Just before Thanksgiving, Peter Pan Live! aired in the United States, a year after the cringetacular Sound of Music "special event." Peter Pan was far more assured and polished than its predecessor, even if it was less an attempt to recapture the lost art of live theater on television than it was an expensive social experiment to see how many people would tune in to see Christopher Walken miss his lines, set to music. (Enough.) Among the major criticisms of the production was that while everyone was more or less competent, it was a lackluster polish. In particular, Allison Williams came under scrutiny for her Peter Pan, who lacked the boyish, bratty assertiveness that could sell the part of the eternal boy wonder: you never got the sense Peter believed in "oh, the cleverness of me!"
It's a problematic source text, to say the least. Most egregious, perhaps, is the racism; this broadcast made adjustments to Tiger Lily's original "Ugg-A-Wugg" dance, for obvious reasons. Less can be done about the gender dynamics, which are embedded in the story's psychosexual quagmire of arrested development and maternal instinct as entrapment. Of all the girls who appear, Wendy gets the short straw: after being offered to the Lost Boys as their mother and being mistreated by the selfish Peter, Wendy returns home, only to horrify Peter when he returns for her and realizes she's grown up (with all the sexual and maternal responsibilities that entails). That Peter takes Wendy's daughter instead, some particularly whimsical housecleaning collateral for the boy who can't grow up, is framed as a happy ending, because to frame it otherwise is to admit the worm at the core of the apple: Peter Pan is terrified to grow up because to become a man is abhorrent. It's a specter as relentless and full of horror as the crocodile and his clock; in Neverland, time passing is worthy of its own dread.
That seed amid the swashbuckling—that masculinity is inherently horrific—has actually had quite a year at the box office. There's no shortage of films about men, of course (when has there ever been?), but this year saw an influx of films that questioned both the masculine ideal and the otherworldly quality of masculine expectation. In fact, some facets of toxic masculinity were used as a defining genre element in such otherwise disparate films as Birdman, Nightcrawler, and Whiplash. In each of them, that ever-present shadow of constructed masculinity haunts the hero's every move, and the degree to which the film reads as a horror flick depends largely on how much of that construct the hero swallows.
Of those films, the lightest-hearted is Birdman, in which a struggling has-been actor attempts to stage a play as his comeback while dealing with the backstage chaos of Broadway. The film makes no bones about the ways in which a man becomes a shade of himself under the pressures of traditional masculinity; Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) conducts a bitter, ongoing dialogue with the specter of Birdman, the superhero from the film franchise that made him famous and has since ruined his life, trapping him within its expectations. He never made another movie nearly as successful, and the hypermasculine Birdman (who speaks in a distinctly Christian Bale baritone) hangs quite literally over his shoulder in his dressing room, watching his weakest moments with the ruthlessness of a vengeful ghost. And in case there's not enough masculine anxiety, there's a dreamy sequence in which Thompson floats his way through a fiery battle scene, Birdman narrating the crowd-pleasing wonder of all that macho bloodletting.
It's unclear whether Thompson himself makes the connection that he's chosen the role of the washed-up cuckold in the play—What We Talk About When We Talk About Love—but its significance is certainly not lost on us. (The various humiliations he undergoes while attempting to reclaim his masculinity through this more elite entrée are absolutely not lost on us; one doesn't easily forget Michael Keaton marching through Times Square in tighty whiteys.) However, in part through exposure to women who force him to consider his life (his daughter, his ex-wife, his girlfriend, his costar, a theater critic), he manages to buck others' expectations about his renaissance, and finally, to let go of his own—by holding a gun to his own head, which, Birdman suggests, might have been his only way out. The movie's final moments show Thompson taking another step out his window, and his daughter running after him, and looking amazedly up, and up, and up.
There's no such happy ending in Nightcrawler. Well, that's not true; there certainly is for Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), who uses a particular breed of millennial masculinity—complete with middle-management jargon and Libertarian bootstrap blinders—to make the most of his weaponized entitlement. When he starts filming the nighttime crime of Los Angeles, he runs his crime-scene videography like a particularly aggressive wedding photographer, careful never to miss a moment and more than happy to arrange bodies to get a better picture. But the sleaze of the outside work isn't nearly as creepy as the reptilian Bloom's extracurriculars. The film's centerpiece is a scene in which he strongarms station employee Nina (Rene Russo) into a date, where he lays out the terms of their future relationship as a resume of things he's earned. Her vehement disinterest barely registers, except as a cue to switch from bullet points to blackmail; this is what a man is supposed to want, and the shell that is Louis Bloom is out to get it, no matter what. Bloom's the embodiment of cleverness-of-me masculinity that's exactly, unflinchingly as horrible as it sounds—and Nightcrawler becomes a horror movie, not from its suspense or its gore, but by letting Bloom get away with it.
But for sheer monstrous masculinity, I'm not sure this year is going to top Whiplash. This story about jazz music prodigy Andrew (Miles Teller) and hellish teacher Fletcher (J. K. Simmons) is a veritable playground about the pitfalls of being forced to prove manliness in order to deserve success or approval. However, this masculinity monster is more insidious than it seems at first, when Fletcher's berating Andrew for crying in front of his all-male class—then hurling a chair at him just to make sure he gets the message. Andrew recognizes these for the red flags they are. Fletcher believes in the greatness of a very few, and that the only way to the top is to conquer every weakness in favor a masculine ideal. He can't quite articulate it, except his devout beliefs that doubt is feminine, apologies are poison, and to say "Good job" is to spoil the meat. Even the suicide of a successful former student gets covered up to make sure the next generation remains in awe of his carefree genius (the ultimate masculinity—careless) willing to be, quite literally, bled. The movie, for all it focuses on the sheer shameless depth of Fletcher's dreadfulness, is very careful not to suggest that there's nobility in these ambitions. In fact, the increasingly surreal and disconnected film provides a slow reveal of Andrew's own monstrous masculinity; he both breaks and flourishes, at one point crawling from a car crash and sprinting to meet Fletcher's impossible demands. He leaves behind a vague, unambitious girlfriend like Wendy at the nursery window; he regards his father as an impediment to his true success in the eyes of the only monster that matters. Whiplash is a portrait of psychology as the surreal, with an outside world that happens in drum staccato and the long emptiness of the soul. It's the story of a boy who must grow up, knowing full well that this brand of masculinity will kill him; why he goes on, knowing better, is the question the movie can't quite bear to answer. Its final scene is a beat of triumph for someone who's finally proved worthy to join the ranks he despises; masculinity as the crushing certainty of the wheel.
Aside from the horror-movie question about whether anyone survives such consuming masculinity, there's also a thread of the performative that runs through them all; none of these carry the internalized masculinity of the sparse Western, or even the romantic misogyny of the matinee idol. In order to engage toxic masculinity, each film requires the remove of a stage through jazz music, theater, or the camera itself. Masculinity is a show that never closes. Maybe it's more fitting than it seems, then, that November's stage musical got critiqued first and foremost for lacking a lead with enough masculine self-construction to make a convincing Pan—a performance without enough of that very specific performance. Even the boy who never grew up must know the value in all of that posturing; if you don't crow about your own cleverness, who else will ever know?
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