(Author’s Note: Hey, look, it’s the paper I presented at the Visions Film Festival and Conference in April!)
This evening, I’m here to talk about masculinity, and clearly, as you can see that I’m the bastion of heteromasculinity, I am the right person to do such a thing. I would like to talk about two films: Creep, the found footage horror film, and The Gift, the suspense drama, and how one operates to stigmatize the queer other and how one comments on the very framework of toxic masculinity that engenders that discourse of stigma. I’ll be exploring concepts of masculinity, gay panic, and queerness and the ways in which they are utilized as generic tropes within these films, framing the entire works as either satire and critique or perpetuation of oppression.
Conventionally visions of masculinity exhibit themselves throughout mainstream popular culture, and their codas and creeds manifest physically and, equally as imperative, socially through acts. As a form of identity, the heterosexual masculine carves out his identity through the projection of these ideals, from a constructed physical self, often modeled on specific people, to a constructed social self, which, like the physical self, is not only modeled on specific persons but also archetypes. This can be said to be a kind of ideological act: this heterosexual male must act, even perform this ideology of maleness and heterosexuality.
Yet, as queer theorists like Butler and Puar will tell you, the great ideological rift of gender and queerness is heterosexuality’s great perceive threat by queerness. These ideas often manifest themselves within media in, more often than not, “light hearted” manners in anything from sitcoms (Friends, How I Met Your Mother) to comedy movies (Revenge of the Nerds, American Pie). These narratives, subplots, and tools are referred to as “gay panic”. Such elements are drawn to dichotomize, broadly, the heterosexual male and the homosexual male, often within a single character or between two characters whose relationship has been explicitly defined as platonic, but whose queering is a form of tension between themselves, their ideologies, and the audience and their ideologies.
In a way, this gay panic functions like the contention of the persona swap, another phenomena within pop culture that’s seen in works like Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Freaky Friday, where two (in this case) women exchange roles, minds, and bodies. It seems that men cannot do this, or at least taught not to.
So much of gay panic derives from how men, primarily heterosexual but others included, are taught to conduct themselves around one another, an aspect of the aforementioned creeds and acts. This, as Robert Lang calls “masculine interest” in his book Masculine Interests: Homoerotics in Hollywood Film, presents itself as such: “a male interest in what it means to be male; an interest in masculinity – accomplished though looking at another male” (Lang 2). What it means to be male and what it means to be masculine is so often catalyzed by homosocial interactions, which primarily exist as male platonic friendships. Henning Bech, in When Men Meet, elaborates, writing, “This male interest includes the pleasure of mirroring and comparing, as well as of companionship and apprenticeship” (Bech 44). In contemporary culture, transgressing the boundaries of what defines these relationships is prohibited and greatly feared.
Despite an inherent homoeroticism to male friendships, that very eroticism is a root of gay panic. The line of thought appearing to be that should these male friendships and this homosociality begin to transgress the bounds of what is considered safe, this relationship will be feminized and queered for the worse. It is the dismantling of the safe, personally, politically, and ideologically.
This kind of ideology rears its head in Patrick Brice’s Creep and Joel Edgerton’s The Gift, both films from 2015, yet whose elements function in diametrically opposed ways. Creep presents itself earnestly within the context of a horror film; The Gift has a satirical edge, commenting on the very gay panic narrative that Creep, and other works, sell so vehemently.
Patrick Brice’s film uses the horror genre as its context within which it presents gay panic as its form of horror, going even further with that notion by utilizing a found footage style. Told from the perspective of Aaron (Brice), Creep, like other found footage style movies of its ilk forces its audience to identify first and foremost with the camera holder. Laura Mulvey’s spectator becomes active participant as we are viewing events from Aaron’s “eye”.
The film follows Aaron as he answers a Craigslist ad from Josef (Mark Duplass), a nobody that lives in the mountains whose motivations to have Aaron record a video for his as yet unborn child are suspect. He tells Aaron he’s been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and yet his wife, or anyone else for that matter, is nowhere to be found. This means that the film places Aaron and Joe in situations where their dynamic must evolve, the film’s narrative trajectory contingent on the time that the two spend together in the latter’s cabin in the woods and to what degree power is allowed to shift between the two. For the most part, it’s in the hands of Josef, who’s illustrated by Duplass as too off kilter to be ineffectual enough to not be jarred by. There is clearly something to be suspicious of, and yet, with Duplass’s warm smile and adorable face, there’s something appealing about him all the same: not completely nonthreatening, but intriguing.
Aaron in comparison is rugged looking, not a bad guy, and not someone who would overtly consider himself bigoted or prejudiced. It might be slightly unfair of me to indict him, or Brice for that matter, so strongly, but it’s the casual nature of the film’s latent and explicit homophobia that’s troublesome. Aaron trades in being a blank slate, one that can easily be projected onto. He’s the one with the camera, after all, drawn as generically as possible.
The tension of the film is split between two methods: the jump scare, where Josef is inclined to randomly jump out and scare Aaron; and the “let’s make him uncomfortable” method. Through conversation, Josef steadily crosses boundaries, his tone of voice too ambiguous to be completely well meaning.
He asks Aaron what’s the most shameful moment he’s ever experienced, and Aaron recounts his childhood problem with urinating. On a quest to find a mythical river, where only the “pure of heart can partake”, Josef fosters a kind of homosocial intimacy that Aaron becomes more and more disturbed by. When they finally find this river, the two hug, seem happy, etc. but none of it really feels authentic, from either end. Even Josef’s effusive nature, always telling Aaron how much Josef values him, is presented as odd and unwanted. Josef offers Aaron a hug the moment he arrives at the beginning of the film, and even that seems to set Aaron on edge. The bathtub scene, where Josef performs the role of the father, almost in an androgynous sense — the act of giving his son a “tubby” is actually genderless — reveals an inauthentic vulnerability that also feels odd to Aaron.
How do we know this? Because Aaron is our audience surrogate. Utilizing the found footage style of filmmaking, everything that jars, weird out, or upsets Aaron affects us in turn. There’s a sort of sly absurdist element to the film, awkward comedy occasionally slipped in. It isn’t there to alleviate tension, it’s there to exacerbate it.
Intentional or otherwise, what we have here is Gay Panic: The Horror Movie. It’s typically every archetypal straight man’s nightmare to be lured to a place in the middle of nowhere under the impression that a deliberate job will be done, only to be shocked and appalled that the person they’re meeting will threaten their masculinity and assault them, or become obsessed with them.
Brice takes the latter route, presenting the wolf as his primary metaphor: “I love wolves. Because they love deeply, but they don’t know how to express it, and they’re often very violent and, quite frankly, murder the things that they love, and inside of the wolf is this beautiful heart.” The threat of the gay isn’t exclusive to the effeminate fairy: Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers leers at Joan Fontaine’s naive second Mrs. de Winter in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, embodying an iconography of frigidness, the Dangerous Lesbian. But Josef’s threat against Aaron’s (presumed) heterosexuality exerts itself as sensitivity, an unapologetic confrontation of emotions that Aaron explicitly avoids, outside of fear and annoyance.
So often, gay panic takes the form of lazy comedy, and Creep‘s absurdist streaks of humor don’t completely set it apart. It’s both disconcertingly honest about its feelings of threat and vulnerability in the face of the queer man, and yet ways to play some of it off like a joke. It’s the horror film equivalent of saying “no homo”.
The revelation that Josef raped his wife while wearing a wolf mask — named Peachfuzz — doesn’t clear the tension, nor the homoerotic danger of the situation. Instead, Josef morphs into an archetype emblematic of heterosexual males’ greatest fear: their own form of animalistic masculinity used against them.
Their basically abusive relationship continues to escalate, Aaron receiving packages containing different DVDs (also found footage), a knife, and a stuffed wolf that has a locket buried deep within. Aaron reaches through the backside of the baby wolf for the locket, apparently representative of penetrative anal sex, and the necklace is monogrammed with a heart and “J + A Forever”, with their pictures on the inside.
Yes, to be fair, given the circumstances and this specific scenario, Aaron has every right to be worried. But the dynamic that’s articulated in this film is emblematic of a pretty specific kind of defensiveness. Josef is weird, and othered, because he acts and performs in ways that are codified as atypical and even sometimes antithetical to traditional heterosexual masculinity. His technique of luring someone in the way that he does isn’t terribly unlike that of Jeffrey Dahmer or John Wayne Gacey. To be fair, the film is often very effective formally, lingering in silences and dark spaces. But the darkest aspect to this film isn’t its clever way of navigating through digital intermediates and mediums, but rather what it says about a compulsive fear of queer men and casting them as killer. It’s anxieties about gayness remind one of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, where queer identity is meant to be suppressed, kept under wraps lest the real world be exposed to it and all of its dangers.
If Creep is an earnest horror film that uses gay panic as its primary element to engender fear, perfectly encapsulating the long understood trope of horror as the fear of the Other, then Joel Edgerton’s The Gift slightly inverts that idea, critiquing the very masculinity that Creep sees as the norm and The Gift sees as toxic.
Relocating from Chicago to Los Angeles, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn Callum (Rebecca Hall) settle into their new environment, their new house beset with clear glass panes, as if windows into an idealized vision of class and domesticity defined by Simon’s conventional masculinity and Robyn’s conventional femininity. Even in casual conversation, he holds a significant amount of power and uses that against Robyn.
The crucial plot point , where the film’s discourse on masculine identity, is Simon’s relationship with his former high school classmate Gordon “Gordo” Moseley (Edgerton), a character whose “uncomfortable” displays of his feelings and emotions is coded as weird, crossing the normative line of how men express, or don’t express, their inner feelings.
This is not immediately apparent. The trajectory of the Callums’ relationship with Gordo follows similar beats to that of a relationship drama, not too dissimilar to one of abuse, at least as far as the audience is led to believe. Gordo’s modus operandi is leaving gifts, being atypically generous. During a dinner party with other friends, one suggests that Robyn and Simon should “break up” with Gordo, further implying the quasi-romantic nature of the dynamic.
At this point, Gordo has not done anything wrong, other than tacitly imply a past which Simon refuses to acknowledge. The story continues to unravel and Simon begins to exert his power at work, manipulating his bosses into giving him a promotion. Running parallel to this is how Simon’s insecurity with masculinity destroys his home and family: the platonic relationship Gordo has with Robyn is viewed as a threat to Simon. To Simon, Robyn is his.
Gordo’s life is nothing but a facsimile, a broken mirror image of what Simon has: no wife, no kids, and not the bourgeoisie house that’s decorated. He, unlike Simon, has not achieved the seemingly heteronormative American Dream. In the way The Gift critiques this idea, it’s a like American Beauty within a revenge film framework.
Simon’s past reveals that he was a monster is, at this point, unsurprising. Edgerton does everything to present these two characters as two sides of the same masculine coin. It’s a thick line drawn to dichotomize the acceptable and the unacceptable within masculine ideology. Though Simon reports that he saved Gordo from being molested by another man, even that Gordo was gay, this is nothing but fabrication. It’s an example of Simon using heteromasculine power to Other someone else, ruining their life.
Yet this monstrosity of action is karmically used as Gordo’s primary motivation as becoming a threat himself, the power dynamics shifting between the two, different iterations and performances of masculinity being acted out. The final moments of the film involve Robyn being drugged and Gordo filming the proceedings. Sent to Simon, the video heavily implies molestation, but the trick of it all, for Gordo, is whether or not Robyn really was raped. The homosocial structures and institutions that dictate Robyn as female pawn between two men is unnerving, even maddening.
Between these two character, Joe, of Creep, and Gordo, of The Gift, are given character trajectories very similar to one another, especially in terms of what kind of power they are able to utilize, both on the other characters within the films as well as upon the audience. Although there is more of a dramatic shift in The Gift, Creep nonetheless attempts to allow its protagonist a sense of agency that is defined by to what degree he is unsettled by the other. That Joe and Gordo share characteristics that separate them from the iterations of masculinity that are part of social convention, and that because of this they place their ostensible protagonists in danger, argues for the creation of the archetype of the Queer Other. One whose very characteristics and inadvertent transgressions make them somehow villainous. However, the crucial different between these two films is the way that they position conventional masculinity with regard to audience perception. Aaron’s character trajectory remains the same through the duration of the film, and thus the audience is still supposed to identify with him, suggesting that the gay panic subtext is presented in earnest. But because of how Simon’s past reveals him as monster, and because of the ambivalent ways in which Edgerton tries to humanize Gordo, the end impression of The Gift is as a satire of masculine codes themselves. These films, whose ideologies regarding masculinity are different because of their treatment of the Queer Other, beg the question, Who’s the creep now?
Bech, Henning. When Men Meet: Homosexuality and Modernity. Chicago, IL: U of Chicago, 1997. Print.
“Gay Panic – TV Tropes.” Gay Panic – TV Tropes. Web. 25 Jan. 2016.
Lang, Robert. Masculine Interests: Homoerotics in Hollywood Films. New York: Columbia UP, 2002. Print.