Tuesday, February 6, 2018

"Putting Masculinity on the Chopping Block" by Benny Gottwald

In raising me, my father gave me a simple privilege and spared me a tremendous task: he always allowed me to cry and never ordered me to be a man.

“Everybody gets sad or scared sometimes,” he would tell me consolingly. He had no impulse to shout nor scold, let alone demand that I be stoic and unassailable. Instead, my father taught me to channel my negative energy, not to ignore it; to interpret my emotions, not to block them out; to express myself because I finally understand my feelings, not because I have been captive to them. On the other hand, I also recognize the rarity of my father’s method—a style of parenting liberated from the code of masculinity, seeking a higher plateau of emotional literacy and universal principle—and I see that many fathers continue to steer their sons towards old-school machismo. From generation to generation, the male code of conduct, along with its misogynistic and emotional handicaps, continues to intertwine itself within the status quo. For the sake of every man—relentlessly driven by society to be the alpha male, to hide his sensitivity, to never appear vulnerable—masculinity needs a new perspective.

Film director Jamie Uys offers such a perspective in his 1980 film, The Gods Must Be Crazy. While masculinity is just one of the many undertones of the film’s shifty and enthralling plot, Uys’ depiction of the social climate of 1980’s South Africa imposes a much needed juxtaposition upon the concept of the male. The classic film begins, as veteran film critic Roger Ebert observes, “. . . with a Coke bottle falling from the heavens” (Ebert par. 1). Tossed out of plane and into the undergrowth of the Kalahari Desert, the ubiquitous byproduct of the civilized world becomes both a tool and an object of jealousy when a Xhosa-speaking Bushman, Xi, discovers it and brings it to his tribe. Convinced that the object is a gift from their gods, Xi and his family quickly find many uses for the bottle: as a tool for curing snakeskin, as a mallet, even as a musical instrument. “But the gods had been careless,” the film’s voiceover describes, “They had sent only one. Now, for the first time in their lives, here was a thing which could not be shared. . . unfamiliar emotions began to stir, a feeling of wanting to own, of not wanting to share. Other new things came: anger, jealousy, hate and violence” (Uys 10:25). Seeing this tension build, Xi, played by indigenous actor N!xau, resolves to walk for days on end, to what the Bushmen call “the end of the Earth,” in order to throw the bottle into the sea (Uys 15:02).

As Xi’s journey unfolds, Uys playfully ensures that it is joined by three other characters, each with their own progressing storyline: the communist gang leader, Sam Boga, on the run after orchestrating a botched assassination attempt; a female journalist, Kate Thompson, who decides to journey into Botswana to become a school teacher; and a nervous, self-conscious microbiologist, Andrew Steyn, collecting animal droppings in the Kalahari for the sake of science. Viewers of Uys’ film bear witness to the complex social and political terrain of South Africa during the Apartheid, yet they also see masculinity’s chokehold on the society. Topics like self-expression, manliness, and the treatment of women are all commented on. The characters in The Gods Must Be Crazy, especially the male ones, embody differing takes on how men should act, and how they should behave around women. The issues they create, and the manner in which those issues are resolved, critique and expose masculinity, putting it exactly where it should be: on the chopping block.

Tony Porter was one of the first men to give such a crucial critique of masculinity. In his 2010 Ted talk, A Call to Men, he brought to the chopping block what he called “the collective socialization of men,” otherwise known as the “man box.” He began his talk with his story: “Growing up as a boy, we were taught that men had to be tough, had to be strong, had to be courageous, dominating — no pain, no emotions, with the exception of anger — and definitely no fear; that men are in charge, which means women are not” (Porter 0:11). As he elucidates the social climate of his birthplace, Porter in turn describes the societal context of the male code—the ramifications of which also apply to 1980’s South Africa and, by extension, the setting of Jamie Uys’ film.
Of the characters in The Gods Must Be Crazy, Andrew Steyn contrasts most blatantly against the physical and emotional backdrop of his surroundings. While he is incredibly knowledgeable of the Kalahari environment, his scientific acumen is not matched with a strong sense of self or of others. One day, while Andrew is at his campground—his aide and companion, Mpudi, hard at work fixing their Land Rover—a Christian reverend from a nearby town arrives. He tells Steyn that a new schoolteacher is coming to Botswana and implores Steyn to drive through the African desert to pick her up. Being a capable person who understands of the lay of the land, Andrew is only reluctant for one reason: “Reverend,” he says, “I’m very awkward around women.” When the reverend replies, “Aren’t we all,” Steyn elaborates, “No, it’s not like that. When I’m in the presence of a lady, my brain switches off or something. I turn into a complete idiot” (Uys 29:10). While Steyn eventually acquiesces, Uys brings his awkwardness around Kate to the forefront of their interactions. His inability to purport himself normally complicates their every encounter in some way; it creates sexual tension, and even portrays Andrew as clumsy and dumb. In reality, he is merely trying to accommodate Kate in an environment that she is not accustomed to. Nonetheless, the viewer sees his efforts as being inexperienced incidents of amateur courtship.
In and of themselves, the hijinks that occur between Andrew and Kate offer an interesting take on masculinity and the social dynamic of masculine and feminine interaction. However, this is not the entirety of Uys’ depiction of manhood; he further complicates the scenario with another male character. When the difficult Kalahari landscape takes its toll on Andrew’s Land Rover, he and Kate are forced to camp out for a night. The delay concerns the reverend, who sends Jack Hind to retrieve Kate. Jack is presented in many ways as the antithesis of Andrew—a tan, suave, enterprising safari guide who drives a double-decker tour bus with a built-in bar and speaker system. He arrives the next day to retrieve Kate, and his presence immediately changes the power structure of the film’s characters. Viewers who have been shown Andrew’s immense capacity for intelligence, curiosity, and skill have their attention redirected in an unwelcoming way.
Jack seems to have everything he wants, and carries himself accordingly. Uys shows him taking Kate by the arm as he guides her out of Andrew’s car, asking her if she would care to “travel in style for a change,” pouring her a drink, all in an overtly macho fashion. He speaks and acts as if he is fresh, flawless, and fearless—all of these being traits considered optimal in a man. However, Uys doesn’t spare him an ego either; his sense of unswallowable pride dominates his character. This egoism can be heard best in the rodomontade he utters to Kate when they part ways from Andrew and Mpudi: “By the way, I am Jack Hind. The Reverend's worried. He got to me on the short-wave, so I offered to look for you and that was very sweet of me” (Uys 59:41).
The inflation of Jack’s esteem and the deflation of Andrew’s owe themselves to the same concept: the code of masculinity, the “man box.” Not only do cultural norms of machismo dictate how men see themselves and interact with other men, they stereotype the way in which men treat women too. However, when the circumstances of masculinity are liberated from the gender norms that conceal them, one recognizes the fact that no distinction needs to be made between how the genders are individually treated. Instead, it is best to regard people simply as human beings, with the categories of gender relieved of their influences. The misapprehension that men must talk differently and act differently in the presence of other men versus the presence of women is a mere figment of culture—the sort of culture which Tony Porter asserts should be done away with. In his TED Talk, he also commented on the detrimental associations made by gender:
I can remember speaking to a 12-year-old boy, a football player, and I asked him, I said, "How would you feel if, in front of all the players, your coach told you were playing like a girl?" Now I expected him to say something like, I'd be sad; I'd be mad; I'd be angry, or something like that. No, the boy said to me, "It would destroy me." And I said to myself, "God, if it would destroy him to be called a girl, what are we then teaching him about girls? [Porter 4:42]

There is no way to answer Porter’s question kindly. The unfortunate truth is that the socialization of men can represent harmful and misogynistic values, such as the ones that surface during one conversation between Andrew and Mpudi. As Andrew mentally rehearses his plan to apologize to Kate for his awkwardness, the two discuss the ‘right way’ to act around women. Mpudi mentions his seven wives, and an illuminating dialogue ensues:

Mpudi: You've gotta smile, man, and tell her she looks good. 

Steyn: How come suddenly you're an expert on women? 

Mpudi: I got seven wives. How many you got? 

Steyn: So why aren't you at home with your seven wives? 

Mpudi: I know how to marry them. Nobody knows how to live with them. 

Steyn: So, what did you marry them for? 

Mpudi: Someday I have to tell you the facts of life. [Uys 1:03:51]

While Mpudi’s beliefs (and the beliefs of his culture at large) may see these norms as ‘facts of life,’ the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir saw them as the paralyzing circumstances of women in society. In her book, The Second Sex, she made an observation that incidentally combines two of Uys’ plot points—Jack Hind’s efforts to pamper Kate, and Mpudi’s marriage to seven wives—proving them to be two sides of the same coin:

Women have been given ‘protectors’, and if they are invested with the rights of the old-time guardians, it is in woman’s own interest. To forbid her working, to keep her at home, is to defend her against herself and to assure her happiness. We have seen what poetic veils are thrown over her monotonous burdens . . . counselling man to treat her as a slave while persuading her that she is a queen. [Beauvoir par. 10]

In both of Jack and Mpudi’s behaviors, the same harmful idea is communicated. Masculinity such as this becomes two-faced in the presence of femininity: its culture attempts to disguise dominance as benevolence. This is why masculinity must be put on the chopping block; its code has normalized values that debilitate not only men, but women as well.

Where then, in The Gods Must Be Crazy, can one find values that encourage masculinity’s much-needed revisions? By the end of the film, when the villainous Sam Boga is finally caught, when Xi finally hurls the evil Coke bottle into the sea, there is one character who Uys’ eventually depicts as being aware of what makes a man good: Kate. It becomes evident as the film ends, when there is one more thing that Andrew must do; he drives to the school where Kate now teaches, and tries one more time to explain himself to her. As per usual, he appears skittish and clumsy, but at his core he shows those same values that my father imparted to me; he has a strong will to clearly and honestly express himself, he willingly abides in situations where he does not have the power, and is not afraid to expose his flaws for the better. Kate sees through his nervous mien, and recognizes these traits. She comes to wholeheartedly appreciate his humanity alone, and abandons any want of machismo. As the story ends, Andrew is the one she kisses.

What makes a man good can be deceptive; gender norms distort the true definition of masculinity. While Jack looks and acts like a seemingly great man, the ideas that make him so are much less beneficial to society. He radiates a sense of masculinity riddled with concealment, bravado, and excessive stoicism. Kate could have chosen Jack in the end, but that would have made the story end much differently. In that case, while the villain would have finally been caught, the kind of man that really needed defeating would have won; luckily, that was not Uys’ idea, and The Gods Must Be Crazy is not that film. Instead, Uys ties the knot on the last scene with a farewell to machismo; he shows his audience how easily masculinity can be cut in two when one is brave enough to put it on the chopping block.
Benny and his dad

Works Cited

Beauvoir, Simone De. "The Second Sex, Conclusion." Marxists.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.

The Gods Must Be Crazy. Dir. Jamie Uys. Perf. Marius Weyers, Sandra Prinsloo, and N!xau. New Realm, 1980.

Ebert, Roger. "The Gods Must Be Crazy Movie Review (1981)." RogerEbert.com. N.p., 01 Jan. 1981. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.

Porter, Tony. "A Call to Men." TEDX. TedX Women 2010, Washington DC. 30 Mar. 2017. Lecture.

1 comment:

  1. Consider that Gods was produced during the oppressive apartheid regime. Already we should be on the lookout for political overtones. When the movie begins, a narrator describes the lives of the "Bushmen" in South Africa. He speaks in a declarative, documentary-style voice. We are shown images of Bushmen, otherwise known as the San people, hunting and finding water in the desert. The film seems to offer evidence supporting the claims of the apartheid governments that the blacks were living decently well and receiving fair treatment. This is all false, so let me explain how this movie is actually a piece of propaganda.. yidio And zmovies