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The Power of the Dog: Deconstructing Gender Roles and More

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Written by Parth Sharma

The Power of the Dog stands as a fantastic example of understanding the role of filmmaking in addressing social issues. Jane Campion's filmmaking style has always been primarily connected to the literary arts, with The Power of the Dog being an adaptation of Thomas Savage's 1967 novel of the same name. The film is a tense exploration of masculinity centered on three very different men and the woman who shifts the dynamic of their lives. Interestingly the film moves the plot forward without any heroes or villains—just people struggling to communicate with each other due to biases based on their own beliefs and values.

In The Power of the Dog, each man desperately grasps the masculine control that entitles their power over women, women's bodies, and feminine spaces. 

What is masculinity?

Among many other things, masculinity is an intricate performance of society and its expectations from men. Every culture has its imperatives and assumptions about what makes a Real Man. Still, the core tenets are the same:

  1. keeping emotions to yourself, 
  2. being the breadwinner of the household, 
  3. And always maintaining the upper hand in relationships with women

Masculinity is a cultural construct characterized by behavioral and affective traits such as toughness, power, control, independence, restricted emotions, physical and sexual competence, assertiveness, and aggressiveness. Although these quintessential qualities may not be held by all men, these qualities are culturally created to declare what a real man should be within the given sociocultural environment and can be considered a culture's hegemonic script for masculinity and power. 

For Phil, George, and Peter, manhood is defined concerning the woman in their life; Each attempts to handle Rose in a way not based on her desires and needs but on their respective approaches to masculinity. Phil chooses to oppress, and George decides to dote. Peter is seen as dishonest while often keeping his distance. 

The men control more than just the animals on the ranch, where the dominant part of the film is shot. It represents an environment where brutality of all kinds is promoted. The film presents the Burbank brothers are the two masculine extremes. Peter tries to find his place in the middle, standing up for himself and his mother without surrendering to his baser instincts. Jane Campion leaves us pondering whether such a balance is possible with how the film ends.

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Gender Roles and Stereotypes 

Gender roles in society indicate how people are expected to act, speak, dress, groom, and conduct themselves based upon their assigned biological sex. It is essential to understand that while gender is a social construct that lies on a fluid scale, Gender Roles and stereotypes are often born out of the assigned biological sex of a person, thus limiting themselves to masculine and feminine gender performance in society.

For example, women are expected to dress in typically feminine ways and be courteous, adjusting, and nurturing. Men are usually expected to be robust, aggressive, and bold. These expected behaviours lead to a plethora of stereotypes, which include, 

  1. Personality traits- women, are softer and calmer, while men are aggressive and strong-minded.
  2. Occupations — teachers and nurses are women, and pilots, doctors, and engineers are men.
  3. Physical appearance — Men's body hair is acceptable, whereas it is not accepted on women. 

At first glance, Phil belongs to a traditional Western set-up. He has the personality of an alpha male- shown to be dirty, rough-shaven with an animalistic bulk. Phil hates anything feminine and that which shows emotion. Phil betrays any attachment when he tells reverent stories about his old mentor, the late Bronco Henry. And yet, under this deception is someone raw and powerless, opposing the cowboy role he plays for the most part. When Rose intrudes on his tightly regulated world with her feminine presence, Phil embarks on a movement of psychological torture against Rose that ultimately converts into a fixation on Peter, thus showing his repressed homosexuality.

The Power of the Dog is a photograph of a man who conceals his true identity, consumed by his own self-loathing and unbound by his condemned endeavours to represent the cowboy ideal of what a real man looks like. Even today, the cowboy is still an unbelievable figure representing the Western heroes of the 1930s and 1940s like the Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers. These cowboys stood for morality and family values, standing up for the innocent against black-hatted villains. A stereotype is still reflected in contemporary country music and southern American filmography.

Gender Role reversal 

Gender roles are mainly rules laid down by past generations and taken forward, either in the name of tradition or culture. For generations together, with absolutely no anomaly whatsoever, men have been considered the best providers. To ensure the home functioned efficiently, the women were the caregivers. With time, these roles have been merged into a grey area, giving scope and opportunity to both sexes to break the conventional barriers. 

Rose is shown as a widow with a frail, feminine teenage son. His ways gather a hyper-masculine and derisory contempt from Phil. The son is shown to make paper flowers and employ aesthetics of the other sex—a subtle nod to the role reversal of gender norms. 

Book screening with our director of triage,  Kamlesh Verma
Take the first step

Although Campion denounces The Power of the Dog's entirely masculine world, she fails to operate any of the women, even when Rose shows great sophistication as a character. A single mother who has raised Peter on her own, she mourns Phil's cruel jabs and the oppressive expectations of her new husband, George. He uses her to show off to his parents. In a way, both brothers reinforce the idea that she doesn't belong. Rose is on the receiving end of the impulses of the men around her. She's driven to alcoholism because of the stressful home situation, and it's Peter who saves her from herself. A portrayal of the expected domestication of women in society.

Jane Campion encounters the idealized sense of masculinity of the Western by finding cracks in its imaginary terrain and establishing stereotypes. She turns the cowboy into a walking paradox, a subject of diagonal motives, self-punishing nightmares, and repressed desires. In the end, she reforms the terrain to allow for the liberation of a young man from suppressing ideas of masculinity and his mother from the engulfing grasp of society's expected norms.

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