Masculinity, Sexuality and Sartrean Freedom in ‘Naked’ and ‘The Crying Game’




Mike Leigh’s ‘Naked’ offers an uncomfortable front-row seat for a journey through existential anguish at the dawn of post-Thatcher Britain. Having absconded from Manchester under somewhat mysterious circumstances, Johnny seeks refuge in the anonymity of London’s urban sprawl.


Following his meandering path through the capital's dimly lit backstreets, the audience suffers through a series of unsolicited, Socratic-style interactions with those he encounters. Conversations, no doubt, which Johnny finds to be very profound. His bravado within these interactions is driven by a self-assured rejection of the essentialism which others seemingly project onto the world (and that he understands himself to transcend). In this sense, it would appear reasonable to take this character as fitting the existentialist bill perfectly. Freedom, as a consequence of that ‘transcendent’ element of the human condition, is not something which Johnny shys away from - he confronts the responsibility tied to his freedom. This is where Sartre locates the anguish stemming reality. Yet, it seems to me that these interactions and attitudes towards the world amount to acts of ‘bad faith’. These are projects whereby the individual refuses to fully accept the responsibility tied to their freedom; that involves concealing from themselves an unpalatable truth about their condition that would otherwise be revealed by confronting the distinction between facticity and transcendent components of being (Santoni: 2020).


Masculinity serves as a core theme running throughout the film. It is Johnny’s blindness to the role gendered tropes play in the construction of his own identity, as well as the way this influences his actions, which leads me to conclude that he stands in this position of bad faith. In other words, through aligning with transcendence alone, his facticity has been entirely brushed under the carpet. It is a project of self-deception. We see this in his reluctance to acknowledge any kind of proclivity for sexual violence within himself (despite repeatedly being confronted with these actions) as well as his hypocritical detest for serial misogynist, Jeremy. Incidentally, Jeremy exhibits all the trappings of Sartrean bad faith in reverse (Boule: 2011). It seems that he takes on a performative role, quite content fulfilling a stereotype with a degree of dedication such that it subsumes his identity. This form of bad faith isolates facticity while turning a blind-eye to transcendence - responsibility is not taken for the freedom which Sartre understands to be central to the human condition (Montes: 2019).


Crucially, these identities need to be interpreted in a relational way. Jeremy’s attempt to align purely with his facticity, along with Johnny’s desire to entirely transcend it, are both fundamentally framed by their divergences with femininity. The women with whom they cannot identify. Here, each character is engaging in the tacit project of constructing a personal history on their own terms. Simone de Beavoir understands gendering as a process of becoming, not towards an end-state in which gender is attained where it had been absent before, but rather as an ongoing process of reinterpretation (2015). The sadism and violence which we see in the nature of their sexual encounters can then be seen as attempts to appropriate the Other’s freedom, and reinterpretation of ones own identity. Through the infliction of physical harm, their partners become reduced to collections of body parts and are further objectified. With this behaviour, says Sartre, “he seeks in submissive eyes the reflection of his infinite freedom” (1963: p.81).

Neil Jordan’s ‘The Crying Game’ chronicles an unlikely (or so it is presented) love story between a former IRA militant and the girlfriend of a slain British soldier. As the film unfolds, the audience observes key events which displace the foundational beliefs of Fergus - a man whose existence has until now been constrained by political and religious placement.


While captured British soldier Jody is being held by Fergus’s cell, a fondness and sense of shared experience emerges between the two. This congeniality, though, proves to be of little consequence when Fergus is prevented from removing the captive soldiers' suffocating hood. Despite being inclined to grant him this comfort, his fellow cell members refuse on the basis of preserving anonymity. This too strikes me as akin to Sarte’s account of bad faith. Through concealing themselves, they avoid fully confronting the nature of their action and obscure the motivations behind their behaviour. It is worth clarifying here, the obfuscation in question is not in relation to Jody but rather in relation to their own selves - engagement in a self-deceptive act which avoids responsibility for their actions.


Later, as Jody appeals to his ostensibly compassionate captor to be released, he surmises that Fergus is a ‘good’ man by nature. During the exchange, the fable of the scorpion and frog is tipped on its head (Hellerman: 2019). In spite of initial protestations to the contrary, Jody proposes that just as the scorpion cannot resist the urge to cause harm due to the nature of his being, Fergus’s nature will compel him to release the soldier unharmed. It is unclear whether this holds true. After Jody’s fatal escape attempt though, a guilt stricken Fergus decides to make good of a promise to take care of his girlfriend, Dil, back in London.


In fulfilling this commitment, warm encounters culminate in the pair striking up a romantic relationship, with Dil ignorant of the connection her new lover has to the circumstances surrounding Jody’s death. Through her, Fergus begins to confront the actions and emotions tied to that period of captivity. This is a process which destabilised the very values that had driven him as an IRA militant. A major part of the film is his inner struggle to restore that sense of certainty which had previously grounded his existence (Boule: 2011). However, the revelation that Dil had been born biologically male further antagonises both his sense of self and relation to the world - this time through subverting the sexual morality given to him by the Catholic church. Sartre reverses the assumed causal relationship between emotion and action, proposing that emotion develops through, rather than guides, action (Poellner: 2015). This can be seen in the love Fergus has for Dil. These feelings don’t seem to hold explanatory power over his move away from the sexual conservatism of his past, the progression of his love is located in the very actions of his care and attentiveness towards her - which is itself predicated upon a shift from Catholic morality. Indeed for Sartre, “there is no love apart from the deeds of love” (2007: p.37).








References:


Beauvoir, S. de. (2015), The Second Sex, London: Vintage Classics


Boule, J.P. (2011), Existentialism and Contemporary Cinema, New York: Berghahn


Hellerman, J. (2019), “What is ‘The Scorpion and the Frog’ Fable and Why Do People Reference It?”, nofilmschool. Available at:

https://nofilmschool.com/the-scorpion-and-the-frog-fable


Montes, A. (2019), “Toward a Thicker Notion of the Self: Sartre and von Hildebrand on Individuality, Personhood and Freedom”, Quastiones Disputatae, 9(2), p.65-88


Poellner, P. (2015), “Early Sartre on Freedom and Ethics”, European Journal of Philosophy, 23(2), p.221-247


Santoni, R. (2020), “Can being-for-itself avoid bad faith?”, Sartre Studies International, 26(2), p.40-50


Sartre, J.P. (1963), Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr, trans. B. Frechtman, London: Allen


Sartre, J.P. (2007), Existentialism is a Humanism, trans. C. Macomber, New Haven: Yale University Press


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