This guest post by Tessa Racked appears as part of our theme week on Masculinity.
This article contains extensive spoilers for Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End.
Edgar Wright’s Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy stands apart from other genre parodies for many reasons, but of note is the films’ emotional authenticity. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are the driving force of that component. They navigate friction in lifelong friendships in Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End, and fall in platonic love in Hot Fuzz. Their characters act as foils, obstacles, and supports for each other as they navigate problems as straightforward as a zombie epidemic and as existential as their own identities as men.
Two distinct masculinities pull the Trilogy’s heroes in different directions. Given Wright’s frequent use of pop culture references, I’ve opted to borrow Dungeons and Dragons’ terminology and describe these extremes as lawful and chaotic. Lawful masculinity is characterized by competency and order; it is the hallmark of the responsible (but rigid) adult. Chaotic masculinity is characterized by hedonism and anti-authoritarianism, usually embodied in the series by characters in a state of adolescence (whether age-appropriate or not). Characters are encouraged to adopt lawful masculinity in order to mature and survive. However, all three films express anxiety over lawful masculinity’s implications on a macro level through forces that threaten large-scale homogeneity: a zombie epidemic (Shaun), a cult obsessed with maintaining the ideal village (Hot Fuzz), and aliens who replace dissenting humans with complacent androids (The World’s End). In all three, the homogenizing force is personified by lawful masculine characters. Chaotic masculinity, on the other hand, is the balancing force that prevents lawful masculinity from metastasizing into doom. Although never in positions of power and rarely living sustainable lifestyles, chaotic masculine characters subvert and criticize the ossifying aspects of lawful masculinity and widespread order. Simon Pegg’s characters are always at the crux of this dynamic. The struggle to balance law and chaos expresses itself through his relationship with Nick Frost’s characters.[caption id="attachment_22192" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Shaun and Ed, Shaun of the Dead[/caption]
At the beginning of Shaun of the Dead, the titular hero is in danger of becoming one of the walking dead before the outbreak even starts. His girlfriend Liz accuses him of not wanting to “live.” His daily routine begins with a shot that pays homage to Day of the Dead, where he staggers and groans like a zombie, having just gotten out of bed. This stagnation is influenced by his best friend Ed, who has been squatting in his flat for five years. Shaun is under pressure from everyone in the film, save Ed, to conform to the expectations of lawful masculinity. He has tense relations with his responsible housemate Pete, who pressures him to evict Ed, and his dour stepfather Philip, whom Shaun repeatedly describes as “not [his] dad.” Shaun can’t confront Ed for his irresponsible behavior, nor can he “be a man” (Philip’s words) and respect his mother Barbara’s relationship with his stepfather. Ed presents a more comfortable viewpoint for Shaun, constantly referring to Pete as a “prick” behind his back and joking about having sex with Barbara– crude, but apparently not as repugnant to Shaun as Philip having sex with her. It’s an alternative to the mindless, dead world which Shaun is on the verge of joining, considering that he goes through his routine walk to the convenience store without realizing that his neighborhood has fallen into shambles. Ed’s world is one of escapism, through video games, deflecting humor, and drinking, specifically at the Winchester Pub. Ed encourages Shaun to see the Winchester as the solutions to his problems: a place to bring Liz on a date, a place to get over Liz after she dumps him, a fortress against the zombie hoard.
The chaos of the zombie outbreak initially works in Ed’s favor. He convinces Shaun to deviate from the advice broadcast on the news. (Shaun: “But the man said to stay indoors.” Ed: “Fuck the man!”) He enacts praxis that appropriates modes of agency formerly exclusively accessible to lawful masculinity (ie. he takes Pete’s car, crashes it, and upgrades to Philip’s Jaguar). By the third act, the group has holed up inside the Winchester and both Pete and Philip have turned into zombies, the latter after telling Shaun that he was tough on him because he wanted to be a good father and motivate him “to be strong and not give up.”
With Ed’s support, Shaun blossoms as a leader. He formulates plans. He kicks zombie ass and selflessly distracts the horde away from his friends. He uncovers latent defensive skills gained from chaotic masculinity. His initial weapons are recreational items: his vinyl collection, then a cricket bat. When they finally get a gun, he and Ed are the most capable at using it due to their experience playing video games.
Shaun’s move into balanced masculinity parallels with the health of his relationships. Shaun’s goal is to help Liz survive because he loves her, which Ed dismisses as “gay,” and save Barbara from the infected Philip. Shaun begins the film overly protective of Ed, but eventually calls Ed out when he endangers the group through carelessness. He develops a balance between Ed’s chaotic criticism of social norms (in this case, blindly following directions from the television) and Philip’s lawful sense of appropriate behavior. When Barbara is about to turn into a zombie, Ed aids Shaun by holding off David who tactlessly insists on destroying her brain, but Liz is the one able to emotionally support Shaun in making the lawful decision to shoot her for the group’s safety. Ed later mirrors this maturity after he is bitten, holding off the oncoming horde while Liz and Shaun escape. Chaotic masculine to the end, Ed and Shaun’s tearjerking farewell includes a fart joke. The film ends with Shaun having survived, matured, reconciled with Liz, and zombie Ed playing video games in the garden shed. Their friendship has been appropriately repositioned: his and Ed’s bond transcends death, but Ed is no longer occupying the center of Shaun’s life.[caption id="attachment_22193" align="aligncenter" width="500"] PC Danny Butterman and Sergeant Nicholas Angel, Hot Fuzz[/caption]
Hot Fuzz finds Pegg and Frost occupying the trope of adroit thin guy and bumbling fat sidekick, remnsicent of John McClane and Al Powell from Die Hard. Sergeant Nicholas Angel is a paragon of lawful masculinity. The opening montage of his achievements illustrates how excellence is deeply ingrained in who he is. His lawful masculinity is equated with competent police work. Unfortunately, his dedication to his job leads to the end of his romantic relationship and makes the rest of the Metropolitan Police Service look bad. He is reassigned to rural Sandford, where he is partnered with PC Danny Butterman. Their introduction to each other positions Danny as his chaotic, immature foil: Nicholas arrests him for attempted DUI, alongside a group of underage drinkers. From his first day, Nicholas’ hyper-adherence to lawful masculinity stands out in a station where officers atone for infractions by buying sweets for their co-workers and cases consist of rogue swans and illegally trimmed hedges.
Danny idolizes Nicholas, asking a litany of questions that assume his previous career in London looked like an American action film. Nicholas’ approach to their job doesn’t have the “proper action” that Danny longs for: he cites his notebook as his “most important piece of equipment” and snaps at Danny that “it’s not all about gunfights and car chases.” Despite initial friction, during a night at the pub, the partners reveal parallel pursuits of lawful masculinity as their motivations for being cops. Where Nicholas feels destined to prove that the patriarchal system of law is “for the good of humankind”; Danny wants to please his father, Inspector Frank Butterman. The scene plays out with romantic tension. Danny invites Nicholas up to his flat for another drink and teaches him how to “switch off” by introducing him to his passion: cop films full of violent, chaotic masculinity.
Nicholas eventually deviates from his adherence to lawfulness in order to investigate a string of bizarre deaths that are assigned to the incompetent Detectives Andy Wainwright and Andy Cartwright. He discovers that the Neighborhood Watch Association, led by posh, confident businessman Simon Skinner, has been orchestrating a conspiracy to maintain Sandford’s title of Village of the Year. Their focus on Sandford’s aesthetic homogenization is extremely myopic: Nicholas theorizes that their recent victims were killed to prevent a real estate deal, when they were actually targeted for being tacky. It is only by embracing the chaotic masculinity that Danny has introduced him to through cop movies that he is able to save Sandford from itself. Armed with weapons confiscated from a scofflaw farmer, he and Danny take on the NWA with spectacular action sequences. Danny deviates from his sense of obligation to his father, who is part of the conspiracy, recreating his favorite moment from Point Break in the process. After bringing the NWA to justice, Nicholas decides to stay in Sandford despite being asked to return to London. In Sandford, he is able to rein in his lawful masculinity by maintaining a better work-life balance and learning how to provide emotional support to someone he cares about; in the denouement, he brings flowers to Danny’s mother’s grave, in contrast to his failed relationship in London, where he missed his girlfriend’s father’s funeral because of work.[caption id="attachment_22194" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Left to right: Gary King, Steven Prince, Peter Page, and Andy Knightley (not pictured: Oliver Chamberlain), The World’s End[/caption]
In all three films, pubs are an important site of male bonding, with The World’s End as the glorious, tragic culmination of that theme. The film begins with a recollection of the best day of Gary King’s life: a botched attempt at the Golden Mile, a 12-pub crawl, with his friends on the last day of secondary school in 1990. If Nicholas Angel is the paragon of lawful masculinity, Gary King is that of chaotic masculinity. He’s free to do what he wants, any old time–namely, to dwell in carefree adolescence with the assistance of drugs and alcohol. His goal: to relive that night and complete the Golden Mile. Gary convinces his friends to join him. The hardest sell is Andy Knightley, Gary’s former wingman, now partner of a corporate law firm. Andy is a dramatic shift from Frost’s previous Cornetto characters. As a fan of the previous films, seeing Frost for the first time– stone-faced, wearing a suit, and sitting in a corner office– felt like a punch to the gut.
The reunion reveals how the characters have shifted into lawful masculinity (except Gary) and revives old tensions (mostly regarding Gary). Even the Golden Mile has changed, having succumbed to “a nationwide initiative to rob small, charming pubs of any discernible character.” Andy throws a wrench into Gary’s revival of their youth by drinking water instead of beer, which Gary describes as “a lion eating hummus.” Andy responds by equating masculinity with his ability to order a tap water after a rugby game “at a bar packed full of big ugly bastards wearing warpaint.” Andy adheres to standards of lawful masculinity through responsibility, like Philip and Pete in Shaun, and professional competence, like Nicholas in Hot Fuzz, but asserts new principles as well: integrity and self-control.
Four pubs in, their hometown reveals some significant changes it’s undergone when Gary and his friends are attacked by robots. Andy displays surprising prowess and aggression, proving that he can be both sober and masculine. Gary suggests they continue the Golden Mile so as not to arouse suspicion; Andy, dealing with the stress of fighting assailants with blue blood and autonomous limbs and tired of arguing with Gary, embraces chaotic masculinity by downing several shots and insisting they press on. The robots (the group calls them “blanks”) are able to replicate new bodies from human DNA; Gary and his companions rely on their childhood scars, the vestiges of chaotic masculinity, to prove their humanity. Gary and his remaining friends are, after a second battle, invited to assimilate into the blank collective by their paternalistic former teacher-turned-blank, Mr. Shepherd. (Mr. Shepherd is portrayed by Pierce Brosnan and Mr. Skinner, from Hot Fuzz, by Timothy Dalton. Who better than James Bond to embody a masculinity characterized by capability and control?) While his friends fear for their lives, Gary focuses on finishing the Golden Mile. If the blanks are lawful masculinity gone awry, creating a society of so orderly it is made of artificial people, Gary is chaotic masculinity gone awry, answering to no man but rigidly adhering to addictive behaviors.
Finally at the World’s End Pub, Andy tries to physically stop Gary from drinking. The scuffle reveals a hospital bracelet and bandaged wrists. When asked to explain why he left rehab, Gary’s sorrowful response is the most heartbreaking moment in the entire trilogy: “They told me when to go to bed. Me!” He can’t let go of his chaotic masculine self-image long enough to save his own life. Comparably, clinging to lawful masculinity has hurt Andy. He reveals his wife left him because he “wasn’t present enough,” but he is fighting to save his marriage, apparently even if it means embracing chaos: “I just punched my wedding ring out of a robot’s tummy.” Together, they confront the alien force behind the blanks, known as the Network (voiced by Bill Nighy, who played Philip in Shaun). Gary rejects the Network’s tempting offer to turn him into a replicant of his idealized adolescent self, as it would require conformity. Steve, who had previously gone missing, rejoins them. As “the Three Musketeers,” they stand against an intergalactic movement to make planets uniformly peaceful and efficient. Their drunken, belligerent chaos eventually annoys the lawful Network into forfeit; it leaves Earth, destroying all advanced technology in the process.
The apocalypse turns out to be a blessing for the Three Musketeers. As the prologue was narrated by Gary, the epilogue is by Andy. Steve and Sam, his unrequited high school crush, get together; Andy reunites with his family, as the end of civilization has put their problems in perspective; and Gary becomes a cowboy-styled wanderer, the leader of a gang of surviving blanks (teenage versions of his friends). In the last scene, he brings his blanks into a human-only pub full of tattooed brutes and orders a glass of water.
This final scene provides a happy ending for Gary, but also a potential conclusion regarding the roles of masculinities and friendship in the trilogy. Shaun, Nicholas, and Gary are stagnant characters until they find balance between the lawfulness and chaos in themselves. The journey towards this balance is activated through conflict with homogenizing forces and stepping outside constructed systems, but can only reach completion with the support of their male companions.