Monday, February 27, 2017

Notes on "Moonlight": The Price Men Pay for Showing Vulnerability — And the Higher Price Some Men Pay

As it happens, Steve and I watched "Moonlight" Saturday evening, and yesterday, I put together a set of notes about the film — not dreaming it would (as it richly deserved to do) win the Best Picture award at the Oscars. Here are my notes, with an appended "footnote" from Max S. Gordon's essay on James Baldwin yesterday at NCRM's site, entitled "Faggot As Footnote: On James Baldwin, 'I Am Not Your Negro,' 'Can I Get a Witness?' and 'Moonlight'":

Notes on "Moonlight": a meditation on vulnerability, and the fear of vulnerability; a meditation on the male fear of vulnerability.

Vulnerability, from Latin vulnus, "wound": the ability to be wounded.

Men are socialized to pretend we cannot be wounded, that the small child inside us so tender, heart-hungry for love, is not there as we age. That we have put that child to death. That we can no longer cry, no longer hurt.

That we can no longer love.

"Moonlight" is a meditation on the male pretense that men, real men, are beyond wounding (beyond crying, feeling, loving). It's also a meditation on the price men pay for showing their vulnerability — and the higher price some men pay.

The eyes: the way they suddenly open, revealing the child inside, still heart-hungry for love. Chiron learns early on to put shutters over his eyes; his alternate mother Theresa tells him that, in her household and at her table, when people talk, they'll look up and not hang their heads and look down.

The eyes of the teacher when Chiron finally rages through the school and breaks a chair over the back of his tormentor — how the teacher's eyes suddenly widen: he's seeing Chiron as a human being for the first time.

Our society constructs us in the dominant culture so that we do not see the humanity of black males — a pathology to which profoundly thoughtful African-American thinkers from Ralph Ellison to W.E.B. Du Bois to James Baldwin have sought to alert us, as they speak about the price of invisibility black men pay as they function in the dominant culture.

These African-American thinkers speak of the price black males pay as they have to live with a malicious identity imposed by a malicious social gaze on them, an identity that is not consonant with who black males actually are in their real humanity.

Black men, working-class white men, pay a higher price for letting the shutters fall from their eyes, letting anyone see the child still inside heart-hungry for love — for letting anyone see that they are capable of tenderness and of loving another man. Black men and working-class white men pay a higher price for all of this than middle- and affluent-class white males do.

That higher price is culturally "inbuilt," since the strictures and taboos are right there in African-American and working-class white culture — the swift punishment of men in these cultures who are light in the loafers, who have a little sugar in themselves, who show any tendency at all not to want to throttle and lord it over the feminine.

Truth be told, however, the strictures and taboos against men showing a feminine side, showing vulnerability, run everywhere through the cultures of the world, including the "enlightened" or "progressive" culture of American liberals. Donald Trump is not an aberration: he is us, our face in the mirror.

Hollywood, which is said to be the great promoter of "progressive" causes and LGBTQ rights, is fatally fixated on macho-man images, on strong-silent-cowboy-soldier men, on bearded, bulked-up men. On men who can display no emotion other than the one male-permitted emotion: rage. Violence.

The sexual revolution of the 1960s was spearheaded primarily by heterosexual males. Having achieved the "liberation" they sought in that revolution, they stopped it in its tracks when it began to threaten to provide liberation and rights to women and LGBTQ human beings. We have seen, if anything, a coarsening, a hardening, a refashioning of the world in which we live around macho-male images, many of them militaristic ones, since the 1960s.

The weakness of "Moonlighting" (for me; perhaps not for you): its gaze is unrelentingly a male gaze, whether a straight male or a gay male gaze. The two female characters that figure in any way at all in the plot are both deeply flawed mother figures who tend to be cardboard cutout figures against whose backdrop the real action, the male action, of the plot unfolds.

The social worker, a female, who tries to assist Chiron as he goes to the dark side, is presented as a scold whose voice he cannot hear, so that we see her lips move as she speaks, but hear no sound.
All of this may very accurately depict the male world this film wants us to open our eyes and see in a way we haven't yet seen it — and that objective is laudable.

But as Chiron was being hectored and bullied and assaulted in school, how I longed to hear what his female classmates, the African-American females sitting all around him in the classroom, thought about him and what was being done to him.

We are watching as much an attack on gender politics as on race, which is one of the reasons why those who want to deport immigrants often want to reverse gay equality and end Roe V. Wade, resist belief in climate change, cut healthcare. We need not only James Baldwin, the orator on race, but Baldwin the feminist. And whether he would have used that term to describe himself or not, it is evident from his life and work that he loved women, respected them, and was committed to telling their stories in the literature that he created. 
The feminine is in danger. And what James knew, what all gay or bi-sexual men know, or any man who has tried to love another man, is that fear of homosexuality, which means hypermasculinity, makes men mean. And I’m not talking about closeted gay men here; I’m talking about all men, about how we raise our boys. Fear of homosexuality begins early and takes root; when men fear homosexuality, whether they are homosexual or not, they fear themselves; it is an attack on what is vulnerable in themselves. It really doesn't have to do with "sucking dick" or - the ultimate macho horror - being sodomized. It's about men being afraid to be women, because to be a woman means to be a victim in the patriarchal macho mind. Men are taught to be so afraid of being homosexual that their fear goes way past the act of sex and begins to erode our sense of empathy, our ability to feel compassion for anyone, including animals (factory farming) and the environment (climate change denial, fracking.). Men go insane trying to avoid homosexuality to such an extent that they get backed into macho corners and refuse to come out. And when they violate women or beat their wives, or start wars, they are reduced to the ultimate expression of machismo, and the only emotion they are able to sustain without shame; rage.

The "Moonlight" trailer is from Zero Media on YouTube.

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