Representations of Masculinity in Post-War Britain

Post-war Britain was a time when masculinity came in to question and was scrutinized by all form of art. The film Dr. No, John LeCarre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and Philip Larkin’s Collected Poems all give representations of what it meant to by “masculine” in a post-war British society. Each text presents a different view on this concept from the extreme of the overly-masculine James Bond to the broken and emotionally dysfunctional Philip Larkin. While each text present a different view on what it meant to be “masculine” in post-war Britain they all seem to agree on one thingâÂ?¦that the idea of “masculinity” was changing, that there was something happening to fundamental quality of masculinity that needed to be addressed.

In the film Dr. No the main character, James Bond, is presented to the viewer as the typical alpha-male figure. He has an exciting job, money which to throw around, sex with multiple women, and he can kill whom ever he wants whenever he wants. James Bond is a complete contrast to the main character in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Alec Leamas. While Leamas is also a spy like James Bond, Leamas is not the glamorous womanizer that Bond is. Leamas is presented to the reader as weak, broken, and cowardly. Bond appears to be presented to the viewer as a character who represents all that men in Britain should be like, whereas Leamas represents what LeCarre feels they are like.

James Bond is a man who can have any woman that he encounters and does not have to worry about a relationship or emotions being involved. From the beginning of the film we are shown how sex is trivial and meaningless to Bond. The first woman he sleeps with in the film is a woman who he met at a card game; he barely learns her name before sleeping with her. Throughout the film Bond winks and makes sexually driven facial expressions at almost all of the women he comes in to contact with, and every time he does so it is in his own best interest. Mike Zimmerman Talks about this in his article “Your move, Mr. Bond” and states “Assistants, receptionists, and other support personnel pack a hard drive’s worth of information – and are the gateways to your adversary. You don’t have to twist their arms. Just make their day.” This quote displays how Bond only sees women as a means to an end, as beings who can potentially offer him an important piece of information to better his situation. Bond represents the type of masculinity which was to be strived for in post-war Britain.

Leamas, on the other hand, is always dependant on Liz, even when he is trying to push her away. Leamas seems as if he does not want a relationship either, but as the novel progresses the reader learns that Leamas is more dependant on Liz than he lets on to be. In the beginning of the text Leamas becomes very ill and Liz is the one to nurse him back to health. On p. 36 it states, “She helped him wash and shave and she found some clean bedclothes. She gave him some calf’s-foot jelly, and some breast of chicken from the jar she’d bought at Mr. Sleaman’s” (LeCarre 36). This quote illustrates how much Leamas depended on Liz for the most basic of human needs; survival. Leamas, as a man, is depicted as someone who depends on women for their survival, as opposed to the figure of masculinity that Bond presents in which men are the strongest of the sexes who relies on women for nothing other than sexual gratification. Leamas represents the post-war masculine figure that is emotional and wrecked from the war.

Philip Larkin is a “masculine” character who is completely different from Leamas and Bond. Larkin is not the typical sex-hungry male that Bond is, and also does not rely on women for his survival as Leamas does. Larkin takes a different approach on what it means to be “masculine.” Larkin has, for the most part, given up on the idea and has made the realization that being “masculine” is a waste of time. The first poem in the packet, “This Be The Verse,” talks about the reproduction of society. Larkin states,

“Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.” (Larkin 180).

This last stanza of the poem is a direct reflection of Larkin’s attitude throughout the entire packet of poetry. His poems do not romanticize sex the way that Bond does, yet they do not express a need for relationships the way that LeCarre does. Larkin is content being alone and not adding to the cycle of miserable human beings. He recognizes that there is no magical destination for a person’s life, and that it is better to be pessimistic and realistic than to romanticize life and love. He is uncaring, broken, and pessimistic version of post-war British masculinity.

All of the male figures that we have encountered in these texts have presented us with a different view on the role of the male in post-war Britain. Bond represents the alpha-dominant male, Leamas the emotional wreck, and Larkin the uncaring realist. While each of the males represents a different view on what post-war Britain’s men should be like, they also each recognize that there is now a period of uncertainty about the idea of “masculinity.” Each text presents a different remedy for the problem at hand, but ultimately the idea of masculinity becomes a lost notion that does not reappear in a unified form again in the texts we have read.

Larkin, Philip. Collected Poems. The Noonday Press and The Marvell Press. 1989.
LeCarre, John. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Bantam Books. New York, New York. 1990.
Zimmerman, Mike. Men’s Health. Vol. 17 Issue 9, p120, 3p, 3c. Nov2002.

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