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A24 Keeps Breaking Gender Roles Through 80s Beefcakes

An extreme closeup directs our attention to the twisting contortion of flesh. Muscles tense and loosen, their bared strength feels unsettling and foreign. Audience members sit entranced by the freakish display of segmented arms, shoulders, torsos, and thighs. This becomes one of the most memorable recurring visual motifs of two A24 eighties period pieces. Showstopping muscles are essential for the characters played by Katy O’Brien and Zac Efron. However, their beefy bodies are the center of attention for purposes beyond pure spectacle. In Love Lies Bleeding and The Iron Claw, the human physique is transformed into something alien. More importantly, their indestructible figures represent the aggressive result of the expectations for their genders.

Where Kevin Von Erich’s (Zac Efron) guilt for tender emotionality is guarded by his domineering mass, Jackie (Katy O’Brien) takes pleasure in the violent power she wields as a physically threatening rural queer woman. They compensate for their insecurities about fitting patriarchal standards by injecting steroids and proving their dominance through old-school brawling. Each film has great individual artistic merit, yet they’re incredibly effective as a contemplative double-feature, so let’s break down how these movies use aggression and the human body to fight gender roles.


Wait, Are These the Same Movies?

First of all, let’s highlight similarities beyond the films’ existence as A24 eighties period pieces released within the past three months about emotionally distraught beefcakes starring former teen heartthrobs.

We’re introduced to these films through the moody atmosphere of a subdued, smoke-stained 1980s backdrop. Their muted, working-class ambiance uses nostalgia to drench the films in a languid tone of dissatisfaction. More importantly, the undercurrent of Reagan-era patriarchy and uprising AIDS paranoia heightens the societal pressure for protagonists to conform to normality.

This is where the film’s unique use of depicting the human body comes into play. The way bodies are photographed feels distinctly alien because, for each of the main characters (resident beefcakes Kevin and Jackie in particular), the body and the self are at odds with each other. Characters’ obsession over their physical form leads to their emotional conflict. So where 1980’s WWE footage lingers on the form of victors with admiration and praise, Zac Efron’s bulging veins and taught muscles invoke unease. Similarly, Katy O’Brien’s flexing (shot almost exclusively in an invasively extreme close-up) is accompanied by a queasy and artificial sound of strain. In The Iron Claw and Love Lies Bleeding, frustrated protagonists are victims of their own physically intimidating physiques.

However, the conflict of these films isn’t limited to internal struggles. Both Kevin Von Erich and Lou (Kristen Stewart) are motivated to stay strong (both physically and emotionally) as leaders for their siblings. Hypermasculine and aggressive fathers serve as primary enemies in both films. Serving almost as a stand-in for the patriarchy itself, these antagonists pressure Kevin and Lou to fit more “appropriate” visions of their gender. Therefore, the satisfying conclusions for both movies come directly as the result of breaking away from their fathers’ cycles of abuse.

Even the casting of former teen heartthrobs Zac Efron and Kristen Stewart serves as a meta and effective extension to this discussion beyond the fictive film plots. Both actors had their careers skyrocket as teenagers. Zac Efron played the lovable boy-next-door in the High School Musical franchise and Kristen Stewart infamously played the solemnly heterosexual Bella in the Twilight films. Their roles in these films were aligned with more stereotypical gender roles. Although, even then, Troy Bolton’s conflict in HSM is also about his struggle to either identify with the masculine basketball team or the feminine theatre scene, and Stewart’s performance was marked by her non-traditional moodiness for the star of a wildly popular romance franchise. Since time passed after the release of this franchise, Zac Efron has shared his battle with steroid use and desire to fit into expectations of masculinity and Kristen Stewart has come out as gay, which she says made her feel more secure in her identity. As audience members, we’ve grown up and evolved in our understanding of their emotional and physical self-expression. By extension, these films take advantage of their star’s popularity to drive their messages about gender home. This is why in The Iron Claw


We Love to See Zac Efron Cry

In The Iron Claw, Zac Efron’s external struggles with his success as a wrestler come second to the film’s true conflict of his emotional turmoil. The movie is steeped in melodrama, as each of his brothers dies tragically young. The conflict is interpersonal and internalized, with Efron’s character desperately trying to win the approval of his harsh father by being physically domineering and aggressive. The character’s father is abusive, pitting the brothers against each other and reinforcing that by being violent and bulky, they can posture their strength effectively. What Kevin learns throughout the movie is the value of emotional vulnerability and access to sensitivity. Traditionally feminine values of parenthood and domesticity provide the mournful Kevin Von Erich with the limited joy and satisfaction he experiences during the course of the story. This tender characterization opposes the film’s criticism of traditional masculinity. Zac Efron’s delicate portrayal is the stand-out in an already impressive film. An actor who has attracted intense sympathy throughout his career, the final scene in which he bursts into restrained tears will tug at the tear ducts of even the most steely audience members. 

Although the next film likely won’t prompt tears, it may cause a different, sometimes unfortunately inappropriate, bodily response. Shamelessly sexy and indulgent, audiences and actors alike agree that

We Love to See Kristen Stewart Kiss Girls (in a non-creepy way)

Despite its recent March 8 release date, Love Lies Bleeding has already cemented itself as one of the most exciting new films of 2024. Just as The Iron Claw brought weeping men to historically girly melodramas, Love Lies Bleeding refreshingly puts two lesbians at the forefront of this erotic western. The image of the lone cowboy has been replaced by a chainsmoking, beer-chugging, mullet-donning Lou (Kristen Stewart), who falls hard for the tanned and chiseled Jackie (Katy O’Brien). Their steamy sex scenes and criminal companionship are marked by their stylishly glossy physiques. Eroticism in film has typically existed to serve the male gaze, particularly with regard to the deeply offensive objectification of lesbians in movies. However, the sensory prioritization in the style of Love Lies Bleeding aims to appeal to a queer, female gaze. Also rejected are the ideas that women should be virginal and dainty, for O’Brien and Stewart, their ability to be more violent than men and experience sexual pleasure provides a dominant and powerful image. Jackie in particular is a physically threatening woman. She easily takes down insulting men and literally transforms into a Hulk-like giant in the film’s climactic scene. These intense (yet fun) action sequences cause the women of the film to fill out the role men have historically dominated in gritty crime flicks. The characters’ externalized conflict never comes at the sacrifice of their femininity. In Love Lies Bleeding, Lou and Jackie get to express their sexual desire and rage without the limiting guilt of misogyny. Love Lies Bleeding also revels in its sensory impact. The story itself is simple and at times, predictable. Rather than meditating on the emotional intricacies of Lou and Jackie’s dynamic, director and writer Rose Glass externalizes their conflicts and explores their emotional statuses through muscly brutality and fantastical drug-induced nightmare sequences. 

Where Love Lies Bleeding showcases the physical strength and sexual drive of women, The Iron Claw explores a new masculine strength in vulnerability and crying. The films both defy stereotypical gender roles by utilizing grotesquely strong protagonists. If the intimidating physiques of Katy O’Brien and Zac Efron serve one purpose, it’s to let audiences and characters alike know that their feelings aren’t to be messed with, or else.

Written by Mary Leer

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