No matter how people feel about short films, they are a necessity. While they allow new talents the chance to explore their preferred style of filmmaking, short films also offer significantly more opportunities for multifaceted LGBTQ+ stories to be told from various perspectives. As short films are generally more accessible to people – many often placed online for free – they can be vital for someone seeing themselves being portrayed for the first time.
Set within masculine environments, short films Slap and Miller & Son provides necessary criticism of societies’ narrow expectations of gender and how hurtful these expectations are for anyone transgressing them.
Both Slap (2014) and Miller & Son (2019) present traditionally masculine environments and interests as backdrops and feature characters that risk everything by being authentically themselves. Built on that foundation, this article will discuss recurring themes including performances of gender, the cost of conforming to society’s expectations and how you’re punished if you decide to transgress them.
Slap, directed by Nick Rowland, focuses on cisgender male boxer Connor (Joe Cole) who enjoys makeup and feminine attire – something neither his girlfriend Lola (Skye Lourie) nor best friend Archie (Elliott Tittensor) are aware of. As a boxer, Connor is expected to portray a certain kind of masculinity based on physical strength, however things drastically change for Connor when he experiments with his gender expression.
Connor’s muscular physique clashes with the softer femininity he enjoys and his otherwise intimidating presence isn’t terrifying when he’s wearing makeup, dresses and heels. Instead, it’s considered wrong. Femininity has long been deemed inferior and non-threatening, so when Connor experiments with it, people laugh rather than fear. Connor is faced with an identity crisis as his conflicting expressions and interests are not in traditional alignment with his gender identity, and feels pressure to conform to his boxer image.
Whereas Connor enjoys experimenting with his feminine side, Miller & Son tackles the struggles of being a transgender woman in a masculine environment. Directed by non-binary filmmaker Asher Jelinsky, Miller & Son follows Ryan (Jesse James Keitel), a transgender mechanic whose life shifts between running her family’s auto shop during the day and expressing her femininity at night. Unlike Connor, Ryan’s femininity is a part of her gender identity, though it is similarly rejected by society. As a result, Ryan compartmentalizes her two worlds to allow her identities as a trans woman and mechanic to co-exist separately.
Just as Connor also feels at home in the boxing ring, Ryan never comes across as someone who feels obligated to work as a mechanic out of duty to her family. She’s just extremely good at her job and she enjoys doing it. Ryan’s interest in the family’s auto shop is just as much a part of her identity as her trans identity is, and she wishes to fully inhabit both without judgement. For instance, when she drinks beer with her father Al (Ryan Cutrona) and co-worker Grant (Travis Hammer), there isn’t any obvious discomfort as she looks relaxed, highlighting the fact that she belongs in both worlds.
Makeup is a creative outlet for many, regardless of gender, which is evident with both Connor and Ryan. While their preferred styles are different (Ryan is subtler; Connor is bolder), both of them find moments of freedom when they feel safe enough to use it. Connor’s colourful collection, hidden away in a box underneath pornographic magazines, is a part of him along with his enjoyment of feminine attire. The first time we see him in a dress, the deeper neckline exposes his defined muscular body and creates a distinct juxtaposition between his masculine body and feminine gender expression. After unwillingly revealing his secret to Archie, he remarks that Connor doesn’t look like a girl. “I don’t want to look like a fucking girl, do I”, Connor yells. He isn’t trying to look like someone else; he just wants to experiment because it feels good.
While Connor usually experiments with femininity in the safety of his room, Ryan expresses hers when she’s out dancing. Wearing hoop earrings, makeup and feminine clothing, Ryan looks carefree as she moves to the music. The aspect ratio opens up from 4:3 to 1:85, showcasing Ryan’s feeling of freedom blatantly through the opening up of the screen. However, it’s during this nightly adventure Ryan’s worlds collide as she catches sight of Grant. As soon as she starts running away, the aspect ratio changes back, creating an atmosphere far more suffocating.
While the source of Ryan’s inner turmoil is that she feels like the conflicting parts of herself don’t belong together, Connor is struggling with coming to terms with his interlocking masculine and feminine sides. This is a struggle that’s presented through the deliberate choice of letting the camera cling to shots of Connor’s reflections from a previously unseen broken mirror. This might represent how Connor perceives himself as broken – he doesn’t feel complete as he can’t openly express all parts of himself – but also how he feels that there are several versions of him as some parts don’t fit societal norms. He’s aware that he’ll be punished if he breaks these rules and he has a first-hand recollection of how his surroundings treat people who are deemed “different” as he previously saved Archie, who’s gay, from men beating him.
This brings us to one of the biggest fears our characters have, namely that they’re both well aware of what society thinks of people like them. At various occasions they are both verbally punished for the way they look and how they either look too feminine (e.g. when Connor is perceived as a joke and not a threat) or too masculine (e.g. when Ryan expresses her femininity and men point out that she looks “like a man”). As people tend to fear what is unfamiliar, breaking or transgressing society’s narrow gender roles is often perceived as a threat and the ones perceived as threats can be punished through social sanctions, along with verbal and/or physical violence.
The beginning of Slap can in itself be perceived as Connor being punished for experimenting with femininity. Wearing a full face of makeup, the film begins with Connor as he coats his lashes with mascara to then be followed by him receiving a punch inside the boxing ring. While this punch might be a warning that he came close to getting caught, it might also be punishment for engaging in something that is considered wrong by society.
Though Miller & Son is less violent, there are two instances that suggest an impending fear of violence. Firstly, after Ryan’s worlds collide, she runs to her car. It’s impossible to not feel uneasy as she sits alone in silence, and we can’t help but expect Grant and his friends to make another appearance. This could’ve given Grant a chance to confront Ryan’s noticeable femininity along with an opportunity for his friends to proceed taunting Ryan for her “failed” femininity. Then, when Ryan is working underneath a car, Grant refuses to follow Ryan’s orders. When he finally does, Ryan takes a breath of relief, afraid of what could’ve happened.
During a party towards the end of Slap, everyone sees Connor’s feminine appearance as an absurd masquerade instead of a genuine expression. When Lola later finds Connor in a bathroom stall and he points out that it’s the men’s bathroom, Lola reminds him that he’s dressed as a woman. With that commentary, she reinforces the idea that as a man you can’t experiment with femininity without being labelled a woman – something Connor bluntly expressed before that he wasn’t trying to pass as.
The party ends with Archie exposing Connor’s secret and accusing him of being gay – which is a common misconception about cross-dressing men. After being rejected, the shot goes from a hurt Connor walking out of the party to an angry Connor walking in the boxing ring – thus creating a direct connection between the two. The film ends with Connor severely injuring his sparring partner as he takes out his frustration. He reacts in a way society allows, by hurting someone else, who in this case acts as a stand-in for the hurtful society that rejected Connor.
When it comes to their endings, Slap and Miller & Son are complete opposites. They’re both emotional, but while Slap is more frustrated and angry, Miller & Son fades after its confrontational scene into something more hauntingly quiet. “Do you want to be a woman now or something?” Grant asks Ryan with a confused facial expression. Ryan’s father eventually tells Grant to leave and with him gone, it’s prominent how things have changed between Ryan and her father. “Good night, see you tomorrow”, Ryan says to him, desperate for some kind of reassurance, but is met by silence. “I love you”, she says with tears in her eyes, fully aware that it might not be reciprocated. As Ryan walks away, her father suddenly says, “See you tomorrow”. While Ryan’s father doesn’t explicitly return her declaration of love, there is a reassurance to be found underneath the fact that he lets her know that they’ll see each other tomorrow as usual. The film ends with Ryan dancing, representing how she now feels freer to fully exist without having to strictly separate parts of herself.
Although Connor and Ryan lived double lives to protect themselves, it came at a great cost of not living life to the fullest. When trying to explain his enjoyment of makeup and feminine clothing, Connor simply says, “It makes me feel free, or some shit”. He doesn’t have to explain it any further and he shouldn’t have to. Equivalent to Connor, Ryan should never have to hide or defend parts of her identity. She should always be able to feel free to express all parts of herself without having to fear that one doesn’t openly belong with the other.
Our identity is made up of various traits that are all personal (e.g. sexuality and gender) and it’s not something that’s up for discussion – it’s yours to decide. While Connor and Ryan have different gender identities, they’re both hurt by their respective societies’ narrow expectations – which shows how dangerous gender roles are and how much damage they generate for people who are just trying to be themselves. Slap and Miller & Son confirm that we need more films to showcase that instead of rejecting people that transgress norms and roles, we should reject these expectations altogether as there is no single right way to be a human when it comes to being true to yourself.
Slap is available to watch for free on Vimeo here.
Miller & Son is available to watch for free on Vimeo here.
Header image courtesy of American Film Institute (AFI)