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Masculinity in Moonlight

Written by Millán Blanco

This picture deals with Chiron —also known as “Little” and “Black”—, and the path this Afro- American man takes through the intricacies of his own identity. The audience sees him grow and change, diving in the difficulties of being a homosexual black man who lives in a poor neighbourhood under the care of a crack-addict mother, with the only form of love coming from the paternal figure of a drug-trafficker —who happens to be the same individual who sells the narcotics to the protagonist’s mother— and the dealer’s girlfriend; as well as a friend who is later on in the film obliged to beat up Chiron.

To properly analyse masculinity as reflected in this picture, the complex concept of masculinity itself must first be explained. This notion, following the words of John Beynon, is not just one, but an amalgam of multiple types of masculinities that has changed and evolved over time. This is due to several factors, including the influence of different movements such as feminism, or the impact of the LGBTIQ+ community. One of these various masculinities is known as “hypermasculinity” and it is often portrayed in media as the exaggeration of a heterosexual male warrior.  In this sense, as described by Fintan Walsh – “to be a man signifies not to be feminine; not to be homosexual; not to be effeminate in one’s physical appearance or manners; not to have sexual or overtly intimate relations with other men; not to be impotent with women.” This can be observed in virtually every super hero film, with famous examples such as: Man of Steel, starring a muscular alluring extraterrestrial humanoid with superpowers, or Thor, starring a muscular alluring extraterrestrial humanoid with superpowers and a hammer, both of them heterosexual and “potent with women”.

The most aggressive expression of this masculinity is known as “phallic masculinity.” An example of it can be observed in the film Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), in which the step father of the principal character, Captain Vidal, mistreats both his wife and stepdaughter, as well as other male characters with different masculinities. This type of masculinity is deeply influenced by the concept of heteropatriarchy, which, broken in two, comes from the words heteronormativity and patriarchy.

According to Raewyn Connell, the complete opposite of these forms of masculinity is divided in two types: subordinated masculinity and marginalised masculinity. The former is often related to men with characteristics that, in the past, would have been perceived as feminine and/or homosexual. This category is directly affected by the stratification of masculinity since it differentiates and excludes men who present these characteristics from those who do not. The second type also relies on the subordination of males to other males, but Raewyn Connel states that in this case it is not due to their femininity and/or homosexuality, but to their class and/or race. An example of both forms can be observed in the documentary Paris is Burning (Jennie Livingston, 1990), in which its protagonists are immediately marginalised for being both “non-straight” and “non-white”.

With regard to the film Moonlight, it presents an interesting phenomenon. Chiron, the afore-said protagonist, does not belong to one specific masculinity because he travels through different ones, not only as he grows in and out different stages of his life, but also as he lives those stages per se. For instance, during the first half of the third act of the film, when Chrion is an adult known as “Black,”,he portrays himself as a hypermasculine Afro-American gangster. That is a very muscular guy with golden teeth. By this point, he has undergone an off-camera transformation to look and act like a slightly benevolent version of the bully who harassed him when he was younger —said bully would be an example of phallic masculinity—. Chiron becomes what he fears so he does not fear anymore, but, unlike his bully, he does not appear to be bullying other forms of masculinity for the sake of diminishing them, but only for the sake of helping the individual adapt and overcome the cruelty of the world in which they live. Nevertheless, this apparent facade falls apart as soon as he meets Kevin, his childhood friend, one more time. Chiron takes off the golden cover of his teeth as a metaphor to showcase again the person he once was: a silent, shy and vulnerable man. He travels from a subordinated masculinity to hypermasculinity to finally comeback anew to his old subordinated masculinity.

In relation to marginalised masculinity, it could be argued that Chiron is grouped inside this type too due to his race being Afro-American —one of the most alienated and mistreated races in history (Malvern Van Wyk Smith)—, as well as due to the film exploring his background as a member of such ethnicity. However, the lack of other races precludes the possibility of any sort of crime towards the Afro-American community held by an outside group. Similarly, the lack of representation of different social stratum —since the film only shows the lower class and wealthy dealers— impedes the visibility of any form of discrimination against Chiron’s social status on the hand of other social classes. Thus, it is unknown whether or not his masculinity can be classified as marginalised.

“In relation to marginalised masculinity, it could be argued that Chiron is grouped inside this type too due to his race being Afro-American —one of the most alienated and mistreated races in history”

Malvern Van Wyk Smith

With respect to the issue of the heteropatriarchy, Chiron is certainly a direct victim of the heteronormativity. This is shown numerous times in the form of the bullying he receives on the part of some of his classmates as a result of being gay, and hence, outside the norm of heterosexuality. Not much can be said, nevertheless, about the matter of the patriarchy adversely affecting him since neither him, nor any woman close to him, appears to be suffering from domination, oppression or exploitation by any man. It could be stated that Chiron’s mother is indeed oppressed by her drug-dealer. Yet, she is instead oppressed by the drugs she buys off of him.

As a conclusion, Moonlight is a reflection of, not only different masculinities and the trouble that relying on their stereotypes entails, but also the fact that one human being does not necessarily stick to one particular masculinity for life. Masculinities are inherent layers of the different identities of the individual, and thus, together with identities, masculinities are constantly changing and evolving alongside the self, taking the shape that best suits the individual, adapting as the individual adapts, evolving as the individual evolves, changing as the individual explores. They are not set. Therefore, they should not be imposed. As Michael Mangan once said: “Crisis is […] a condition of masculinity itself. Masculine gender identity is never stable; its terms are continually being redefined and re-negotiated, the gender performance continually being re- staged. Certain themes and tropes inevitably reappear with regularity, but each era experiences itself in different ways.”

“Masculinities are inherent layers of the different identities of the individual, and thus, together with identities, masculinities are constantly changing and evolving alongside the self”

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