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The Oscar-winning <i>Artist</i> and the Pain of Men's Job Loss

This is a moving tale of love and (job) loss, but it's also one that is very deeply rooted in gender ideologies. Imagine, for a second, that the story were reversed.
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The Artist took home five Oscars at Sunday's Academy Awards, including the top prize, and many attributed the film's success to its beautiful tribute to Hollywood's silent film past. While I agree that the film is certainly a loving homage to the glamor of the movies, I also think the story -- of a dying industry and a man's job loss and his subsequent sobering descent -- is one that resonates deeply in the wake of the 2007-2009 Great Recession.

The hero of the Artist, George Valentin, is a star of the silent film industry. He has great bravado and presence on screen and lives (unhappily) with his wife in their luxurious home. But when "talkies" arrive in Hollywood, George shrugs them off -- convinced that people will find movies in which people speak absurd. Soon, George finds that he is the one who has been cast aside and that Peppy Miller, a young dancer who has appeared as extras in his films, has become the new star. Despite their mutual attraction, Peppy and George go their separate ways and George's path is a downwardly mobile one; he divorces his wife, loses his home, sells off his most cherished possessions, and sets fire to his film collection (and himself). The pinnacle of the movie comes when George learns that Peppy has purchased his possessions to support him and, humiliated, he gets his gun, set on killing himself.

This is a moving tale of love and (job) loss, but it's also one that is very deeply rooted in gender ideologies. Imagine, for a second, that the story were reversed. Peppy is the star of the silent film -- she loses her job, must sell her possessions and learns that George has secretly bought them and is supporting her. This sounds more like the start of a clichéd romance novel than an Oscar-winning movie and we'd likely not believe that Peppy would kill herself over the news that George planned to financially support her. But George's reaction, on the other hand, while overwrought, fits into cultural norms about how men are raised to support themselves and their families. Many researchers have argued that in our society, men feel strong societal pressure to be "breadwinners." Nicholas Townsend convincingly argues that men equate breadwinning, marriage, and fatherhood with their own masculinity. When they fail to meet these ideals, their sense of self takes a hit. When jobs for men disappear, Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas suggest that marriage rates decline, as well -- without a job, men become less marriageable.

As George's story so aptly shows us, there are real costs, not just in job loss, but when gender ideologies so strongly shape how this loss is experienced. In my own research, I found that women often hid their job loss by explaining that they were home taking care of children. But men rarely have this luxury. In fact, a recent study by Noelle Chesley, published in Gender & Society, finds that when men become stay-at-home fathers, they emphasize the economic reasons that they are at home and even describe themselves as being between jobs, rather than as stay-at-home parents.

This is not to argue that women do not suffer when they lose jobs. In fact, recent research from the Institute for Women's Policy Research, found that women were experiencing greater hardship in the wake of the recession than men. But it is clear that when gender ideologies put such emphasis on men's ability to earn a family wage, this not only hurts women in their attempts to gain equal access to employment, but also men when they face challenges in the workforce. In my course on "Work-Life Policies and Practices," last semester, we discussed these challenges and I asked my students how they would solve this problem. One group of students had a simple, but intriguing strategy. Just as businesses instituted "take your daughters to work" days to promote gender equity at work, they thought that schools should institute "take your dads to school" days to promote equal caregiving by men. By showing that men might have important roles as caregivers (not just as earners), the students wondered if we might move society in the right direction. I don't think it's the only strategy we'll need, but I think it could be a very good start.