It Was Mother

It Was By

It Was By
Wayras Olivier
MARCH 2019

B Y NOW EVERYONE has heard the doctor riddle. A successful man and his adolescent son are ill-made by a violent car crash. Both are rushed to the emergency room, where the doctor at the hospital blusters nervously, “I can’t operate on this boy; he’s my son.” Who, you’re then asked, is the doctor? It’s bloody obvious now. But over a quarter of a century ago, when the riddle first did rounds—boys have mothers, thus, the doctor is a woman—it was not.

Here’s another one that English teachers ask after you’ve taken all you can from Lord of the Flies. Not so much a riddle really, but a test: “Who is the Beast?” That’s bloody obvious too: the pilot from the plane crash whose dead body prefigures everything that is evil in the woods. But teachers want more: “Okay, okay, the pilot…but who indeed is the real Beast?”

The answer is manhood. About to body forth from young boys who, stranded together on that Pacific island without adult supervision to shape it, project it, naturally, into the woods as monstrous energy.

There is, as there should be, an almost universal stipulation to remain intellectually sober when subjecting Lord of the Flies to analysis. Absent, at least when I undertook its requisite reading in high school, was that risible term toxic masculinity to explain the boys’ uniform move towards barbarousness. As such, no takeaway from the novel could possibly be less ineligible as this: the highest good a male can do for society and posterity is to keep adolescence’s supposed addiction for rough-housing in check.

Gillette’s most recent TV ad, “We Believe,” which aired during the Super Bowl, took one such reading. Every boy is someone’s son, and must be operated on this second. Males have a shadow much darker than the one that emerges on their faces at 5 o’clock. And it must be removed. With or without a blade, males glide against stoic females smoothly, enjoining such females—as “hun” or “sweetie”—to smile. Males turn electric when viewing misogynistic sitcoms like Married With Children, the likes of which no major TV network has made for over a quarter of a century. Males unfailingly nick female colleagues in the boardroom with their mansplaining. (That last point, so poorly made in the ad inadvertently mocks its subject, the woman, who looks so fragile that had she instead been antagonized by an onerous female boss, the former would have been marginalized just the same by womansplaining.)

One way of paying the ad a compliment is to acknowledge that it reintroduces the idea of the father as indispensable; executed, however, in the worst possible way: two young boys roll about on the grass at a block party. “Boys will be boys” is the mantra a klatch of fathers are clutched by as they watch hypnotized. At last, one father, after much jockeying divides and conquers the two boys with the ostensibly laudable “It’s not how we treat each other, okay!”

Viewers at home are expected to say okay, too—as if the entire ad had been but a thoughtful build-up to this one father intervening thoughtlessly. In other words, were the two boys engaged in spirited horseplay or a formidable fight? If horseplay is not the case, then all the hypnotized fathers, failing to intervene swiftly, are themselves gelded and useless; if horseplay is indeed the case, then that one intervening father is doing nothing other than gelding the boys with his useless virtue signaling. The ad’s message: “Fathers, be more motherly.” It’s the “new” strong—is a contradiction at this juncture because no mother at the block party to begin with seemed to give a damn. They were being “strong.” That is to say, they were undistracted by the trivial.

Here is, from the backwoods of Benton, Arkansas, what non-trivial sounds like: “I just wanted to get your mom out of the house for a few minutes so we could talk,” says Doyle, played by the indelible Dwight Yoakam in the magnificent film Sling Blade. Doyle is the Beast—a squandering alcoholic father figure coming down on twelve-year-old Frank, who, upright and sensitive, resents that he’s being apprised by the Beast that “since you do exist, and I want to be the head of the household, then you’re gonna learn to live by my rules. And the first rule is, you don’t speak unless you’re spoken to. You got me?” Off to the side, listening to Frank being abused, is Frank’s houseguest, Karl (played by Billy Bob Thornton), a confessed murderer with an intellectual disability who hails from a “nervous hospital.”

The entire film has been but a thoughtful build-up to this one scene about genuine “fatherly” misconduct. “Now, you stay the hell out of my way,” the Beast yells, “and do what a regular kid does. You’re a weird little shit, Frank, and I don’t get you. So wake up and face what they call reality. We’re going to be a family,” the Beast concludes. “My family. I’ll be paying all the bills. So that means you’re stuck with my ass, but I ain’t your daddy. You just act like I am.”

Karl is motivated by the politics of grievance to intervene, sure, but takes a stab at the Beast not “Man,” who unlike Gillette, is not replaceable or dispensable but must endure accusations of being like Gillette—ill-made.