Life & Culture

Does the ‘Strong, Silent Type’ Still Exist?

Once defined as the perfect form of masculinity by Tony Soprano, the ‘strong, silent type’ is now fading from public view. Or is it? 

There was a time where men moulded themselves on Hollywood figureheads such as Gary Cooper, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. These were actors who epitomised the idea of ‘the strong, silent type’ – a very specific breed of masculinity, which illustrates a man’s power through a deliberate, steely silence.

“The idea of the strong, silent type really started in the workplace, if men were too emotional then they could lose their jobs,” recalls Cary Cooper, an American-born professor at the Manchester Business School. “This is what separated men from women, who, back then, were perceived as far too emotional to lead a business. The unflappable nonchalance of Gary Cooper felt like the ideal role model for men of the 1950s, who couldn’t afford to show any kind of weakness.”

Due to the rise of awareness around mental health, men are now encouraged to openly share their emotions, with outdated phrases such as “man up” becoming frowned upon. Consequently, stoic figures such as Gary Cooper feel outdated. Felix Economakis has been a psychologist for 17 years and over this time he says the strong, silent type has “more or less evaporated” from public view.

Economakis believes the “feminisation of the education system” has completely changed the way men define power. “Rugged individualism just isn’t needed anymore,” he explains. “We now live in an age where men are required to be androgynous. There’s less of a survival demand for male superiority as it isn’t physical skills that are desired but cerebral skills.

“When the strong, silent type was prominent, men had far more heart attacks than women because they bottled everything up” – Felix Economakis

“When the strong, silent type was prominent, men had far more heart attacks than women because they bottled everything up – but this is a health trend that’s now reversing, and that’s telling.”

According to Cooper, the death of Princess Diana was a “pivotal moment” for pushing out this breed of masculinity as it gave men a public platform to cry. “There were video images of both men and women crying in the streets that were pumped out across the world. It started the process [of the strong, silent type fading out]. Science always taught us women had more emotional intelligence than men, but when Diana died people started questioning why men couldn’t express their feelings as well.”

But has the strong, silent type really disappeared from view? William Kaufman, professor of American literature and culture at the University of Central Lancashire, credits the second wave of feminism in the 1970s for pushing out the “toxic masculinity” of Cooper and Wayne. However, he doesn’t believe their way of thinking has completely left popular culture. 

“It’s just evolved to a place where violence has taken the place of silence,” he says. “In Hollywood, men don’t talk with their emotions, they let their guns do the talking. Stallone and Segal are pretty much the pop culture extension of the strong, silent type. And in 2017, you can see this mentality with Ryan Gosling, whose quiet rage [in films such as Drive] is seen as a desirable quality.”

“In Hollywood, men don’t talk with their emotions, they let their guns do the talking” – William Kaufman

Men in the UK, aged 20 to 49, are more likely to die from suicide than any other cause of death. Some have called this a crisis and believe it’s being driven by a whole generation of young men bottling up their emotions. And, according to Cooper, the world of politics is largely responsible for this culture, with men simply emulating the behaviour of those in power.

During last year’s general election, prime minister Theresa May was roundly criticised for a robotic campaign, where the words of “strong and stable” were repeated over and over. Sound familiar? “Theresa May is the modern personification of the strong, silent type,” insists Cooper, who believes politics is one place where this breed of masculinity still thrives. “She believes showing emotion is a weak quality. Politicians think if they show any weakness then they will never get re-elected. Could you imagine what would happen if anyone in the UK parliament took time off for depression? It would be a scandal in the tabloids.”

There’s a pivotal scene in The Sopranos, where Tony Soprano berates Dr Melfi, his female psychiatrist, about the decline of American masculinity. “What happened to Gary Cooper?” he aggressively asks. “The strong, silent type. That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do. See, what they didn’t know was once they got Gary Cooper in touch with his feelings that they wouldn’t be able to shut him up!”

The fact Soprano, a self-pitying, violent sociopath, harbours these views is telling, with the show’s writer David Chase making a clear message on how the strong, silent type often goes hand-in-hand with a toxic masculinity. Equally, there are enviable characteristics of a Gary Cooper, with the idea of putting your head down, not complaining and getting things done synonymous with British culture and our country’s dogged spirit during the Blitz.

However, there’s a reason why this spirit is written about in the history books; it’s no longer fit for purpose. It fuelled a whole generation of men who had problems emoting. Men who wrongly believed keeping their cards close to their chest reinforced a superiority over loud, inferior women. As Kaufman puts it: “If there’s any chance of inarticulate men once again baring our standards for masculinity, then we are all fucked.”