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  • Monty Wolfe

Timothée Chalamet and Hollywood’s Evolving Masculinity


In 1995, hot off the heels of his Oscar nominated role in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, American film actor Leonardo DiCaprio starred in the UK/French/Belgium biopic Total Eclipse about the dysfunctional and doomed gay love affair between poets Authur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine.

The film received mostly poor reviews and was unceremoniously forgotten. Todd McCarthy of Variety Magazine wrote, “Director Agnieszka Holland exacerbates matters by dwelling on both the emotional and sexual skirmishes with what can only be called grotesque explicitness: Kissing and sodomy scenes between the two men are photographed in frankly embarrassing close-up”.

McCarthy’s attitude toward the film’s depiction of homosexual sex was not uncommon for the era. After all, this was only a few years before the TV show Ellen was canceled after backlash from the coming out of the show’s star, Ellen Degeneres, and it would be a decade before mainstream audiences would be even remotely comfortable with masculinity (and its inferred heterosexuality) being challenged with Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain.

In contrast, in 2017, newcomer Timothée Chalamet shot to stardom playing a polyglot musical protégé who has an affair with his father’s graduate student in Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name.

Unlike Total Eclipse, the film was not criticized for its scenes of homosexual intimacy. On the contrary, reviews for Call Me By Your Name complained that the sex scenes were not overt enough. Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker, “the intimacy of Elio and Oliver is matched by very little cinematic intimacy. There are a few brief images of bodies intertwined, some just-offscreen or cannily framed sex, but no real proximity, almost no closeups, no tactile sense, no point of view of either character toward the other”. It would seem that modern reviewers have moved past their trepidations for cinematic same-sex intimacy since 1995.

While Timothée Chalamet is still in the early stages of his career and the development of his star text, in this essay, I will compare him with early Leonardo DiCaprio (pre-Titanic) due to the similarities in their roles and star text at the time. Both DiCaprio and Chalamet established themselves as capable dramatic actors playing roles that demanded immersion.

Both have played drug addicts in critically acclaimed films, Dicaprio in The Basketball Diaries and Chalamet in Beautiful Boy, they have both played homosexuals in romantic period pieces, the aforementioned Total Eclipse and Call Me By Your Name, and they both inspire a sort of mania among their fans (Leomania and Chalamania respectively). The difference in 1995 Leonardo DiCaprio as compared to 2017 Timothée Chalamet is that Chalamet has been allowed to freely explore his androgyny and gender fluidity where as Dicaprio was never allowed to explore anything outside hegemonic masculinity after Total Eclipse.

By comparing the star texts of Timothée Chalamet with Leonardo DiCaprio, I will demonstrate how the concept of white masculinity is currently in flux and how it has evolved since the 1990’s when it first became en vogue for male heterosexual stars to portray homosexuals on the silver screen. The subject of masculinity is complicated, particularly in regards to race and socio-economic status, but for this paper and in comparing these two particular stars (who are white), this paper will focus entirely on white masculinity.

According to Tim Carrigan in “Toward a New Sociology of Masculinity”, “the upheaval of sexual politics of the last twenty years has mainly been discussed as a change in the social position of women. Yet change in one term of a relationship signals change in the other”. It is my assertion that some of the rapid changes to masculinity have come, not necessarily as a result of, but in tandem with major revelations and shifts within the entertainment industry in regards to gender equality, sexual politics, and the feminist and gay rights movements. While correlations can be drawn between the softening of masculinity and recent clusters of Hollywood sex abuse scandals (for instance, the fallout from allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein), I will not be drawing conclusions on why there has been a change in masculinity. Instead, this paper will focus merely on the fact that there has been a change.

In its simplest form, hegemonic masculinity is a level of perceived male behavior, emphasizing aggression, stoicism, and dominance, that is gained through the subordination and alienation of women, other men, and marginalized groups. The concept of hegemonic masculinity can be described as a ladder that leads nowhere and never ends. To climb higher on the ladder, one would need to push others off the ladder. It is highly competitive and ultimately impossible to actually conquer. Mike Donaldson in “What is Hegemonic Masculinity?” wrote “hegemony is about the winning and holding of power and the formation (and destruction) of social groups in that process”. Establishing one’s masculinity is often at the expense of others; other men but also women. Donaldson minces no words about it when he writes, “heterosexuality and homophobia are the bedrock of hegemonic masculinity and any understanding of its nature and meaning is predicated on the feminist insight that in general the relationship of men to women is oppressive”.

While hegemonic masculinity is reinforced by people in society, it acquires a particular validity through its representations in motion pictures and the media. From the earliest days of Hollywood, masculinity has been portrayed as something that some individuals embody and that everyone else hopes to achieve. Rooster Cogburn’s rugged individualism, John Rambo’s fearlessness and strength, and Michael Corleone’s stoicism are quintessential hegemonic masculine traits that offer audiences a fantastical and totally unrealistic goal.

Donaldson writes, “hegemony involves persuasion of the greater part of the population, particularly through the media, and the organization of social institutions in ways that appear ‘natural,’ ‘ordinary,’ ‘normal.’ The state, though punishment for non-conformity, is crucially involved in this negotiation and enforcement”. In traditional Hollywood films, the male hero is almost always a stereotype of masculinity; from Indiana Jones in Raider’s of the Lost Ark to Superman in his titular film. On the other hand, the villain is often portrayed as lacking in masculinity. In Raiders, the Nazi antagonists are sniveling and coded feminine. In Superman, Lex Luther is a coward and, for the most part, has henchmen do his bidding while he hides away in his secret underground lair. According to Clayton R. Koppes in “The Power, the Glitter, the Muscles: Movie Masculinities in the Age of Reagan”, “movies that were seemingly the least political were often freighted with heavily political implications for gender roles”.

In many films, phallic imagery is used to emphasize the overt power in hegemonic masculinity. Richard Dyer in The Matter of Images: Essays on Representation writes, “the first thing to say about the symbolism of male sexuality is that it is overwhelmingly centered on the genitals, especially the penis. Penises are not shown, but the evocation of male sexuality is almost always an evocation of the penis”. Due to this, guns, swords, and rockets are used to assault the senses with the idea that there is power in the penis.

Audiences see these images and become normalized to them. The toxic behavior becomes normalized. To be the hero of one’s own story, one needs to be strong, stoic, and courageous, just like the characters on the screen. To be otherwise, makes someone the villain, or at the very least, makes them weak and inferior and incapable of being the hero of their own story. And this lesson begins at an early age. One only has to look to the largest purveyor of childhood social propaganda, The Walt Disney Company, to see where the ideas about masculinity begin. Prince Charming (in the generic sense) is the epitome of hegemonic masculinity. From there, young audiences can move on to Superhero films, then action films, and so on as they age.

All that being said, the portrayal of masculinity in the media, and in particular in film, has evolved over time. Koppes says, “recent films do not speak a monolithic masculinity… As scholars increasingly analyze not simply feminism but feminisms, surely it is time to shift the discussion from movie masculinity to masculinities”. While a hyper-masculinity exploded during the Reagan era with films such as First Blood, The Terminator, and Die Hard, by the 1990’s, room was made for a more tempered and perhaps more nuanced masculinity in films. Enter Leonardo DiCaprio.

DiCaprio worked in television and commercials for most of his childhood. In 1991, he landed a role on the hit television series, Growing Pains, and became a main cast member for the final season of the show. Only one year later, he would be nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of a mentally challenged boy in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. In his follow-up films, The Basketball Diaries and The Quick and the Dead, DiCaprio established himself as a versatile actor and helped usher in a new type of adolescent masculinity that some considered androgynous; however, DiCaprio wasn’t keen on being the poster boy for a new sort of masculinity. According to Agnieszka Holland, the director of his next film, Total Eclipse, DiCaprio was uncomfortable being thin and androgynous. Nevertheless, he embraced that image fully with his portrayal of bisexual poet Arthur Rimbaud.

DiCaprio followed Total Eclipse with the films Romeo + Juliet and Titanic; films that would reaffirm his heterosexuality and viability as a love interest. Nevertheless, his androgynous masculinity would define his appeal and go on to change expectations for male stars to come. According to Daryl Jamieson in “Marketing Androgyny: The Evolution of the Backstreet Boys”,[the androgynous body type], embodied by celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, David Beckham, and Orlando Bloom, has become the standard in the entertainment industry, overtaking the dominant type of male sex symbol of the previous half-century — men such as William Holden, Sean Connery, and Humphrey Bogart — strong, possibly hirsute, hyper-masculine types”. And while things stayed relatively the same for a number of years, the 2010’s saw another sudden shift in masculinity.

Enter Timothée Chalamet.

Similar to Leonardo DiCaprio, Timothée Chalamet started his career in television, appearing on Law & Order in 2009 and securing a reoccurring role on Homeland in 2012. His first big break in motion pictures was a small role in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. In 2017, he took on two roles which would do more to establish his current star text than anything he has taken on since: Kyle Scheible in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird and Elio Perlman in Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name.

As Kyle, Chalamet plays an aloof seemingly-intellectual private school boy who masks his inadequacies by name-dropping obscure authors and sleeping with the title character Lady Bird by pretending to be a virgin. In Call Me By Your Name, he plays an intellectual, gay (or possibly bisexual) teenager who spends his days reading, transposing music, and daydreaming. Both characters embody a certain adolescent androgyny, not unlike Leonardo DiCaprio from the mid-1990’s. While Chalamet is somewhat reprehensible as Kyle, it is the character’s vulnerability that defines him. Similarly, Elio exudes vulnerability as he navigates his feelings for his father’s visiting graduate student, Oliver. The final refrain of the film is literally, “don’t bury your emotions - allow yourself to feel them,” and Elio does just that by staring into the camera while he weeps for the last three minutes of the film.

Douglas Greenwood in “How Timothée Chalamet is Ushering in a New Era for Masculinity” writes, “It’s an image that exists in tandem with his very specific kind of stardom, one in which the hyper-masculine traits of the male movie star are sidelined in favor of openness, feminism, and proud states of vulnerability”.

Seemingly overnight, Chalamet became a sensation. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in Call Me By Your Name and became attached to several upcoming high profile films, including Beautiful Boy, The King, a retelling of Little Women, and the Frank Herbert sci-fi classic Dune. Chalamet became the darling of awards shows and red carpets, particularly due to his uncompromising sense of style, wearing flamboyant and unconventional floral print suits. According to “I-D Magazine”, Chalamet is “loved by girls and boys alike for his pretty looks, he’s the modern teen heartthrob, the likes of which we haven’t seen in film for years. Existing in the same lineage as James Dean, River Phoenix, and Leonardo DiCaprio”.

Unlike Leonardo DiCaprio, who was somewhat uncomfortable with his particular style of masculinity, Chalamet embraces (or perhaps, due to current trends, can afford to embrace) his androgyny.

In an interview with “I-D Magazine” conducted by the somewhat androgynous pop star Harry Styles, Chalamet said, “I want to say you can be whatever you want to be. There isn’t a specific notion, or jean size, or muscle shirt, or affectation, or eyebrow raise, or dissolution, or drug use that you have to take part in to be masculine. It’s exciting. It’s a brave new world. Maybe it’s because of social media, maybe it’s because of who the fuck knows what, but there’s a real excitement from our generation about doing things in a new way”. Nevertheless, according to Richard Dyer in Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society, “star images are always extensive, multimedia, intertextual”. In that way, Chalamet’s image is connected to the young androgynous heartthrobs, like DiCaprio, who came before him.

This less-aggressive, less toxic version of masculinity has some precedent, although not necessarily in Western culture. According to Sun Jung in “Bae Yong-Joon, Soft Masculinity, and Japanese Fans: Our Past is in Your Present Body,” in East Asian nations, there exists a “soft masculinity… a hybrid product constructed through the transcultural amalgamation of South Korea’s traditional seonbi masculinity (which is heavily influenced by Chinese Confucian wen masculinity), Japan’s bichõnen (pretty boy) masculinity, and global metrosexual masculinity”. This soft masculinity reflects a more thoughtful, less aggressive, and more consumerist form of masculinity. It is epitomized by the plethora of K-pop stars and cosmopolitan East Asian actors such as Bae Yong-Joon.

While soft masculinity has historical and cultural precedent in East Asia, there is no direct connection with the soft masculinity of early Leonardo DiCaprio, current Timothée Chalamet, or the current wave of actors. I merely wanted to establish that this is not a new phenomenon nor is it a purely Western or American phenomenon. Nevertheless, outwardly and outside the cultural and historical context, the soft masculinity of East Asia and the soft masculinity currently evolving in Hollywood are quite similar. They both emphasize thoughtfulness, open emotions, and consumerism once only connected with (consumerist) femininity. Western men are now encouraged to use hair and skin care products, and engage in fashion and trends.

Chalamet is the epitome of this “new male” arriving at red carpet events wearing floral print Alexander McQueen suits instead of traditional tuxedos. According to “I-D Magazine”, “in a post #MeToo world, Timothée Chalamet represents the change we want to see in the film industry. He’s sensitive, honest, thoughtful, polite, goofy, and self-aware. He’s in touch with his feminine side, and he smiles. A lot”.

Recently “Interview Magazine” asked, “Is Timothée Chalamet the new Leonardo DiCaprio?”. The Guardian published a similar article on the mania that Chalamet inspires in his fans, similar to the “Leomania” from DiCaprio’s early career in the 1990’s. It would seem that the entertainment industry sees a similarity in these two stars (albeit separated by decades). A question in “The Guardian” article was “will he be as big?”. My personal belief isn’t so much about how successful Chalamet’s career will be, but how well he will negotiate it and his star text on his own terms. Dyer said that “a film star’s image is not just his or her films, but the promotion of those films and the star through pin-ups, public appearances, studio hand-outs, and so on, as well as interviews, biographies, and coverage in the press of the star’s doings and ‘private’ life. Further, a star’s image is also what people say or write about him or her”. Currently, a great many people are writing about Timothée Chalamet and how he represents a change in how masculinity is represented.

The representation of masculinity in the media, and likewise the manifestation of it in the real world, is always in flux, evolving and shifting with society. In the hundred years of cinema, mainstream Hollywood films have featured these changes, from the tough individualists like John Wayne to the patriotic musclemen of the 1980’s all the way to the current influx of softer and more thoughtful men like Timothée Chalamet. While Leonardo DiCaprio represented a step in the direction of a soft masculinity, in more recent years, Chalamet has come to symbolize an even newer iteration of masculinity, one that will no doubt influence an entire generation about who and how they can be.

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