There’s been a few things I’ve watched recently that have brought this subject to the forefront of my mind. I finally watched Afterlife and Sex Education on Netflix (which were both excellent, particularly Afterlife), and I’ve also rewatched Logan Lucky, seen Marriage Story and listened to the Black Men Can’t Jump in Hollywood episode about Moonlight. And I would argue that central to all of those films is what it means to be a man in the 21st Century. Okay, maybe not Logan Lucky as much, but it’s still there in that film. Watching Afterlife evoked memories of Manchester by the Sea for me, a film I absolutely love, and I think those two works pair extremely well together, dealing with themes of grief, dark comedy, and masculinity in the face of intense, crippling depression. Scenes in Afterlife really stuck with me, and I think Gervais gives a superbly underrated performance, obviously nowhere near Affleck’s, but it’s still excellent, and really quite emotional. But rather than get into a review of that, I want to talk about 21st Century masculinity and its portrayal in modern cinema.
For a long time, being a man meant something vastly different to what it does now. A man was big, strong, unemotional (besides maybe an outburst of anger), tough, heterosexual, and generally “manly”; you know what I mean. However, more recently, our preconcieved notions of what a man is are being challenged. Men can do things now that are traditionally more “feminine”, men can dress however they want, and there’s freedom of self-expression that comes from an encouragement to open up about feelings. There’s been a swell of mental health support over the last two or so years in particular and that’s impacted cinema for sure. Which is why I found Afterlife so interesting, it was the story of a man learning that it was okay to be emotional, it was okay to talk about his feelings, and it was okay to feel shit. It was heart-wrenching to watch lots of the time, but watching this hard-shelled man’s glimmers of sensitivity were simply beautiful to see. Like in Manchester by the Sea, Affleck barely says two words in the whole film. He’s bottled up and shackled by what the older perceptions of manhood were. By the end of the film, he is by no means open, but we see flashes of emotion, brought about by bonding with his nephew and showing sensitivity. The lesson I took from both of those works was that it’s okay for men to feel, no matter how you choose to process it, it doesn’t need to involve lots of crying and screaming, but it’s still processing emotions.
That’s where Moonlight comes in. Rather than seeing a man already grown up, we can see throughout Chiron’s life, the small events and lines of dialogue that cause him to be the man he becomes. He eventually becomes like his father figure, Juan, with a tough exterior, but the cracks in that hard persona are hugely explicit and easy to see. The film also deals with the struggle a man has with coming to terms with his homosexuality. I know when I was younger, “gay” was used as an insult. You’d have to stay behind after class – “Ugh, that’s so gay”. Someone would take your ball and run off with it – “Stop being so gay”. It’s become more of a taboo nowadays, but you still hear it around. As a straight man, I can’t begin to imagine how it must feel to have your identity used as an insult. Growing up with that must be horrendous, and Moonlight captures this perfectly, when we see a young Chiron ask Juan if he’s a fa***t. Juan replies that he might be gay, but he’s no fa***t – a powerful message for a young, black, gay man. I’m hardly old, but when I was younger you’d hear the words “man up” all the time, especially being someone who did lots of sport. I’m not suggesting that toughness and resilience aren’t valuable skills, because they are, but those words suggest to young boys that showing weakness isn’t manly, but that isn’t true.
This seems like a good chance to move on to Sex Education. I really like this show, as do most people. In fact, me and my girlfriend have binged the second series in two days. I think Kwesi did it in one (in amongst working a 6am shift so big up Kwes). The show is about as progressive as you can get, to the point of unrealism. I live in London, one of the most diverse cities in the UK, and trust me, if you found a school as diverse as this one I would be shocked. From sexuality to race to class, the show is outrageously diverse and it makes for great TV. And it asks great questions about what it means to be a man. The main character, Otis, clearly suffers from the lack of a male figure in his life, having been brought up by a single mother. However the more fascinating study of masculinity arises from observation of Eric, his gay, black best friend who comes from a traditional African family and frequently struggles with who he is. There’s an episode where Eric rejects what he wants – to dress in drag – and becomes what he percieves to be a “manly” man. He becomes aggressive and unhappy, until he finally recieves support from his father, who had been posing old-fashioned masculine ideals on him. Adam too, is fascinating. He is the school bully, son of the headmaster and is perpetually angry. He is a living example of what happens if we do not let young men express themselves, as it turns out that Adam is bisexual. He is initially repressive of this, but as the second series goes on we get to see him soften, smile for the first time, and become his own man
As I had said earlier, there’s nothing wrong with being tough and stoic, if that’s who you are. But what is wrong is associating those values with masculinity, and it’s great that cinema is moving to a place of representing men for what they are: individual. Men will process things in different ways, and there are different things that are considered manly. In Chef, Jon Favreau cooks Scarlett Johansson a meal and she looks at him as if he’s busting out one-armed press-ups. Cooking is manly. Masculinity is not defined by a strict set of rules, and if cinema can be the place where men who don’t feel ‘normal’ can see characters who they can relate to then that’s only a good thing, and that includes traditionally manly men too. But masculinity shouldn’t be imposed over personality.