Within the popular media and cultural conversations this year, we saw diverse queer imaginations of masculinity. The articulations went beyond traditional and normative understanding. Moving towards a more fluid sense, even ‘toxic masculinity’ was looked at critically through varied lenses. Starting with Ted Lasso, it is beyond my imagination to think of adoring a show about sports. Growing up queer, sports has been a domain I have always associated with toxic masculinity. The show explores how toxic masculinity and sports don’t always have to go hand-in-hand. It subverts the genre of sports drama, and one might even say that the show’s most ‘masculine’ character is Rebecca Welton, played by Hannah Waddingham. The exploration of toxic masculinity is often of a transactional nature, passed from one generation to the next. It addresses the mental health concerns in sports, which neatly ties in with the discussions earlier this year, led by Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka.
Two remarkably groundbreaking shows which deftly explored queer masculinities are Pose and the mini-series It’s A Sin. Pose stands as an achievement in terms of trans representation, giving platform to queer and trans actors like Billy Porter (who became the first black gay man to win an Emmy for lead actor), MJ Rodrigeuz, Dominique Jackson, and Indya Moore – all of whom have been raging voices for advocacy of trans rights. It’s A Sin served as a lesson in queer history centred around HIV/AIDS, interrogating the themes of shame, chosen family, protest, and discrimination. The show’s peculiarity is the emphasis on women taking the role of protector (beyond being care-givers) as mothers, sisters, nurses, lawyers, activists, and other friends. It’s a plea for kindness and compassion, and a tribute to the lives and enduring memories and legacies of the victims of the AIDS pandemic. Furthermore, HBO’s The White Lotus looked at white masculinity, power, and privilege in a satirical, dramatic manner; and Kevin can F**k himself explored the sexism rampant in sitcom tropes.
Two names that heavily influenced conversation around masculinity within the music industry are Lil Nas X and Harry Styles. Lil Nas X has been ruling the charts, breaking records left and right. There has been a broad sense of reclamation of all deviance associated with being queer, along with self-deprecating humour. The thinly veiled homophobes told him he would go to hell because he’s gay, and he served hell deliciously in the now-iconic music video for Montero (Call me by your name), even delivering a bold kiss at the 2021 BET awards performances. His playful humour doesn’t eclipse the issues at the intersections of race and sexuality, given his position within hip-hop – a hyper-masculine space. The Grammy-winning rapper hopes that queer people’s presence within rap won’t come as shocking within ten years as their presence is necessary, especially in light of anti-LGBTQ comments made by DaBaby.
Fashion is the domain where one can easily find videos like Harry Styles mocking masculine norms for 5 minutes. Although there’s criticism of queer-baiting leveraged against Styles, he pushes boundaries for what is considered socially acceptable for a man in society, becoming the first man to appear on Vogue’s cover. Billy Porter, a leading figure in the de-gender fashion movement, scathingly critiqued the ease with which Styles was applauded for defying the gender binary. Porter as an out queer, HIV-positive black man struggled through a lot of discrimination, racism, and homophobia. He says Vogue should have used their space to elevate the leaders of movement around de-gendering fashion as Styles’ name takes the conversation away from systems of oppression towards individualised focus on Styles, when he is not a leader.
Within cultural conversations, there were the utterly joyous poolside pictures of Elliot Page, a testament to trans joy. The pictures came after a much-celebrated interview with Oprah, and the caption of the post on Instagram read, “Trans bb’s first swim trunks #transjoy #transisbeautiful.” This unbridled expression of trans masculinity is poignant when the year has been the most deadly for trans persons. Page has also been consistently politically active, voicing concerns and taking firm steps against anti-trans legislation.
Timothee Chalamet as the lead in Dune, sparked conversations as the leading ‘soft-man’ of Hollywood. His character also subverted the trope of masculinity being equated with unabashed physical power. Though not “breaking gender,” there’s exploration of masculinity beyond the traditional sense. On the other hand, the Power of the Dog is an empathetic portrayal of masculinity that also delves into themes of abuse, power, and queerness. Jane Campion essentially decodes how toxic masculinity fundamentally breeds dangerous loneliness. Phil’s character (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), revolves around abuse, domination and control (masculine notions). Conversely, Peter (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) symbolises femininity and the interaction between them makes for a unique exploration of masculinity. It looks at what it means to be different kinds of men in a manly man’s world.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe still served as the bastion of toxic masculinity. In Eternals, Kumail Najiani played Kingo, a jacked-up hero, as Marvel believes in muscular heroes. However, Phastos came off as a well written, gay character in the long running franchise, a massive improvement since 2018’s Avengers:Endgame did that “blink, and you’ll probably miss the gay moment” scene. Though, it invited homophobic reviews and a ban in some countries, the show Loki did touch upon the canonically queer character’s gender-fluidity and bisexuality.
This year has been excellent in engaging with masculinities both as an ideological construct and as a performance, while critically and satirically looking at traditional notions and paving the way for queering them. However, non-normative portrayal of masculinity cannot always be looked at as breaking norms, as that actually requires tackling structures of oppression.