Performing manhood: Hypermasculinity and quare representation in Moonlight and The Dark Knight.

          Barry Jenkins’ 2016 Best Picture-winning Moonlight depicts a quare[1] bildungsroman to explore the queer sexual awakening and eventual adulthood repression of an impoverished black male. Jenkins narrates this bildungsroman in the simple classic Hollywood three-act structure; however, this structure allows for a complex cinematic representation of intersectionalism. Each act situates the same protagonist through a different actor in a different decade with the different character names of “Little”, “Chiron”, and “Black”. Each act, therefore, explores various intersectional aspects of black hypermasculinity to display on-screen what the late bell hooks refers to as the subjugation of black boys to ‘psychological terrorism’ (83) to perpetuate the myth of hypermasculinity. Consequently, I would like to frame this intersectional analysis concerning Christopher Nolan’s gritty neo-noir The Dark Knight. Surprisingly, both protagonists (Chiron and Bruce Wayne/Batman) share a remarkable number of similarities. E.g., the murder of Batman’s parents and the effective murder of Chiron’s mother via crack cocaine. Or the need for grills (in Black’s case) and the Batman suit to hyper-masculate the protagonists. However, Batman is not an impoverished, quare black boy from South Miami; he is a right-wing affluent straight white male vigilante. Consequently, Nolan’s film seeks to reinforce notions of hypermasculinity by effectively fetishising it. Contrarily, Moonlight attempts to uncover and deconstruct the layers of Chiron’s hypermasculine performance.

          The nature of fatherhood is instrumental in constructing the black male identity. Consequently, Moonlight frames the relationship between Juan and Chiron as a pivotal aspect of Chiron’s bildungsroman. However, although Juan is Chiron’s surrogate father, and despite his care for him, he is the Joe Chill to Chiron’s mother, Paula. The crack cocaine he supplies is the bullet that effectively orphans Chiron. This is most poignantly displayed when Juan berates Chiron’s mother for smoking his crack; Paula curtly responds with ‘You gonna raise my son?’ before implying Chiron’s quareness. In Lacanian psychoanalysis, the Father grants the child both the Name and the Symbolic Law (language).

Consequently, if we apply Hortense Spiller’s assertion that the Lacanian lack of fatherhood in black culture creates a disconnect and incomplete identity for the black mother’s child, Chiron, the black mother, is therefore omitted from the maternal to become spectral. Thus, Paula is alienated by Juan’s attempt to surrogate himself as Chiron’s father. Thereby deepening her dependence on crack cocaine, creating a self-perpetuating cycle of destruction that ends fatally. This interaction embodies the complexities of Juan’s supposed surrogate fatherhood. Jenkins usurps the stereotypical African American drug-dealing one-dimensionality through this surrogate father-son relationship. This is shown most poignantly when Chiron asks Juan and Teresa what a ‘fa**ot’ is. Their response that Chiron may be gay, but he is not the F-slur; this is a pivotal rejection of stereotypes surrounding African American homophobia. This paternal acceptance of quareness is sadly usurped by Juan’s admittance of drug-dealing, particularly Paula’s dependence on Crack. Therefore, exemplifying Spiller’s assertion of the black mother’s alienation.

Chiron’s baptism at the hands of Juan

Furthermore, the cinematography and framing of the shots in the beautiful scene of Juan teaching Chiron to swim emphasise the importance of Juan in Chiron’s development. The scene begins with a slowly moving, almost static shot of Juan removing his shirt, encouraging an entranced Chiron to enter the ocean; Chiron’s gaze is focused on Juan’s torso. The lack of biological connection between the two removes the incestual taboo of Chiron’s gaze at his surrogate father’s torso. Juan becomes the trigger for his sexual awakening, his rebirth or baptism. Due to Chiron’s gaze and life experiences, Juan becomes an imago for his drug-dealing, behaviour, and aesthetic in the third act. The ocean and beach become a locus for sexual awakening and change, as shown in Chiron’s later sexual gratification at the hands of Kevin. The camera is positioned in the ocean, immersed in its fluidity, the languid sounds of the Atlantic slowly dissipate into the rising intensity of the soundtrack. The uncanny resemblance of the scene to a baptism allows Jenkins to deconstruct the stereotype of a black man’s inability to swim; the ocean becomes a metamorphic experience. The fluidity of the camera work accompanied by the ocean composing the majority of the shot allows for the image to act as a prosthesis for the audience. Therefore, the image can escape the fixed spatial dimensions of the frame, thereby allowing for what Giles Deleuze refers to as the ‘deterritorialisation of the image’ (15). The image is simultaneously immersing the audience into the shot, and the image immersing itself into the audience; it is no longer spatially trapped. This allows the audience to project what Vivian Sobchack refers to as a synthetic subject onto the screen. The ocean’s serenity bleeds through the screen, washing over the audience and imprinting the audience’s experience onto the screen. The scene is an allegory for Chiron’s life as a quare black man, and consequently, we see his vulnerabilities in the ocean. However, Jenkins’ framing and camera work exposes our own vulnerabilities and incorporates them into a shared phenomenology with Chiron; therefore, generating an ultimate pathos. The fluidity of the ocean allows Chiron and Juan to share an alternative fluid form of masculinity, one that rejects the static definitions of hegemonic masculinity that reinforce the patriarchy (Connell 77).

          In Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, the notion of fatherhood is similarly instrumental to the construction of Bruce Wayne’s identity. However, as intersectional theory states, the experiences and development of Bruce Wayne and Chiron are vastly different. Like Chiron, Bruce loses his father, however, not to a supposed abandonment but murder. Due to his affluent straight white male status, Bruce has a plethora of supposed surrogate fathers; Chiron has to rely on the benevolence of the drug-dealing Juan, who is poisoning his mother. Batman has three surrogate fathers and the ghost of his biological one. Firstly, (i), Thomas Wayne, whose morality and philanthropy are shown through flashbacks in Batman Begins (2005) and the massive shadow of his father’s enormous capital that looms over Bruce. Secondly, (ii), Alfred offers him unconditional love and advice. Thirdly, (c), Lucius Fox provides the militarised support for Batman’s war on crime. However, Fox’s support ends with Nolan’s not-so-subtle reference to U.S. post-9/11 surveillance; Fox is horrified at Bruce’s wiretapping, decrying it as ‘too much power for one person’. And finally, (iv) the fascistic ideology of the Batman Begins antagonist Ra’s Al Ghul. Bruce experiences a crisis of fatherhood, as his surrogate father Ra’s’ doctrine directly contradicts with Bruce’s biological father’s. The late Mark Fisher analysed the Gothic Oedipal nature of Batman through the film’s representation of fatherhood, asserting that Batman ‘remains an Oedipus who has not gone through the Oedipus complex’ (5). Ra’s attempts to usurp the Symbolic order of the Thomas Wayne Father, therefore, invoking Bruce’s Oedipus crisis. However, it ultimately fails. Consequently, the Philanthropic Capital Name of the Father, Wayne, persists. Thomas’s idealistic capitalist moralism outweigh Ra’s fanaticism.

          In TDK, Bruce’s simplistic inherited understanding of good and evil is fundamentally challenged by the Joker. Heath Ledger’s Joker does not serve as an Oedipal usurper; he intends to represent everything Bruce Wayne/Batman isn’t. Nolan portrays the Joker as a symbol of pure anarchy, a person without fixed history, identity, and even sexuality. He is ‘[someone who] want[s] to watch the world burn’ as Alfred sycophantly phrases it. He is beyond Thomas Wayne’s sense of goodness and Ra’s’ sense of fascistic justice. Fundamentally, he operates outside of Bruce’s capitalist heterosexual matrix; according to Annette Schimmelfenning, he is the closest the text comes to featuring a queer character (9). Bruce cannot understand the actions of a makeup-wearing, cross-dressing, anarchic clown in the same way he does not recognise the problem of his illegal wiretapping in the final act. Bruce, here, represents the Bush-era ideological aphorism of the ends justifying the means. Fox’s disgust is perhaps that as the only black main character, he recognises the extremities of Bruce’s surveillance and its potential for discrimination against marginalised communities. This inability for Bruce to see the potential racial prejudice of his surveillance is emblematic of his myopic view of justice and, concerning the Joker, his masculinity.

The Batsuit defaced with makeup in Bruce’s eyes

For Bruce, the Batsuit represents the idealised form of masculinity; in it, he has ‘no limits’. The irony here is that compared to Chiron, Bruce has no limits; he is not restricted by race, sexuality, or wealth. The Joker first threatens Batman’s masculinity when he defaces the imposter Batman with makeup, thereby associating Batman and Bruce by proxy with femininity. The second and most significant threat to Bruce’s masculinity is shown in the interrogation scene. The Joker maintains that the two are not so similar, infuriating Batman as it associates him with queerness and anti-capitalism. The line ‘You complete me’ causes an enraged Batman to assault and torture Joker to reveal the information on Harvey Dent’s and Rachel Dawes’ locations. Rachel’s death denies Bruce’s love interest, leaving Batman with only the Joker as a potential love interest. Although the Joker succeeds in corrupting Dent and emasculating Batman with Rachel’s death, the Joker’s defeat in the climax represents the reaffirmation of the capitalist heterosexual matrix. In Joker’s defeat, TDK reaffirms Fisher’s Capitalist Realism notion; the film contains an anti-capitalist antagonist’s attraction. Like WALL-E, the text includes the interests of anti-capitalism and anti-consumerism (Fisher). However, it is still designed to profit through box office sales, merchandise, toys, and video games. The modern Hollywood blockbuster contains anti-capitalist thought to increase capital further.

          Hypermasculinity in both texts is explored the psychoanalytic term of the imago. Juan acts as an imago for Black’s aesthetic, job, and gentleness in the third act. However, Batman is an imago that enables an already hypermasculine billionaire playboy to attain a supposed limitless level of hypermasculinity. Consequently, both are performing masculinity, however, for two distinct reasons. Black’s performance is based on quare repression and is a consequence of Kevin’s rejection and the prison-industrial complex. Whereas Batman dons his hypermasculine to strike fear into the heart of criminals, Batman is not interested in reform; he seeks to brutally punish criminals. The irony is that Juan would likely suffer at the hands of Batman, and Chiron would be further alienated than he already is. Batman compensates for his partial involvement in his parents’ murder (Fisher 9) and trauma by purchasing military vehicles and equipment. The Batsuit is more than armour; for Bruce, it symbolises ‘hypermale financial potency’ (Schimmelfenning 9). It becomes synonymous with Deleuze and Guattari’s body-without-organs, an extension of Bruce representing his hypermasculinity and compensated trauma. It becomes hypermasculinity embodied, and as Schimmelfenning notes, the synthetic abs signify an idealised male body; wearing it, Bruce becomes an ubermensch of justice.

However, Black’s golden grills, his wave cap, and his hypermasculine appearance are all walking metaphors of his hypermasculine performance. However, these hypermasculine bodies-without-organs do not concretely define Black’s identity; they are temporary extensions of his hypermasculine identity. This is most poignantly displayed when Black removes his grills before eating at Kevin’s diner; he strips part of the hypermasculine façade away. In the presence of the hypermasculine Chiron, Kevin undertakes the stereotypical feminine role of preparing food. The film’s final and penultimate lines offer Jenkins’s final deconstruction of artificial hypermasculinity. Although the grills are now back on, Black provides the double-entendre ‘You’re the only man that’s ever touched me’. This final line shatters Black’s hypermasculine façade; the grills cannot compensate for this cathartic expression of quare love. Consequently, as Kevin maternally cradles Chiron to sombre piano notes and subtle sounds of waves, we see the infant Chiron gazing at the ocean in the moonlight. As Chiron’s gaze shifts from the ocean to the audience on the static land, the young Chiron is seemingly inviting the audience to embrace the fluid power of the ocean.

Young Chiron, “Little”, invites the audience into the fluidity of the ocean

Although occupying two distinct tiers of Hollywood, the artistic-auteur blockbuster The Dark Knight and the independent arthouse film Moonlight. They both confront cinematic representations of intersectionalism indirectly (TDK) or directly (Moonlight). Both movies offer an analysis of masculinity. Nolan’s TDK superficially provides an unrelenting affirmation of fixed definitions of masculinity. Although offering aspects of queerness through the Joker, his defeat signifies returning to the status quo. The hypermasculinity is justified by the idiom of decent men in an indecent time; there need to be artificial constructs of hypermasculinity. Despite the early 21st century setting, Gotham is a country for old men. However, Moonlight presents masculinity as fluxed, Jenkins deconstructs racial stereotypes, hypermasculinity and notions of quareness/queerness to weave a unique LGBTQ+ bildungsroman. Each cliché and trope is deconstructed and dissipates in the bewildering oceanic power of Jenkins’ narrative; the audience becomes part of the film and the film part of the audience. Consequently, to paraphrase bell hooks, Jenkins attempts to show theatrically an unlearning of the first lesson of masculinity – wearing the mask of masculinity. Jenkins’ bildungsroman displays the quare masking, hyper-masking, and eventual unmasking of a young black boy’s identity across three decades.

Blue Black Boy1997. Carrie Mae Weems. Monochrome Color photograph with silkscreened text on matt. Edition: artist’s proof 1/2. sheet: 30 x 30 inches (76.2 x 76.2 cm)

[1] I use E. Patrick Johnson’s term of quare over queer as I feel it better accommodates the racialised sexual depictions in Moonlight.

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