Dr. Sharon Marcus (Columbia University) and Dr. Anne Skomorowsky (Columbia University) do a great job at analysing gender in Boyhood. They argue that the film shows how the coming of age of a boy, Mason, is about self-expression, self-confidence, and freedom. This is contrasted with the ‘fading away’ of the boy’s sister, Samantha, whose self-expression is progressively curtailed. Mason is challenged to express himself and put himself first, while Samantha is chastised for doing so. I have not seen the film yet, so it’s difficult to comment on how the director and the actors perform gender. However, what struck me is one of the examples from the film that Dr Marcus and Dr Skomorowsky present in arguing their interpretation. They write:
“What explains these differences in their development? Pivotal scenes in which adults confront each of them offer a key. In one, Mason’s photography teacher accuses him of laziness and gutlessness. “Who do you want to be, Mason? What do you want to do?” When Mason responds vaguely that he wants to make art, his teacher demands, “What can you bring to it that nobody else can?” In an earlier scene, the mother confronts Samantha with a similar existential question after she has failed to pick Mason up after school: “Do you want to be a cooperative person, who is compassionate and helps people out? Or do you want to be a self-centered narcissist?”
Mason’s teacher pressures him to think about how he can express his individuality; Samantha’s mother offers a false choice: either help others or be an unlikable person. The boy is asked to take himself way too seriously, while the girl is chastised for a single instance of having put herself first. … Samantha’s mother presents care-taking and personal sacrifice as the deepest, worthiest sources of pleasure, but the film also suggests that they can be deeply unsatisfying. In her final speech in the film, as Mason packs for college, the mother wails, “This is the worst day of my life…I didn’t know you were gonna be so…happy to be leaving.” Being “a cooperative person” has been a disappointment for the mother’s character.”
The argument is very persuasive and we can find countless examples of how being a man in films is about self-confidence, self-expression, creativity, whilst being a woman is about service to others. More often than not, women’s characters are instrumental to men’s characters, thus lacking depth and personality. Yet, it is also interesting to see how most films endorse and often celebrate an individualistic ethic of self-expression and self-knowledge without a hint of irony. It is a highly gendered morality: it’s good for men to express themselves, while women need to serve others and really possibly be mothers. The hero is in control of his destiny, the heroine sacrifices herself for others. Yet, it is also a conception of liberal morality stripped down to basics. There’s no comprehensive liberalism here (a la John Stuart Mill). What transpires is a conception of individual autonomy that is not only gendered, but quite immoral.
This is evident in films that try, or pretend, to portray religious characters, who embrace morality as service to others or, at least, as loving others. They risk becoming emasculated. Thus, love is not the main thing they do or is portrayed very differently, as protection for instance. Real men shoot, they don’t love. They protect from the enemy or, at best, they bear injuries with great dignity. It strikes me that Jesus in film is often the suffering hero rather than the loving hero who washes people’s feet.