What is up with the sexist dudes in film noir?

I love classic film noir. I find the paranoia and post-war culture than inspired them intriguing. Half of that reason is because of the domestic anxiety that was occurring because it was a post-war America. During World War II, women had to take over roles that men typically would have held. When the men came back home, they weren’t too happy about it.

I think that’s why so many of the male character’s in the films strike me as sexist jerks. I recently watched the 1955 film The Big Combo, and the entire movie I was rooting against both the male antagonist and male protagonist. The only character I was really rooting for was Susan, the woman that both men were trying to use for both sexual and career-driven gain. In the film, Brown, a gangster, continuously told Susan what to listen to, what to wear, and forcefully kisses her multiple times against her will. Our anti-hero, Diamond, didn’t treat her much better. After lusting for her from afar, he attempts to get closer to her in order to find out information about Brown.

This is a pattern I see occurring in many noir films. The male character sees himself as dominant and continuously degrades the women around him, or simply uses them. Many of the protagonists use pet names, such as baby. When the women try to fight back and assert their own will, the men turn on them and see them as bad. Going back to what I said about post-war America, the way males in film noir treat females represents the gender anxiety and conflicting domestic roles that were occurring in the 40’s and 50’s.

The overwhelming misogyny can be hard to watch, but I find it fascinating when I think about the reason why those characters act the way they do. Film noir is a brilliant kind of genre/style that can be interpreted historically as well as aesthetically. There’s nothing else like it.




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