Issue: Winter 2003

The Masculine Mystique

With his new book on war and masculinity, USC jack-of-all-letters-and-arts Leo Braudy chronicles the man that got away, just where he came from and where he’s going.

By Diane Krieger

Illustrations by P.J. Loughran

"Thank goodness he was signaling,” Leo Braudy deadpans as an ordinary van careens around the corner, pursued by a posse of driverless cherry-tops and a homicidal construction rig in the most over-the-top car chase to come out of Hollywood in – well, in months.

It’s some 30 minutes into last summer’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, a movie that the New York Post calls “pointless and mind-numbing.”

Later the hunted hero and heroine opportunely find themselves in an Air Force hangar. The damsel (patently undistressed) exclaims: “My father’s plane! I trained on it.”

“Nice bit of quick exposition,” Braudy chuckles.

Afterwards, nursing a Starbucks decaf, he explicates the blockbuster in recondite lit-crit terms. He doesn’t sneer. He uses adjectives like “elegiac” to characterize the film’s mood; he talks about the “intertextual self-consciousness” of sequels. You know, like that glimpse of a big-rig crossing an overpass in the aforementioned chase scene. It’s a quote from the first Terminator movie, explains Braudy – “as if the filmmakers are saying: ‘There’s the old truck. We’re going to up the ante.’”

He goes on to deconstruct the gender-inverted twists on heroism and masculinity implicit in the film’s Barbie-dollish predator (mascara and lip gloss just so) wreaking havoc on the sulkily ineffectual savior-to-be and his oh-so-obsolete cyber-bodyguard, a.k.a. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

To Braudy – USC’s Leo S. Bing Professor of English, respected authority on the films of Jean Renoir and François Truffaut – this is no mere escapist fantasy. It’s the real world, writ large in caricature. Serious study of such light entertainment as a summer action flick, he believes, lays bare beliefs and tensions that “high art” sometimes misses.

When You first meet him you think: Here’s a regular guy. With his shy smile and unpretentious air, there’s little to give him away. Then you catch a glimpse of his CV, and you think: Here’s a guy with a multiple personality disorder.

Is he an 18th-century English literary critic or an authority on the Wild West? A connoisseur of French cinematic realism or a B-movie maven? An expert on Western art history or ’50s rock ’n’ roll? A scholar of classical languages and civilizations or an anthropologist of counterculture? (Answer: all of the above.)

He is one of 15 USC faculty members to hold the title of University Professor, a designation denoting faculty superheroes able to leap disciplinary walls in a single bound. Braudy is perhaps the archetype of the species: With appointments in English, cinema-television and art history, his eclecticism bleeds into classics, philosophy, history, psychology and beyond.

Crack a few of his books (10, so far) and his nearly 150 articles, and you’ll find a further Sybil-esque trait: He speaks in many voices.

There’s the theorist, who holds a magnifying glass to the corpus of Gibbon, Fielding and Hume, not to mention Norman Mailer and Jean Renoir – writing in prose dusted with intimidating words like “generative” and “solipsistic.” There’s the telescopic historian, zooming across great swathes of human experience to reveal unsuspected patterns and trenchant truths. The philologist, parsing Greek, Latin and Anglo-Saxon roots; the psycho-sociologist, baring the souls of Alexander the Great, George Custer and T.E. Lawrence. Sometimes he adopts a confessional first-person voice, resurrecting his beloved bad-boy 1950s, four-letter words and all, with the gritty candor of a J.D. Salinger or Barry Levinson. Listen again, and he’s the committee stalwart who literally wrote USC’s academic blueprint, the 1994 Strategic Plan. Or the popular teacher whose General Education course, “The Monster and the Detective in Literature and Fiction,” draws close to 200 students a semester clamoring to find out just how Poe and Mary Shelley set the stage for Freddy vs. Jason.

This fall, Braudy adds a new line to his vitae – one that blows the lid off the question of just what he’s a professor of. With the November publication of his From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity, behold Leo Braudy, authority on machismo.

“Masculinity and terror! Of all the subjects to attract Leo!” laughs longtime friend James Kincaid, an English department colleague and Victorian scholar. “He’s so sweet. A gentle, kindly person: quiet and shy, a pacifist. It doesn’t seem to fit.”

Indeed. Braudy, 62, is soft-spoken, medium built and walks with a bit of a shuffle – the legacy of a childhood bout with polio. You’ll find him at art galleries and peace rallies, but he’s just as likely to turn up on Muscle Beach or at a monster-truck rally.

“It’s so interesting that we have this gentle, introspective man writing a history of war and masculinity – which is about as aggressive a subject as you could come up with,” says another longtime friend, Selma Holo, who is director of USC’s Fisher Gallery and a professor of art history.

Holo has known Braudy since the early 1980s, when he chaired the advisory committee overseeing the Fisher, then a museum of modest ambitions. She credits him with encouraging bold expansion and propelling the gallery to its present high profile.

The friendship goes well beyond a shared appreciation of the visual arts, though. “Leo is the person who calls up and asks: ‘How’re you doing?’” Holo says. “He’ll come sit in my office and tell me, ‘You need to slow down or you’re going to kill yourself.’ Who does that?” Holo pauses, genuinely stumped. Then she supplies her own answer wrapped in gender-bending praise:

“Usually you think – a girlfriend might do that.”

Braudy would have no problem with such a compliment. It goes right to the crux of Chivalry: that Western culture has for many centuries been moving away from a concept of male and female as polar opposites, toward a view of the sexes as degrees on a continuum.

To understand what he argues for, it helps to understand what he’s arguing against. Here it is in a nutshell: Braudy rejects the biological determinism that considers manliness absolute, war some primordial destiny encoded on the Y chromosome, brutality a basic fact of human nature.

“I’m against the idea of an unchanging human nature,” he says. “So many of these socio-biological arguments are fatalistic: ‘Men have testosterone, so war will always happen.’ It doesn’t have to,” Braudy contends.

He argues that manliness and war are not Platonic forms etched in stone but fluid, culture-bound concepts. “I’m very dubious,” he writes, “about the claim that all masculinity is the same, either across history or in a particular era.”

Leo Braudy’s interest in war might be explained by his membership in a generation called “war babies.” Born on the eve of Pearl Harbor, he grew up with the Korean War and the Cold War as the backdrops to his childhood, while the Vietnam War framed his young-adult perspective.

As a boy he collected war cards from bubblegum packs, read war comics, watched war movies, lost himself in war novels. Once his parents took him camping at Gettysburg; he recalls finding a musket ball fragment lodged in a rock crevice. Decades later, researching Chivalry, he trudged across battlefields at Marathon, Agincourt, Little Bighorn and the Somme. He steeped himself in the literature of war and warfare, until, as he puts it, “I could tell a hackbut from a howitzer.”

The history of weapons, uniforms and military strategy had already been done, but Braudy set himself a more subtle task: to tease out the history of cultural attitudes surrounding a thousand years of conflict. How had these attitudes changed over a millennium, and how do they shape modern beliefs ranging from Vietnam-era pacifism to post-September 11 Ramboism?

A work of exploration, synthesis and analysis rather than of settled opinion, Chivalry is “primarily meant for people like myself, curious amateurs who have had the relationship of war and masculinity dinned into them,” Braudy writes.

It had started with an odd assortment of essays – as scattershot as Braudy’s myriad interests. A long review of a book on Custer; an article comparing a pair of 17th-century poems on premature ejaculation; an essay on 20th-century “method” acting as a metaphor for other art forms.

Disjointed as these seemed, Braudy noticed a common thread. He kept writing, and pretty soon was embarked on a ridiculously ambitious project. Why not dissect masculinity the way he had dissected fame in his best-selling The Frenzy of Renown? That earlier undertaking – charting the changing nature of fame across two millennia – became a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named the year’s best faculty book at USC. Novelist and classical scholar Erich Segal, reviewing it for the Washington Post in 1986, called Frenzy “remarkably ambitious” and “an impressive tour de force.”

Chivalry – tracing patterns of the male ideal, with war as its touchstone, over a thousand years of art, anthropology, literature and history – was no less daunting. Weighing in at just under 600 pages, the book surveys everything from medieval-to-modern rules of engagement and emerging war technologies to cloning, male sexuality and pornography.

At first blush, Chivalry seems to come out of left field. Braudy’s first book had focused on the blurred line between history and fiction at the dawn of a new narrative form called the novel. (“It’s no accident that Fielding called it The History of Tom Jones,” he says.) That had been the subject of his dissertation though, interestingly, Braudy never took a course in 18th-century literature either as an undergraduate at Swarthmore or a doctoral student at Yale. But Enlightenment history: Now that was a passion. So was film and “pop culture,” a discipline that even now elicits pained grimaces in some academic circles.

“Right from the beginning Leo had a very strong interest in film,” says collaborator Marshall Cohen, USC emeritus professor of law and philosophy and co-editor of Film Theory and Criticism. “He’s a rather independent person; his work is not just a result of culture studies becoming fashionable.”

Growing up Jewish in Philadelphia at a time when a ticket to the movies cost 10 cents, Braudy and his friends from Central High (the second-oldest public school in America, he volunteers) had combed the city looking for rare films. Communist Party showings of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Japan Society screenings of Ozu’s and Mizogushi’s oeuvres, art museum showings of films by British director Michael Powell. “If the Klan had sponsored Birth of a Nation, we probably would have gone there as well,” he quips in his film book, The World in a Frame.

Though strictly self-taught, Braudy’s clique of juvenile cineastes “could feel superior to the newspaper film critics, whose familiarity with film seemed to be – and actually was – so much less extensive than our own,” he notes.

As a lowly junior professor of English at Yale, Braudy continued to flout convention. There were the New Critics, approaching literature with a scientific objectivity that left no room for warmth or enthusiasm, let alone the pronoun “I” or an active-voice verb. And later there were the deconstructionists, who – while recognizing the inherent subjectivity of questions like “what is art?” or “what is a primary text?” – were so lost in a fog of meta-theory that only another theorist could grasp what they were talking about.

“On the one hand historical study was barely tolerated, and on the other hand few academic literary critics thought that much could be learned from popular culture,” Braudy writes, reflecting on a career that took him to Columbia and Johns Hopkins before he settled down at USC in 1983.

“I had brought myself up on movies, comic books, trash fiction, rock and roll, as well as the classics and whatever else I could find. Now contemplating a career in literary study, I wondered how I fit into this world that seemed to reject virtually everything that had nurtured me,” he explained in his 1992 book on pop culture, Native Informant.

“What is masculinity,” Braudy asks in his new book, “when it is much easier for the computer nerd to get a job and support a family than it is for a brawny factory worker?”

Photo by Philip Channing

During the ’60s, film study was still in its infancy at universities. No departments of film history, theory or criticism existed. Few self-respecting faculty taught the subject. Film books had been trickling in from European presses since the 1930s and ’40s, but American publishers remained skeptical. When Braudy proposed a book on director Jean Renoir in 1969, his editor at Doubleday initially balked, though he green-lighted Braudy’s idea for a general-interest overview of cinema aesthetics.

The early 1970s saw Braudy publish Jean Renoir: The World of His Films and edit a volume of essays on François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. The film overview became The World in a Frame: What We See in Films, published in 1976; Braudy also co-edited Great Film Directors: A Critical Anthology in 1979.

Despite this torrent of scholarly output on the movies, making film study respectable – the cherished agenda of most early film scholars – wasn’t on Braudy’s to-do list, especially if it meant writing in the impenetrable argot of the postmodernists.

“I was intrigued by film’s ability to give audiences aesthetic power breaking down hierarchic categories of taste, from “high” to “low,” that were assumed by so many critics at the time, even many film critics,” he wrote in his introduction to The World in a Frame, which was reprinted last year by University of Chicago Press in a 25th anniversary edition.

It goes without saying that Braudy doesn’t believe in art with a capital A. The open-arms inclusivity of culture study appeals to him far more than the keep-out exclusivity of canon orthodoxy.

“Aesthetically I want to expose that false emphasis fathered on us by the aesthetes and the realists of the late 19th century: the belief that art – if it’s great art – must furnish ideals and purities,” he wrote in The World in a Frame.

Nor is the aim of art simply imitation of nature – for if it were, why bother with “the other arts when film achieves [realism] so simply and perfectly?” he and Marshall Cohen inquired in their anthology, Film Theory and Criticism.

To anyone who has taken an introductory cinema course in the last dozen years, Braudy’s name (like Ben and Jerry or Merriam and Webster) is unavoidably coupled with Cohen’s. According to its publisher, the Oxford University Press, Film Theory and Criticism is the gospel of film aesthetics – the most widely used English-language anthology in film studies. Cohen had developed the book with New York-based film scholar Gerald Mast; when Mast died “and Leo and I both turned up at USC,” says Cohen, “we teamed up.”

Braudy’s predilection for pop-culture study and aesthetic openness fell on fertile soil at USC. That was the doctrine behind the interdisciplinary Film and Culture graduate program Braudy ran for 10 years with critical studies professor Marsha Kinder of the USC School of Cinema-Television.

Braudy also spearheaded the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences’ Visual Culture Initiative. Begun in 2000, the $1 million Ahmanson Foundation-sponsored effort took a revisionist, cross-disciplinary approach to visual artifacts – film, reproduced images, advertising, graphic technologies – in a value-neutral framework (as distinct from the aesthetically loaded concept of “visual arts”). Braudy and co-chair Nancy Troy of the art history department brought cultural anthropologists, historians of ideas and museum professionals from places like Harvard and the University of Chicago into electrifying contact with humanists at USC. (Some, like Getty Research Institute director Thomas Crow, ended up joining the USC faculty.)

Polymath that he is, Braudy also serves as a leading light of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities, a salon unlike any other in the city’s history. Since it was founded in 1999, the USC-based institute – run by “the Steves” (L.A. Times Book Review editor Steve Wasserman and USC historian Steven J. Ross) – has become a Mecca for Southland intelligentsia.

“I had no idea Leo was interested in guns,” says Dorothy Braudy, his wife of 32 years. “But then everything interests Leo. His curiosity is his main characteristic. That’s why he has never been able to stick with one little niche.”

Dorothy’s own niche is painting. Trained in New York in the 1950s, she rebelled against the abstract expressionism of the day to develop her own color-saturated spin on figurative art. In 2000, a four-decade retrospective of her work was held in Santa Monica’s tony Bergamot Station.

The artist and the art critic. Hmm. Sounds like a recipe for long-term marriage counseling: “When I think of a scholar, I think of a boring person locking himself away,” Dorothy confides. Mercifully, she doesn’t see her husband in that light. “He’s always combined silliness with seriousness,” she says. “He’s fun to be with. You should see him dance.”

No ballroom dancing for this pair: They shake, rattle, roll and jitterbug. And sing.

“Leo loves show tunes,” says Kincaid, his good friend and English department colleague. “He and Dorothy have this vast array memorized. They really are very good; they know every verse, even obscure old ones by Irving Berlin.”

A few years ago, the Kincaids and the Braudys made a foursome on a paddle-boat trip through the Peruvian jungle. Kincaid recalls waking one morning to a duet from Gypsy, rendered con brio by the couple in the next hut. “We thought it was a strange jungle beast,” jokes Kincaid. After that, the Braudys became the group’s unofficial campfire directors, leading a dozen eco-tourists through chorus after chorus of ever more remote songs. (Alumni cruising the Rhein last summer with USC Trojan Travel got a taste of this when – after lecturing on the river’s centrality to everything from Christian humanism to the rise of tourism – Braudy joined the audience in an impromptu sing-along spanning World War I ditties to rock standards.)

The campy couple also appears in the film, Polyester. Director John Waters is good friend. “We play abortion activists,” laughs Braudy. “I even have a line in the movie. I say: ‘What if Einstein’s mother had an abortion?’”

Yet both Braudys possess a serious side. Their Hollywood home tells its own tale. “You should see our house!” says Dorothy. “The bathrooms, I think, are the only rooms that don’t have bookshelves.”

Chivalry ends with a chapter titled “Terrorism as a Gender War,” in which Braudy posits that the Islamist movement shares chivalric ideals with medieval Europe (yep, the crusaders): The warrior, in both cultures, is a lone hero, individualistic and self-sacrificing, seeking the glory of God. The male, exalted; the female, contaminated. In fact, he argues, the erosion of the warrior mystique in the West is exactly the sort of thing Islamic militants can’t abide.

To the fundamentalists, the West represents the place where masculinity has been most separated from its military embodiment. Osama bin Laden’s anti-American rhetoric illustrates the point: “Our brothers who fought in Somalia saw wonders about the weakness, feebleness and cowardliness of the U.S. soldiers,” Braudy quotes the Al Qaeda chief from a 1998 interview. “The rulers of that region [the West] have been deprived of their manhood. And they think that the people are women.”

To a warrior culture like Al Qaeda, writes Braudy, “part of the corruption of the West is this sliding scale of masculine and feminine, which they [the Islamists] attribute in great part to commercial civilization. Men have to somehow preserve themselves from any taint of womanliness.”

He finds echoes of the same anxiety in 17th- and 18th-century European hand-wringing over commercialization destroying the warrior ethic. The antidote: 19th-century romanticizing of the noble savage, the natural man, the frontiersman and Custer’s cathartic “dying for our sins.”

But what about girl jihadis? “The idea that there are female suicide bombers doesn’t change the attitude toward women in that fundamentalist society,” says Braudy. “They just become male-identified, or female versions of men.” (Think Joan of Arc.)

The provocative closing chapters were written in the weeks after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. “Unlike most of my friends who couldn’t do any writing after that, I was on fire,” Braudy recalls. “It seemed to justify the things I’d been saying and gave a new energy to the whole book.”

Braudy’s timing was impeccable. With the war in the Persian Gulf winding down and America confronting the troubling duality of GIs’ conflicting roles as fighters and peace keepers, liberators and jailers, the Los Angeles Times gave Chivalry page-one placement in its April 12 Calendar section. As the whole world questioned the United States’ sudden belligerence in Iraq, Braudy untangled the knot in terms movie-goers could comprehend. “We’re warlike, but we’re not warriors,” he told the Times. “It’s not John Wayne, it’s Alan Ladd in Shane. It’s like we have to be pushed – push, push, push, and then finally, whammo!”

On sabbatical this year, Braudy is hitting the road on a book tour.

Meanwhile the sixth edition of Film Theory and Criticism hits bookstores in 2004. And he’s got an article on Dryden and Marvell in a forthcoming anthology from University of Toronto Press.

Much as Dorothy Braudy would like to see her husband give his library card a well-deserved rest, the wheels are turning as he ponders his next project. Perhaps a short book for the British Film Institute about the film On The Waterfront. He’s been toying with a memoir of his teen years. (For a preview, check out his essays in the fall 1993 and winter 1996 Michigan Quarterly Review.)

Or it might be a book on the 1950s; last spring, he taught a graduate seminar on the topic. (Caution: Don’t get him started unless you have some spare time. His spiel on the era’s hit parade alone would make Casey Kasem’s head spin.)

Meanwhile, back at Starbucks, Braudy is wrapping up his Terminator 3 exegesis. Many themes from Chivalry, it turns out, find comic illustration in the action flick: the blurring of gender roles (saved by the heroine, the hero sighs: “You remind me of my mother”); the soldier-lover schism (Arnold mistaken for a male stripper to the beat of the Village People’s “Macho Man”); the human body as costume (the Terminatrix expanding her cup size at will or morphing into facsimiles of her victims); and the warrior’s degrading transfiguration from martyred hero to disposable cog in a military-industrial complex (Arnold as scrap metal).

The conversation somehow turns to Braudy’s penchant for pop music. With little prompting, oblivious to the Friday afternoon crowd, he bursts into song: "Walk like a man / Talk like a man / Walk like a man my so-uh-uh-on...” he warbles in a creditable falsetto.

Just like that, everything falls into place: Braudy’s multiple personalities. His fascination with maleness and gender ambiguity. The blurred lines between high and low art, between history and fiction. His championing of the ’50s. All crystallize in a loving-mocking tribute to Frankie Valli. As the Four Seasons impersonation ends, Braudy-the-fan gives way to Braudy-the-critic: “Never mind walking like a man,” he apostrophizes the crooner. “Sing like a man!”

“When I think of a scholar, I think of a boring person locking himself away,” says Dorothy Braudy. Her husband is an exception. “He’s fun to be with. You should see him dance.”

Photo by Philip Channing