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03 July 2013

the makings of men: yes, I'm doing my homework again

The conversation transcribed below is scripted, and is from a TV show called Six Feet Under. The clip (which is available for your viewing pleasure at the bottom of this post - you're welcome) is from the first season, which aired in 2001. The section which has been transcribed is a conversation between a father and son who run, with their family, a mortuary and funeral home. It so happens that the father in this scene has passed away, and is speaking to the son as a sort of ghost. Later in the clip, it is implied cinematically that the conversation happened as part of a dream. Despite the unlikely circumstances of the conversation, and despite the fact that the conversation is scripted rather than natural, it is well-scripted, in that it could very plausibly be a conversation between any father and son who have been unexpectedly reunited. The two men sit across from each other, and share a cigarette as they talk.

1 D:     So I’m walkin a/long one day
2          and this asshole `stops me
3          and /asks me if I’m `alright?
4          He says I got a /look.
5          He’d seen a /man.
6          with that /same look once.
7          a:nd had ignored it.
8          And that man had `jumped out a nine story window.
9          ((high-pitched laugh))
10        .hhhh
11        Do you know the reconstruction `involved
12        in a death like that?
13        hhh-
14        This business gets under your skin.
15        It’s like a fuckin virus.
16        You can even /see it on your /face.
17        `Smell it on you.
18 S:    What the /hell is this place – this music?
19        Since when do you listen to (.) the classics four?
20        What the `hell did you /do here?
21        Who the `hell /are you?
22 D:   So many questions –
23        why didn’t ya ask them when I was still aLIVE?
24        (.2) It’s ok, I couldn’t’ve answered most of them anyway.
25        Unlike now, /now I’m a /fucking prophet.
26 S:    Right.
27 D:   You think I’m kidding buddy-boy?
28        ((Leans back))
29        That’s one of the `perks of being /dead.
30        you know what `happens after you /die?
31        `and (.) you know the meaning of life.
32        ((smiles, quiet laugh))
33 S:    /That seems fairly /useless.
34 D:   Yeah I know.
35        Life is `wasted on the /living.
36        ((puffs cigarette))
37 S:    Ya `coulda told me you were /proud of me.
38 D:   You were never /around for /me to tell.
39        Which was `exactly what I was `proud of you /for.
40        ((short laugh)) therein lies your catch-22 ((laughs more))

D: Dad as speaker
S: Son as speaker
` heavy accent
/ light accent
? rising intonation
. falling intonation
(.) brief pause
(.n) measurable pause
CAPS increased volume
*Transcription begins at 3:26 in the clip, which is from Six Feet Under, season 1.

Of the three characteristics of hegemonic masculinity described by Bird – emotional detachment, competitiveness, and objectification of women – two are evidenced in this scene: emotional detachment and competitiveness (1996, pg. 121). Although Bird first defines emotional detachment as the detachment of a young man from his mother in his process of masculinization (pg 121), there seems to be a certain degree of emotional detachment from other men which is integral in the hegemonic identification of masculinity. Indeed, Bird discusses this aspect of emotional detachment as an identifier of masculinity on the very next page, and we see evidence of this behavior in the conversation transcribed above. Bird describes this emotional detachment as “withholding expressions of intimacy” (pg 122). We can gather from the conversation that the son in particular is aware of an emotional distance between him and his father. In lines 18 through 21, the son expresses his frustration with this distance. His frustration is made more evident by the suddenness of his statements, which are contextually unconnected to the last statement made by his father. This emotional disconnection is verified by the father’s reply, in lines 22 and 23: “So many questions – why didn't you ask them when I was still alive?” From this, we know that these two men didn’t discuss such emotional matters under normal circumstances. Further, in line 37, the son expresses frustration that his father hadn’t expressed any pride in the son. This is another indication of the two men having been emotionally at arm’s length from each other.
The father’s response, on lines 38 and 39, brings us to another point; Bird discussed this in terms of competitiveness, and Willott and Griffin discussed it in terms of successful masculinities: the son wasn't home enough for the father to have a chance to express his pride in his son, which was the source of the father’s pride. Not hanging around at home could be an indication of the son’s independence, which is also an indicator of emotional detachment as a characteristic of masculinity (Bird, pg.125), but it’s just as true that the son’s absence from the family home provides a valuable measure of masculinity in and of itself. As Willott and Griffin found, the ability of a man to spend time away from home is, in some ways, and indicator of his success as a man. Even without the pub as a destination – since this TV show is set in USA, not England, and rounds at the pub are less dominant in American culture than in British – a man still must leave the home (in terms of the hegemonic masculine ideology) in order to be a successful provider. Thus, being away from home is a symbol of success as a man, because being a good provider is a tenet of masculinity in the hegemonic ideal (Willott and Griffin, pg. 117). The son’s success might also be considered a measure of the father’s success; the father is proud of his son because his son has succeeded in displaying himself as a capable provider (by not being home), and the success of one’s progeny can be considered a reflection of the parent’s success in their role. Therefore, the competitive aspects of the father’s statement of pride (lines 38 and 39) are relevant to and evidence of the masculine successes of both father and son.
This conversation as a whole might be viewed as edging over the boundaries established by the same emotional detachment it gives evidence of, but the two men maintain a certain distance even as the content of their speech becomes intimate. Their retained distance is visible in their physical distance – they remain on opposite sides of a sitting area, across a small table from each other – and their emotional controls do not escape them beyond a slight raise in volume by the father (line 23), which is quickly contained. Furthermore, the potentially engaging emotions are laughed at – exactly as Bird found in her studies (pg. 126), when participants told her that “feelings are ‘something for us all to joke about.’” The fact that the single moment of raised volume is acted out by the father, as opposed to the son, is also notable. Bird describes how a man’s relationship to the hegemonic masculinity ideals might change over his lifetime, and specifically mentions that one man, at least, cared less about fitting into that ideal as he grew older.
Overall, this conversation gives us an inverse sense of the ‘Father knows best’ ideology discussed by Ochs and Taylor (1996), in that we’re made to understand that the son knows very little of the father’s life. So, despite the role of the father as the protagonist (in that he is the subject of the story he narrates in lines 1 through 17, and in that the son’s contributions to the conversation are almost entirely questions concerning the father’s past behavior) in this particular conversation, the viewers understand that this has not normally been the case. The son is frustrated by how little he knows about his father, and it seems that perhaps he has never even realized, before, how shallow his understanding of his father is. Thus it’s clear that, while we don’t know whether or not the father was a recipient in previous family conversations, he certainly wasn't the protagonist. This finding is consistent with what Ochs and Taylor discovered about fathers, which is that fathers are typically not protagonists (pg. 102). Even within their families, fathers – as the primary masculine identity in a typical nuclear family – maintain the emotional detachment evidenced in Bird’s research.

Bird, S. R. (1996). Welcome to the men's club: Homosociality and the maintenance of hegemonic masculinity. Gender & Society, 10(2), 120-132.
Ochs, E. & Taylor, C. (1996). ‘The father knows best' dynamic in family dinner narratives. Gender articulated: Language and the socially constructed self. ed. by K. Hall. Routledge. pp.97-121.
Six Feet Under, The Room - YouTube. (n.d.). YouTube. Retrieved July 1, 2013, from
Willott, S., & Griffin, C. (1997). `Wham Bam, Am I A Man?': Unemployed Men Talk About Masculinities. Feminism & Psychology, 7(1), 107-128.

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