Depictions of masculinity in media have historically been reflective of the environment it was created in and the intention of the author, but do retain some key traditional characteristics. Aggressive violence against enemies, carnal and controlling lust for women, and a lack of vulnerability are some of the more prominent traits typical of masculine characters, and men are usually rewarded for fitting this archetype and punished for deviating from it. When femininity is depicted, it will often exist to serve as the sexual counterpart of male characters. Laura Mulvey, a prominent feminist film theorist, wrote regarding gender in film that “The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly.” Female characters, in essence, do not exist outside the purposes of the male gaze. This treatment of gender was largely an unquestioned and unconscious norm for centuries, reaching a zenith during the mid-20th century. Alternate and nontraditional depictions of masculinity only entered the mainstream in the 1990s and 2000s–and even then relatively sparingly.
The socio-cultural upheaval underway in the last 30 years, however, has fundamentally changed the treatment of masculinity and femininity in media. It is not that traditional gender roles have disappeared from media, or that films and TV have become the paragons of sensitivity and accuracy. Rather, a creator must be conscious and intentional of how gender is depicted in their characters and plotlines. Mike Flanagan, renowned horror director of the popular series The Haunting of Hill House, among others, is no exception to the increasing gender-consciousness of popular media. His creations have been commended by artists such as Steven Spielberg and Quenten Tarantino not merely for their lack of reliance on simple jumpscares, but for their subtle emotional depth and complexity.
This praise is well-deserved in one of his more recent creations, 2021’s Midnight Mass, a limited series set in a rural, woebegone Catholic parish where a miraculous religious revival begins with the arrival of a charismatic young preacher. Through the relationship between the main character and his father, Flanagan provides an insightful, empathetic, and representative treatment of the often-fraught intersection of masculinity, stoicism, trauma, and the challenges of parenting. It is not that this relationship deviates especially from “traditional masculinity,” but there is undeniable consciousness, intent, and empathy in Flanagan’s depiction.
The evolving relationship between Riley Flynn and his father Ed is far from the main plot of the series, but it is a testament to Mike Flanagan’s commitment to detail and complexity that a side-stage relationship could be worthy of an article in and of itself. Ed Flynn is a deeply religious fisherman who has aged beyond his years from his grueling work and trying lifestyle. He is the epitome of rural masculine stoicism–quiet, domineering, and hardworking, but emotionally inarticulate. Ed Flynn evokes a man clearly happier to hide behind his newspaper rather than acknowledge vulnerability or mental health. Unfortunately for Ed, his Silicon Valley-turned-convict son, Riley, ensures he cannot keep his eyes down for long. Riley is intelligent, confident, and desperate to escape Crockett Island, the series’s main setting, ultimately working in the sectors of venture capitalism and tech startups, which are far from fishing and difficult for his father to relate to. His fast-paced lifestyle rose steeply, burned brightly, and went out like a matchlight when he killed a teenage girl in a drunk driving accident and was sentenced to four years in prison. Ed, who was financially and emotionally taxed by his son’s cocksure lifestyle, alcoholism, and subsequent fall from grace, grew to resent Riley with the burning silence that is archetypical of rural, masculine characters.
When Riley returns to Crockett Island at the beginning of the series, we see that he and his father have an estranged relationship. Ed quietly declines an opportunity to speak to his son over the phone, forcing his peacemaker wife to salve their son’s hurt with lies about his father being “busy.” At the dinner table upon his return, Ed is quiet and keeps his eyes down, only to disproportionately lash out at his son for insulting the church with a joke. Ed clearly does not know how to process the accumulated trauma of his son’s mistakes, and is only able to react in awkwardness and anger.
For his part, the son has inherited this emotional aloofness from the father–a halfhearted attempt at a “welcome back” hug from his dad is met with surprise, and Riley goes in for a handshake instead. It can be difficult for individuals raised in a hyper-masculine environment to confront trauma; mental health issues, such as the addiction and PTSD that Riley suffers, require one to step out of their comfort zone and be vulnerable. For those raised in an environment where vulnerability is forbidden, as Ed has, parenting through trauma feels foreign. A reaction might be awkward consternation, or the avoidance of confrontation altogether. When confrontation does occur, it often comes out in uncontrolled bursts.
Only when miraculous events begin to occur on the island does this relationship evolve. Ed feels fitter and younger than he has in years, and finds himself infected by the charisma brought to Crockett by the enigmatic young preacher Father Paul. In confession, Father Paul encourages Ed to meet with Riley and open up to him about the difficulties in their relationship. In a moment when he finds himself alone with Riley, Ed finally displays vulnerability–perhaps in one of the first times of his life–and addresses the longtime resentment he has held for Riley. He tells Riley the truth about how he feels about his former lifestyle, and the legal and financial woes brought upon the family because of it, but ultimately still forgives him, apologizes for his own failings, and reminds him that he’ll always love him.
In an acknowledgement of his own struggles with articulation, Ed says, “Somehow it’s.. it’s hard for me to show [love] when you’re here.” Riley, who has not been influenced by the charisma of Father Paul, is clearly emotional and even tears up, but he is unable to say anything in response to his father, still boxed in by the stoicism by which he was raised. After this brief moment of vulnerability, Ed regains his composure, returns to his old masculine character, and ends the interaction.
With the completion of this small story arc, Ed and Riley’s relationship falls to the side in favor of the main plot of the series. The complexity and subtlety of this father-son relationship is a testament to Flanagan’s attention to detail and empathy in writing. His writing and pacing accurately embody the struggles of addressing trauma in one’s children when one cannot be vulnerable for the sake of “manliness”, and his character writing is true to the reality of rural, blue-collar and masculine life.
The significant implication of Flanagan’s work lies in the normalizing of new forms of masculinity that do not necessarily have to deviate from the traditional gender role but must instead embody meaning about said role. Ed Flynn is not simply an unfeeling masculine character, he is a character whose masculine upbringing has clearly influenced his gender expression and emotional articulation, with clear implications to the plot and complexity of the story. Flanagan indicates that characters can be masculine, stoic, aggressive even, but that gender depiction should embody some meaning about the significance of that behavior and its origin in the context of the character and broader narrative.
In sum, gender must matter in storytelling. Flanagan knows exactly what he is doing and why, a testament to both his undeniable skill as an empathetic creator and in navigating the ongoing upheaval of the treatment of gender in media. Flanagan’s popularity both among audiences and critics signify that his work has staying power. He has the popular appeal and critical pedigree to influence the industry as a whole with regards to depicting masculinity on screen, and he seems intent on using it for the betterment of the art of television.
James Weld is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service studying Culture and Politics.