“And This Year’s Oscar for New Ideals of Manhood Goes to…”

February 23, 2019 Michael Kaufman

This year’s Oscar nominations tell us there is more afoot about men in Hollywood than sexual predators, harassers and those who exclude women. Yes, the gender equality revolution is certainly about women’s empowerment and ending abuse, but it’s also about reimagining and redefining men’s lives. This year’s nominees show us, though, just how difficult that path can be.


If Beale Street Could Talk, is a conversation about masculinity that would have been almost unimaginable a few years ago. An outwardly jovial and strong-looking character cries softly as he talks about being scared, really scared. The protagonist Fonny wrestles with feelings of emasculation after his girlfriend protects him from a racist cop. And there is the incredible resilience and understated strength of Fonny in the face of the systemic racism that was meant to crush him. This one has it all, which sadly might be why it was snubbed in key Oscar categories: Images that redefine men’s strength, that thoughtfully examine men’s vulnerabilities, and that show men’s capacities for courage, tenderness and love.


A Star Is Born features Jack, a damaged man who can’t overcome childhood trauma and a sinking career to escape the downward spiral of booze and pills and, in the end, perhaps as a silly macho gesture of noble self-sacrifice or perhaps just being damn selfish once again, kills himself. I suppose I can’t fault Jack for copying his three predecessors from 1937, 1954, and 1976. But what bothered me is that this view of the limited choices open to men still seems to resonate with the young viewing public.


There is one moment in The Star is Born, however, that reflects a welcome change in our ideals of manhood. When Jack wanders into a bar where drag queens are performing, he doesn’t show a flicker of homophobia or insecurity.


First Man, though, returns us to damaged men, in this case an incredibly high-functioning Neil Armstrong whose pain at losing his daughter gets sublimated into work and derring-do. I suspect you’d have to vacuum pack your emotions to get stuffed into a tin can and flung to the moon. But the male and female astronauts I’ve chatted with have been a lively bunch with no indication they were emotional basket-cases—no more than the rest of us.


The challenge facing this character and so many other men is that life inside the manly armor of invincibility, fearlessness and rigid control of one’s emotions doesn’t leave much room for the acceptance of vulnerability, fragility, and powerlessness. For far too many men, this gap is filled with alcohol or drug abuse, depression, suicide, violence, or workaholism. That’s why I dream of a sequel, First Man on the Therapist’s Couch, which begins with Neil Armstrong uttering the immortal words, “Houston, I have a personal problem,” before successfully facing his demons and developing a language of emotions.


Which doesn’t exactly lead me to the Roma and its images of men. Those images are not pretty: Men who ditch wives and turn their backs on their kids; men who ditch girlfriends the second they find out she is pregnant; men who live in a fantasy world of strongmen and spacemen; men who kill protestors in cold blood—although the brilliance of Roma means that none of these men feel like straw figures. Although it is set in 1971, with the substitution of a fleet of modern cars, it could be happening today.


So where does Roma fit into our discussion of changing men? 


The answer is simple. It’s in Alfonso Cuarón, the male writer, director and cinematographer who understands the deep oppression of women. He is able to capture as few filmmakers have done, the complex interaction of gender, race and class. He is able to mobilize incredible empathy and talent to speak out against inequality and injustice in ways that don’t feel like a political speech. He has clearly been listening to the diverse voices of women.


In that sense Cuarón is definitely part of the gender equality revolution that I talk about in my new book, The Time Has Come. Why Men Must Join the Gender Equality Revolution.


There are many others: Black Panther (“It’s hard for a good man to be king”). Leave No Trace (a traumatized vet struggles to be a good dad). Blindspotting (male friendship amidst the realities of racism). Boy Erased (a boy battling his sexuality, his family and his church.) Burning (nice guy vs. bad boy and heterosexual desire).


As much as some of these movies point to change, we have a long way to go to end abuse, achieve gender justice, and reshape men’s lives. 2018 saw the number of women directing the top 250 films decrease from 11 to 8 percent. On a recent plane trip, half the movie selections featured cardboard cutout men: cartoon characters, square jawed soldiers and action heroes, all projecting an unflagging ability to dish out punishment and heroically take the pain. And, yes, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse continues in Hollywood just as it does in every community and just about every workplace across the land.


Change may never feel quick enough, but it definitely is coming to our homes, workplaces and a theater near you. Our movies are beginning to reflect amazing new possibilities opening up not only to women, but also to men.


This article first appeared at The Good Men Project on Feb 1, 2019