Damien Chezelle’s Whiplash has received critical and popular acclaim and, in some ways, it is indeed a great film. Leads J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller are outstanding in their roles. The music is magical and, for this drummer, a film focused on that craft is a lot of fun. And as a number of my friends have pointed out, the final minutes of the film are masterful in their movement, energy, and anxiety. The Oscar contender has plenty of fans and, to some extent, I’m one of them. But there are problems with the film that I just can’t ignore.
Let’s start with what I’ll call the hyper-masculine mentoring myth, encapsulated so well in the character of Fletcher. It’s a myth most commonly (re)presented by men, but it’s certainly not limited to men only. The hyper-masculine mentoring myth is about pushing someone “to the edge”, to the point of nearly quitting, or in the case of Teller’s character, Andrew, to near death. The myth materializes in the coach, teacher, mentor, parent, or other figure whose screaming, demeaning, tearing down of a person is believed to be “for their own good” and that which makes the other person “stronger” and thus more likely to succeed. We’ve seen it in reality with Coach Mike Leach at Texas Tech, Coach Mike Rice at Rutger’s, and even in Jane Lynch’s popular character, Coach Sue Sylvester, on the television show Glee, just to name a few recent examples. And it’s utter bullshit.
Too much losing, too much shaming, too much screaming, too much demeaning, and/or too much hateful speech doesn’t often build character or “winners”. On the contrary, it builds anger, resentment, frustration, and in no shortage of cases, violent and depressed human beings. Any number of scholars and practitioners of conflict management, psychology, interpersonal communication, and a score of other disciplines will attest to this tendency. And to its credit, through its brief mention of a former student’s suicide, Whiplash does point to the more likely possibility of negative consequences for a person who has been “pushed hard”. But it’s a very brief moment in the film that’s surrounded on all sides by a constant barrage of hateful speech and violence spewing from the lips of Fletcher and is ultimately framed as the exception to the rule once we see Andrew’s eventual success.
The examples physical violence and its supposed positive impact (we’re reminded of that cymbal story over and over again just in case we question such methods) are plentiful, but I’ll leave that discussion to someone else. What I want to focus on instead is the language Fletcher uses in the film to “push” his students to succeed. In addition to its violent content, it’s also misogynist, homophobic, racist, brutal in its treatment of non-ideal bodies, and I’m sure a host of other really bad things that I didn’t pick up on in my one viewing. The people in the film (I believe I saw two female musicians linked to Fletcher) are primarily men. In the one outburst aimed at a female, Fletcher suggests she’s first chair because she’s “cute” and nothing else. But other than that one instance of direct sexism, all of his communication is to males and it’s brutally anti-woman and anti-gay male. I’ve only seen it once so I can’t go through example after example of this vicious misogynist and homophobic speech, but as with the hyper-masculine mentor myth itself, we’ve seen this all before. In an effort to “get the best” out of somebody, hyper-masculine mentor guy threatens the other guy with being labeled the worst thing you can possibly be in the world of hyper-masculinity (or even just plain ol’ patriarchy, actually)–feminine. The insults fly fast and hard, bolstered by his physical in-their-face non-verbals and tight, black t-shirts to reveal his muscles and communicate very clearly that to fail in any way and in any amount is to be feminine–to be a girl or to be a gay male.
I’m weary of this tired hyper-masculine mentor myth and its primary counterparts of misogynistic and anti-gay rhetoric. I’m weary of the absolute garbage of a psychological theory that suggests that verbal and physical aggression and abuse are not only acceptable but are also successful. They’re not acceptable. They’re not successful. And they’re nothing to celebrate, which is what ending scene of Whiplash, in all its kinetic glory, invites us to do. But I’ll pass on that celebration.