How does “Fargo” explore masculinity?

Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) in Fargo (1996) is the farthest thing from a “man’s man.” He is timid, meek, bad at his job, boring as a husband, passive with his family, and uses his widespread ineptitude to set in motion the film’s entire criminal plot. It’s clear from the first moment we see Jerry that his plan is never going to work. Arriving an hour late to a rendezvous with Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare), it takes little more than seconds for us to realize that while the crime being staged may be Jerry’s design, he is the last person capable of pulling it off. Carl realizes it too, immediately putting the pressure on Jerry. As things progress, every single person Jerry encounters emasculates him, and the entire film is spent watching him writhe under the influence of others while demanding someone— anyone— pay him some mind. Every time he tells someone he’s the executive sales manager of the car dealership where he works, his feigned sense of authority comes across as truly pitiful. He is desperate to the edges of sanity.

Jerry may stand as Fargo’s representation of the conflicted male pushover, but equally so do the other male players contribute to the film’s overall study of the subject of masculinity, in all its varied manifestations.

Wade (Harve Presnell), Jerry’s ambiguously wealthy and haughty elitist of a father-in-law, does his best to undercut Jerry in every possible situation. Wade is powerful, commanding, full of hubris, and speaks with an authoritative, booming voice. When Jerry unearths a land deal that could yield nice profits, Wade steals the opportunity. When Jerry mentions the land deal would enable Jerry to provide for his wife Jean (Kristin Rudrud) and son Scotty (Tony Denman), Wade assures him Jean and Scotty never have to worry - effortlessly and intentionally leaving Jerry out of the sentence. Even when it comes time in the criminal plot for Jerry to meet Carl with ransom money, Wade insists on going himself. He gets murdered in the process, but at least in doing so he manages to stick it to Jerry’s masculinity one final time. Wade is easily the foil to Jerry, existing as an image of everything Jerry wishes to be but can barely even begin to achieve.

Wade’s intensity explains some of Jerry’s behavior. It must be castrating for a man to work hard in attempt to provide for his family when he knows they would be fine without him. That is the ever-present cloud that Wade hangs over Jerry’s head every hour of the day, effectively rendering useless everything the poor man does.

On the subject of the kidnappers, Carl both emasculates Jerry and establishes his own authority in the film’s opening scene. He chides and interrupts Jerry’s every sentence while his partner Gaear barely says a word. We gain the impression that Carl is in charge of the nefarious end of the arrangement and Gaear is there as his bulky backup. Carl’s strength is language—he uses it to put down Jerry, soon uses it to put down Gaear after they ride in the car for hours without Gaear uttering a word, and he eventually uses it against Wade in a move that ends in both of them eating bullets. Gaear also fails to recognize Carl’s authority, eventually feeding him to a wood chipper.

The contrast to all these men is Norm Gunderson (John Carroll Lynch), husband of police chief Marge (Frances McDormand), the protagonist of the film. The Gunderson household is such that one can assume Norm is a stay-at-home-soon-to-be dad, while his wife goes out into the cold, grim world in a stereotypically male-driven occupation. When we first meet her, she fields a call in the middle of the night which pulls her out to the scene of a triple homicide. Norm insists on getting up to make her eggs, and a beautiful shot shows him sitting at the table reading the newspaper as Marge heads out to her police prowler. A job for Norm is never mentioned (he’s also later free to bring Arby’s to Marge’s precinct in the middle of the day), we can assume that once that baby comes, Norm is Mr. Mom. The Gunderson gender roles are stereotypically switched—and while such an arrangement is more common today, it was less typical in 1996 when the film was made.

Fargo cleverly sends up each of these men in their own right. Wade ends up dead, Carl ends up dead, Jerry ends up in jail, and Gaear ends up shot, arrested, and lectured by a pregnant woman. Norm is the only man not punished for his masculinity, as effeminately portrayed as it may be, because he is the only one not dishonest or brutal about his self-image.