Depiction of Gender and Masculinity in the Film Moonlight

Barry Jenkins’ film Moonlight exposes the issues associated with traditional masculinity as a mere social construction. By following the protagonist Chiron through three different significant stages in his life, the film demonstrates the ways in which he struggles with navigating the distorted expectations that come with the notion of masculinity and what his role as a man entails. Moonlight aligns with Hans Bertens’ Political Reading on gender which supports the idea that gender has nothing to do with who we actually are, but rather how our given “culture or subculture” perceives gender to be, proving how masculinity is not innate but learned over time. Chiron’s performance of masculinity is seen to a greater extent in his adult years, however, his behaviour in each stage of his life portrayed on screen is imperative in understanding why he feels the need to put on such an act. Chiron delivers a performance that stems from fabricated notions he has been conditioned to understand about masculinity by suppressing his sexual identity and personal characteristics that are deemed unmasculine, in favour of adopting a persona that is more socially adequate.

Firstly, the setting in which Chiron grows up in enables him to internalize the fabricated notions of traditional masculinity and in turn, create his performance based on what he has learned from his environment. The first chapter of the film entitled “Little” follows Chiron in his childhood, where it is evident that he had no interest in participating in any games with his fellow schoolmates that involved aggressive behaviour. Aggression, being tightly linked as one the most stereotypical characteristics of masculinity, is in no way a part of Chiron’s personality; Kevin, the only boy who actually expresses interest in being friends with Chiron, warns him that he shouldn’t be “soft” and his immediate reaction is to say that he’s not. Furthermore, his father figure, Juan, is his only example of a man in his environment who’s exterior remains typically masculine while simultaneously possessing nurturing, affectionate and compassionate traits that are often deemed as “unmasculine.” Despite being a drug dealer, he defies the common stereotype that someone of his occupation is defined by and as Chiron grows into adulthood, he ultimately follows the same path as Juan by becoming a drug dealer himself amidst the streets of Atlanta, Georgia. This decision is likely a direct consequence of one of the most defining moments of the movie when Juan teaches him how to swim. The scene is full of symbolism because while Juan is helping Chiron stay afloat among the waves, he tells him that “at some point [he] got to decide for [himself] who [he is] going to be.” If he fails to tackle the waves appropriately, he will inevitably end up being swallowed up by them, which alludes to the problematic idea of performance being essential in surviving in a society that rejects his true self. In this way, he inherits his identity from those around him; traditional gender roles have misinterpellated him and while he never really adopts these roles, he certainly puts on a performance based on what he has learned from the people surrounding him..

Moreover, his struggle with his sexuality is a key element in the plot and a major factor in his struggle with traditional masculinity. Chiron was being called gay and a “faggot” before he even understood the nature of the word and what it meant for him. The way society has constructed homosexuality, with all the feminine associations linked to it, has made it seem as though it is not a legitimate masculine characteristic. Sexuality has always been linked to societal expectations of masculinity, and when Chiron fails to meet these terms and gets misinterpellated by this gender norm, he results in performing heterosexuality. This is shown most explicitly in the third and final chapter of the film that explores Chiron’s adulthood where he develops the persona of a typical drug dealer who embodies toughness. He tries to avoid anything that will incite people to regard him as gay (according to what they believe a gay man looks like) and becomes the very personification of masculinity to protect himself. His performance becomes deeply problematic because he is doing it at the expense of his own happiness; the only other time in the film where he is seen embracing his identity is when he is on the beach with Kevin, someone who allows him to explore his sexuality even further. However, Kevin struggles with his own masculinity; to maintain his image, he feels as though he has no other choice but to hit Chiron when asked by Terell, a fellow classmate who seems to be the epitome of hypermasculinity. In that moment, he puts on a performance to ensure that his own persona has not been deconstructed.

Additionally, Chiron’s performance gives us insight into a black person’s point of view regarding the added strain of his race while trying to navigate societal expectations within his community. There are notions of masculinity that affect Chiron differently because evidently, black men experience additional pressure due to racialized stereotypes. In addition to the typical connotations associated with his gender, Chiron is also subject to alternative constructions of masculinity that are attached to his race. He not only characterizes himself as the people he looks up to, such as Juan, but also attempts to preserve black masculinity by making efforts to seem stronger than most, feeding into the idea that vulnerability should be rejected at all times, especially for black men who have to work harder in a society that fails to acknowledge them as non-threatening. After all, vulnerability caused him a lot of pain while growing up and keeping up with a performance makes him seem as though he is unbreakable. In his childhood, he loved to dance and found himself drawn to it; however, he can never dream of fulfilling the passion he might have had if he pursued dance because it is not included as one of the components of masculinity and the arts are typically attributed to femininity. As a black man, he has to put in extra work in self-policing himself to avoid any further affliction.

All things considered, societal constructions of masculinity are to blame for Chiron’s performance. Chiron is misinterpellated by traditional gender roles, however, by suppressing his sexual identity and mimicking the behaviour of men who are deemed as masculine in his environment, he puts on a persona that allows him to be seen as a successfully masculine man in the eyes of his community.   

16 December 2021
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