In recent years activists, artists, filmmakers and comedians have been considering the dangerous effects of toxic masculinity, especially on young men. Society at large is now acutely aware its effects and are working to deconstruct it, despite the difficulties that come with destabilising such a prevalent and long-lasting concept. Bing Liu is one of the filmmakers whose moving, deeply personal and sharp documentary considers toxic masculinity through the lens of the two boys he grew up skateboarding. Bing, Zack and Kiere are three boys of different races and ages but they share two things: the small, run-down town they live in and their intense love for skateboarding. Thus far considered a recreational activity, Liu argues that skateboarding is actually a necessity for the survival of these three boys.
Liu’s use of the camera is interesting; he uses their friendship to gain a deep insight into lives but feels separated from them by the camera. He is both in the story whilst observing it and this provides an added layer of analysis to the film. His entire life Liu has been living in the very conditions that he is now observing; however through the lens of the camera he is able to reflect on his life by trying to understand it from the point of view of those he is closest to. He follows the three boys through their varying trials and tribulations over 12 years, in a similar way to Linklater’s Boyhood, except these are the stories of real people. You wonder when Liu started this project, if he ever imagined the results he would get or how their lives would change as they grew up. The structure of the film is set at the beginning by Zack who observes, “when you’re a kid, you just do, you just act and then somewhere along the line, everyone loses that.” This sets the tone for the structure of the documentary. It starts with Liu following three young kids who have the carefree freedom that accompanies adolescence. Later, as the boys reach adulthood we see how grown-up responsibilities and harsh realities are thrust onto them in a world that seems to be against them.
This, along with the financial status of their town and the pressures of toxic masculinity are shown to be the biggest enemies the boys face: “your whole life society tells you, like ‘oh, be a man, and you are strong and you are tough and margaritas are gay’ you know.” Zack’s words are reflective of how boys are expected to not express their emotions, to follow a strict and gendered code to earn a place in society. Coincidentally, each has a turbulent relationship with the father/father figures in their lives and their repression of it is an example of this. As they grow older, the effects those men had in the lives of Kiere, Bing and Zack are evident in the choices they make and lives they follow. As opposed to a fictional film, the film shows the many trajectories a boy’s life can take when he is exposed to toxic masculinity in an intense way from a young age. In traditional media, we are shown only binary examples of how toxic masculinity can truly affect a young man; in Liu’s film there is more nuance and complexity than we are usually exposed to.
Perhaps it is because they are real men and these are real lives but the film also carries a heaviness when you realise these men lived these lives and continue to do so, whilst still carrying their pasts with them. Liu has weaved together a heartfelt tribute to the people he loves as well as a deeply reflective critique of the society that we are all trying to grow up in.
Minding the Gap is currently available on Hulu and BBC iPlayer
by Aleena Augustine
Aleena is a Classics graduate who splits her time between High Wycombe and wherever the latest film or TV show she is bingeing is set. She enjoys watching rom-coms, coming of age films, animations and comedies featuring a strong female ensemble (thank you, Bridesmaids). Her favourite films are Before Sunrise, Inside Out, Zodiac and When Harry Met Sally. You can read her blog, That’s What She Said and more of her writing at Music Bloggery.