Lukas Dhont’s new film, Close, is sparking a conversation about why we must protect and defend our sons and all our children’s powerful capacities for connection. It’s long past time for us to encourage and normalize a healthy masculine culture of authentic emotional expression and connection.
There was an image in the opening of the script for Lukas Dhont’s Close that never made it onto the screen. “I guess it would have been too on the nose, but I always have this image,” Dhont says. “First of this flock of black birds that you can see in the sky, that all fly in, in that same direction, a group of birds that move through the air and dance in this sort of choreography together. And I think that when I was young, there was this point where I wanted so desperately to be one of those birds.”
Dhont’s metaphor points to the deep disconnection and grief which runs through the Western culture of masculinity. It is a loss boys know all too well.
Our sons are failing academically, struggling professionally and socially. Young men are going down rabbit holes of race and gender extremism, driving our nation’s epidemic levels of political violence, sexual assault, mass shootings, drug abuse and suicide. After decades of alarm, we continue to struggle to reach a consensus and to name the problem at the root of our sons’ suffering—which is strange, because the root cause of our sons’ struggles has been known for a very long time, and the body of research confirming the problem continues to grow.
Because boys are bullied via the denigration of the feminine, they are conditioned to see girls and women as less; sexist conditioning that takes hold as a central part of the construction of our masculine identities before we are even old enough to understand what is happening.
Dhont’s story of boys’ friendships was inspired by Professor Niobe Way from New York University, who has done decades of research on the social and emotional development of boys and girls. First interviewed in early adolescence, boys have always told her the same things: that they “love” their best friend and that without their best friend, they would “go crazy.” Then, just a few years later, something fundamental changes. Way’s research, summarized in her book Deep Secrets, holds the key to what is happening to our sons—which has been happening for generations.
“They talk about wanting to share deep secrets,” Way says. “Boys say these kinds of things directly. Boys want friendships where they don’t get laughed at when they’re feeling sad or when they do something embarrassing. Boys want to be listened to. They want deep connection. This is not some feminist academic spouting about what I think boys need. This is what boys have been telling us for decades.”
Way calls it a boys’ crisis of connection. “The phrase points explicitly to American masculinity. In our culture, the point of maturity is to be self-sufficient and to be independent. We don’t value the ability to have mutually supportive relationships, we don’t associate that with maturity at all. In fact, in American masculinity, that need for connection with others is seen as immature, and our crisis of connection stems fundamentally from that.”
Way’s work is not an outlier. Judy Chu’s When Boys Become Boys documents her research over the course of two years with a cohort of boys and girls beginning in a pre-K class. At age four, her research shows, boys are already hiding their emotional acuity, taking on the stoic, disconnected performance of masculinity our culture demands of them.
In the early 1980’s Paul Kivel explicitly named the enforcement of our generations old rules of masculine culture in what he called the “Act Like a Man Box.” Tony Porter, who shortened Kivel’s language to simply “the Man Box,” shared his own powerful story of growing up in Man Box Culture in a TED talk titled A Call to Men, which has been viewed over 3 million times.
The rules of the Man Box culture include:
- Be a breadwinner, not a caregiver
- Be a leader, always have the final word
- Be tough, never ask for help
- Have lots of sex
- Be heterosexual, never homosexual
- Have power over girls and women
- Talk about cars or sex or sports, nothing deep
- Never show your emotions, except anger
Equimundo—an organization working to achieve gender equality and social justice through promoting patterns of care, empathy and accountability amongst boys—confirmed the ongoing impact of these rules on boys and young men in a groundbreaking 2017 report, also titled “The Man Box.” These are just a few examples of the vast body of research confirming how our young sons are systemically conditioned into lifetimes of isolation.
In my own work, I have explored how beginning in early childhood, boys who break the rules of Man Box culture by exhibiting too much emotion or needing to much comfort or connection are bullied back into the Man Box through the denigration of the feminine. “What are you, a girl?” “What are you, a sissy?” They are told, “Man up.”
Because boys are bullied via the denigration of the feminine, they are conditioned to see girls and women as less; sexist conditioning that takes hold as a central part of the construction of our masculine identities before we are even old enough to understand what is happening. Cut off from connection and then slotted into dominance-based masculine hierarchies as we approach adulthood, boys are left with only one way to validate our masculinity: to dominate those around us. The result is epidemic levels of economic, political, physical, and sexual violence against women, trans and nonbinary people, as well as other men.
I write in my article “Why Do We Murder the Beautiful Friendships of Boys”:
“Before Way, no one would have thought to ask boys about what is happening in their closest friendships because we assumed we already knew. In fact, when it comes to what is happening emotionally with boys and men, we tend to confuse what we expect of them with what they actually feel. And, given enough time, they do as well.
This surprisingly simple line of inquiry can open a Pandora’s box of self-reflection for men. After a lifetime of being told how men ‘typically’ experience feeling and emotion, the answer to the question ‘what do my closest friends mean to me?’ is lost to us.”
Close has been nominated for the Oscar for best foreign film. It has already won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. The film is sure-footed, masterful storytelling. It does not tell you—rather, it shows you, often with details glimpsed from the corner of one’s eye, with half heard words blended into a wash of background sounds in a school room, on a playground. Close is also particularly powerful in that it includes depictions of something that all parents of boys can confirm: Boys connect physically with absolute ease. They lean against each other, they hold each other, they lay together… that is, until we attack them for doing so. In Man Box culture, that’s exactly what we do, in every conceivable way.
Because of its artful power, Close will be seen by tens of millions of us. What it offers us is a desperately needed conversation about how our dominance-based culture of masculinity harms boys, men and all whose lives we impact.
I spoke with Dhont after Close was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film.
Mark Greene: Tell me about your experience of first reading Niobe Way’s Deep Secrets.
Lukas Dhont: When I read all these testimonies of the boys and how over the course of time these testimonies changed and transformed, and how so many of them pushed their friends away, there was this strong sensation of feeling connected to people I had never met. I felt like I was one of those boys. At that same moment in time, I started to fear intimacy myself and therefore became more distanced in my relationships. I had friends that I pushed away, and I regret that very much.
Greene: Are people quick to see this as a film about boys who are gay?
Dhont: I mean, it is a queer experience because I have felt it myself and I am queer. But it is far from only a queer experience.
It is a human experience and definitely one felt by many. What Way’s research gave me was a way of opening it up. These boys, at first, are so tender and loving with each other, and then they grow up in a world that tells them to separate, that actually tears them apart.
I told myself, you know what? I don’t even know or care what their sexuality is because I don’t need it in order to tell this story. This story is about how we murder, and now I’m going to use the title of your article, Mark, that I love and that I have used a couple of times, this is a story of how we murder the beautiful friendships of boys.
A film is changed by the eyes that look at it. You know, every person looks at a piece with a different life experience, different backgrounds, different culture and so, what we do is subjective. It is open for interpretation, it is open for projection, and I invite that. The overall confrontation that viewers face in this film is that we are so unused to seeing two boys in a bed together laying intimately, in a film is not eventually going to be about their sexualities.
We are so unused to seeing the tender friendship of boys. You know, we are so unused to see a boy deeply admire his friend as he plays his musical instrument, because we don’t get those images usually. We get, you know, a little bit of fighting. We get jumping, taking shots at each other. We get all these, you know, visuals that we have copied, and we have seen for a long time and that are part of the canon of masculinity. But we rarely get the tenderness of it. But if you listen to the boys in Niobe Way’s research, it’s actually quite present.
This tenderness. We just…erase it.
This tenderness. We just…erase it.Lukas Dhont
Greene: Up until this moment, I didn’t really realize my response to Niobe’s work isn’t only about my friend George, it was also about James Kines, who was my close friend in high school. James was gay. But for years it didn’t matter. We were very close, until at some point I began to become frightened of that closeness, of the implications of whatever it was. Like you, I don’t think it was sexual. I think it was gender. I pushed him away. And that loss is huge for me because James isn’t alive anymore. And I don’t get to go back and fix that or say I’m sorry or make that repair. Suddenly I was afraid. And I don’t even know, I can’t even name what I was afraid of…
What was your experience of the pushing away from close friends. Do you have a name for it?
Dhont: I always have this image, first of this flock of black birds that you can see in the sky. That all fly in, in that same direction, like a sort of a group of birds that move through the air and dance in this sort of choreography together. When I was young, there was this point where I wanted so desperately to be one of those birds and fly in the same direction as the others.
I feel like therefore I created this armor, that was built up out of elements I saw accepted around me. I feel like in my, in my young life, I became this mime artist who started to copy the way that people talked, the way that people behaved, other boys that I saw were more at ease. And so that armor became bigger and bigger and bigger. It was, in any case, impossible for me to be authentic. So, anyone who wanted to, and there were people who really tried to open me up, I was unable because even if I was loved in the broadest sense of the term, still that flock of birds. It was, it was too powerful for me.
Yes. When I look back at, because I also have a George and I have a James, when I think back to all these boys and what we shared, I have this strong sense of regret also for myself because how beautiful would it have been to enjoy the power of those young connections and completely embrace them.
We made the film, I think as a reminder for maybe myself, but also for an audience about the absolute necessity and importance and desire for that authentic connection.Lukas Dhont
Greene: If a caregiver of a young boy comes to see your film, is there anything you would hope they would take away?
Dhont: We made the film, I think as a reminder for maybe myself, but also for an audience about the absolute necessity and importance and desire for that authentic connection, that too often gets taken away from us when hardness corrupts, or desire for hardness corrupts the soft.
That’s also why I love listening to 13 year old boys talk of this. There’s this strength when the heart speaks and it, it truly speaks and says something that we can learn from: to not go through this world in a shield, just running around chasing things that aren’t of any importance.
People ask me how do we prevent that? It’s a great question because how do you deconstruct, you know, language and visual vocabulary that has been built up for so many years?”
In The Will To Change, bell hooks writes,
“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead, patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self- esteem.”
There is great reason for hope. The work to create a heathy culture of masculine expression and connection is ongoing. Ashanti Branch’s Million Mask Movement offers teenage boys circles of connection in schools to share what’s really going on for them. Ray Arata, founder of the Better Man Conference, trains male leaders in connection and allyship, inviting us to adopt transformative open-hearted leadership in our workplaces. Kimmi Berlin is rolling out her Build Up Boys program in which teaches powerful relationship building capacities in schools. Global organizations like the Mankind Project invite men back into connection in circles of men’s work. My partner, Dr. Saliha Bava, and I have the Relational Book for Parenting. It offers powerful relational games, stories and capacities for teaching our young children (and ourselves) how to care for relationships instead of allowing our crucial human capacities for connection to be stripped away.
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