“John Stoltenberg has contended that every single customary idea of manliness is harmful and, at last, fortify the persecution of women.”
By: Leo Barton
This statement which graces our ears mid-way through Masculinity epitomizes its approach to the topic—one of strong ideas weighed down by confused and verbose presentation. The film walks through an impersonal history of masculinity, attempting to answer the impossibly elusive questions of the origins of masculinity, why it exists, and why it is a detriment to many lives. It manages this through a mishmash of archive footage, stock footage, and interviews.
The topic of masculinity is, of course, one of high contention, many opinions, and extensive research—scholarly, scientific, and popular. However, within the film, the origins of masculinity are presented with certainty. We open with a somewhat open-ended quote from Chris Kyle, plainly stating that his time-fighting in Iraq was “about being a man”, something the film quickly rebuts, albeit without ever mentioning the quote or Kyle again. Instead we are lectured on the fact that “throughout history, man has been influenced on how to act, look and be”, pushing through a brief history of 20th-century masculinity. We are then awash with a mass of interviews, from several individuals who, often, claim to hold the “real definition” of being a man. This form, largely, springs back and forth for the films runtime. However amid the staggering of interviews atop one another and the generic and unspecific histories it becomes quite difficult to differentiate the opinions of the individuals, the opinions of the filmmaker and the truth, if we are presented with any, about masculinity.
This is all emaciated by the fact that masculinity is discussed entirely conceptually. There are no personal accounts, confessions, or narratives to be found, simply a group of individuals (with unknown credentials, I might add) discussing the topic at large. This hodgepodge of opinion and unverifiable facts inevitably amounts to a wealth of generalizations, resulting in the project adding very little, if anything, to the debate on masculinity—especially given the topic’s ubiquity in the 21st century.
Formally, the film falls into a similarly confused state. Regarding image, we are faced with three types; interview (webcam footage), archive, and stock. The interview, inevitably low resolution, clipped and overexposed due to being shot on webcams, is manipulated through numerous ken-burns and slowly pushes into the subjects faces in, seemingly, an attempt to add an emotional aspect to this conceptual discussion. However, unfortunately, this instead simply feels slapdash, in my opinion. Instead of trying to make such inherently damaged.
Images dynamic, one should accept that webcam footage will be low resolution and poorly exposed, and work with this specific footage format to make it interesting to view—displaying it simply as-is, or inventively placing it on a virtual computer screen are two options that come immediately to mind. The stock images, again, attempt to inject some emotional value into the film showing a father with their children, or a man crying in a corner, however, due to their scarcity and seemingly random intercutting, they lose the emotional weight that they could add to the film. Archive images, by contrast, are a breath of fresh air, providing a quick bite of nostalgia. Yet the overarching problem with the images en masse is not their formal qualities or their editing, but simply the fact that they are all used as illustrations—displaying people talking, acting out what an interviewee is saying, or providing archival evidence of what the omnipresent voice-over declares. In other words, the images fail to add any value themselves. This film could be heard or read to the same effect. As such, the film’s visual style is somewhat expendable through its confusing use of far too many aesthetics—a fact which is perfectly epitomized by the use of an extended clip from the 1948 Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer which is presented for almost a minute, to never be commented on again.
As we emerge through the booming voice-over and the unmixed interviews we are left with the final sentiment to “question society, question all thinking about being a man and how to be one…It is up to men to put an end to Toxic Masculinity. Help us save our men”. My immediate reaction to this is; who is this us? This conclusion points to something important, that we should band together to overcome and better society. However, contrasting this message is the penultimate line—exclaiming “it is up to men”. Together I feel these points to a hugely prevalent confusion within neoliberalism, one whereby we should all look to a better society, but it is the explicit fault of certain groups that society is the way that it is.
Of course, people are to blame for status-quos, but the argument that it is up to them to solve the problem only goes to magnify the issue. Is it up to men to defeat toxic masculinity, or is it up to those who display toxic masculinity, or is it up to society as a whole to provide support and a way out? The film, as it has been through its entire runtime, is uncertain. But this is exactly the point where neoliberalism breaks down into new age segregation and discrimination, only under different names or guises. In short, the film, its style, and its conclusion are all as generic and simplified as its title—Masculinity.
Cast: Jasmine Coleman, Ford Austin, Lindsay Michelle Reed,Hassan Farrow, Jed Ryan, Devon Ashton Sanders, Daniel Hirsh, Odysseus Bailer, Jay Markel-Pratt, Shawn Better, Samantha Simone, William Mosley, Theodore Buchanan, Gloria Jean Jung, Gary Dalton and Bruce Burrell
Leo Barton is a filmmaker and freelance writer.