Negotiating New Masculinities in ‘The Art of Self Defense’

As a transgender man, I have a complicated, strange, and usually arduous relationship with masculinity. Why are men so obsessed with the fact that they are men? For people who claim to be independent and strong, why is is validation from someone they perceive as superior (read; more powerful) so important to them? Why is violence, hatred, and ugliness seen as so essential to being a man in mainstream society? I ask myself these questions constantly. They keep me up at night. The same questions seem to keep Riley Stearns up at night as well, as indicated in his new film, The Art of Self Defense.

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Jesse Eisenberg in ‘The Art of Self Defense’

The Art of Self Defense focuses on a scrawny, terrified man named Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) who is mugged one night after going out on a late night run to get dog food. After the encounter, he feels ashamed, terrified and, most importantly, emasculated. He becomes terrified to even walk down the street in broad daylight. That is, until the day he discovers a karate dojo lead by the enigmatic and hyper-masculine “Sensei” (Alessandra Nivola). It starts off as a harmless, genuinely productive way to build up his confidence and make him feel safe again. However, things start to take a turn when Sensei starts to teach Casey just exactly what it means to be a man. You can’t listen to adult contemporary, only heavy metal, and you can’t be nice to strangers. You can’t learn French because that language is associated with pansies, so here, learn German instead. Casey begins to see this as the only way that he can keep himself safe and keep his integrity as a man intact until the things that Sensei “teaches” him or asks him to do begin to spiral out of control.

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Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) practicing his sick new moves.

I truly cannot remember the last time I laughed as hard or as long as I did while watching this film, but I also cannot remember the last time I have jumped in my seat, flinched, or curled my toes at a film since this one either. It coats violence and darkness in absurd satire, never feeling quite like it takes place within our own reality, but instead a hyper-realized version of it. The set design, which consists entirely of analog technology like landlines, fax machines, and clunky 90s desktops, also enhances this displacement. This particular tonality plays a major role in how the audience takes the information that it is given. In an interview on the podcast “My Brother my Brother and Me,” Jesse Eisenberg stated that he would be surprised if anybody “took it as a sincere ‘how-to’ guide on masculinity,” while the hosts of the show continued on to say “Well…it’s 2019, bud.” In our culture today, violent hyper-masculinity is seen as an asset, and violent offences are often laughed about or congratulated as feats of strength. The Art of Self Defense deals with a lot of the same questions and concerns that David Fincher’s famous Fight Club did in 1999, except now we have the benefit of hindsight to know just how well that worked out. Fight Club was instead co-opted by hyper-masculine men who idolized it both as a film and as a concept and for this reason, started to create their own Project Mayhem around the world. To this end, the intense interplay of absurdity and satire in The Art of Self Defense is integral to just how insane these definitions of masculinity truly are.

While so much of the script tells you exactly what is going on, it does so in such a clever and off-beat way that it never feels like it is treating its audience as completely ignorant. Instead, it is treating its world or more precisely, ours, as ridiculous. Imagine a world where masculinity is at its most extreme, where men talk in the locker room about how “testosterone is the hormone men produce” and read magazines that tell them wolves are the best pets for men. Or a world where young children are taught how to put people into choke-holds.

Except, that’s not really that hard to imagine, is it? We’re practically here already. As The Art of Self Defense is a clearly absurd world where everything is blown out of proportion, every event in the film which actually resonates with our reality stops being comedic, and instead, becomes acutely terrifying.

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Jesse Eisenberg and Alessandra Nivola as student and teacher.

As mentioned in the beginning, I identify as a transgender man. Similar to Casey, my gender performance is something that I am constantly aware of and probably thinking way too much about. Am I coming across as masculine to those around me? How do men walk? How do they talk? How do they sit? Yet, it doesn’t really matter if I conform to these ideas of masculinity because no matter what, I am a man. So why do I feel the need to put on these airs to join the strange pack of wild dogs that is men? Why does any man feel that need to put on these airs, regardless of whether they are cisgender or transgender? Why are women in the workplace expected to either conform to the same standards or at least tolerate them because masculinity is seen as a symbol of strength? These questions are represented in the film through the portrayal of Anna (Imogen Poots), who is the dojo’s instructor for the children’s class, “because of [her] maternal instincts.” While she is clearly the strongest pupil in the dojo, and is constantly working to prove herself, she is never promoted to black belt. Through Anna and Casey, we see the two sides of the trap that is masculinity. It is something that traps both men and women. Men use masculinity as a way to shield the fragility they deem to be un-masculine, while women view masculinity as a means towards acceptance, or acknowledgement for the strength and ability they have always possessed, irrespective of such insidious gender constructs.

The Art of Self Defense is a succinct, terrifying, and absolutely hilarious look at the trappings of not just toxic masculinity, but how that kind of masculinity is internalised. Toxic masculinity is an insidious virus formed directly out of a fragile masculinity that preys on those who see it as a strength, and as the film shows, it is difficult to cure yourself of it once you have been infected.

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