Work and Masculine Identity in Kevin Smith's New Jersey Trilogy

How to Cite

M.Butler, A. (2001). Work and Masculine Identity in Kevin Smith’s New Jersey Trilogy. M/C Journal, 4(5).
Vol. 4 No. 5 (2001): Work
Published 2001-11-01

There's a moment in Chasing Amy (Kevin Smith, US, 1997) when the character Banky Edwards defends his masculinity. He and childhood friend Holden McNeil are artists who work on a comic named Bluntman and Chronic; Holden produces the pencil drawings which Banky inks over and colours in. When confronted with the suggestion that all he does is tracing, Banky first defends himself, and then resorts to physical and verbal violence: "I'LL TRACE A CHALK LINE AROUND YOUR DEAD FUCKING BODY, YOU FUCK ... YOUR MOTHER'S A TRACER!" (Smith 182, 184). Banky is defending the work that he does, the art, from charges that it is an infantile activity, and the violence he engages in is the kind of behaviour associated with masculinity in general and groups of young single men in particular, who "usually [have] a delinquent character, including a penchant for gratuitous violence" (Remy 45).

Kevin Smith's first three films, Clerks (1994), Mallrats (1995) and Chasing Amy, formed a loose sequence known as the New Jersey Trilogy, with each focussing on the relationship between a sensitive male and his girlfriend. The relationship is threatened by interaction with the male's crude best friend. The films appear to be romantic comedies, a genre whose usual narrative trajectory is a series of barriers to social union in the form of marriage; however, aside from the studio-backed Mallrats, Smith's films resist the closure typical of his chosen genre. In Clerks and Mallrats the relationship is threatened by a lack of college aspirations, which would lead to a job which could support a nuclear family. Smith is depicting members of the slacker generation(popularised if not coined by Richard Linklater's film) or Generation-X (a term of earlier origin but used by Douglas Coupland's 1991 novel), who would not immediately be associated with work. However, here the lack of a solid job seems to be a cause for angst rather than for a liberation from the tyranny of full-time employment, and on closer inspection the characters' sense of self-worth is tied to their relation to the realm of work.

Despite consciousness raising by feminists, it has been argued that the heterosexual male is still expected be "the strong rock, the sexual performer, expected to always cope, not to collapse, expected to be chivalrous, to mend fuses and flat tyres, to make the moves in courtship, expected not to be passive or weepy or frightened, expected to go to war and be killed, or be prepared to kill others" (Horrocks 143). The man without work is cast adrift, still in search of an identity. Banky's work is clearly linked to his sense of self-identity, otherwise he would not feel the need to defend it.

The sorts of pressure put upon the male characters by their girlfriends, especially in Clerks and Mallrats, are echoed in anecdotal research conducted by Michael Lee Cohen, a twenty-something who felt that there was more to his generation then simply drop outs from society. He argued that, although the generation which reached its twenties in the mid to late 1980s and early 1990s is popularly thought of as a "dis-generation": "disenchanted, disenfranchised, disgruntled, disconnected, and disatisfied" (Cohen 3) as well as "disillusioned ... and frighteningly distrustful" (295), the truth was more complex. One interviewee described the pressure upon him as "Do well in school, do what the teachers say, get good grades, get out, get a boss, do what your boss says. And after thirty years you'll be a boss, and you'll be able to have kids and a car and a house and a lawn mower, and you'll die with an insurance policy that will provide for your kids' college education or their kids' or whatever" (224). This is equated by Cohen with the American Dream, an ideology which espouses concepts of freedom, both of movement and speech, of social mobility (upwards) and of second chances, but which can be boiled down to the need to consume disguised as the freedom to consume.

To become a man is to enter into an order of consumption barely paid for by work. In his interviews, Cohen noted that few associated the American Dream with social justice, freedom or opportunity, but instead cited variations upon the materialistic "husband, wife, and a decimaled number of kids living in a nice house with a picket fence, two cars, and maybe a couple of dogs" (290). There remains the aspiration to the bourgeois nuclear family, despite this generation's experience of broken families. The males (and presumably females) are, to paraphrase Tyler Durden from Fight Club, a generation of males raised by women. Given their absent father, they are much less likely to have seen males acting as primary bread winners - especially when they have brought up by women, many of whom have had to work themselves. Furthermore the boom-bust cycle of economics over the last two decades and the explosion of commodity fetishism fed by ever increasing exposure to advertising produces a generation which aspires to owning material goods, but which often despairs of gaining employment which will pay for that consumerism.

The New Jersey Trilogy focusses on members of just such uncertain men, men who are moving from the homosocial or fratriarchal bonds formed during school to the world of work and the pressure for a heterosexual bond. Fathers are absent from Smith's work, aside from Jared Svenning in Mallrats. (There are, on the other hand, mothers mentioned if not seen. An Oedipal analysis of Smith's characters would perhaps prove fruitful.) The sequence features men with no discernible job (Mallrats), dead end jobs (Clerks) and apparent dream jobs (Chasing Amy). Drawing comics for a living would appear to be a dream come true, but it has the unfortunate side effect of transforming leisure into work.

Clearly work is not the only theme to be traced in the trilogy: the cases of fratriarchal bonds are illuminating for notions of masculinity, and I hope to publish my work on this elsewhere. Equally, despite the focus on male characters and their desire, the narrative comedicly undercuts masculinity in favour of the female characters, offering the space for a feminist interpretation. Smith is also concerned with depictions of race and homosexuality, and indeed of religious, particularly Catholic, belief. In the brief space available to me here I can only examine the theme of work.

In Mallrats T S Quint and Brody Bruce go to the mall, not to shop, but to get away from their problems with respective girlfriends. T S is a student enmired in the ideological pressure of his heterosexual relationship. In contrast Brody has not got the kind of college ambitions that his girlfriend wishes him to have and still lives with his mother. Further, he has no visible means of support and seems unlikely to gain a job which will allow him to partake in the Dream. In addition, he and T S resist the work of consumerism, by window shopping rather than purchasing goods. This leads them into conflict with Shannon Hamilton, the manager of Fashionable Male, who hates mallrats for their lack of shopping agenda (cf. Fiske et al. and Fiske). With the addition of capital, the leisure time displayed in Mallrats could easily be transformed into work time.

Whilst resisting being transformed into consumers, Brody and T S's winning back of their girlfriends (effectively as prizes in a tv quiz show) does place them within a bourgeois social order. Brody is rewarded with a career as a television host; given that this is on American television, it is likely that his work is in fact to deliver audiences to commercial breaks to provide the broadcaster's revenue (see Jhally).

The central characters in Clerks work at neighbouring stores: Randal at a video rental store and Dante in a convenience store. Like Brody, Dante is expected to harbour college ambitions which would lift him out of this hell (his name is significant, and the script mentions that he has a copy of Inferno on his shelves [Smith 3]). Given their appearances in Clerks: The Animated Series (2000) and the cameos in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001) it seems unlikely that they are going to escape from these jobs - which after all would only ultimately substitute one job for another.

The despair Dante feels in his work defines his character. As a retailer, he is stuck in a node between goods and consumer, within sight of the items which are part of the home but perhaps unable to afford them. Furthermore he is held responsible for the goods' inability to grant the pleasure which consumption always promises: whether it be cigarettes or pornography.

His friend Randall, despite being surrounded by videos at his place of work, will drive to another video store to rent his own: "I work in a shitty video store. I want to go to a good video store so I can rent a good movie" (97). In this way Randal can at least make some attempt to maintain the distinction between work and leisure, whereas Dante brings his Saturday hockey game to work and plays it on the roof of the convenience store.

Finally, in this brief survey, in Chasing Amy Holden and Banky have managed to escape their family homes and have carved out a bachelor life together, having turned their comics hobby into a business. What borders on an art form is implicated in economics, especially when it is revealed that likeness rights need to be paid to the originals of their Bluntman and Chronic characters, Jay and Silent Bob. Especially when compared to the other comic producers - the black and gay Hooper and the lesbian Alyssa Jones - the duo are highly successful, having both a comfortable income and fratriarchal bonds. However two things destroy the friendship: Banky's desire to to sell the rights to an animated cartoon version of their creation and Holden's on-off relationship with Alyssa.

In a seemingly calculated rejection of the romantic comedy framework, Smith has Holden fall out with his friend and fail to win the girl. Holden retreats from economic success, killing off the creation, preferring to produce a more personal, self-financed comic, Chasing Amy, an account of his affair with Alyssa. This appears to be a step away from being exploited, as he appropriates the means of production, but just as the bourgeoise family is constructed to support capitalism and requires the individual to work, so his stepping away from capitalism removes him from the bourgeois order of the family.

In the New Jersey trilogy Smith depicts representatives of generation-X, who nevertheless relate to different kinds of work. Selling goods is obviously work, but it should also be clear that leisure is work by other means. Even in the moments when characters attempt to escape from the breadwinning that used to be central to masculinity, the results still define their character. Work still defines a male character's sense of identity and his position within the social order.

Author Biography

Andrew M.Butler