Toxic Masculinity Hits the Big Screen in Two of Fall’s Best Films
How manhood is defined and depicted on screen has traditionally set the tone for how the broader culture makes sense of it—what models a generation of men aspire to emulate, versus what is considered shameful or "pussy" behavior. A century of moviemaking has churned out infinite iterations of the curlbro jock (à la Rocky), the unruly, gun-toting hero (Schwarzenegger), the boardroom brat (in the vein of Wall Street), the boisterous goofball (Will Ferrell) and the strong, laconic loner (see: Clint Eastwood). Hollywood films have had a tendency to merely reaffirm our culture's restrictive archetypes of manhood.
But in the wake of the Pulse massacre in Orlando, and as a growing media chorus raises the alarm about the culture of toxic masculinity and homophobia that empowers men such as Omar Mateen, Brock Turner, and Dylann Roof to commit senseless acts of violence, it feels apt, even urgent, to consider two terrific American films with astute takes on modern manhood. There’s Goat, a boozy psycho-drama from director Andrew Neel, exploring fraternity hazing and the dangerous culture of hypermasculinity on university campuses, and Barry Jenkins’ remarkable coming-of-age study Moonlight.
In Goat, college-aged Brad (Ben Schnetzer) pledges his older brother Brett’s (Nick Jonas) Ohio fraternity after experiencing a startlingly violent carjacking—a transparent attempt to reclaim his masculinity and not be branded a “victim” by other guys. The film examines the harrowing herd mentality of chest-bumping bros, taking us through their nightmarish and strangely homoerotic hazing rituals (aptly dubbed “Hell Week”). Meanwhile, in Moonlight, prestige distributor A24’s first in-house production, the focus is on Chiron, a meek black boy from Miami’s Liberty City projects, played by three different actors as we check in with him over the course of his pained childhood, perilous adolescence, and repressed adulthood. Left to contend with his crack-addled mother’s (Naomie Harris) wayward behavior while dodging a crippling amount of hate and bullying from his community, Moonlight is a haunting meditation on young black gay men living in disguise and the mounting toll that takes on their self-worth and stonewalled identity.
At once immersive and claustrophobic, Goat and Moonlight immediately resonate by venturing into terrain seldom explored on screen. As Janelle Monáe, who makes her feature acting debut in Moonlight, told me at the Toronto International Film Festival: “We know these people, but their stories have not been told or highlighted in this smart a way before.” Award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates described the film on Twitter as the “best take on black masculinity … ever.”
Both films are directed by men, based on the writings of other men (Brad Land’s fraternity memoir Goat and Miami-raised queer playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue), and feature sensitive male protagonists who don’t fit their respective community’s prescribed mold. That alone is noteworthy. What’s more, the films are unflinching in their condemnation of alpha-male culture: Once Chiron and Brad recognize their vulnerability as targets of egregious violence, they suppress their identities and subject themselves to debilitating antics as last-ditch attempts to fit in.
In Moonlight’s dreamlike first chapter, little Chiron’s only friend and confidant breaks down the law of the land for him: “You gotta show [the other boys] you’re not soft. It don’t mean anything unless they know it.” It’s the first time the hypervigilant Chiron learns about performing a certain idea of masculinity, and it’s a role he’ll later embody all too convincingly, going to bombastic lengths—massive grills, muscular frame, tough persona and all—as a last line of defense against his menacing environment.
While a number of parallels can be drawn between these two features, there’s no denying the communities they portray are worlds apart. They shed light on markedly different testosterone-soaked realities—affluent/poor, white/black, straight/gay, and so on. Goat’s protagonists move through life with a cushiony, Caucasian, upper-middle-class kind of privilege and sense of entitlement, thinking themselves invincible to their university’s anti-hazing policies. Moonlight’s all-black cast, by contrast, live in Miami’s poverty-stricken projects, where they’re exposed to drugs and criminality and must come to terms with what it means to be a black man in 1980s America. As Jenkins eloquently summed up in a recent interview with the Associated Press, expounding on how the tongue-tied Chiron is locked deep within himself: "There's something in the way black men grow up in this country," he said. "There's a lot of information on these men's faces when they're not speaking, partly because we're robbed of our voices so much by society and the things society projects on us."
Little Chiron’s nonconformity is made apparent in the film’s fever dream-like opener, as the jerky camera struggles to keep up with the young boy as he’s chased down the block by school bullies, finding refuge in an empty crack house. There, he befriends Juan, the unexpectedly sensitive neighborhood drug lord (Mahershala Ali), who quickly recognizes Chiron’s difference and takes on the role of surrogate parent: swimming practice, meals at the diner, and lessons in self-acceptance included.
The “faggot” slur pops up repeatedly in Goat and Moonlight. Although Chiron’s the only one grappling with his sexuality, the intention is always to emasculate the men on the receiving end of the taunt. In Goat, the word is at its most tormenting when fraternity pledges forced to strip down to their underwear do push-ups while looking up at a camera and repeating the mantra “I’m a faggot and nobody likes me.” “Say it like you mean it—say it with feeling,” commands an unconvinced, smartphone-toting bully.
Never one to shy away from a film full of waxed torsos and repressed homoeroticism, James Franco nails his bit part in Goat as a former Phi Sigma Mu meathead returning to the frat to offer choice words of wisdom. “Get the fuck down here, you fucking faggot, and suck my cock right now! Show me some fucking respect!” he shouts to a frat mate upon arrival. His presence drives home the film’s overarching critique of men as an inherently tough tribe never allowed to show sensitivity, exposing how cycles of violent male bonding and abuse are perpetuated way past graduation and well into adult life.
That women are nowhere to be found in Goat—save for an early party scene in which two college girls are fed coke and egged on by a gaggle of gawking bros to make out with one another—speaks volumes about the deeply misogynistic, ‘bros-before-hos’ milieu that’s ushering these spoiled, entitled dudes into adulthood. Goat’s fraternity teaches guys to believe that their status within the “brotherhood”—which should refrain from all outward displays of vulnerability, weakness, or faggotry—trumps all other concerns.
The same would apply to the internalized and externalized violence on display throughout Moonlight. In the film’s second chapter, which features a show-stopping turn from actor Ashton Sanders, a moment of same-sex intimacy and sexual awakening does not go unpunished in an environment rooted in reductive notions of manhood. The ferocity of the resulting violence leaves emotional wounds time alone is not equipped to heal.
In both films, some characters achieve minor epiphanies that sidestep the clichéd happy end, but nevertheless give viewers reason to be mildly optimistic—from brothers in Goat recognizing that “none of this matters” to grown men in Moonlight reflecting on how “I was just always doing what folks thought I should be doing.” They decide that acting out a sham identity just isn’t worth the price. What’s most powerful about Goat and Moonlight is precisely the empathy male characters show one another—whether it’s Brett looking out for his brother Brad as he endures Hell Week, or caretaker Juan’s unconditional love and tenderness for little Chiron. These are complex, generous, deeply resonant portrayals of American men the likes of which seldom make it to the multiplexes. And in a year that has seen the most heartbreaking consequences of toxic masculinity played out time and again, these films transcend the movie theater to reverberate in the broader culture. Moonlight in particular gives a voice to those always left out of conversations around black masculinity and queerness. In so doing, it empowers all the little Chirons across America to decide for themselves who they want to be.
How Black Mirror Decided to Bury Its Gays
This post contains major spoilers from the “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror.
Tired tropes are the bane of storytelling for a reason, and if the backlash from fans over the recent deaths of LGBTQ characters on shows like The 100 and The Walking Dead are any indication, viewers are exceedingly fatigued by this lazy and harmful narrative device. Months after it entered the broad public discourse, the debate over “bury your gays” has inspired a de facto revolution among viewers and critics. (For the uninitiated, “burying your gays” refers to casually killing off LGBTQ characters, often as sacrificial lambs to keep the plot rolling for their straight counterparts.) But what happens to this trope when writers alter the terms of what life and death represent within the world the onscreen characters inhabit?
“San Junipero,” the fourth episode of the third season of the British anthology series Black Mirror, which came to Netflix on Oct. 21, has taken this thought experiment and applied it with mixed results.
A Lawsuit Challenges Utah’s Ban on Students and Teachers Saying Nice Things About Gay People
Utah law prohibits the “advocacy of homosexuality”—including so much as a positive reference to gay people—in “any course or class” at public or charter schools, while banning student groups that promote LGBTQ tolerance. Is this legal? Of course not! And now Equality Utah, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the law firm Ropes & Gray are suing to invalidate the law as a gross violation of both students’ and teachers’ constitutional rights.
What’s striking about Utah’s anti-gay school rules is that, unlike many free speech and equal protection violations, they are completely upfront about their (constitutionally proscribed) purpose. The clear intent of these regulations is to suppress all support of LGBTQ equality at school and forbid instructors and students from recognizing the existence of gay people. Utah’s school code does this by stifling any expression that would recognize the validity of the gay identity. That, in turn, prevents schools from addressing anti-gay bullying and intolerance among students. The result—as the tragic stories of the three terribly persecuted plaintiffs in this case demonstrates—is a school system that refuses to treat gay students with dignity and respect, leaving them with potentially lifelong trauma.
Physicians’ Politics Affect Their Patient Care. So Should Gays Avoid Republican Doctors?
Medicine is never just about the prevention and treatment of disease. Properly delivered, medical care sees beyond the diagnosis at hand and takes the whole person into account. Patients are more than their injuries and illnesses.
For LGBTQ people, the care we need and expect may differ from that our heterosexual and cis-gendered friends and neighbors receive, in some ways quite significantly. Medical issues largely irrelevant to the general population may have special importance to our community, and visa versa.
In Britain, the Conservative Party’s “Gay Pardon” for the Dead Harms the Living
On Friday, Oct. 21, British Conservative minister Sam Gyimah was instrumental in the failed second reading of the Sexual Offences (Pardons Etc.) Bill. This private member’s bill, a piece of legislation introduced by an MP outside of the government’s own legislative program, would nonetheless have satisfied a Conservative Party election promise to clear the names of men convicted for historic homosexual offences that are no longer crimes. Introduced instead by Scottish National Party MP John Nicolson, who is openly gay, the bill would have expanded the number of offences for which pardons—and more importantly, “disregards,” which effectively erase convictions—could be extended to living men as well as to the dead.
Speaking for some 25 minutes in the House of Commons, Gyimah “talked out” the time allowed for debate, a parliamentary strategy that effectively killed the bill. Gyimah said the bill could lead to pardons being claimed by men convicted of offences that remain crimes, “including sex with a minor and non-consensual sexual activity.” But these were scare tactics. Nicolson’s bill unambiguously excluded nonconsensual offences or those committed with anyone under the age of 16. To be clear, Gyimah’s justification for killing the bill was not that it would grant pardons to men convicted of nonconsensual or underage-sex offences, but that such men might claim to have been pardoned.
A Trump Employee Is Suing for Extreme Anti-Gay Harassment and Discrimination
Shortly after Eleazar Andres took a job as a maintenance worker at New Jersey’s Trump National Golf Club in 2014, his life became a living hell. When he told his co-workers that he was gay, Andres became the target of intense homophobic harassment. His co-workers routinely called him “maricón,” “faggot,” and “fag,” and regularly threw rocks and golf balls at him. One of his harassers threw a rock at his head so hard that it sent him to the hospital.
These horrors are alleged in a lawsuit that Andres filed for harassment and discrimination in New Jersey state court. (The case is currently in court-mandated mediation.) But the allegations don’t end there. Rather, Andres’ suit documents a stunning negligence of the persistent harassment by management at the Trump National Golf Club—negligence that enabled further discrimination and ultimately curdled into retaliation when Andres dared to speak out. His complaint is an indictment of the culture of unlawful harassment fostered at one of Trump’s prized properties, a culture quite similar to the atmosphere of sexual harassment that purportedly pervaded some of Trump’s other workplaces.
Louisiana Is Trying to Prevent Immigrants From Getting Married
When Victor Anh Vo went with his fiancée to obtain a marriage license, he instead received a nasty shock: The couple was legally barred from getting married. Both Vo and his fiancée are American citizens of legal age—but Vo was born in a refugee camp and has no official birth certificate. As a parish clerk informed the devastated couple, that disqualifies him from obtaining a license, because Louisiana law forbids anyone without a birth certificate from marrying within the state.
This requirement is no ancient rule. It was enacted just last year during a fit of legislative xenophobia driven by paranoia that immigrants were committing marriage fraud in Louisiana. Now a coalition of attorneys from the National Immigration Law Center, the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, and the law firm Skadden, Arps is challenging the measure in court. Their fight to overturn the law is the first big marriage equality battle post-Obergefell, and it poses a nearly identical question: Can states deny individuals their fundamental right to marry because they don’t think certain people deserve to get married?
Becoming a Man in the Age of Trump
Donald Trump has a clear idea of what a real man is, and it’s not pretty. A real man is someone with the courage to openly disparage people for their ethnic heritage. Someone who will bluster, lie, or stonewall rather than admit to gaps in his knowledge and understanding. Someone who will succeed in business at any cost, whether that means stiffing his contractors, avoiding taxes despite great wealth, or declaring bankruptcy and spinning it as a clever negotiating tactic. But above all, a real man is someone who shows his power by alternately demeaning women and bragging about his conquests.
I’m new to being a man. For more than 30 years of my life , before I decided to transition, I was living as a woman. How to be a good man, and what it would mean to call myself a real man, are questions I’m still trying to answer to my own satisfaction. The rise of Donald Trump—and the backlash against the toxic masculinity he embodies—has made these questions exponentially more complicated.
Parenting in the Shadow of Trump
Hey, Daddy! is a monthly column exploring the joys and struggles of parenting from a gay father’s perspective. Got a topic idea or question for Daddy? Send your letter along to email@example.com.
I’ve known for some time that this month’s column would have to be about parenting during this election season—and about trying to decide how much to talk about politics with my just-turned-12-year-old twins. Originally, I’d anticipated that politics would mean the candidates’ positions on various issues. But that was before it became clear this campaign would be largely issue-starved.
Once, I had this idea I’d write about the awful things Trump had said about major groups of people—women, Mexicans, Muslims, black Americans, refugees—and how his speeches weren’t even suitable for children. But the Clinton campaign made that point for me, running ads showing horrified kids, sprawled out on some of our nation’s finest carpets, listening to his bluster. More recently, Trump’s attacks on women and their looks spawned an even more upsetting Clinton ad depicting girls absorbing this sick, slanderous stew.
Those now seem like the good old days. Lately, I’ve been completely tongue-tied when trying to think of anything I might want to say to the kids about the Trump endgame. Then I saw this:
Trump is inciting violence. It can be seen and heard every single day. From the candidate down. pic.twitter.com/OiPMb7EoMv— Adam Parkhomenko (@AdamParkhomenko) October 16, 2016
And there it is. The apotheosis of the anger, the violence, and the vitriol that will be the tragic legacy of this horrifying campaign season. If any two images can carry the full freight of the culture war Trump has set ablaze, it’s this pair. The Confederate battle flag isn’t just for racists any more. Now it also signals an angry male identity that lashes out at urban, millennial, educated elites. And who better to represent that bundle of despised stuff than the rainbow flag? All of those people might as well be gay. We know they’re alien. Trump’s mostly left LGBTQ people alone, but it hardly matters. The angriest partisans on the right are fully engaged, and they’re not picky about the specific targets.
What could I possibly tell my kids about all this—an election in which much of the national sentiment can be summed up in one figure kicking another in the gut? We let them watch the second debate with us and two other couples. I looked on in despair as the six children—all girls, ages 11–16—had to witness the dark sludge oozing through the screen. I conveniently remembered it was a school night and shooed our kids to bed about halfway through.
They didn’t ask questions about any of it the next day, and I was grateful for that. I’ve been trying to pry something out of them (and from their friends) about what they think of the election; mostly, they’re mum. But on Sunday, driving with a couple of their friends back from their birthday party weekend, one of my daughters asked if we’d move to Canada if Trump won. Apparently, this possibility gets discussed at school. I found myself saying “maybe”—and, for the first time, almost meaning it.
The truth is, this isn’t going to end with Trump, whether or not he wins. The dogs of war have been slipped, and the violence will rise up on both sides. Already in North Carolina—lately ground zero in the culture war—a GOP headquarters was firebombed by unknown, angry activists. A graffito on a nearby building demanded that “Nazi Republicans Leave Town Or Else.” The retaliatory ugliness is predictable, scary, and not easy to tamp down once unchained.
And there’s already a new Confederate versus Rainbow image: This one shows the tables turned, with the Rainbow Avenger kicking the Confederate Creep right in that same, sensitive spot. This is what we’ve come to, three weeks before what is sure to be a dismal Election Day, even when Hillary Clinton wins. And then we’ll have to hold our breath to see if Trump will slink away to sell more of his crappy products, or whether he’ll carry out his threat to question the results. A woman at a Mike Pence rally threatened a revolution if the election were stolen by voter fraud, a boogeyman that Trump has been wildly ginning up lately. Another Trump supporter suggested a “coup,” and said that Hillary Clinton “should be in prison or shot.”
I’ve been giving some thought about how to introduce these deeper concerns about divisiveness and outright violence with the kids. In a way, it’ll be simpler than engaging in political discussions on more nuanced topics, like climate change or the president’s role in the make-up of the Supreme Court.
But getting them to understand how divided and how angry our political leaders and the broader society have become is a big part of any conversation about the underlying issues these days. It’s not enough to understand that climate change is real, and what’s likely to happen—they also need to know how sclerotic and obstructionist Congress has become. (“Sclerotic” will also be a useful vocabulary-builder.) And the indefensible refusal to consider Supreme Court nominees has to be part of any conversation about why the Court’s membership matters so much. (Even 12-year-olds know that eight is a bad number for a court; when I asked what they thought of a nine-member court minus one, they said: “But what if there’s a tie?”)
The harder thing to explain is the why of all this divisiveness. How can I connect the dots for them from these points: congressional obstructionism; Trump’s success in using a racist, xenophobic attack on the president’s citizenship to launch his vile political career; and the explosive hatred that’s gotten almost impossible to avoid?
Honestly, I don’t know. Explanations having to do with how politicos have exploited the anxiety of uneducated white voters who see their economic and social position eroding can only take me so far. In the end, it will be about trying to cultivate empathy, and hoping that they’ll come to understand the anger without excusing it. In Philadelphia, one way to do has been to talk honestly of the many homeless people we regularly encounter, and how they might have been brought to this place. And it’s past time to get them involved in actually doing stuff to make a difference.
Bumper stickers rarely spawn civil discourse. Maybe the small consolation of this rock-bottom election season will be to remind us of the human toll of all this hatred, and to help us show kids a different way.
Previously in Hey, Daddy!
An Attorney and a DA Are Seeking Justice for Tennesseans Convicted of “Homosexual Acts”
Nashville attorney Daniel Horwitz was helping a man expunge his criminal record when he discovered something unexpected: a conviction for violating Tennessee’s Homosexual Practices Act—from 1995.
“Subject was engaged in sexual intercourse with another male subject,” the misdemeanor citation reads. The charge could have landed the defendant—whom I’ll call John Doe—in jail. Instead, Doe took a plea deal and avoided jail time by admitting that he had, indeed, had sex with a man, a practice forbidden by the law. Horwitz told me he was “aghast” to see the charge.
“I had no idea that Nashville was still prosecuting sex between consenting same-sex adults as a criminal offense well into the mid-’90s,” Horwitz said. He immediately began working to expunge Doe’s record—which should have been an easy task, because today, the conviction itself is illegal. In 1996, the Tennessee Court of Appeals invalidated the Homosexual Practices Act as a violation of the state constitution. Seven years later, the U.S. Supreme Court held that laws punishing same-sex intimacy also violate the federal constitution.