“Order beer, not wine.”
“Women cook; men grill.”
“And no tofu. Can’t get more gay than tofu.”
So goes the inner monologue of a closeted gay frat bro practicing his beer-pong shot at what could be any college in America. He lifts weights, crushes beers and awkwardly avoids eye contact with another fraternity brother with whom there’s apparent sexual tension. He’s the main character of American Male, a short film directed by Michael Rohrbaugh and the winning submission to MTV’s Look Different competition, which vows “to erase the hidden racial, gender and anti-LGBT bias all around us.”
The film’s main theme — toxic masculinity — is certainly all around us these days. Fast-food commercials with the tagline “man up” depict X-Men’s Mystique morphing into a “real man” after tearing into a bacon cheeseburger. Dartmouth offers a course called “The Orlando Syllabus,” addressing the “emergence of mass violence, homophobia and masculine rage.” And, of course, the president-elect of the United States moves on women “like a bitch” and advocates grabbing them by the pussy.
MEL recently spoke with Rohrbaugh about how he used the most familiar aspects of toxic masculinity as a beard for when he was still closeted, the reasons why hazing and bullying serve as the plotlines for so much gay porn and the ways in which the elephant walk can be rationalized as a bonding experience as opposed to a sex act between straight men.
I loved the film. Can you describe it for MEL readers?
The film is a portrait of a very deeply closeted college age guy who’s in a fraternity. He’s kind of a ticking time-bomb; we’re seeing this character who has repressed his feelings to such an extent that he’s on the verge of exploding since all of this repression has taken a significant toll on his psychological well-being. Anyone who’s ever been in the closet understands that it’s not a sustainable situation — eventually something’s gotta give.
Is there an autobiographical element here?
Growing up in the Midwest 15 years ago, before being gay had hit the mainstream, adhering to masculine gender norms was very important. I certainly felt them acutely throughout my life and personally rewired how I interacted with the world to make sure that all of my behavior was stripped bare of anything that would fall outside of them. It was especially important because if anyone suspected you might be gay, you were almost guilty until proven innocent.
Even a drop of suspicion could be very damaging — it was the worst possible thing you could be called so you did everything you could to avoid it. That meant policing your mannerisms, the way you talked, the pitch of your voice, the way you carried yourself, how you sat — all of it — so as not to provoke any suspicion of being gay. At times, acting that way could get so restrictive that it became impractical.
Do you think that’s a common struggle for most American men?
Definitely. So much of the violence men perpetrate against each other stems back to a fear of being labeled as gay, which is synonymous with weak. We’ve been taught that we’re supposed to be these dominant creatures, and we do anything and everything to avoid being called “gay” or “weak.”
At the end of the film, the protagonist loses it and starts hitting a pledge harder and harder with the paddle. His voiceover says, “Now, I am no longer a person but a set of social cues” moments before the end. Tell us about that line.
I know that when I was at my deepest moment in the closet, I felt like I was wearing a mask. And that the mask had replaced everything else about me — so much so that by the time I came out, I didn’t know who I was, because all I knew about myself was a person that I’d been performing for others.
How old were you when you came out?
Twenty-one. I know that doesn’t seem very old, but I was a person who was always very much in his own head. I still am. So to be trapped inside your own head all by yourself with all that’s going on for so many years was a pretty intense experience by the end.
Where does our need to present ourselves as masculine come from in your opinion — our dads, TV, history?
That’s a good question. If you look at other cultures, European cultures for instance, there isn’t much of a need to define yourself as a man, and there’s a lot more latitude given to men for what they’re allowed to do. The same thing is true with the coasts in America — you’re able to get away with a much more metrosexual identity, which means you can openly care about things like grooming and fashion and express yourself emotionally.
I think that to some extent society’s goal is to squeeze us all into a similar mold so that we’re more manageable — to hammer out the rough edges of individuals so that they fit within the collective better. Gender has been one of the ways society has done that most aggressively. If you’re a woman, you have to follow these values and behaviors. If you’re a man, you’ve got this other alternative. As long as there isn’t a lot of space in between those options, society has successfully done its job to conforming us to very limited types.
There are so many porn sites featuring the type of hazing depicted in American Male. Why do you think we eroticize frat boys and bullies?
For many reasons. The first is that those are very testosterone-charged environments. The second is that those are also very homosocial environments. It all starts with men running around, dominating and hazing each other. Oscar Wilde said it best: “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” And that’s true; sex is about domination and submission. To see men dominate and be submissive to each other, feels very much like the act of sex. It’s a type of role play. Especially in a fraternity environment, where it’s quite literally role play. Two parties have willingly submitted to the situation and have adopted dominant and submissive roles.
In our society, straight male touch isn’t really allowed. It’s basically forbidden for men to touch each other in any context, but especially in a context that’s affectionate. Because of the homophobia floating around our society, straight men have been robbed of male affection in any way, shape or form. And so, they’re looking for these few sanctioned outlets where they’re allowed to actually touch each other and proclaim their love and loyalty for each other without having their sexuality called into question. Sports also serve as that type of space.
The issue then becomes that they want to protect the safeness of these spaces, which they do aggressively. Because the only way that they can enjoy their homosocial benefits is by broadcasting to the world how straight these spaces are, and sort of banishing anything that may be tainting them as homoerotic.
Even when they’re doing an elephant walk?
Even in an elephant walk, but it’s gotta be called something else. It’s “bonding with your pledge brothers.” There’s a famous quote I came across that was something along the lines of “the elaborate ceremonies that straight men engage in just to have an excuse to touch each other.” And that’s kind of what fraternity hazing is. It’s a series of elaborate ceremonies we’ve constructed in large part to allow men to have the outlet to portray their love and loyalty while being permitted to actually touch each other. Because normal society does not allow for that.