Amidst all the heated discussions about feminism that have overtaken parts of the internet lately, there’s been a connected controversial topic: toxic masculinity. Addressing the pressure to “man up”, to suppress positive emotion expression and to lash out in violent ways, is one of the biggest issues men have to face in patriarchal society. Bringing up these issues, almost inevitably, results in responses demonstrating the problem in the first place; if a man brings them up, he’s going to be attacked as “self-hating” and “not a real man,” and if a woman brings them up, well, you can imagine the response there.
Whiplash, the new Sundance hit from Damien Chazzelle, is one of the clearer illustrations of the sadomasochistic nature of toxic masculinity and how it can be found in unexpected places. Other films about toxic masculinity, Fight Club and The Wolf of Wall Street to name two notable examples, play a tough game in which they have to present the glamorized appeal of their protagonist’s lifestyles while also condemning them. Any critical viewer can see the condemnation, but it’s far too easy to find not-so-critical viewers getting swept up in the glamor and missing the real point entirely. Whiplash, if it reaches those viewers at all, might make them at least a tiny bit more critical as viewers since any glamor is completely in the protagonist’s head and doesn’t much impact the filmmaking.
Terrence Fletcher, the hard-ass conductor played by veteran character actor J.K. Simmons, isn’t a smooth seductor like Brad Pitt or Matthew McConaughey but rather the sort of blunt, hurtful authority figure boys are more likely to face in their everyday life. His victim, Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), meanwhile, falls for Fletcher’s abuse for motivations that are clear but also blatantly absurd to the viewers. He lets the conductor push him around because he wants to be great enough to live up to his standards and become a jazz legend. Yet Neiman’s already clearly talented and Fletcher’s standards of perfectionism are clearly absurd (in some ways they’re not even concerned with perfection of the music itself but rather of the people in the band, as he kicks out not the musician who played a slightly off note, but a musician who couldn’t identify if their own correct note was slightly off).
That Neiman’s insane dedication to pleasing this horrifying teacher manages to lead, in the film’s heart-racing climax, to some degree of success raises questions about art and the artist similar to those asked by last year’s The Wind Rises: what is the creation of art worth to excuse the horrifying costs that come from its creation? In Whiplash‘s case, the answer is pretty clear: Neiman’s positive musical results come in spite of rather than because of Fletcher’s teaching strategy, which hasn’t created a bunch of new Charlie Parkers but has led to many crushed dreams and a suicide. Neiman’s victories are pyrrhic, any chance he had at a healthy emotional connection with others lost in the process.