Toxic Masculinity

Have you seen the Gillette ad that inexplicably has conservative America's panties in a twist?

It's amazing that this ad charges into our already toxic public discourse just as we New Liners are in rehearsal for La Cage aux Folles, containing a song called "Masculinity." Imagine what the right-wingers would think of Albin! Oh, right, we don't have to imagine. That's our story.

Yes, it seems M. and Mme. Dindon are alive and well and living in America. After all, we've all seen in recent years the many and various indignities imposed on trans Americans and others by panicky Christians. As I wrote in my last post, this show may be thirty-five years old, and based on a film even older, but it's about right here and right now.

It's fascinating to me how much the controversy over this Gillette ad parallels the song "Masculinity" in La Cage. We find the song funny as we watch it, because not only is Albin terrible at performing Maleness; so is Geroges. Albin's the one being "schooled" here, but Albin arguably has more self-awareness than Georges does.

This one dialogue exchange over the song's intro is so perfect.
GEORGES. I want you to pick up that toast as if you were John Wayne.

(ALBIN prepares, does his best gunslinger swagger, then sits back down and lifts the toast, fanning himself with it.)

GEORGES: I thought I said John Wayne.

ALBIN. It is John Wayne. John Wayne as a little girl!

It's a punchline but it tells the truth. Albin is a man in his way; he's John Wayne (tough, strong) as a little girl (who loves to play dress-up and house). Makes me think of The Bad Seed. Tellingly in this world, it's Madame Renaud who does the best "masculine" walk for Albin to imitate. And when Georges points that out to him, Albin replies, "It's easy for her. She's wearing flats." His world isn't made for this kind of performance. He doesn't even have the right shoes for it!

It's only in retrospect that we realize that Act II cafe scene and the song "Masculinity" are as cruel as Jean-Michel's abuses and betrayals. Jean-Michael wants Albin gone; but Georges wants him to deny who he is -- including his real role as Jean-Michel's mother. Albin is to become "Uncle Al," not even a member of the immediate family! Which is worse? Georges sees Jean-Michel's betrayal, but not his own.

Look at the examples of manliness they offer up for poor Albin in "Masculinity." They start with movie stars John Wayne and Jean-Paul Belmondo, both of whom performed their masculinity as much as Albin performs Zaza. And really, they're not telling Albin to think of the actors, but the parts they play on the screen -- fictional masculinity.

Georges invokes the French Foreign Legion. According to Wikipedia, "Beyond its reputation as an elite unit often engaged in serious fighting, the recruitment practices of the French Foreign Legion have also led to a somewhat romanticized view of it being a place for disgraced or 'wronged' men looking to leave behind their old lives and start new ones. This view of the legion is common in literature, and has been used for dramatic effect in many films, not the least of which are the several versions of Beau Geste."

To leave behind their old lives and start new ones. That's a pretty potent reference. He invokes "Charlemagne's Men," i.e. the Christian Crusaders. That's also really chilling, considering who Georges and Albin are. And a "stevedore" is a dock worker, a manual laborer. (Makes us wonder if Georges has spent time down at the docks...)

Then the Renauds up the ante a bit, referencing Charles De Gaulle (France's World War II resistance hero), Rasputin (the notorious holy man to Russian Tsar Nicholas II), and the Biblical Daniel. No pressure, though.

Finally in the last verse, the stakes get raised to a ridiculous extreme, suggesting as manly role models the brutal and genocidal Ghengis Khan, the fictional Russian war hero Taras Bulba, the ruthless invader and plunderer Attila the Hun, and weirdly then, the gentler and largely fictional "Robin Hood's Men"...

No wonder Albin can't get it right. With competing role models like that...

In retrospect, we realize how wrong this whole scene is, how wrong it is to force Albin to masquerade as something he's not, to wear a mask not of his own choosing. In the club, Albin's mask and performance as Zaza reveal his truest self. But the mask and performance of "Uncle Al" will deny Albin's truest self. It's only when Albin rebels, discards the agreed-upon scheme, and appears in full drag as "Mother" that he's once again showing his truest self.

He is Jean-Michel's mother.

But it goes deeper than that, to a lesson we're taught in the brilliant musical, Passing Strange, that we are each on our own quest to find The Real -- our truth, our path, our journey -- but we all have to learn that our Real is different from everybody else's, so nobody else can ever tell you how to find your Real. As Stew tells us at the end of the show:
'Cuz The Real is a construct...
It's the raw nerve's private zone...
It's a personal sunset
You drive off into alone.

Here in La Cage, Albin has to find his Real, his definition of being a man, not Georges' definition, or the Renauds' or the Dindons'.

I am what I am.

Only Albin can find his path, and by the end of the show, we know that path is where Albin always knew it was. With family.

He -- and the others -- have to learn that really being a man means taking responsibility, stepping up. It's not about our culturally constructed models of masculine and feminine; it's about being strong and dependable. Being a man is about being proud of yourself and not apologizing for or hiding who you are. That's what Albin knows and what Jean-Michel has to learn.

When Albin shows up in drag as "Mother," that's when he is most being a man, showing up for his family, even though he's in drag head to toe. I told Zak (who's playing Albin) and Robert (who's playing Georges) that my biggest revelation when I started working on this show was that it's not a gay comedy. It's not a showbiz comedy. It's really not a even comedy, though it's awfully funny.

It's a drama about a middle-aged marriage and whether or not it can survive this crisis. That's the central action of the story. And I would submit, the real crisis isn't the hugely problematic engagement; it's a crisis of dignity and identity. Jean-Michel asks Georges to give up his (and Albin's) dignity and identity, and out of love, Georges agrees; but Albin saves both marriages because he refuses to give up his dignity, and he teaches both Jean-Michel and Anne an important lesson about being who you are.

And in the process, Albin becomes the role model for everybody else.


Just as La Cage shows us there isn't just one kind of family (and sometimes, the "Other" kind might just be healthier), it also shows us there isn't only one way to be a man, that "being a man" isn't always about being a man. Notice that throughout the show, the Cagelles are tough as fuckin' nails, even intimidating, even though they're always in women's clothes.

When we produced Anything Goes last season, everybody was astonished at what we revealed in the material, but all we did was take the text, the characters, the story, the themes, seriously; yes, even though it's a funny show. We're doing the same with La Cage, and though it's not my goal, I bet we get a lot of the same reactions for this one.

It's so much richer and realer and more complex than most people think. And so truthful and so funny. And unfortunately, also reeeeeally timely.

The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!

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