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Goodfellas' Narrow, Simplistic View of Masculinity

Warner Bros.

"Here I am, this little kid, I can't even see over the steering wheel, and I'm parking Cadillacs," Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) says early on in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas.  That's a good thumbnail description of Henry's obsessions, and of the film's as well. Henry wants to be a man—or more, he wants to be the man. He wants to do grown-up stuff, like park Cadillacs, tip big, have Bobby Vinton send his girl champagne, and pistol whip any guy who insults her. He wants to have the biggest balls of them all. 

Kyle Smith at the New York Post argued this week that "Women are not capable of understanding GoodFellas" because it's "a story of ball-busting etiquette" where "[t]he rule is: be a man, be tough, and always keep the party going."

To a woman, the “GoodFellas” are lowlifes. To guys, they’re hilarious, they’re heroes. They rule the roost…. The fact that guns are involved—that, at any moment, anyone could get shot for any reason—just makes the stakes higher, the fantasy more exciting.

Smith is deliberately trolling, of course. Lots of women like Goodfellas, and plenty of men (like me) don't. But his broader point is sound, albeit somewhat garbled. Goodfellas is indeed about masculinity, about being tough, partying, hanging with your buddies, and beating the daylights out of anyone who crosses you. Smith thinks (or charitably, pretends to think) that the film endorses this code. He presents it as a kind of primer in the manly pleasures hanging out and busting each other's balls. 

But the whole point of Goodfellas is that being a man, as Henry defines it—in terms of power and ball-busting—is poisonous, violent, degrading, and stupid. Tommy (Joe Pesci), whom Smith presents as an icon of "ball-busting etiquette," is a dangerous psychopath whose glaring insecurity causes him to murder pointlessly until the mafia puts him down like a rabid dog (they shoot him in the face so his mother can't have an open casket funeral). Smith's praise of the male camaraderie conveniently ignores the entire second half of the film, in which all those friends turn on each other with slavering viciousness. Morrie isn't killed for a failure of ball-busting etiquette, as Smith contends; he's killed because Jimmy (Robert De Niro) doesn't want to pay him his share of the heist money. To be a man in Goodfellas is to be a murderous, conscienceless monster. 

You can't entirely blame Smith for smugly missing the entire moral point of the film, though—or at least, you can't blame only him. Goodfellas is a parable about the ugliness of masculinity, but it's also an exploitation film. It wags a finger at the hedonism while not very subtly enjoying the lascivious action. The world of power and violence and money is exciting. Smith reacts to it exactly like Henry's soon-to-be-wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco), who gets turned on when Henry tells her to hide a gun. The patina of morality (which Smith misses) adds an aura of seriousness to the genre pleasures of violence and swagger (which cause Smith to fan himself).

Scorsese implicitly condemns the violence and cruelty of his characters, and even sees them as pathetic. By the end of the film Henry is coked-up, paranoid, and sad, barely able to hold his business together; in one painful sequence he collapses into a fetal position sobbing in a corner. In the last scene, Henry bitterly whines that he has become "an average nobody … a schnook."

And that's precisely why Smith's callow reading can't be dismissed. Goodfellas shows the ugly, stupid, humiliating consequences of the manliness Smith touts, but it has nothing to offer in its place. If you're not the guy screwing people over, then you're the guy being screwed. Goodfellas' gendered imagination allows for no other positions. In his essay, Smith is simply playing out, rather helplessly, the blueprint the film offers by desperately asserting his manliness. If you're not a manly man, after all, what are you?

Which is why, despite excellent acting and much memorable dialogue, Goodfellas is a chore to watch; two and a half hours of Scorsese demonstrating with stolid scandalousness, his inability to think his way out of the gangster genre conventions. The narrative has him by those busted balls—just as it has Kyle Smith. Like Henry's wife Karen, who at first finds the insularity and violence of the mafia uncomfortable, the viewer—or at least Smith—comes to see the life on display as not just acceptable, but the only way to live. Like the stream of interchangeable Peters and Paulis at Karen's wedding, the swaggering partiers in the film blur into a single macho bantam bray. Goodfellas is mediocre not because it's for guys, but because wiseguys and their victims are the only guys that it can imagine.