Disidentifying with Boyhood

In her last scene at the midpoint of Mad Men’s final season, a teenaged Sally Draper looks expectantly at the night sky. It’s July 1969. Neil Armstrong is a national hero and she initiated her first kiss. As she takes a drag off her cigarette, her upturned gaze asks “what’s next?”

It’s thrilling to see Sally negotiate between what she wants and what’s expected of her. Earlier in the series’ run, her father’s ex-girlfriend defined this as people’s main conflict. Advertising promises to resolve it with the careful positioning of consumer goods. Adolescence is a process of fashioning your own identity out of what you inherit and what you create. In this sequence, we see what Sally learned from her mother (the blowout, the way she crosses her left arm when she exhales), her father (the squint, the ease with which she sneaks into the backyard), and her generation (the cynicism about the moon landing). We also see how she disidentifies with her status-oriented upbringing by kissing the nerdy son of a family friend instead of manipulating his jock older brother into pursuing her.

I thought about Sally Draper several times as I watched Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s lovely time-lapse family drama. That last image of Sally complements the film’s poster. Also, Sally Draper, Mason Jr., and the actors who play them mature in front of the camera. I’ve seen Kiernan Shipka age seven years, both within Mad Men’s version of 1960s New York and in the present. In three hours, I saw Ellar Coltrane evolve parallel to a new century from a taciturn six-year-old into an inquisitive college freshman.

I also reflected on how gender shapes one’s coming of age. Boyhood is about a kid negotiating between the kind of man he wants to be and the masculinity that’s expected of him. This is not the first time Richard Linklater has explored this subject. In an interview with Alex Pappademas, Linklater said that he wondered what kind of kid his star would become during production. No brainer; he’s a cool guy. He’s the kid who’d spend class time in a dark room. His name is Ellar Coltrane and he grew up in a Richard Linklater movie. Mason Jr.’s prototype is Dazed and Confused’s Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins), a Central Texas kid who morphs from Little League pitcher to chill incoming freshman on May 28, 1976 with help from his big sister’s cool friends.

In “Making Dazed,” the behind-the-scenes featurette included in its Criterion release, there’s production footage of Parker Posey and Joey Lauren Adams discussing a scene they added to the film because their dialogue in the script just focused on boys and make-up. Linklater told the actresses to write a bull session for their characters, Darla and Simone. It’s a great little scene where Simone (Adams) talks about hanging out with the young daughter of her divorced mother’s new boyfriend. It was ultimately cut for time, along with another scene where a group of girls wonder about life after high school. Now when I watch the film, I wonder what the girls are doing while the boys are out cruising. They’re probably rotating joints and listening to Aerosmith too. Darla would ruin a mailbox.

Save for romance, sex segregation already governs Mitch’s social life. He barely interacts with Jodi (Michelle Burke), who occasionally checks in on her brother and observes that he’ll be able to get away with more rebellious behavior than she did. We see the nuances of this process occur in Boyhood as Mason’s older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) slides out of view, separated by bedrooms, gossip magazines, Lady Gaga, video games, social media, and finally college.

But Dazed and Confused treats masculinity as the default. While Boyhood is universal in many ways—or at least poignant for many adults, some of whom acquired sentimental fondness for queso and Central Texas’ craggy majesty and saw Austin change in real time—it explores what it means to grow up distinctly (Texan, white, modestly class-mobile, and) male. The “boy” of the film’s title is deliberate, and not just because Personhood would weird out studio executives. For Mason Jr., much of that masculine self-fashioning is a process of disidentification, which queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz (RIP) described as “strategies of resistance within the flux of discourse and power” (19). Though Muñoz defined disidentification as survival strategies for minority (and frequently intersectional) subjects, Mason’s struggles with hegemonic masculinity still resemble “a performative mode of tactical recognition” that disallow him to entirely conform to the representations of manhood presented to him (97).

Boyhood begins in 2002, when Mason Jr. is age six. He’s riding home from school with his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), who scolds him gently for not turning in all of his homework. At first, Mason’s lack of follow-through juxtaposes Samantha’s academic excellence. But eventually we meet his father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), a sorta musician and non-committal parent who picks up several years where Troy Dyer left off in 1994’s Reality Bites. This provides some early indication of paternal influence or of the toll the separation took on Mason in the first six years off-screen. Eventually, Mason’s dad stops chasing music and babes. He cuts his hair and sells insurance, even if he still writes songs and makes mixes for his son. But he never quite ages out of the shiftless romanticism and easy misogyny of his youth. It’s why Olivia cannot trust him. With time, his son sees him as a flawed, unreliable person and not a template. He’s not a Father; he’s just a dad.

Mason encounters a number of men whose example he observes but does not follow—authoritarians who want to bend his mother’s family to their will, short-haired teachers and bosses who want to “reach him,” homophobic peers, Bible-toting grandfathers. But the model of masculinity that Mason ultimately tries to distance himself from is the slacker philosopher his father presents to him. Obviously, this is a big challenge for Mason. He shares his father’s DNA and artistic tendencies. Muñoz argued that disidentification is “not always an adequate strategy of resistance” (5) because it “works on and against dominant ideology” (11). Usually, Mason’s strategy is silence, which may not be a legible form of resistance. But in two instances late in the film, he rebels against his father’s misogyny with silence. He uses it when his father and uncle throw Olivia under the bus in order to stress the importance of proper contraception while in college (because dudes gotta sow wild oats). He deploys it again as a defense when his father tries to be a bro by thoughtlessly maligning his son’s ex-girlfriend (aside: I remembered the actress as a guitarist in Schmillion when I was a volunteer at Girls Rock Camp Austin; leave Zoe Graham alone, DAD). These scenes are tough to watch, because Mason’s struggles to disidentify with his father’s model of masculinity are not entirely successful. He stutters. His defenses trail off. But in both scenes, Mason casts a downturned gaze. His smile tightens into a grimace. Nervous laughter sticks in his throat. He looks embarrassed.

These scenes follow an earlier moment in the film where Mason slips out of the house during junior high to drink and horse around with some classmates and two high school boys. The older guys use homophobia and misogyny to bully their young charges into chugging beer, committing dangerous stunts, and bragging about conquests they made up. Mason’s classmate Tony (Jordan Howard) is the only person who defends himself and doesn’t abuse a girl’s reputation to do so. In response to each utterance of “fag” and “pussy,” Tony calls the bullies pathetic for picking on younger kids and telling lies about girls to seem manlier. Mason is silent in this scene too, but his face suggests he wished he were brave enough to speak up.

Ultimately, Mason cannot entirely identify with the forms of masculinity presented to him because they exist at the expense of women’s dignity. Mason may have had a cool weekend dad, but he also grew up under the care of a tough, determined mom. As Wesley Morris observed in his review, Boyhood “is actually the story of a single mother who wants the best for her children but also for herself.” Olivia makes a lot of self-destructive decisions over the course of Boyhood, but she is also a self-sufficient woman who tries to learn from the past instead of make excuses for it. Twelve years later, I’d happily watch Arquette reprise her excellent work here and see what Olivia’s up to after the kids have left the nest. Mason’s father may have taught him how to shrug, but his mother taught him how to move forward. What’s next?

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