by Tommy Stevens
How has a new wave of independent voices destroyed perceptions of masculinity in cinema? The portrayal of layered male characters has been a theme that dates back to the German expressionism of the 1930s, but it has never been recognised as the important cultural step that it genuinely is. While feminist film critics quite rightly berate the one dimensional portrayal of women, we are still yet to see a fully realised, flawed male character at our local Odeon. This is probably up to Hollywood’s instance on broad empty characters in order to include every conceivable demographic (the bland, “white shooty-punchy man” being a favourite). But, since the new wave of indie auteurs are being given massive platforms and IP to play with, we may be seeing a new era of more complex, human characters. So here’s the best examples of these filmmakers and there portrayals of masculinity, three you probably heard of, and one that will definitely ring a bell.
Elephant by Gus Van Sant
The previously mentioned “white shooty-man” takes a different, darker turn in this film. Starring entirely unknown actors and featuring all the Hollywood gloss of a Manson home video, Elephant depicts a day in the lives of confused high schoolers. Including two school shooters. The film was massively inspired by the Columbine high school massacre of 1999, and evokes its imagery so eerily.
But the horrifying shooting that takes place in the last 15 minutes of the film isn’t the most important scene. As it does with all its core characters, the film explores the personal lives of the school shooters, reveals their infinity for guns, Duke Nukem style shoot ‘em ups, and their own bodies. The mannerisms of these boys, as well as the way they talk to each other display them as, well, losers. They are wimpy, strange, and conventionally unattractive.
They do not fit into the traditional idea of masculinity, especially when compared to jock heartthrob Nathan (another character in the film). They’re relationship is also shown to be more intimate than first thought. They kiss and share a shower together, implying a sexual attraction for each other. Van Sant, creates a complete opposite to traditional norms in these boys; physically weak, homosexual and insecure.
Traditional men aren’t supposed to be this way, and in a place where non conformity is typically ridiculed and punished, we can understand the mind-set of these boys and why they would turn to such horrific violence. But, direct ridicule and torment from peers is never explicitly displayed, it’s an internal conflict and insecurity that bubbles to the surface. The boys are in no way traditionally masculine, and they exist in a culture that values this over pretty much everything. Much like many teenagers, they exist in a culture that values everything they’re not. They’re trying to prove their masculinity, and therefore their value, in the most primal sense. Without the aid of firearms, they stand no chance.
The guns act as an extension of their weakness rather than a sign of strength or machismo. They see traditional men holding big guns in the media they intake (the previously mentioned video games, etc.) and idolise it. They can never be the popular, jock type represented by Nathan, but being a heartless, gun wielding killer as seen in the video games is entirely achievable in modern America. Ultimately, this is the route they take. The ease with which they murder countless classmates and teachers is horrifying. They retain the same wimpy mannerisms. The same cringe worthy dialogue.
The same unimpressive physical frame. They are who they are. Wimpy, insecure nerds. Its society’s standards for men that told them that this wasn’t good enough. These boys are desperate to fit in, and in an attempt to tear the social structure down, they just changed themselves in order to
comply with it. The “Fuck the jocks, we’ll show them” attitude that is so engrained in the stereotypical school shooter mentality, is torn apart by Van Sant. It is revealed to be a farce, a thinly veiled attempt to prove ones masculinity.
Elephant showcases the disturbing effect societal pressures can have on young men in a way that will quite possibly stay with me forever. As much as it is seems incomprehensible, the toxic masculinity these characters face is detrimental to everyone. As a society we need to learn that stereotyping those based on their gender is wrong. Expecting someone to be a certain way due to their gender is wrong. I believe all these filmmakers understand this. I wish I could be talking about more upbeat portrayals of realistic masculinity, but I am a firm believer of the extreme reflecting the reality.
Mysterious Skin by Gregg Araki
If you like that horrible feeling in your stomach you get after you’ve seen something truly awful, you might enjoy Mysterious skin. Yeah it’s another nasty one unfortunately, but it is incredibly good.
Based on the Scott Hiem novel of the same name, the film chronicles Neil McCormick, a young gay hustler, and Brian Lackey, a young alien encounter obsession. While they couldn’t seem more different from each other at first, they are both victims of childhood molestation at the hands of their baseball coach. Neil remembers it clearly and even fixates on it, whilst Brian completely blocks it out of memory, believing he was abducted by aliens.
The film deals with the effect of sexual abuse on the male psyche and how victims of sexual abuse fit in to traditional gender norms. These issues are still just as (perhaps even more) relevant today, and are dealt with excellently by Araki. Much like the novel, Araki sugar coats nothing. These young men were groomed and raped by a person of trust during childhood. Their trauma is not boiled down to the typical “waking up in a cold sweat” or “brief, painful flashback” clichés, their lack of acceptance slowly ruins their lives. But how does this relate to masculinity? I too believed this film to be an exploration of childhood trauma upon my first viewing. But why are the victims both boys? Young girls experience these horrible events in equal measure. Why is the perpetrator a handsome, young man? We know that women commit these atrocities too. Araki and company are clearly tackling these issues for a reason. The issue of toxic masculinity is rarely seen in film.
While Elephant saw societal expectations lead to toxic and destructive behaviour, it’s the lack of a father figure that is the main contributing factor for the boy’s actions. Brian’s dad is borderline abusive when he is in his sons life, and Neil’s dad is completely out of the picture.