Three Stories About Men Who Can't Feel
I’ve been preoccupied by this scene from Wolf of Wall Street. It’s in my brain, grit in the machine. Sand in the car seat, oil in the water--you get it. Matthew Mcconaughey plays high-flying stock broker Mark Hanna. He and Decaprio’s Jordan Belfort sit down to lunch, and Hanna explains his world view. The scene is infamous for Mcconaughey’s bizarre chant at the start - but that’s not what I keep coming back to.
Hanna describes their role as men “to put meat on the table” and that they must engage with the fugazi that is stock broking, dealing with “numbers all day. Decimal points, high-frequencies. Bang, bang bang. Fucking digits, all very acidic, above the shoulders mustard shit.”
Us, along with Belfort, are supposed to watch as confused spectators while Mcconaughey chews the scenery, does cocaine and espouses his worldview, but the sentiment is what’s gumming up my brain: Hanna explains their role is to be hunters, to put meat on the table, but the way they have to do that in a modern context is by engaging with intellect, positioned as unnatural. Antithetical to “men” as it were.
We later see Belfort repeat Hanna’s displays of masculinity: beating his chest, yelling. It’s no accident Belfort’s firm uses a lion on its logo - the literal king of hunters.
Joel from HBO’s The Last of Us performs a particular kind of masculinity. He keeps the world at arm’s length in a numb, absence of vulnerability. After the end of the world and the loss of his daughter he’s far more stoic than necessarily aggressive or defensive. But he retains the ability to enact great and sudden violence. No hesitation.
There’s a moment in the show where Joel admits to his brother that his mental and physical health is breaking down. He can’t even quite be honest about the reason, and insists he doesn’t want to fail his ward. In reality, Joel is terrified of his feelings for Ellie as loving her risks losing her.
Ultimately Joel cannot resolve this tension, and it erupts into a physical manifestation of bloody violence that costs the world its future. In a lot of ways Joel surviving is damning for humanity. That he relearns a particular type of vulnerability leads to our downfall. His complete terror in the face of loving someone else, and inability to let them go, fundamentally dooms the world to remain a wasteland.
And yet Joel’s motivations are legible, accessible, even.
In You, Joe is struggling with the confines of domestic life. He goes away to the forest for a man’s weekend with Cary Conrad, a fitness guru and supplement supplier. Cary’s affectation is all about wellbeing and openness. He and his wife Sherry present themselves as the evolved self. They consume organic everything. They work out. They are above the toxic. So open minded they can have orgies and it only strengthens their relationship.
Cary’s dudes weekend seems at odds with this affection. Despite the group of men being wealthy suburbanites, the event immediately spirals into celebrating a survivalist presentation of masculinity. They run around shirtless, yelling. They kill what they eat and so on.
Joe dimisses the whole affair, feeling he is above such cumbersome, unevolved behaviour. Joe positions himself against Cary’s presentation of masculinity. Cary is the new age jock in Joe’s view. A brain dead moron who must be lying, how else could anyone be so dumb. So obviously hypocritical. Joe, by contrast, is the book learned academic who views everyone around him like insects under a microscope.
As the weekend goes on, Joe shoves Cary, hard. He thinks for a moment that he’s killed Cary, something he’s sworn off. But Kerry is fine, and Joe is exhilarated. Adrenaline pumping he joins the group fully. Even cries in Cary’s arms, finally letting down the artificial walls of intellect he uses to defend himself.
This change is so radical in Joe that it transforms his marriage. He and his wife Love become intimate again. He seems far more at ease in his own self. In accepting that his knowledge of literature and intelligence are not mutually exclusive from his masculinity he’s able to be more self-aware. Sort of.
Belfort and his friends are hard to watch. They glamorize and encourage the worst part of each others’ behaviour and the worst parts of capitalism, to the point where Belfort taunts the FBI and ends up selling his friends out to avoid life in prison. Perhaps most pointedly Belfort’s masculinity is both toxic to others and a toxin for him. In a morbidly comedic and confronting scene, Belfort is so high he can barely move his body, fighting in slow motion with his best friend to avoid creating incriminating evidence. The two slur and paw at each other while Belfort’s wife screams at them.
In this moment, Belfort becomes a parody of himself. So drunk and so drugged up he can barely speak. He’s reduced to nothing but his constituent parts, ironic given his career was born of selling worthless constituent parts of business to the gullible every man.
Equally, Joe never learns his lesson, not really. He eventually kills his wife Love in self-defence (kind of) and lives in denial for the rest of his life. Runs away to the UK to put it all behind him and becomes an English Professor. His psyche fractures under the pressure of this self-denial and he relapses into his worst behaviours. Belfort is so incapable of growth he avoids prison and tours the world, performing sales seminars for audiences dumb enough to listen to a man who’s allegedly never sold anything honestly in his entire life.
These are both stories about terrible men doing terrible things. Joe is a murderer, sex-pest and creep who externalises every bad choice he’s ever made, refusing to take accountability. Belfort is a craven, capitalism-pilled huckster who cheats on every system and every person around him, viewing them as challenges to be overcome.
It’s difficult to put a finger on the precise nature of the toxicity of these performances of masculinity. What’s clear is the tension these men believe they face: for Belfort’s, it’s the “above the waist” numbers work, for Joe it’s the quiet suburban life. Both men are at their most authentic - or at the point of least internal tension if you prefer - when they’re screaming, rage filled lunatics.
Neither men are capable of considering that the point of tension in their lives is spurious. Artificial. An invented product of the system. They believe masculinity is necessarily one end of a spectrum, a delineation on a line rather than particles in a nebulous vacuum that is personhood. They have not learned to accept who they are in order to begin the process of change, and remain in stasis until these tensions manifest in craven, ugly deeds.
Comparatively, Joel’s fear of being hurt is in tension with his ability to maintain relationships. Building relationships he seems fine with. Shallow and transactional works for him just fine. Once he forms a relationship with Ellie, the overwhelming fear of losing her remains in consistent tension with his day to day interactions. He over compensates by being too chatty. By fussing and fretting like every parent. The tension bleeds through into panic attacks, stress: physical symptoms of the mental burden.
But when confronted with the prospect of losing Ellie, the tension can no longer be maintained, and in order to get what he wants, to keep her safe, he forsakes what he needs, to let her be her own, independent person who chooses their own destiny. In doing so, irreversibly changing their relationship. While Ellie’s feelings on the matter remain unclear in the conclusion of the first season, what is clear is that this has changed Joel on an elemental level.
He must now lie to Ellie every time they interact. Not necessarily verbally, but must self-edit around this terrible thing he has done: both the violent act itself, and robbing Ellie of her chosen purpose in life.
And perhaps that’s the key to why these men remain fundamentally unable to escape their own toxic expressions of masculinity. They self-edit around everyone, all the time, especially themselves. And so the prospect of being honest about how they feel, unless they feel anger, is grouped alongside the day to day white lies we all tell. They are systematically reinforcing their own flawed behaviours by exercising their physical will over reality.
Belfort consumes stupid amounts of drugs. Sleeps around. Berates his wife. Laughs at her behind her back.
Joe’s inner monologue is condescending, insipidly charming. He literally murders people who threaten his reality. Often those closest to him.
Because Joel is quiet, sort of charming in his directness, it’s easy to overlook the control he exerts over Ellie. His fear and lack of vulnerability are ultimately far more pernicious. He doesn’t beat his chest and chant. Instead, he pushes Ellie away as they continue to grow closer, even tries to extricate her to Tommy. The people closest to Joel think he’s a good dude - complicated, yeah, but fundamentally he means well. And why wouldn’t they? He’d do anything to keep his closest safe and happy, while they try to ignore the way he treats everyone else.
These three men are the villains of their own stories, convinced they are heroes doing the right thing in an unjust world. Not the actual bad guy with a capital b, rather, they unknowingly self-sabotage at every turn: striations of toxic masculinity that look and behave differently each time. Joe filtering reality through the lens of high minded literary rhetoric. Belfort chasing his next fix at the expense of everyone around him. Joel hurting his loved ones in a facile attempt to protect them, even as he pushes them away.
That even as their masculinity empowers them to meter deeds of impressive extremity - financial, violent, physical - it prevents them from escaping the need to perform them. And maybe that’s what I’ve been stuck thinking about. Maybe that’s what I keep coming back to: all very acidic, above the shoulders mustard shit. The implication that an entire half of just a person is bad for you if you’re a man. That it’s somehow a weakness you ought to rage against, build an opposition to.
That thinking, intensely, and feeling, deeply, are not the greatest joys of life, alongside the physical instrument that is the body and what it can achieve. That who you’re in the room with is less important than what you gain from the room.
If Belfort is who I despise, Joe is who I sometimes sound like, then maybe Joel is who I’ll do everything I can to avoid becoming. To love is to be prepared to lose. But loss is the only constant. The fact that things are finite is why they are significant. Life is just a series of rooms. The thing that matters is who you share the room with.
And, yes, I see myself in each of these men. My last proper relationship imploded because I held too tightly while remaining shut off, some real Joel energy. I chase dopamine and serotonin like I’m trying to prove my therapist wrong, though far safer and less… crime-y than Belfort. And I speak in big, sweeping, unnecessary literary rhetoric like Joe. Process reality through a series of complicated philosophical positions like Joe.
But Joel is what lodged Hanna’s little speech in my mind. The two men couldn’t be more different and yet similar. Joel lives in Texas with the big house. He’s a contractor, not to be tied down. Distant but amicable with the neighbours. Has his brother, sure, but they don’t really talk talk, you know? Hanna, who values nothing beyond money and getting blasted, who protects his own while they serve him, but they don’t really connect as people, not really.
Even when Joel can admit who he is, he cannot accept it. And that’s why season one ends with him protecting Ellie from the truth, not being honest. That’s why Joe lives in denial, refusing to kill, while his mind fractures. That’s why Belfort rats on his friends rather than change. Their awareness does-not-an-acceptance create.
Honesty is not enough. If life is a series of rooms we share with other people then we must accept our faults and want to change in the hopes it makes the room more enjoyable for everyone in it, not just us. In the hopes it makes enough rooms better to matter. Ultimately, in the hopes that we can overcome the easy, narrow, defensive way out.