Masculinities Viewed Through Cultural Crisis

Masculinities can be defined from a myriad of perspectives, and so I reaffirm here what has been an obvious fact of life all along and should probably be a truism, that there are as many definitions of masculinity as there are people populating the planet.  When the traditional cultural definition of masculinity contradicts what someone is, the way someone wants to be in their skin, and the way he or she feels most comfortable, there is a crisis of identity, and there is a crisis of culture.  The two will clash and the result will be either a compromise or a loss.

In the face of a wave of research and writing that I have come to call “the new theories of sexualities,” we can now see that men change (just like women) across time, space, and contexts.  Sexualities are never simple, biological facts, however much some people protest that they are.  Indeed for some commentators, “Sexuality is so diverse, confusing, and culturally informed that perhaps it is beyond any real understanding. (Kimmel, et al 2004:  180).

It is precisely at the point where multifaceted aspects of masculinity contradict the varied aspects of a culture or, truly, multiple cultures within a society that the contrast becomes intriguing.  This is no more evident than in the following films:  Y Tu Mama Tambien (directed by Alfonso Cuoron), Boy A (directed by John Crowley), The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (directed by Tommy Lee Jones), and The Namesake (directed by Mira Nair).

While each of these films and characters may have nothing to do with the masculinities on the surface of each multidimensional plot, each character, some more than others, struggles with his or her masculinity, or indeed masculinities, as part of their evolution or devolution. It is precisely for this reason that these films and characters fascinate and intrigue me as much as they do.  While I will analyse aspects of each pertinent character, a brief synopsis of each film will help ground our discussion.  Superficially, Y Tu Mama Tambien is a coming-of-age story about two teenage boys taking a road trip with a woman in her late 20s, Boy A is the story of a child criminal released into society as an adult, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is the story of a man who is shot and quickly buried in the high desert of west Texas, and The Namesake tells the story of the struggles of two first-generation Indian immigrants and their American-born children. Each film, for me, focuses directly upon a “main” character, or main characters, undergoing a cultural crisis that evolves aspects of his or her masculinities, but a similar crisis may also bear upon another character’s masculinities as well.  That cross-pollination of influence is just as fascinating and just as important in this analysis.

Y Tu Mama Tambien evolves slowly, allowing us to first see the mechanical sexuality of Tenoch and Julio who overtly brag to each other and to their mutual friends how great they each are in bed. It also allows us to see the economic realities of each character amidst the backdrop of the seeming political crisis and so-called changes in the Mexican landscape.  While the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is overthrown in favor of a new president, Vicente Fox, and his party, nothing seems to have evolved other than a few fleeting and superficial freedoms in voting procedures and outcomes.  In the Mexican landscape, the economic classes will remain static and unchanged.  Julio is still from the lower middle class and Tenoch will always be a member of the economic and political elite.  That will not change, even once their crisis of experience evolves into a crisis of their male identities.  What binds them is their quest for lived experiences, whether drugs and alcohol or for the sexual conquest of an older woman, Luisa.

Luisa may be the reason for their quest, but she becomes the driving force behind the impetus that drives them to their crisis.  They each want to mechanically and romantically conquer Luisa first, but Luisa decides to conquer each of them first, attempting to teach each the fine art of making love to a woman rather than let them conquer her as a notch on their belts.  In the process, she also attempts to teach them to embrace their individuality, their burgeoning sexual experimentation, and the freedom to experience their lives to the fullest.  She does this through her own evolutionary crisis brought upon by her previous awareness of her malignant tumor (unknown until the last minutes of the film, giving the plot an urgency when viewed a second time) that drives her urgency to live life on her own terms for the first time.  This gives her crisis a particular shade that would seem to be a masculine quest for freedom that the other characters do not have at their core.  Her attempt to instill and teach this to the other characters goes unheeded until their last adventure when she gets them drunk and initiates them into an alcohol-induced dinner and discussion of sexual freedom and coaxes them both to her room where Tenoch and Julio discover each other sexually and begin kissing passionately.

Their crisis of sexual experimentation that evolves into a crisis of living life freely in order to escape the bonds of slavery that class and economics place upon them ultimately fails.  They attempt to remain friends but the previous economic and class realities of each draw them back, they lose themselves and they lose contact with each other.  Their reunite at the end to rekindle their previous friendship and alleged camaraderie but this reunion just confirms their alienation and commitment to the staid mores of their individual communities.  They remain locked within their culture’s definitions of masculinity, and they refuse to forge ahead with a freedom of their own creation.  They do not seem to realise that this was the lesson that Luisa was teaching them, and they ultimately confirm their own weakness and inability to evolve beyond their traditions.  They return to their old lives and their new girlfriends and bury this final lesson while reaffirming the backdrop of the film, the changing of the political vanguard, the first since the Mexican Revolution some seventy years before, that offers not real change.  The new government is only capable of confirming Mexico’s traditional stagnation and its society’s unwillingness to evolve.  As a result, nothing in Mexican society will really change and Tenoch and Julio will remain part of that stagnation.

Boy A’s Eric/Jack (henceforward Jack), starts his adult life without a map to show him how to be masculine or indeed how to be human since he has spent most of his life in prison until that point.  While masculinity is a social construct, it is a construct that is tied to culture.

‘Masculinity’, to the extent the term can be briefly defined at all, is simultaneously a place in gender relations, the practices through which men and women engage that place in gender, and the effects of those practices in bodily experience, personality and culture. (Connell 1995:  71)

We learn throughout the film that Jack had no map to show him how to be a boy, either, other than the father who withdrew himself from Jack’s life, offering no guidance, and the friendship of Phillip who gave Jack a fractured sense of the paternal and manipulated him towards the violence that landed him in prison for the murder of a female classmate. Realistically, Jack has no sense of any masculine identity other than what he learned in prison. So he begins life as an adult with a clean slate and a crisis of masculine identity, where he has no touchstone of what it means to be masculine in the society or the culture he has been thrust into.  In a sense, this leaves him to create his own masculinity for himself, but this also means that he is also at the impressionable mercy of his peers.  He is left to study masculine culture and emulate it as if he were a “foreigner” that has to decide to wear those aspects with which he seems most comfortable.

While Jack looks to his new male friends to help him navigate his new masculine culture as he once did with Phillip as a boy, he looks to his role models to guide him in the ways of humanity. Terry, his caseworker acts as the negative masculine conscience, and Michelle acts as his optimistic “masculine” conscience.  Terry gives him his name, his life, and his freedom but he does so with cautionary threats that the world does not really understand Jack.  If Jack does not shield himself by any means necessary, by withholding information from those that he now holds most dear, he will lose them forever, and the world will destroy him.  This places Jack in just one of the crises he must face in the plot. Terry lives in a land of pessimism where there is no hope and no grey. Jack lives in a world of hope, humanity, and new masculinity that sometimes verges on the ambiguous but appears perfectly normal within his skin.

Michelle is his guardian angel. While she has the physical characteristics of a woman and exhibits those maternal tendencies, she is still physically attracted to Jack. She also exhibits characteristics of masculine assertiveness as she pursues Jack who, in turn, lets her catch him.  Within the dynamic relationship between Jack and Terry and Jack and Michelle, Jack is really only free to be himself with Michelle.  She allows him to reflect his sensitivity and vulnerability by taking the dominant role from the time they meet to their successive date nights.  She encourages the explorations of his new masculine culture within their new relationship. He knows nothing of impotence, but when he fails to perform sexually, he knows instinctively that his image as a masculine ideal would be questioned.  But this cultural crisis is averted when Michelle, taking a cue from Jack’s exploration of his new masculinity, dismisses it’s importance.

But he fears.  The culture in which he has been placed is one that does not understand him.  It is one that fears, hates, and worships violent revenge, a culture that he never really was a part of willingly, even with Phillip.  He was only looking for a role model and for approval.  It is this violent revenge that draws him headlong back into the reality of his childhood flashback encounters with Phillip.  Only this time, he is very alone.  Against his altruistic nature and his instincts, he follows the advice of his only current father figure, Terry, and tells Michelle and his friends nothing of his past.  All of his efforts to become a contributing member of this particular culture, especially the rescue of a little girl from a car accident, result in a crisis that becomes a violent clash within him and with that external cultural reality.

He finally runs from himself, breaking his leg in the process, and arrives at the end of a pier that literally feels like the end of the world for Jack. Leaving “suicide” messages for Terry and his best male friend, he finally realises that he can’t escape himself or his past.  Ultimately, the crisis for Jack is his inability to fully become a part of the alien culture in which he has been placed.  His stunted emotional development and “eccentric” masculinity give him an optimistic and unique view on life (and the position of a somewhat-outcast in his community), in spite of the prison culture he was raised, possibly in an isolated state away from the dominant prison culture.  However, that prison culture left him wholly unprepared for  a dominant foreign culture that was unprepared to accept him for what he was inside or whom he really was.

While, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, takes place in the United States, and while there is a continuous border separating several states from Mexico, few that reside outside of those border states realise the extent of cross pollination of cultures that exists in the border states.  After all, people crossed and re-crossed those “borders” for centuries before the United States finally made it illegal to do so without permission.  Therein lies the overriding cultural crisis within the film.  But more specifically, Mike Norton, the border agent from Ohio, is transplanted to the Mexican border in Texas.  He makes the same mistakes that others have made about other cultures and peoples when he assumes that the cultural rules that have conditioned him are the rules that apply to everyone.

. . . there is a tendency in research on masculinities in Latin America to oversimplify supposed common traits found among men in  the region as a whole and to equate manliness with particular national or regional qualities, as if distinctions among men in the region mattered little and as if women were not also active participants in the creation and transformation of cultural traits in general. (Kimmel, et al 2004:  115)

Within the film, there are minor crises of culture including the crisis of sheriff Belmont to maintain the status quo in his community in order to maintain his job and the crisis of Pete Perkins to honor the last wishes of his friend Melquiedes and to exact symbolic justice for his death, which is in direct conflict with US laws.  But the most obvious crisis of culture is where the character of Mike Norton is thrust into a world that he neither loves nor understands.  He equates the reality of nuanced border Hispanic culture with what scant racist perceptions he has from his life in Ohio and he commingles his skewed perceptions with the corporate government culture of the United States Border Patrol.  When he takes it to an extreme, it gets him into trouble with his employer, and he is thrust headlong into an even more “alien” culture.

When Norton kills Melquiedes due to a misunderstood gunshot and an insecurity verging on self-absorption, and even self-hate, the results are panic as he confronts a crisis that he is not prepared to deal with.  What he has done is illegal, though he may not realise the morality he has violated or even the local border culture that he is now a part of.  It will take an involuntary crisis for him to understand, a crisis that will begin as a quest he is forced to undertake to atone for dehumanising the lives of Melquiedes and everyone he encountered crossing the artificial border into the United States.  His quest is physical, forced upon him by Pete Perkins, but it is also spiritual, forced upon him gradually, by himself, to confront his past and his self-loathing demons.

At each turn of events, Norton attempts to escape, not necessarily his crime or his violent past, but the self he loathes, only he cannot escape even this, because he begins to develop a conscience, however reluctantly, and throughout his quest into the heart of  Mexico he is physically confronted by the stark landscape and the people he encounters, the people he viewed as objects of inhumanity.  He tastes his own medicine as Pete continues to drag him deeper and deeper into the country, imparting pearls of wisdom regarding Melquiedes, the honor of the cultures, and the border friendship between them.  While Norton may refuse to listen, the wiser Pete realises that learning from one’s past takes time, and so he persists.  When Norton is poisoned by the rattlesnake, he wonders at Pete’s “kindness” to find an herbal medicine practitioner who will heal him, whether it is to allow the quest to continue or the only humanitarian and moral thing to do.  The true motive lies somewhere between the two, but the encounter with the snake forces Norton to confront his violent past face to face in the Mexican healer whose nose he once broke.  She heals him, fulfilling her humanitarian role at Pete’s request, and then she breaks his nose in repayment.

At the end of their quest, Norton and Pete find what they can call the final destination of Melquiedes.  It is here that Norton breaks down and begs Melquiedes for forgiveness, however reluctantly, a barrage of bullets from Pete’s gun rains upon him.  It is doubtful that Norton actually believes that he will be killed after all of the life he has learned to live, walking across the Mexican desert with Pete, but he is shocked nonetheless.  The entire lesson of his cultural crisis is summed up with his last words to Pete as Pete rides away, “You gonna be all right?” Norton, finally, may not admit he’s wrong, but he realises a humanity in himself and in the others he formerly loathed and abused.  We are left knowing that Pete will not return to the United States but we are left wondering if, after enduring his crisis and his quest, Norton will return to the United States or indeed to the United States Border Patrol.

The Namesake takes place in India and New York City over the course of twenty years, two generations, and two major characters (for our discussion) that embrace the crisis of culture and multiple cultural identities and confront it headlong.  While definitions of masculinity vary between cultures, countries, and even regions, few seem to realise the import of those differences, overt or nuanced, in a so-called melting pot as the United States is portrayed until one experiences those differences first hand.

There are variations in the cultural definitions and stereotypes of masculinity, which lead many theorists to describe masculine role expectations using the plural masculinities.  For example, African-American men are considered more emotionally expressive than White American men.  Jewish men are encouraged to incorporate a love of knowledge into their conception of masculinity, in contrast with some other groups.  Tahitian men do not tend to display aggressiveness or other traits that people from most other cultures would consider masculine; in fact, they are hard to differentiate from Tahitian women in their everyday behavior. (Kilmartin 2010:  9)

Each character experiences their crisis differently, and this may be due to generation, education, and even environment.  And while one character is female, she is forced to confront her cultural crisis in ways that make her question her traditional femininity.

The core of the film begins when Ashoke, an Indian living in New York, returns to India to marry Ashima in a traditional marriage ceremony, and return with her to the United States.  While Ashoke has adapted to the ways of the New World as only an immigrant who found it necessary to fend for himself as a single man, cooking, cleaning, boiling water for tea, he retains his Indian culture in every other way, especially the avoidance of public intimacy.  This will become an anomaly to his children who adapt American culture as natives.  Ashima, as a traditional Indian newly arrived, has a difficult time adjusting. The simplicity of indoor plumbing, clean running water, and a gas-powered stove are almost too much for her to understand.  Even the laundry can be cleaned by a washing machine.  She reacts by withdrawing into lonely wandering throughout New York City while Ashoke is at university.  Because she feels unneeded for the very things she was taught that make a proper wife as a little girl, she feels that she is less than a woman.  While she adjusts to her new life to a point, she remains lost throughout most of her life in the United States.

While Ashima struggles to retain her sense of identity throughout, she does evolve slowly in spite of herself, adjusting to the luxuries that surround her, luxuries that we take for granted as necessities.  But she holds onto aspects of her traditional identity as much as she possibly can.  She gives birth to two children, a boy and a girl.  Ashoke names the boy Gogol, but when he turns four, Ashima takes the upper hand by giving Gogol his real and traditional name, Nikhil, according to Indian custom. Gogol promptly rejects this traditional adaption until high school when he is teased for this name he was once so proud of.  Henceforward to his friends, he becomes the Americanised, Nik.

Gogol, on the other hand appears to be utterly and completely American, adapting popular clothing styles, music, and even friends. Out of college, he moves away from the family who have moved to the suburbs in New Jersey where there is larger Indian community, and settles in New York City.  He seldom visits or calls, adapting white American friends and ways, rejecting the ways of his parents as anyone would expect from someone who doesn’t understand the ways of an older generation.  Or does he?  He spends all of his time with his white blond girlfriend and her family who adapt him.  He remains content until he finally realises his own crisis of culture.  His father dies unexpectedly away from home and he realises that while he may be American, he is also Indian.

Gogol returns to his family home, taking a leave of absence from his job to participate in the traditional mourning for his father.  He shaves his head as required, remembering as a little boy that Ashoke shaving his head when his grandfather died.  When his white girlfriend arrives she doesn’t recognise him or understand his evolution   She playfully suggests that she wants to help Gogol spread his father’s ashes, failing to understand the traditional importance of an Indian family’s right to mourn and celebrate Ashoke’s life as they see fit.  In fact, she hardly recognises the change in the man she knew as Nik because Gogol’s previous crisis of culture evolved into an almost complete rejection of his Indian culture. However, once Gogol is immersed, he is unable to emerge from traditional mourning. It is his first mourning within his family culture.

While Ashoke’s death draws Gogol back to his family and to his Indian culture, Ashima evolves and reaches her final cultural crisis, which is more realisation, and fulfillment of dreams than it is a crisis.  She spends her entire life in America devoted to her husband and her children, doting upon them and worrying over them, not thinking of herself in any way. When Ashoke finally dies, she mourns him properly in the Indian tradition, but once that period has ended, she advises Gogol that enough is enough, and it is time for both of them to live the lives that they aspire to.  For Gogol, this is a fulfillment of life, of living the lives that we make for ourselves, creating our own masculinity instead of taking on the role at home or work that tradition asks of us.  But for Ashima, she realises that her family has grown and they no longer need her in the same traditional ways that she was previously.  She realises what she always wanted to do is live in India six months out of the year and return to the chromatic singing she abandoned years before.  It is here that she finally evolves past her own crisis of culture and adapts the masculine idea of living for herself, rather than for others.

While masculinity is a construct, a social construct in our lives, defined personally, defined by media, defined by a culture, and even defined personally within the family, it is not always clear to anyone what the impact of that social construct is to ourselves and to our community.  Looking at the way masculinity is portrayed in film is a way to project and reflect upon the social constructs of that masculinity in each generation.  It is also a way to analyse the underlying causes of that social construction community-by-community, generation-by-generation.  Analysing the above films and discussing them in depth, the realisation that there are many multifaceted masculinities, not some, and certainly not one.

 

Sources:

Connell, R.W. Masculinities. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Plummer, K. (2004), Male Sexualities. In Kimmel, M. S., Hearn, J., & Connell, R. (Eds.),  Handbook of Studies on Men and Masculinities. (178-195), Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Gutman, M.C. & Vigoya, M.V. (2004), Masculinities in Latin America. In Kimmel, M. S., Hearn, J., & Connell, R. (Eds.),  Handbook of Studies on Men and Masculinities. (178-195), Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Kilmartin, Christopher. The Masculine Self. 4th ed. Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY: Sloan Publishing, 2010.