Film & TV

On Masculinity

Image Credits: IMDB

This is Us

By Rume Otuguor

‘Men don’t cry’ is an adage as old as patriarchy itself. Yet This is Us takes this trope and turns it on its head. Kevin and Randall Pearson bring male fragility to the fore in this evocative family drama. Randall ticks every box of the male mandate; he is a successful businessman who provides for his brood. Kevin is an acclaimed actor struggling to recapture the former glory of his youth. They are adoptive brothers with widely different personas but strikingly similar in their pursuit to uphold their father’s legacy, as the ‘good man’. This show illustrates just how suffocating societal expectations can be for men when from the outside looking in, they seem to have it all. 

What makes This is Us so engaging is its unique approach to storytelling. The lives of Kevin and Randall are conveyed through a multi-generational lens, accompanied by a flexi-narrative that jumps between infancy, adolescence, and adulthood. Through this medium, we can understand how Randall comes to be an anxiety-ridden overachiever with a lingering fear of failure. Growing up as one of the few black people in a white area, he quickly comes to learn that to be seen, he must be exceptional. Carrying this weight into his adult life breeds panic, anxiety, and fraught relationships. One scene in particular shows what can happen when the burden becomes too much to bear; a moment that sweeps away notions of toxic masculinity.

Kevin, from the very beginning, is not shy of expressing his emotions. However, as the story unfolds, we learn about a sinister internal battle, unbeknownst to those close to him but painfully illustrated through the screen – a broken man afraid to ask for help. This is Us strips back the façade and delivers a frank reckoning with the knotty contradictions of the contemporary male.

Normal People

By Francesca Ionescu

How many times have you heard or been told ‘man up?’. Whether you’re a man or any other gender identity, masculinity is traditionally seen as being stoic, not letting emotions control you, or even slightly affecting you. The only emotions a man is allowed to feel are anger and confidence, and those in a certain way, not too feminine, not teary, not flamboyant. 

We hear the term ‘toxic masculinity’ a lot and witness it in the media, but what about the movies where men are allowed to be human, to feel emotions and platonic love? Movies such as Good Will Hunting show men embracing emotions as their resolution, as the scene of Matt Damon crying in Robin Williams’ arms is the height of his character arc and what makes him realise his wrongs. Similarly, in Normal People, Connell Waldron spends the whole show repressing his feelings and being surrounded by friends he dislikes, struggling to form connections. His character arc peaks when he accepts help in the form of therapy, and we witness him stray away from the toxic masculinity he was following.

Male friendships have also been portrayed in a positive nature, with shows such as Sex Education and Community showing two boys appreciate and love each other without it being the basis of a romantic relationship. Otis and Eric from Sex Education have arguments and bicker, but they also hug it out and say they love and miss each other, the way female friendships are allowed to do. Their story is intrinsic to the show, it doesn’t take a step back behind the romantic relationships, because it is just as important to their characters. They cry together and talk about their feelings and romances, and it does not undermine their status as men.

Sex Education

By Shivika Singh

Fragile masculinity; a term used to define the anxiety felt by men who believe they are falling short of cultural standards of manhood and masculinity. Masculinity in our society is precarious, something that is hard to achieve, and even harder to sustain. It is a status that is always subject to review and can be revoked at a moment’s notice.

Confirming such patriarchal ideas of masculinity, men on screen for years have upheld a toxic form of masculinity that does not allow them to show emotions that could be remotely related to femininity. Recent television characters, like those of Charles Boyle in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Richard Hunter in The Bold Type, Rahim in Sex Education have tried to challenge the societal construct that ‘Real Men don’t cry’.

The young men in Netflix’s Sex Education are already challenging the patriarchal gender norms and redefining masculinity for Gen Z. Here, the male characters are sensitive and are not afraid to show it. For example, Eric, who comes from a Nigerian-British religious family, goes to school in eccentric outfits, varnished nails, and wears make-up without caring about what people think about his appearance. His best friend and male lead, Otis, is never scared to show his feelings, to be tender with his mum, and to be dressed up in public places as a queer to support and please his best friend. Even when he slow dances with Eric at the school party, he doesn’t care everyone might think he is gay too.

However, this makes me wonder how fragile masculinity really is. The fact that crying men on television, displaying a very basic human emotion, is a radical representation is worrying in many ways and proves how deep-rooted toxic masculinity is. The basis of fragile masculinity is men not being and acting like women. For example, men are expected to be unemotional because women are judged to be too emotional. Fragile masculinity thrives by demonizing the male exhibition of ‘feminine traits’. 

As new as it is to see crying men on television and audiences accepting and embracing such emotions, it is a bare minimum step to do away with decades of faulty on-screen representation of masculinity. Nonetheless, it is refreshing to see men expressing emotions on television and characters that would become role models for young boys and encourage them to embrace all kinds of human emotions- love, kindness, care, joy, and sadness.