A Rich Counterhistory of Masculinities On-Screen

A Rich Counterhistory of Masculinities On-Screen

It is often assumed that representations of queer, gender-nonconforming people are rare in film history, especially in the years before the LGBTQ rights movement began in the West in the late 1960s. But in their Criterion Channel series Masc, writer-archivist-filmmaker Jenni Olson and critic Caden Mark Gardner have constructed a counterhistory that challenges this narrative of invisibility and neglect. This lineup traverses four decades of cinema from around the globe, uncovering the many forms of on-screen masculinity that exist beyond the realm of cisgender men. Encompassing an array of genres, styles, and cultures, these films are a testament to the courage of trans men and butch lesbians embracing their identities and sharing their experiences. To celebrate this special series, I spoke with Olson and Gardner about their curatorial process, the themes that unite this diverse collection of works, and how these stories resonate with the struggles of queer communities today.

Tell me about how you came up with the concept of the series.

Jenni Olson: Criterion had originally asked me if I wanted to curate a lesbian film series, and I wondered if maybe there was something else I could do. At first I thought it might be a butch lesbian series, but then it occurred to me that I have always been interested in the common threads that connect butch dykes and trans men. Historically, our communities have frequently had shared experiences, including the experience of being underrepresented in cinema and often identifying with the same small set of characters and depictions of AFAB [assigned female at birth] masculine folks on-screen. Of course it’s true that there are not enough films by and about butch dykes, and there are also not enough films by and about trans men and gender-nonconforming AFAB people. But across these identities there are a bunch of great films that represent us in our diversity, including very interesting ones that haven’t been seen in years. In this era of unprecedented attacks on the basic rights of LGBTQ people, especially trans and gender-nonconforming people, I also think we really need and deserve to experience the joy of cinema.


That was the origin of the series. And Caden and I have known each other in the queer film world for a while, and I knew he was working on a book project about trans cinema. He’s very knowledgeable in that field. So we got connected, and we went through long lists of possibilities for the series. We each had films that we were championing while also trying to get the mix right, so that the series would have a range of old films and new films, narratives and documentaries, features and shorts, as well as experimental work.


Caden Mark Gardner: I do think there exists a history of images that both trans masculine people and butch lesbians can connect with. In cinema, masculinity can be inhabited in ways that confront and subvert patriarchal conventions, and that helps us think beyond just one exclusive concept or image or body type.
There’s a lot of untapped potential for dialogue within that history. In some cases, the characters and subjects in this series go from one identity to another. These movies feature many different kinds of people, and there’s not a lot of redundancy in their experiences.
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