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Big Lebowski Analysis

**I wrote this for a great class that actually used Coen Brothers films to illustrate use of critical analyses. I think it’s one of the top 10 papers I wrote in College, and if you liked the movie “The Big Lebowski” then I think you’ll enjoy this.**

The Tumbling Tumbleweed

We’re all familiar with the number of stereotypes and myths about what it means to be a man. The victorious leader, he gets what he wants using aggression, and does not accept failure, but fights back. He is suave with women, like James Bond, and often good with a gun. He is usually rich and in control, especially in control of women, like a father who loves his daughter dearly but will be damned if she’s going to go out dressed like that. The list could go on and on with the stereotypes. But then, along comes a film by the Coen Brothers, The Big Lebowski, with its hero character “The Dude.” He doesn’t quite fit any of these stereotypes, and yet the opening narration, his name, and his actions and development throughout the film suggest that it is this character whom the Coens consider to be the true man. “Sometimes there’s a man,” says the narrator over and over again. Actually, this narrator pointing out the Dude’s confusing but apparent masculinity is himself the only other true man in the film. He is called “The Stranger” and that name, too, is fitting for its character. The Coen brothers offer several familiar or understandable stereotypes of man (the Vietnam vet, the successful capitalist, an oversexed bowler, some aggressive, German nihilists), and yet it is these characters that throughout the film are shown to be absurd, insecure, and even impotent. It is these stereotype men which the Coen brothers criticize. The brothers then illustrate that the men who give no thought to their identity, who ignore the pressure to conform to these cultural myths, are to be regarded as the true men of the film.

Let us begin with the film’s most unfortunately misguided man: Walter. About 20 years after Vietnam, Walter is still obsessed with it and views his life and the world around him through its lens. We are given the impression that perhaps during the war, Walter was a man, but has been stuck in those glory days ever since, not allowing himself to evolve or be flexible, something we will learn is crucial to the Coen brother’s version of man. He wears an army vest over his bowling shirt, carries a pistol with his ball, and is very quick to anger. Throughout the film, he uses aggressive, military-like tactics to try to solve all his problems (often times very everyday problems), and in nearly every situation his tactics are shown to be absurd, ineffective, and to unfailingly frustrate the problems further. He has given in, capitulated to a perspective he illustrates himself in the film, “This is not Nam. There are rules.” It is the absence of rules in Nam that made it a masculine venture, and Walter’s confinement to rules since then that is his present downfall.

The other Jeff Lebowski, known as the “Big” Lebowski, is another tragic, failed man in the film. He is made to fulfill the stereotype of the capitalist, the successful entrepreneur, the man who achieves through hard work and persistence. He says, “I can look back on a life of achievement, on challenges met, competitors bested, obstacles overcome. I’ve accomplished more than most men, and without the use of my legs.” Earlier he yelled angrily at the Dude, proclaiming that “the bums will always lose!” But, the Big Lebowski is crippled for a reason: his “aggression will not stand.” We later find out that all his wealth belonged to his mother; that he embezzled the one million dollars that he claimed he was giving to pay for Bunny’s safe return. And since he does not have any sons to carry on his legacy, as it were, he instead sponsors a charity group called the “Little Lebowski Urban Achievers” and we see a picture of him surrounded by young children that are not really his.

Many other less major characters illustrate the Coen brother’s criticism of stereotypical male aggression. The German nihilists claim to have kidnapped Bunny for ransom, but they actually don’t have her at all. There’s a hilarious scene where they are all at Denny’s ordering “Lingenberry pancakes” and earlier one of them was shown to have, strangely, a little pet “marmot” (which is actually a ferret). This is similar to the little pet pomerian dog (which is actually not a pomerian) that Walter is watching for his ex-wife. As if the ferret weren’t emasculating enough, the nihilist drops it into the tub to try to castrate the Dude. The nihilists, actually, are obsessed with trying the castrate the Dude throughout the film. Next is Jackie Treehorn, owner of a company that produces adult films. He pretends to have an important phone call, but, upon investigation, the Dude discovers his masculinity is also just facade. Jesus Quintana, an oversexed bowler who taunts Walter and the Dude, saying over an over again how he’ll “fuck [them] in the ass”. Well, he turns out be a “pederast,” a convicted sexual offender of children. Woo and the blond man, who “micturate” on the Dude’s rug and beat him up, turn out to be thick-headed idiots.

Over and over again the men of aggression and stereotype proclaim their identities, reverting to them for guidance, especially in times of uncertainty, and hide their insecurity behind their chosen stereotypes (the nihilists are fond of repeating “Vee belief in nossing, Lebowski! NOSSING!!”).

In “The Second Sex,” gender theorist Simone de Beauvoir talks about how society sublimates women by conforming and confining them to culturally accepted myths of femininity. The Coen brothers seem to be suggesting that one can also sublimate themselves. This is particularly convenient if the individual “[does] nothing, they fail to make themselves anything. If man fails to discover that secret essence of femininity [and the same is true of masculinity] it is simply because it does not exist” (1411). Theorist Judith Butler also explains how it is a problem that “modern culture sees sexuality as a fundamental constituent of identity” and that “those naturalized and reified notions of gender that support masculine hegemony and heterosexist power are written into our very psyches as well as into the dominant institutions of political and social life” (2485).

If all these men are not real men, then to whom are we to look? The Coen brothers offer us two characters whose identities are not “tied down”: characters who are flexible, free, and apathetic to their identities and the cultural “rules” that should govern them. One of those characters is “The Stranger.” He narrates the film and we meet him at the bowling alley bar a few times. This western, cowboy-like character recognizes the humanity of the Dude because he has some important things in common with him. As his name suggests, he doesn’t discuss or concern himself with his own identity. Also, he’s not at all aggressive. He’s like the tumbling tumbleweed, another western icon. His speech tends to weave and grope around aimlessly, untracked, until he finds himself accidentally rambling on.

And, of course, the Dude. He’s the “man who, wal…he’s the man for his time’n place, he fits right in there, and that’s the Dude.” His name carries the Stranger’s homage to anonymity and also to the Wild West (think “dude ranch”), and the Wild West, well, that’s another time like Vietnam where men didn’t have rules, and so were free to be human. The Dude flexibly adopts the identities and speech of those around him, when he says things like “this will not stand, man,” “in the parlance of our time,” “no funny stuff” and the like. His only real concern seems to be the safety of his Johnson, which is frequently in jeopardy. There are a hundred places in the movie where we see that the Dude is pacifist, unconcerned with identity, flexible with gender (and flexible with everything else for that matter), without direction, and without insecurity. The final testament to his true masculinity (which is more just like “humanity”) occurs at the end of the film, when we learn, from the Stranger, that there is a “little Lebowski on the way.”

These human characters, the Stranger and the Dude, illustrate the Coen’s promotion of an idea discussed by Monique Wittig, another gender theorist: “it is our historical task to say that the category ‘woman’ as well as the category ‘man’ are political and economic categories and not eternal ones” (2018). She also promotes a “new personal and subjective definition for all humankind,” which “can only be found by destroying the categories of sex, ending the use of them” (2020).

The Coen brothers use the tumbling tumbleweed and the bowling ball as imagery to very creatively exemplify the message of the film concerning gender identity. The tumbleweed at the beginning of the film, like a true man or, better yet, true human, roams undirected through various landscapes. It finds it way, like the Stranger and the Dude, to Los Angeles, but for no particular reason. However, as it moves towards LA, towards the city, the tumbleweed symbolically moves out of the old west and into the modern, urban times. In this new environment, it cannot remain a tumbling tumbleweed, for in this place, “there are rules.” We see the tumbleweed transform thusly into a bowling ball. The bowling ball and the bowling lane symbolize the confinement posed by gender “rules”: the previously free tumbleweed is now locked into a tight, narrow, directed path (should it stray from the straight and narrow path, it could still maintain it’s humanity, though it might find itself, like the poor, unkempt, and unemployed Dude, in “the gutter”). As it follows the forced path, the bowling ball approaches a collection of phalluses, the bowling pins, and proceeds to demolish them. As Judith Butler states, “normative identity calls for a homogeneity too difficult to live” (2487). The Coen brothers illustrate how confining one’s masculinity into the strict guidelines of culturally accepted masculinity is, paradoxically, the surest way to destroy it. Instead, let us take comfort and example in the Dude, who’s “out there takin’ her easy for all us sinners.”

Comments»

1. Jeff - March 25, 2008

Interesting take. I arrived at this site after googling “Lebowski Analysis” because, while I enjoyed the movie, I was pretty sure I didn’t get what it was all about. Thanks for putting your views up for everyone to read.

2. bee - May 12, 2008

Great analysis! Viva El Duderino!

3. Robert - May 3, 2010

“That’s fucking interesting man.”
“I like your style.”

4. Kaushik - August 22, 2010

I thought we find out all the money belonged to Maude’s mother, big lebowski’s wife, not his mother. “Am I wrong?!”

Will - January 10, 2016

You’re correct, and Big Lebowski has a daughter, Maude.

5. Phil - December 7, 2010

I like your analysis, but come on, bowling pins as phalluses? Freud is still relevant to the critical enterprise(his complete, and scientifically sound, dismissal by contemporary psychology and psychiatry notwithstanding), but this kind of freudianism run amok is just silly. First of all, anyone with a johnson (heh!) shaped like a bowling pin should see a doctor, and second, it’s difficult to see how they could fulfill their function without being “longer than they are wide” (to quote a critical theorist acquaintance’s definition of a phallic symbol). Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Andy - December 10, 2010

Hehe. Fair enough. But I still think there is a comment about rules/cities/constraints–and also about the effect of “aggression” on men–in the scene of the tumbleweed, originally wandering free through the desert, not hurting anyone…and then transforming into a bowling ball that’s forced to travel through a narrow lane and knock into the bowling pins. I think a definite theme of the film is “Aggression will not stand.”

6. Benny Gamal - November 6, 2011

This regression will not stand!

7. DUDE-ETTE - August 25, 2012

You are very intelligent and this was an interesting essay. I would give it an “A+”
AKB

8. Sal - September 24, 2012

I always thought of the stranger as the dudes conscience. Very interesting take on the article. The Dude abides.

9. mcr1618 - February 7, 2016

I stumbled upon this while working on my own Freudian analysis and really enjoyed the perspective, especially highlighting the all the points where masculinity failed the characters (or perhaps vice versa) in the film. Also the phallus isn’t necessarily a long phallic shape, but an abstract concept, Freud often discussed the Phallus in more abstract ways when discussing psychoneurotics- I am thinking of his writings of Fetishism specifically. Thanks for the share, it was interesting to read your interpretations, using 3 modes of theory to arrive at the point.

Bants - February 8, 2016

Love the analysis, perhaps expand more on the detail of the narrative


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