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Contemporary films addressing the theme of TOXIC MASCULINITY

Despite there being excellent examples in the past as well, the contemporary approach to the subject of toxic masculinity is unquestionably more relevant.

Krzysztof Nowak

26 August 2023

Toxic masculinity is a concept that is constantly evolving, and in recent years, it has been increasingly discussed in both public and scholarly discourse. Although the term was first used in the 1980s, it’s only in contemporary times that it has gained a broader context, and the harmful nature of this phenomenon is being recognized more clearly. In general terms, toxic masculinity refers to a set of attitudes and societal norms that have been widely accepted as necessary for an individual to be deemed “manly.” These may include dressing in a certain way, displaying toughness, suppressing emotions like sadness or fear while simultaneously condoning more aggressive behavior, and even specific ways of expressing oneself (using profanity may seem more fitting for men).

However, I’ll allow myself to conclude the analysis of this phenomenon here and refer those seeking more information to more knowledgeable scholarly sources. Here, I’ll focus on films addressing the mentioned issue, although I’ll clarify upfront that I’ll primarily discuss recent titles. This is due to the increased societal awareness I mentioned at the beginning. Despite there being excellent examples in the past as well (Fight Club, Raging Bull, Mulan, to name a few), the contemporary approach to the subject is unquestionably more relevant.

The Salesman (2016)

Asghar Farhadi seems to strip men of their pride in every one of his films, and it’s not without reason that I chose The Salesman for this compilation. In this production, the director places the issue of wounded masculinity at the forefront and weaves a narrative that revolves around the unfolding events stemming from this theme. Although Emad (Shahab Hosseini) has every reason to be frustrated and can initially justify his investigation, it becomes clear that he is more concerned about his own ego than his wife’s well-being. As the minutes tick by, Emad becomes increasingly consumed by his pursuit of the assailant responsible for attacking his wife and potentially assaulting her. Instead of offering support, he nurtures his own sense of injury, which ultimately leads to the gradual disintegration of their relationship.

The Art of Self-Defense (2019)

While the film’s entirety is set in a comedic tone, it surprises audiences with its unexpectedly dark portrayal of the world, even within the satirical context. This is especially true when it comes to brutality, a facet that the plot does not shy away from. Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), an accountant, lacks the ability to defend himself. Unfortunately, he learns this the hard way when he is brutally attacked by masked members of a motorcycle gang. This incident prompts him to enroll in karate lessons, where he encounters a true tough guy and alpha male, Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). Their interaction helps Casey discover his latent masculinity and free himself from the shackles of vulnerability. It’s well-known that true men listen to metal and steer clear of sweetness.

The Lighthouse (2019)

I understand the myriad ways in which one can interpret Robert Eggers’ film, but from my perspective, it primarily speaks to male rivalry. The clash between two strong personalities intensifies as Tom (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim (Robert Pattinson) spend more time on a deserted island, consume more alcohol, and the latter is progressively denied access to the lighthouse’s summit. The lighthouse itself transforms into a woman whose affection they must compete for – it’s no coincidence they refer to it as “She.” This film also incorporates homoerotic themes and phallic symbols. It can serve as a pretext for a discourse on Carl Jung’s perspective, all within the context of a seemingly straightforward story about two isolated lighthouse keepers.

Enemy (2013)

This is another film open to various interpretations, but similar to the previous case, I can’t help but notice the fumes of toxic masculinity enveloping the character of Adam/Anthony (Jake Gyllenhaal). Enemy revolves around the unusual encounter between two men leading vastly different lives yet appearing identical. Of course, their characters differ substantially (one is withdrawn and sensitive, while the other is dominant and aggressive). Consequently, I interpret Villeneuve’s work as a perpetual conflict between “masculinity” and its loss. The tense thriller convention serves as a vehicle for this narrative, allowing us to experience the feeling of being trapped in a web and the impending explosion of emotions.

Death of a Virgin and the Sin of Not Living

This time, let’s delve into a more niche cinematic experience. Its concise runtime (86 minutes) and accessible storytelling make it an engaging watch, despite the characters’ dilemmas and issues. The movie delves into socially accepted norms for men, within the context of Lebanon, where the action takes place. A group of teenagers embarks on an expedition to a nearby brothel to experience their first time with a hired prostitute. Not all of them genuinely want this experience, and some have girlfriends, but they all proceed because the situation demands it of them.

Turist (2014)

It starts innocently – Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) take their children on a luxurious mountain vacation. The idyllic stay is disrupted by a sudden avalanche they witness during lunch on the terrace. The mother shields the children, but the father grabs his phone and flees. When the dust settles and it’s clear that no one is hurt, Tomas’ behavior becomes a bone of contention in their relationship. Ruben Östlund, later known for The Square, navigates satire adeptly, creating films that are both artistic and entertaining. The Tourist was his first foray into this type of cinema and even then showcased his ability to merge social critique with psychological understanding. Did Tomas’ behavior stem from weakness or were his instincts simply in control during that stressful situation? What should he do to rectify the impression he left behind? The director doesn’t directly answer these questions but continuously provides additional information, perspectives, and analogies to leave us to decide the character’s (in)nocence.

Cold Fish (2010)

Sion Sono is a master of extreme cinema, rarely one to tell a story subtly, often opting for a stark, brutally violent narrative. In this case, we encounter a cold thriller that explores a toxic relationship between Shamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), a proprietor of a small fish shop, and Yukio (Denden), the owner of a large shop employing several people. The two men are polar opposites: the first is quiet, unassertive, unable to control his daughter or connect with his wife. The second is a confident, even domineering entrepreneur who gradually takes control of his fellow businessman. Under Yukio’s influence, suppressed desires awaken within Shamoto, bringing forth his worst character traits, all within a world dominated by his adversary, which serves as the only path to the top of the food chain.

Moonlight (2016)

The plot of Barry Jenkins’ three-time Oscar-winning masterpiece can be summarized in one sentence: a young, black boy grapples with the challenges of growing up in a dangerous, crime-ridden neighborhood. As is often the case, the devil is in the details, where multiple parallel stories emerge. One of these is the narrative of masculine role models that played such a significant role in the boy’s life that, willingly or not, he had to mold himself in their likeness at a certain point. Moonlight also speaks to the process of self-discovery and self-loss when it becomes evident that the sensitive version of the character hidden beneath a tough exterior wouldn’t survive in the world he’s in. Mahershala Ali’s exceptional supporting role and Jenkins’ subtle direction complete the portrayal of a quietly bubbling, emotionally charged coming-of-age story.

Do you interpret these films similarly? Or would you like to suggest other titles for this compilation? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Krzysztof Nowak

Krzysztof Nowak

He loves Asian cinema, especially Korean, but he became interested in films thanks to American blockbusters and has a special place in his heart for them. He believes that kitsch is the most difficult directing tool, so he appreciates the work of anyone who can use it.

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