the masculine stereotype comes in the form of the 1996 file Fargo, a neo noir film by the Coen Brothers staring Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson, the key protagonist.
The film is set in the far northern township of Brainerd, Minnesota, as well as the surrounding settlements and countryside. The year is 1987 and Minneapolis car salesman, Jerry Lundegaard, is in desperate need of funds. Feeling trapped and without another option, Jerry concocts a desperate plan to kidnap his own wife and collect the ransom of one million dollars from his rich but stubborn father in law, Wade. After the extortion plot goes wrong, Jerry soon finds himself in too deep when the two criminals he hired to kidnap his wife run into some serious trouble along the way.
The main character of Jerry in the film is an identity who continues to challenge the stereotypical male throughout the film. Jerry, although portrayed initially as the ”¹…”mastermind’ of his own money making scheme, is soon revealed to be nothing more than an incompetent failure. His disorganisation and spinelessness cost many characters in the film and he is represented as a complete contrast to the recognised, clich© male figure. The fact that he can’t face his problems head on and that he is always trying to avoid responsibility for his actions are traits which are shown clearly in one scene at the car dealership where Jerry is being interviewed by Marge Gunderson. Jerry, all too easily, allows himself to get backed into a corner with his lies quickly catching up to him. The shot of the scene uses a wide variety of film techniques to portray both Jerry’s disorganisation and his feelings of entrapment. The busy roadway out the windows of his office helps to signify his mind racing to cover his lies and protect himself from Marge’s keen detective skills whilst the use of venetian blinds by the directors also adds an important feeling of isolation and hopelessness to the scene. The venetian blinds hang vertically behind Jerry and symbolise his lies and deceit, which trap him just as easily as prison bars or a fence would. His final failure to fulfil his stereotypical masculine role can clearly be seen when he resorts to “Fleein the interview” an act of cowardice and obvious guilt.
Another example in the film of male characters that don’t live up to their stereotypical roles is the two criminals that Jerry hires to kidnap and ransom his wife. Both men are explicitly different from Jerry and then different again from each other, yet they all are examples of the marginalised nature of all the male characters in the film. The two crooks, Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud, both agree to kidnap Jerry’s wife for the sum of forty thousand dollars as well as a car that Jerry will supply. Carl is an odd character who throughout the movie is described as “Little funny looking man” by most of the people who meet him. He seems not to leave any significant impression with anyone who he meets, not even the prostitutes that he hires to give him attention, can give an accurate description. This unimposing attitude is a factor which prevents Carl from fulfilling the role of the stereotypical masculine figure in the film. Another prime example of his shortcomings is in the scene where Carl and Grimsrud get pulled over by a state trooper, just after performing the kidnapping. The state trooper is noticeably suspicious of the two men and Carl’s attempts to “Handle this” by bribing the officer, only make matters worse.
Grimsrud, in comparison to Carl, appears nearly to be the perfect stereotypical male. Grimsrud is tall, strong and deceptively intelligent. He displays his quick thinking when he single handily ”¹…”handles’ the situation with the state trooper when Carl nearly ruins the whole operation. First looks can be deceiving however because on closer inspection, Grimsrud is also a character which displays the marginalised nature of the masculine discourse of the film. He wants pancakes instead of steak for lunch and he is shown in one scene, fixated on a soap opera whilst Carl is out doing the dirty work of the operation. Even in the final scene where he is confronted by Marge, Grimsrud continues to reject the stereotypical male role and runs from the seven month pregnant police chief.
Whether it be Jerry’s incompetence and cowardice or even the Carls lack of impressionability and inability to handle stressful situations every male character of the film Fargo challenges the stereotypical male in one form or another. Actions of the main characters in the film help to shatter the clich© of masculinity and the male characters are portrayed as a somewhat opposite of their gender stereotype. The conventional male is rejected and replaced with a masculine identity which is flawed in many more ways than one.