Friday, August 24th, 2012

Long Live The Working-Class Hunk

Look at Jeremy Renner, star of Bourne Legacy, and you'll see something familiar: a certain set to the jaw, a coiled muscle build, a face that looks, quite frankly, like it's been busted. You look at his body—the thick forearms, the barrel chest—and sense it was not made in the gym. It is a body that has labored, inflected with what Vulture's "Star Market" column calls "real, swaggering, gritty machismo." At 5'9", right about 150 pounds, and with the skin of a smoker, he could be your cousin.

I look around my hometown in northern Idaho, a burnt-out crater of a timber town, and I see men with the same look and build. A lot of these men don't have jobs, or at least don't have the jobs their fathers did. In that, they're not unlike Renner, who toiled for twenty years before winning a role in The Hurt Locker. He made a Hollywood working class wage—$65,000—playing an army sergeant, another role many men in my town have taken. Renner's recent roles may have put him in well-tailored suits (Mission Impossible) and left him buried amongst superheroes (The Avengers), but he was still, at root, a man who did things with his body. According to Avengers director Joss Whedon, "his fight work is wonderful: precise, heroic, and you seldom have to double him."

The traditional jobs of the working class have evaporated, but the downturn has drubbed up nostalgia for a time when men could make a living with their bodies and hands. Not writing code, à la our protagonist in The Social Network, or trading stock futures like Robert Pattinson in Cosmopolis, but laboring.

Off-screen, profiles construct Renner as a laborer, detailing his years buying and remodeling Los Angeles homes. He and his buddy "lived in temporary, torn-up structures, without plumbing or power, trying to squeeze out a few more dollars." They were flipping houses, but they did it the old-fashioned way: sleeping on the floor, construction dust in their hair.

Renner's rise to stardom is indicative of an industry-wide re-embrace of working class American masculinity. Compare his career and look to those of Tom Cruise, George Clooney and Matt Damon, who he replaced in Bourne. Renner's two Oscar nominations are for playing a member of the military and a Boston low-life—men who, one, two generations before, would have toiled in the factory or the mill, but America's post-industrial turn forced them overseas, or to the streets.

We see this embrace in the resurgence of "mancrafting," we see it in the eroticization of Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, with whom women fantasize about living a quiet existence in a backwoods cabin. It's in True Blood's Alcide, and in the return of the 80s "hardbodies" in The Expendables.

We even see it in this summer's Magic Mike, in which a man who yearns to work with his hands is driven to exploit his body as stripper. Behind the gyrations, Mike despairs at the demise of the feasibility of a working-class life. On the construction site, the main character is boxed out by non-union, under-trained labor, and his all-cash stripping-income makes it impossible to get a loan to build his own furniture. He's good at stripping, but in ten years, that job, too, will leave him behind.

But we love its hero: this year alone, Channing Tatum's films have grossed $393 million domestically. He is, as Hollywood analyst Zach Baron put it, "having a better 2012 than anyone. He probably will be our next big movie star. Maybe he already is." He's "masculine," according to Steven Soderbergh, "but not in a bogus way."

Tatum and Renner's characters evoke two sides of the same working-class coin: one driven to dance, the other to service, both screwed by the government in various egregious ways. They come to embody our anxieties and our hopes while raking in massive box office profits.

In this, Renner and Tatum are reminiscent of another working-class star, one who rose to fame when the working class was first truly threatened, when the Red Scare and rising tide of the middle-class called it into question. That man was as well-muscled as Renner; his characters had the same barely-tempered self-loathing. He was Marlon Brando, and he heralded a "new direction in the iconography of masculinity."

That masculinity was sexual, emotive, and explicitly working class. He wore "dirty dungarees" and white t-shirts, and refused the Hollywood "glamour treatment." When gossip columnist Hedda Hopper mentioned his name to her coffee-clatch, they exclaimed "Marlon Brando? He's exciting! Marlon Brando? He's coarse, he's vulgar! Marlon Brando, he's male!"

The Method he espoused was complicated, yet its effect was simple. He bulldozed Hollywood.

Today, we fetishize that young Brando, reading him into the likes of Renner. But his body and mind went to seed, and his gradual decline paralleled the decline of the American working-class as the nation transitioned into a post-industrial, service-based economy. Brando's final roles present him as a wreck of his former self: a broken, bloated, incoherent man desperate for work.These new working-class stars help wipe that terrifying memory clean.

When analysts call Renner and Tatum the next big movie stars, it's not just a declaration of worth. It's also one of desire: people want to pay to watch this person, and what he seems to stand for, on screen. The Hollywood image of the American male has transitioned countless times over the last century, but this archetype persists. It's the cinematic descendant of the rugged frontiersman, the cowboy, John Wayne and Gary Cooper, of course, but it has more recent iterations. Han Solo, after all, was a working-class cowboy in space, played by rugged-looking dude who George Lucas plucked from his backyard, where he was busy building him a deck. Bruce Springsteen, drenching his white t-shirt and red bandana in sweat, the very young, deceivingly normal Tom Cruise in All the Right Moves—they were antidotes to the very real decline that Reagan worked so skillfully to mask. (Of course, it's no coincidence that Reagan himself rose to stardom in the 40s playing working-class roles, parlaying that image, and America's hunger for it, into a presidency.)

These stars and the roles they play represent an America that no longer exists, yet remains fundamental to America's self-conception as a nation of strength and individualism. When a way of life dies, we grasp for the thing that looks like it: its afterimage, its hollow simulacra, its projection onscreen. The working class is dead; long live the working-class hunk.

Related: "Mission Impossible": I Don't Understand How Tall Everyone Is

Anne Helen Petersen writes Scandals of Classic Hollywood when she's not thinking about Idaho.

29 Comments / Post A Comment

melis (#1,854)

"Reagan's running for president? No, no, it's Stewart as president, Reagan as best friend."

HereKitty (#2,713)

AHP, you are such a good writer, I just want to rub this all over my face.

But I'm coarse and vulgar and I have dirty dungarees! … and yet, I'm not a working-class hunk.

White t-shirts should do it, I guess.

LondonLee (#922)

What's happened to fact-checking at the Awl? Renner is in 'The Bourne Legacy'.

Alex Balk (#4)

@LondonLee D'oh! Fixed, thanks.

Danzig! (#5,318)

Back in my day we called em "beefcake"

Good on Renner for… making good, I guess. It's odd that Tom Cruise picked him as a replacement on the M:I films, 'cause Cruise was stepping out due to age but he's got less than a decade on Renner.

Dogwalker (#237,304)

Dear AHP,
You are such a great writer I love your words, your phrasing. I wish you could have a sit down with Jeremy Renner and convince him to take on Historic characters. I see Jeremy Renner as a young Ernest Hemingway when he was compelled to write "Who Murdered the Vets". There is a Hurrican vs the Florida Keys Story there of sad tragedy. It is one that many do not know of. I see Jeremy Renner as a narrator in that story.

This is beautifully written.

oh! valencia (#237,307)

"he could be your cousin"
Jeremy Renner, in fact, looks exactly like my cousin.

Charlotte Flax (#234,743)

Am I the only one who doesn't find Channing Tatum remotely attractive?

Rosebud (#4,107)

@Charlotte Flax Yes.

twinkles (#237,334)

@Charlotte Flax No, you are not alone. He (Tatum) just doesn't do anything for me. Now Renner I find very attractive. I agree, not a pretty boy but that ruggedly handsome thing he has going on… I like it. Not to mention he's an extremely talented actor. "To each his own"
Great piece, very enjoyable and well written.

Rachel@twitter (#237,340)

@Charlotte Flax I find Channing Tatum very unattractive.

werewolfbarmitzvah (#16,402)

TOUGH, WEATHERED, SALT OF THE EARTH MENS. This post, I am fond of it.

collier (#13,548)

@werewolfbarmitzvah: FOR REAL. Over here it is all Renner, all the time. Oh em eff gee, etc.

@ Charlotte Flax : I'm with you. Maybe he's really nice or whatever, but ehhhhh. Does absolutely nothing for me. I understand he's occasionally like, emoting and stuff now — but I've only seen him in GI Joe and honestly? I've got sock puppets more animated than that.

stinapag (#10,293)

AHP, I love your writing so much. Thanks for going beyond the Scandals series.

Adiko Josh (#237,392)

@stinapag Awesome writing I want to say also.

Bittersweet (#765)

Renner may have been "buried amongst superheroes" in The Avengers, but he was the one I watched, almost compulsively, every time he was on-screen. It'd be great to have a Hawkeye-Black Widow superspy prequel.

collier (#13,548)

@Bittersweet : Concur. Let's start a picket line outside Marvel Studios HQ or something. I'll make the signs, you bring the empty oil drum for a bonfire.

Rachel@twitter (#237,340)

@Bittersweet The reason I have a soft spot for Renner is that I was dragged by the fam at Christmas to see the latest MI movie. I LOATHE Tom Cruise with a passion that only a 12 year old who met him and thought he was a "pimple faced New Waver" back in the 80s can muster. Jeremy Renner gave me something to focus on for those two hours and for that I am ever thankful. If I ever bump into him I will probably hug him and tell him why – even if he looks like a short pimple face ex-New Waver in person (I doubt it on the New Waver part).

notfromvenus (#232,002)

@Bittersweet Hell yeah. I've been saying since May that this needs to be a thing. You can just tell they're an awesome team.

Though I'll admit I only had eyes for Scarlett in that duo. Renner's cute, but I've had a thing for tough redheads with guns since my preteen crush on Dana Scully in the 90s. *sigh*

caycos (#237,322)

Would we add another Joss Whedon regular to the list – Nathan Fillion.. I reckon he looks like a bigger (paunchier???) version of Renner…

Rachel@twitter (#237,340)

Funny, when I come from working class dads were trying to make sure their kids wrote code and sold stock. YOU WILL GO TO COLLEGE was drilled into me and my cousins in the 80s and 90s. Did I miss something here? Other than there was no point in going to college since college educated finance jobs went first?

Yes, I said "When" I'm from not where.

@Rachel@twitter – You would enjoy Monty Python's "Coal Miner" sketch. Check it out on YouTube if you've never seen it.

llamallama (#213,791)

Love this. Love Renner, Han Solo, all of em.
One thing to note:
Some of Wall Street codery types ARE working class heroes gone awry. May this ties in Rachel@twitter's point. Cosmopolis was all about the dude's alienation from his working class roots (or something– who honestly knows what that was about). Another example is Bud Fox from the original Wall Street. Actually, a lot of IRL programmers are more "working joe" than "master of the universe." In the early days, many learned how to do it in the military. Programming, after all is, *is* a kind of labor. It's building things. But that's a topic for another PhD dissertation… All I'm saying is, BRING ON CYBERPUNK RENNER!

Really great article, but no way is Jeremy Renner 150 lbs unless his bones are hollow.

Manual labor in America isn't dead, yet. You'll find skilled laborers working the oil fields of the Northwest, or the Alaskan fishing grounds ("Deadliest Catch" has done a lot for reviving the image of the working class guy), and so on.

The effort to tacitly blame Reagan for somehow masking the decline of the working class male is ironic. Obama and his union cronies tried to shut down a new Boeing plant in South Carolina, and it's been Democrats who have opposed the opening up of domestic energy sources – something which would quickly create thousands of high-paying, working-class jobs.

AHP, thanks for this essay. Do you have any plans to update it (or write a companion piece) following Clint Eastwood's speech at the RNC?

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