Men Are Feeling Feels On Screens Big and Small. And We're All Better Off Because of It.
"I don't know what's going on between you two, but I love you both."
Donald Glover's Earn Marks makes this statement in the ninth minute of the season premiere of Atlanta: robbin' season. Earn is speaking to Lakeith Stanfield's Darius and Bryan Tyree Henry's Al (Paper Boi) Miles. Al is Earn's cousin and Darius is akin to family. Darius and Al are business partners, roommates and best friends. The first season of Atlanta never establishes how the two know each other but it does establish that they consider each other family, and they behave as such. Loyalty and levity are the friendship's strongest pillars, and it is rare for a scene to include one character and not the other.
In the second season's second scene, Earn arrives at their home only to be immediately submerged in a heavy tension that seeps onto the front stoop. Darius responds to Earn's goofy greeting (which masks the fact that Earn was just evicted from the storage unit he'd been sleeping in by a worker who was already lifting his personal items while Earn was curled up on the unit's couch) with a melancholy hey. Al's greeting is similarly flat. Neither Darius nor Al laugh when Earn attempts to poke fun at Al's inability to go clubbing while under the house arrest he was sentenced to after a shooting in season one- a joke that on any other day would devolve into the three friends riffing on Al's isolation. Darius is cooking very, very cold sliders in the kitchen while Al reclines on the love seat where he is waiting out the remainder of his house arrest. Darius offers Earn a slider, but doesn't offer one to Al. Earn asks the two men individually what's going on between them, both avert his gaze and say they don't want to talk about it.
Then Earn stands between them and tells them he loves them. This moment is simple yet extraordinary. One grown man openly telling two other grown men he loves them with the intention of expressing support for and acknowledging the emotional strain between them is rare for any screen, big or small. The three men's friendship is arguably the show's central arc. Earn's love for them is genuine and he wants to make it known. His delivery is confident and isn't diluted with a "bro", an "lol" or a caveat of any kind. It is difficult to think of another specific scene where platonic male love is declared this seriously without the tongue in cheekiness of "bromance" buddy movies whose marquee names include Farrell, Franco, Hill or Rogen. (Note: The fact that the world needs a term like "bromance" to categorize male friendships proves how abnormal they seem to us in the first place.)
Tara, Al's girlfriend who Earn mistook for another one of Al's girlfriends just a minute before, mockingly laughs at Earn's display of emotion. Her laughter acknowledges the atypicality of Earn's statement, but neither Al nor Darius join in. An unspoken reciprocity and respect is apparent in their stoicism.
Atlanta is a revolutionary show. For one, it exposes the neglected realities of a city whose trap, rap and strip club culture has been appropriated and romanticized to the point of glamorization. Al's rap career begins to get off the ground in season one, but radio plays don't insulate Paper Boi from violence in the streets and clubs, racially charged criticism or his own doubts. Earn's one year at Princeton and nominal title as Al's manager don't insulate him from poverty, the whims of the criminal justice system (In the second season, Earn is on probation for possession of a narcotic with the intent to sell- a charge he incurred for carrying half a joint in his pocket.) or his own doubts. Marginal successes, hard work and righteous frustration don't insulate any of the characters from the rampant racism and classism that plagues America's inner cities. Atlanta's use of trippy, David Lynch style plot devices (season one's invisible getaway car and season two's tracking shot of Uncle Willy's pet alligator lumbering out of the house to The Delfonics Hey! Love are just two examples) only emphasize the precarious absurdities of the city's underbelly.
But there is something more subtle that sets this show apart. Atlanta's has a mostly male cast (only one of the four principal characters is a woman), a mostly male writer's room (Donald and his brother Stephen Glover head write most of the episodes) and all but one of the nine aired episodes were directed by a man (usually music video mastermind Hiro Murai). Despite having a gender makeup that is maddeningly average in the television industry, Atlanta repeatedly critiques and examines masculinity.
Earn is broke. He is Al's manager but doesn't seem to be making any money off of it. Earn spends much of season one looking for somewhere to sleep every night. He alternates between his the home of his sometimes girlfriend Van (played by Zazie Beets) and their daughter, his parents place (although their patience for his nomadism runs thin) and Al's couch. The last scene of season one reveals that Earn's "home" is the storage locker filled with his things. These circumstances would be emotionally taxing for anyone, and Atlanta makes Earn's anxiety a central part of the shows narrative. In season one's second episode Go For Broke, Earn promises to take Van out on a date- only to find that his checking account is hovering dangerously close to zero. A friend advises him to take Van to a happy hour spot in Midtown. It turns out that that happy hour doesn't exist. Van orders drinks and food, the pushy waitress adds appetizers to the bill and Earn grows visibly nervous. Earn has to then sneak away from the table to call Al and ask him to put money in his account. The moment is humiliating and relatable. Earn tries to explain his financial situation to Van when they get home, but he does so clumsily. This interaction reveals one of the central tensions of their relationship.
In the next episode, The Streisand Effect, Darius tries to help Earn some fast cash. Earn pawns his phone for a sword, that he then trades for a Chinese drug dealer's dog. Earn and Darius bring the dog to a shady breeder, who ensures them they will earn half of the haul from the dog's eventual litter. They will receive their cut in September. At this point it is June. This is where Earn cracks, he needs the money now to feed his daughter and support Van. He expresses this to Darius: "Poor people don’t have time for investments because poor people are too busy trying not to be poor. I need to eat today, not in September."
The thread of Earn's financial woes ravels its way through the first season and into the second. The main plot event of this season's premiere is Earn attempting to persuade his Uncle Willy (Katt Williams) to surrender himself to the cops waiting outside his door. Earlier that day, Willy's girlfriend called Al to report that Willy had locked her in his bedroom. Al sent Earn to investigate since his house arrest bars him from going himself. Earn is also technically Al's employee and is somewhat beholden to his requests. Willy calls Earn out on his servitude to "Mr. Money Bags" and comments on his fear of losing his cash flow. To which Earn responds, "I'm scared of becoming like you. Someone everyone knew was smart but ended up being a know it all jay who just let things happen to him."
And with this comment, Earn confirms his core fear. In Willy's daytime bathrobe and stacks of hoarded clutter, he sees his own potential for failure. Earn dropped out of Princeton after one year, only to return to a very unstable life in his hometown. Willy's life is the future that Earn is hustling to avoid.
Earn apologizes to Willy a beat later and admits that he's "scared of Al leaving me, he doesn't need me like that anymore." He also confesses that he is still mad at Willy for what happened with his mom. He does not elaborate on what happened with his mom, and some critics were displeased with the ambiguity of this statement- but in the end the specifics don't matter. Earn is admitting to a resentment he's been harboring for an undetermined amount of time.
In these scenes and throughout the series, Donald Glover is giving the world the representation of a man who is working through a range of emotions and working on explicitly naming them. Earn is not always forthcoming, he still hasn't told Darius and Al that he is homeless, but his moments of withholding contribute to his authenticity. His character still feels the pressure of expectations that a man's role is to provide. He is embarrassed that he is poor. At the same time, he does not want to compromise his dream of making it in the music business. The show's scripts allow for Earn to openly wrestle with the pain, fear, grief, anxiety and psychological damage his reality causes. They also represent an example of a man plainly stating his fears to other men, at the risk of affecting the perception of his own masculinity.
The range of emotions Earn processes, both internally and externally, is what makes his character novel becuase it also makes him human. These conflicting feelings are the trademarks of the human experience. For too long the open expression of fear and sadness has been considered solely feminine. Categorizing these feelings along gender lines creates a very narrow definition of masculinity. This definition leads boys and men to suppress sadness and anxiety, which in turn becomes anger that manifests as aggression.
Characters like Earn have the ability to change this narrative. Each time someone creates a male character who openly works to unravel the expectations of apathy the world thrusts upon him, those expectations begin to lose their power. When the world chooses to elevate and showcase these characters, boys bear witness to a spectrum of male representations that validate what they are undoubtedly feeling inside. Girls grow up knowing what men are capable of and can frame their expectations accordingly. These representations also allow adult men and women to engage in a common dialogue that can reframe relationship, sex, conflict and parenting. And most importantly, they give boys and men permission to feel.
If the first ten episodes of Atlanta are any indication, Earn will continue to explicitly grapple with his own masculinity throughout the second season. The show will also probably continue to earn critical acclaim, opening the door for more shows like Atlanta- and maybe this acclaim will encourage media's gatekeepers to make room for more characters like Earn. Lord knows our world would be better off with them in it.
The essay above is part of a larger piece I am working on about the increase in vulnerable male representations in movies, music and TV shows, and their potential effect on the world at large. There are a few motivations for this piece. One, I've noticed a significant increase in emotionally complex male characters and storylines in the media I consume. Two, I don't really understand men. Not in a "men are from Mars" type of way, but in a who in the world taught you it was ok to act like this kind of way. So, I don't understand them, but I want to (maybe in an effort to stop being so mad at them?) because I believe in them and their ability to be better.
I also want to hear from real men. So if you are a man and would want to contribute to the construction of this story, you can fill out this Google survey (with the option to remain anonymous). Everyone, feel free to send to men you know!
And below is a quick list of some examples of men and media with male characters who are shifting the definition of masculinity. I had a hard time coming up with an example created by or starring straight white men, and am still working to articulate why I think that is:
- Netflix's Queer Eye
- Black Panther (both for its male characters and its creation of female characters that exists for every reason but to please a man)
- Daniel Kaluuya wearing Fenty Beauty foundation and highlighter on the Oscar red carpet
- Call Me By Your Name
- Get Out
- Ladybird's Danny
- Strong Island
- Jay-Z's videos for Smile, Family Feud and Footnotes for 4:44
- Jay-Z's interview with the New York Time's Dean Baquet
- Drake's Take Care
- Frank Ocean's Blonde
- Tyler the Creator's Flower Boy
- SoundCloud rappers, even though the cure for their anxiety is often drug use
- Sampha's Process
Toxic masculinity is a hot topic right now. As it should be. Media outlets are churning out think pieces about what our culture expects of boys and men, how we should and shouldn't raise them and the consequences of prescribing to a too narrow definition of what a man should be. Here is some of the most interesting from around the internet:
- New York Magazine's most recent cover story asks the question How Should We Raise a Boy? A number of essays (example: writer Craig Jenkins explains how Kendrick Lamar lyrics are helping his son become an emotionally mature young man), photos (example: shots of 11-17 year old boys before and after their first boxing match) and conversational vignettes (example: an excerpt from a conversation between a mom and her two sons about why they spend so much time beating each other up) thoughtfully attempt to answer that question.
- Michael Ian Black's New York Times editorial The Boys Are Not Alright has been running laps around the internet since it was first published on February 21st. I think it is worth the read.
- The Daily's February 23rd episode features a conversation between host Michael Barbaro and Dr. Amy Barnhorst, the vice chairwoman of community psychiatry at UC Davis. The two discuss the realities of "prioritizing mental health" to prevent mass shootings. Dr. Barnhorst reveals the limitations of that concept and the type of patients she usually evaluates (spoiler alert: they are exactly the type of socially isolated, video game obsessed young boys you think they are) and how many are actually mentally ill.
- One of my favorite boo boos, Phoebe Robinson (one of the 2 Dope Queens), has a super funny, super charming, super smart podcast called Sooo Many White Guys. Each episode features an interview with someone noteworthy who is anyone but a straight white man. This week, Phoebe interviewed Gloria Steinem. There conversation is thoughtful and inspiring. Steinem gives her take on toxic masculinity and why men are not more involved in the #metoo and Time's Up movements.
- This 1998 Esquire profile of Mr. Rogers resurfaced last year after it was announced that Tom Hanks would play Rogers in a biopic. Writer Tom Junod spent an immense amount of time with Rogers, writing a beautiful profile filled with anecdotes in which Rogers helped people feel better about their world. A picture of a gentle, sensitive, empathetic hero who deeply believes in the good of humanity emerges. More broadly, the article showcases that a man with a very public platform can be all of the adjectives listed above.
- Oh, and look alive y'all. On Wednesday, a former Yale student was found not guilty of rape in a Connecticut court. The case was a rare example of a college assault allegation making its way to a state's judicial system. Whether 25 year Saifullah Khan raped his victim is not for any of us to decide, just know that the prosecution mounted their case on a character attack that accused the victim of leading Khan on in text messages leading up to the incident. They also pointedly asked her why she chose to dress as a "sexy" black cat for a Halloween party and not as "Cinderella in a long flowing gown."
- Also, thank Frances McDormand for letting the world know about Inclusion Riders.
It's International Women's Day, DUH! Here are images of SOME of the women who make me a better woman. I love you!
List of the Week: 10 Ways Men Can Elevate and Respect Women Every Day
I love that International Women's Day exists. It is fun and inspiring to scroll through Instagram and see pictures of women who are changing the world. But just like the celebration of black history shouldn't end on February 28th, the celebration of women shouldn't end when the clock strikes midnight tonight (or when the calendar flips to April 1st). Here are ten ways men can respect, elevate and appreciate women on a daily basis. This far from exhaustive list reflects one woman's perspective, but is informed by conversations I've had with a lot of women in my life:
- If a woman is interested in any of the following, don't assume that she is feigning this interest to impress you or some other man: politics, sports, music, beer, whiskey, weed, cars, stand up, The Sopranos/ Breaking Bad/ The Wire or other "gritty" TV shows, tech, or camping. Remember women are whole people who have the agency to invest their time in whatever genuinely interests them. Listen, engage and inquire. You might learn something.
- Be aware of how you use your body in public spaces because its presence has impact. This includes but is not limited to: man spreading, if you're standing in front of a woman who is sitting on the subway or the bus- pay attention to how close your crotch is to her face (this may sound crazy, but ask any woman you know how unnerving this can be), expecting people you pass on the sidewalk to move out of YOUR way (you can also move), dance floors, exercise classes.
- Recognize that when you casually refer to women as terms like crazy, slut, cunt, bitch, and ho you reduce all women to the connotations those words carry. You are also likely dismissing the impact of male behaviors that frame women in these lights.
- Support and consume art made by women and/ or featuring women as complex protagonists. It is not just "for" women in the same way things made by men are not just made for men. I guarantee you will find this art relatable and that it will help you empathize with people who don't look like you. You will also see that there are an endless number of female perspectives. And hopefully you will wake up to the fact that women are scary talented. Here are some accessible places to start: *TV: Broad City, Insecure, 2 Dope Queens (try their four part comedy special on HBO or their podcast of the same name), Grown-Ish, Orange is the New Black, Big Little Lies, SMILF, Queen Sugar, Chewing Gum *Movies/ Documentaries: Ladybird, I, Tonya, Mudbound, Black Panther, Tangerine, Confirmation, Hot Girls Wanted, Traffic Stop, Magic Mike XXL (trust me on this one, y'all. It is a feminist fucking film), Anything Ava DuVernay has directed (Selma, 13th, A Wrinkle in Time, etc.) Notes From the Field (this is technically a filmed performance of Anna Deveare Smith's one woman play where she takes on the identity of 20+ real people she interviewed about the school to prison pipeline. It is incredible and available on HBO.) *Music: Beyonce's Lemonade (and watch the visual album), Syd's Fin, Lorde's Melodrama, Nicki Minaj's The Pinkprint (Deluxe), Rihanna's/ Solange's/ Lauryn Hill's/ Mary J. Blige's/ Celine Dion's entire discologies, this Spotify playlist, the albums named in this NPR article *Books: Chimamanda Adichie's Americanah and We Should All be Feminists, Jesmyn Ward's Men We Reaped, Hanya Yanagihari's A Little Life, Carmen Maria Machado's Her Body and Other Parties, Han Kang's The Vegetarian, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family, Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist and Hunger.
- If you are unsure how a woman at your place of work or on the street will receive your comment about her appearance, her relationship status or any aspect of her identity- don't say it. It doesn't matter what your "intentions" are, you are responsible for the impact of your actions.
- Following up on number 5, if the #metoo movement makes you nervous about hugging or otherwise touching your female colleagues- don't touch them. This is not a grey area. And consider why you feel the need to touch your female colleagues in the first place.
- If you choose to have kids, recognize that they are whole people who deserve to be nurtured fully. They were born with ZERO knowledge of gender stereotypes, but they WILL absorb your projections of them. Tell your sons it is ok to feel sad, scared and confused and model what a healthy expression of those emotions look like. Be aware of how you express anger both physically and emotionally in their presence. You are their first image of male anger and how it can be either wielded or controlled. Talk to your sons about consent, sexuality and female pleasure sooner rather than later so they are equipped to be respectful partners. Talk to your daughters about the same so they can establish high expectations for their interactions with men, and can recognize when those expectations are not met. Also expose your daughters to skills and knowledge that are traditionally "masculine" so that they are prepared to access every facet of the world, think- financial savvy, how and where to invest their money, how to use basic tools to build and fix things, how to mow a lawn, how to shoot a free throw and play catch. Don't stifle your sons if they express interest in "feminine" hobbies like dance, art, theatre, music, fashion, makeup, etc.. Even if these interests trigger your own internal biases, don't let him see your doubts. He will absorb them.
- If you are a white, able-bodied, cisgendered male, know that you are the only demographic group that can consistently move through the world without a constant level of fear that someone else will decide that your body is theirs to harm. This is an incredible privilege that is not afforded to literally anyone else. Be open to conversations about the dangers of inhabiting a different type of body and how the owners of those bodies have to navigate the world differently because those dangers exist.
- If emotional honesty is difficult for you, don't use that difficulty as a crutch or an excuse. Read this article about emotional labor and think about how you can take responsibility for working through those struggles.
- And finally, read President Obama's essay This Is What A Feminist Looks Like and realize that treating women equally is the manliest thing you can do.
Update on the Podcast!
Some people have asked about the release date of New York I Love You, But You've Changed. Erin and I recorded my first interview with my crazy smart, hilarious and beautiful friend Ruth last week. I've spent a stupid amount of hours editing it and it sounds incredible. We are recording our second interview this weekend. Expect a drop by the end of the month.
Also, if you know any NYC based musicians who might want to compose our theme music- hit me up!
And I'll leave you with this homage to one man who has made a LOTTA money off of being in touch with his emotions:
You can purchase this sweatshirt here. Hint: We are six months away from my 30th birthday.