More and more, the current social zeitgeist is constantly reiterating how fragile masculinity is and that it relies almost solely on dominance. This idea made me curious about how fragile masculinity really is. If masculinity is so fragile, how come no one has broken it yet? And what would that take?
This 6 min film is an examination of the intersections of race and gender, specifically as they pertain to black masculinity in America, and more broadly, the underlying commonality that any of us may feel as it relates to social performance.
If there is one thing that epitomizes manhood for me, it is the two piece suit. Every day, my father would wake up, put on a suit and go to work. The suit is a man’s modern day armour. It even has shoulder pads and is fashioned to be a uniform for conducting business. And what is business if not the modern day battleground? Fashion, its visual vocabulary and rule set has shaped manhood and womanhood for that matter. From the outside looking in, the world of fashion provides far more options to women and, within these options, a greater range of acceptable modes of expression in terms of presenting as masculine or feminine within the construct of being a woman. My mother was not big on heels, but she did wear red lipstick. Something about it made her feel complete and, I think, a little powerful. But why? I wondered if I could harness the power my mother exuded through her feminine performative armour the same way that I was able, and encouraged harness the power of my father’s business suit. But there is no space or vernacular for the performance of manhood that included lipstick. If I wanted to retain masculine presentation and wear lipstick, I would have to author that vernacular myself. Thus the project Untangling Manhood was born, and of which the short film Dynamite is a product.
Untangling Manhood explores gender expression through choice, which is informed by the gestures and language availed to us within the gender binary which is meant to help us communicate our gender in the world but ultimately suffocates our freedom to be self determined. In my social research, I found that manhood, for all its social power, was only retained within the confines of a narrow range of socially deemed “masculine” expressions and performances.
We all do it: don a social mask or performance when we walk out the door and into the world. The degree to which we change has a lot to do with our confidence in our survivability and safety without the performance. The more supported you are by the status quo, the less you are aware of the performance and the basis of social privilege is rooted in the degree to which you are aware of your distance from the center of protection and power, but I digress.
I, too, put on a mask everyday and Art affords me the luxury to explore new ways of being within the context of creative expression. The objective of Untangling Manhood was to appropriate the shield of protection that art provides in order to discover a new social presentation for myself, one that untangled me from the rigid confines of conventional masculinity. I felt trapped by the container not only of white-normativity, but of hetero-normativity, and also an african-american normativity that oscillates between respectability and dissent. Art gave me the space and freedom to present in a way that might be deemed “too feminine” for the outside world. I thought not to limit my expression, but simply respond to my environment and intuition in a way that most honored the sensations that these concepts evoked in me. To begin the work, I had to start fresh. I didn’t identify as male, or female, not as a suit, or as lipstick, but as a force of change itself. There were elements of aggression, and also fear. I held within me hesitation and a desire for permission and yet a deep sensation of connectedness to so much around me.
Within this exploration of social performance, my perception and identification with race could not be ignored. I wondered: Does my soul know I am black, straight, male, or are these just words used to describe a phenomena that needs only to be named in order for society to function as it has been designed? So, while I was intending to push against my own psychological barriers to find my brand of authentic and free expression, in the process of making space to explore who I am, I had to challenge the status quo and surrender to disrupt some of that social power. Liberty, it seems, it not without some cost.
Lipstick on a black man could be read as minstrel, it could be read as homosexual, but within this obfuscation of black masculinity there is room for exploration, and an opportunity to claim social agency. All of this social pressure and friction was confining and yet, somewhere there was hope. I thought back to the suits that my father wore and how he never wore them the way they came home from the store. It was imperative that he customized his suit to fit his own body, the way he moved, and the way he wanted to be seen. It was not necessary or useful for me to completely abandon the construct of manhood, I just needed it not to feel so constricting. To alleviate some of that feeling of suffocation, I both literally and figuratively took shears to the construct of manhood and my own clothes, self-tailoring them to fit the way I moved and wanted to be seen. The result was still something immediately recognizable as “man,” but upon closer inspection possessed inconsistencies within the confines of conventional masculinity. Through the inconsistencies, I gained agency to make my manhood more flexibly, less fragile, and in doing so I expanded the space of my manhood to be more self-determined. Dynamite the poem, the performance piece, and now the film is the product of a realization of my potential to be a self-determinant individual, expressing both confidence and vulnerability in tandem through the visual lingua of masculinity. Dynamite is the story of giving myself permission to perform in a way which disrupts the social apparatuses that hold this authority over me.
Art is something that changes the world to allow itself to exist. Dynamite is something that changes the environment to make space for what’s next,to quote the work “it stirs up emotion, it causes chain reactions”. By pressing against the confines of masculinity, we see that it is not easily broken because it does not prove to be fragile, but flexible. I began this journey a man, defined in the narrowest sense of the word “man” and, along the way, my artistic practice allowed me to become something else; a catalyst through which perhaps we might collectively create space for and expand the concept and performance of manhood and gender itself for myself and others.
Thank you, for reading and a special thanks to director, Leila Jarman, composer, Michael Sempert, and cinematographer Ariel, Pomerantz for their investment of time and talent that brought this film to life.
Executive Director, Citizens Of Culture
Photos courtesy of author.
Republished with permission.