Bar Mitzvah Boy deals with masculinity by portraying Eliot Green in a working class family living in the 1970s North East London and his apprehensions over his forthcoming Bar Mitzvah. Masculinity is generally prevalent through a set of attributes and behaviors that are embodied but this seems to be contradicted by how the film deals with the social construction of gendered roles. Indeed, in this traditional ceremony in which a boy formally becomes a man, the audience expects the masculine figures to fulfill the role of powerful and unstoppable men but Eliot promptly realizes the limitations of the male members of his family. Previous critics have considered masculinity as largely universal, defining what it means to be a man but it would be simplistic to reduce masculinity as rooted in a biological or cultural essence therefore supporting the idea of a masculine ideal. My essay argues that masculinity is embodied, it relies on a series of performances but is masculinity an internal reality? A consideration of how these performances are made intelligible and whether they allow to consolidate a sense of masculine identity can make us think about masculinity in a different way. The audience is faced with the contradiction of a film which chooses a Bar Mitzvah as its topic without portraying masculine figures. This discrepancy makes Eliot question is this what masculinity means and why learn all these moral rules when it’s undeniable that few bother to apply them?
Judith Butler perceives gender as being constructed through a set of acts conforming with dominant societal norms: ‘gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to pre-exist the deed’, gender is the constitution of the identity one is meant to have. If gender is a performative category, how is masculinity made explicit through the repetition of certain physical or verbal performances? The father-son relationship gives us an insight into these performances with the rite of passage into Jewish masculinity representing an occasion for the Jewish boy to reflect his father. Yet, Eliot’s analysis of male relations begins by observing: ‘if (Dad) was my age and behaved like he does, he’d get a clip round the ear. (…) That’s ignorant, really, in a grown man’. He does the same with his grandad who he associates with a baby: ‘Grandad wants everybody to think the world of him just because he’s Grandad. Like babies do’. The portrayal of Victor as a sensitive and emotive father and of Chaim as an infantile narcissist grandfather allows Eliot to come with an uncannily accurate description of stereotypically flawed Jewish masculine figures. Their caricatures work as a basis for Jack Rosenthal to develop controversial figures who try to redefine the threshold between masculinity and femininity. If the masculine figures are stereotypically flawed, one can argue that none of them is worthy of full masculine status insofar as they do not represent traditional ideas of masculinity: power, courage, independence and assertiveness. Depicting immature and imperfect men allows traditional ideas of masculinity to be both questioned and satirized by showing that gender roles can be blurred or reversed. This is what Harold embodies by being timid, emasculated and by doing ‘everything that everybody wants’. His qualities linked with female subjectivity are manifested in the scene when he does the dishes and is proud of tidying up the room after the guests had dinner. His character allows to point out at a culture creating gender roles which are prescribed as ideal for a person of a specific sex. Indeed, the representation of Eliot’s mother suggests that masculinity is not dependent on inhabiting a man’s body as she is more powerful and authoritarian than her husband Victor. Jack Rosenthal’s depiction of masculinity seems to question whether masculine identity can ever be inalienable and opens a critique of the unrealistic and antiquated representation of traditional and ideal masculinity.
It is precisely the failure of the masculine figures in Eliot’s family to represent stereotypical masculine values that confuses the young boy. His running away from the synagogue metaphorically suggests his running away from what he thinks masculinity represents. Ironically, he only becomes the centre of attention when he deliberately absents himself. The fact that he is tormented by the masculine performances that he sees which are not in accordance with the moral rules he has to learn and respect to become a Jewish man is a means for the audience to identify and acknowledge that gender performativity implies that there are multiple identity types as the cultural discourses are flexible. This is enabled by Graeme MacDonald choosing that the audience does not only get Eliot’s point of view but also gets his point of hearing throughout the film. At the Friday night dinner, the Bar Mitzvah Boy does not interact with his family to the extent that Victor sarcastically calls him ‘blabbermouth’. His silence is therefore judgmental and acts as a televisual technique to symbolize his inner state and points towards the play’s crisis, therefore giving more strength to facial expressions and verbal performances. By representing the main character as a young boy who thinks more than he talks, Bar Mitzvah Boy already establishes a contradiction between Eliot who is not yet a man but who is mature and carefully thinks things through, and Victor who is considered a man but acts childishly by constantly arguing with his wife and insulting his own son. Eliot’s running away therefore introduces a clash between different kinds of Jewishnesses, with Rita who is only concerned with appearances while Victor transgresses Jewish law by not observing the Sabbath and Eliot who probably represents Jewishness the best but who runs away from his own ceremony.
Eliot’s portrayal along with the questions he raises allow the idea of masculinity itself to be questioned. The fact that his running away was not motivated by fear symbolizes his need to better understand the meanings of gender performativity. If the audience sees through Eliot’s eyes, it is in order to feel the inner turmoil he experiences and to realize how Jack Rosenthal uses caricatures to parody jewish ideas of masculinity. This is relevant in the scene when he recites the ten commandments to his sister while telling her they do not form a requirement for his bar mitzvah service, she asks: ‘what the hell did you learn them for, then?’. He does more than what is expected of him which suggests that he tries to conform with the norms of the ceremony. This idea is emphasized when he recites a portion of the Torah ‘standing on my head’ to prove that his escape was not motivated by his fear of forgetting Hebrew. This visual comical scene is decisive as it unveils how easy the proceedings of the ceremony are for him to perform and that it is not what bothers him. Trying to figure out her brother’s state of mind, Lesley comes with the conclusion and claims to her parents that her brother worries he could not be ‘the sort of man you’d expect him to be’. This scene raises meaningful questions about masculine identity as Lesley suggests that Eliot is concerned that he could not be a man like his grandfather, father and Harold. It has its own ironic truth considering that Eliot precisely does not intend on becoming like them because to him, they do not embody a Jewish masculine ideal. This is the reason why the greater challenge to Eliot’s silent demeanor is when Victor tells him: ‘To you I seem like a God. A hero. It’s only natural…’. Comedy and irony are associated as Victor acknowledges himself as what he is not: an empowered man who has all the qualities that his son should strive for. When Tabbi Sherman upon hearing Eliot’s feat declares him to be Bar Mitzvah Boy, the figure of the Jewish religion stands against adult materialism.
These series of masculine performances are undermined which suggests that masculinity entails a critique of heteronormativity. Carrigan argues that masculinity often represents an unattained or unattainable ideal which men nevertheless still see as the ideal to strive for. As soon as Eliot becomes aware of that, he accepts to conform to what is expected of him which is to perform a normative dinner in which he is merely the prize exhibit. The whole ceremony as a series of norms that have to be followed is relevant in Eliot’s dinner-dance speech that he practices many times. He retorts to a surprising age appropriate language, combining formality with extreme precision. The convention of the scene is significant when he provides the exact act, scene and line reference for his quotation from Julis Caesar: ‘This was a Man’. The fact that he practices multiple times makes the final speech ironic as it can be read as directed at its audience who is now aware that despite his speech, he does not intend to ‘follow his dear father’s example’. Similarly, his last words ‘Thank you’ can be understood has having double addressee, the dinner dance guests and the viewers of the play. The recourse to this technique challenges the audience to dissociate itself from his guests who are not aware of the previous events at the level of the plot or in enabling Eliot to consider himself a man.
The way in which masculinity is depicted and understood challenges the idea of masculinity itself. In this sense, the ceremony acts as a backdrop to question masculinity as a fixed category. If Eliot believes that gender performativity is labelled as binary with masculinity on one side and femininity on the other side, it is intended for the audience to understand that gender identity does not always fall into two essentialist categories. His attempt to fix and determine an ideal of what masculinity is brings about a critique of culturally defined gendered roles. This critique is allowed by the scenes when events take place out of Eliot’s range of vision and earshot. The comic distance that is established between Eliot and the audience saves Bar Mitzvah Boy from relying on a stereotypical or negative view of religious materialism within a British Jewish family. Eliot is represented as an almost wordless portrait because the film does not rely on dialogue to represent his state of mind or to prepare the audience for his act of rebellion. For instance, when Eliot’s grandfather comes in and says ‘if you’re all happy, thank God, I’m the happiest man in the world’, he speaks out of shot and the audience sees Eliot mouthing his words conveying his opinion of this unthinkingly repeated faux folk wisdom. The distance offered by the way Bar Mitzvah Boy is shot as well as how masculinity is performed and represented allow a continuous going back and forth from masculinity as a secure category to masculinity as a state of crisis. Representing masculinity within a normative space from the experience of life from a Jewish standpoint unveils the complexity of gender performances when considered in terms of binaries when suppressing either would lead to an identity crisis.
While raising modern questions that combine gender identification, religion and race, Bar Mitzvah Boy attempts to look at how masculinity is made intelligible from a Jewish standpoint. Gender performativity is questioned throughout the film as the crisis of masculinity mirrors the cross cultural crisis of the Jewish ceremony. Bar Mitzvah Boy plays with religious proceedings by subverting gender powers: the accepted standard of hierarchy, culture and religion are questioned. The ceremony can be considered as a failure as Eliot does not intend on following the male figures he is surrounded by.