The Burly Man: Masculinity and Homosociality in Barton Fink

by Sam Reimer

I explore the link between the development of masculinity and homosociality in Barton Fink. Through the titular character and his relationship with Charlie Meadows, I look at Barton’s construction and development of an idiosyncratic form of masculinity and how this is achieved through homosociality and male intimacy, looking at the progressive suggestions made towards gender theory and gender construction.

The Coen brothers’ 1991 film Barton Fink is an enigma, both in its supernatural ending shrouded by ambiguity, and in its defiance to adhere to a specific genre, flirting with many–even up to its violent conclusion. The nature of the film is signified by its title, as Barton Fink (played by John Turturro) is a living contradiction, who, like the film, strives to defy convention (yet struggles for identity), only showing a glimpse of assurance in the closing scenes. The film title suggests an externalization of character, evident by the perspective we are afforded, but also extends to the habitual place in which Barton resides—an externalization carrying both dread and promise. Barton suggests to Jack Lipnick that the Hotel Earle is not a coincidental residence; rather it is a chosen habitat that Barton perceives will benefit his lofty artistic aspirations. Instead of connecting with his source material, Barton is blocked—unable to write and unable to think. As the film progresses it becomes clear that Barton’s stumbling block isn’t his location, but rather his inability to listen. Jim Emerson suggests that Barton Fink “is a movie about how much Barton does not understand,” suggesting that his blindness prevents him from seeing empathetically (Allen 58). Barton’s lack of empathy is apparent with almost everyone he interacts with. These interactions convey an interesting duality, showing both resistance and reaching on Barton’s behalf. Barton’s navigation through Hollywood, the Hotel Earle, and his own psyche are frequented and informed by men. These conflicts highlight Barton’s struggle to understand what he refers to as “the common man.” These scenes gender Barton and are in contrast to his construction of masculinity or lack thereof. Of these interactions, Barton’s relationship with John Goodman’s Charlie Meadows is the most telling in its centrality and in its outcomes. It is through this relationship that Barton is able to write his screenplay and most importantly, become a man.

My focus throughout this article is to look at Barton’s conception and construction of masculinity, as well as the implications of homosociality and male intimacy that are communicated by Barton and Charlie’s relationship. David Greven explains that since the development of queer consciousness in film and society during the 1990s, straight masculinity has been reshaped, “chiefly by making same-sex desire and even genital contact between males a threatening possibility” (DeAngelis 79). This development is more social than filmic, and still persists today as seen through male homohysteria, articulated with utterances like “no-homo.” Throughout the late 2000s to the present, the term “bromance” reflects an increase in cultural awareness toward homosocial relationships and male intimacy. Greven explains, “While treated with much greater explicitness today, queer desire nevertheless always remains an undercurrent in mainstream film and television texts, a site of repression that manifests itself in odd and discordant ways” (DeAngelis 81). Though Barton Fink may be described as “odd,” Barton and Charlie’s relationship certainly is not archaic; instead, it is especially progressive toward contemporary opinions of masculinity. Greven alludes to an important aspect of the discussion concerning homosociality in film and television: “The genres of horror and comedy become especially highly charged sites for the representation of male sexuality because both genres promote intensely defensive responses to sexuality” (81). Greven identifies genre film as a potential carrier of gendered messages and images, limiting the portrayal of homosocial messages to two genres. This is still evident today; although homosociality and new interpretations of masculinity have increasingly found their way into films, they are predominantly found in the buddy film genre. This is partially why Barton Fink is especially pertinent, as it defies genre, operating as more of a character study. In an interview with Jim Emerson, the Coen brothers’ struggle to define the film’s genre,  Ethan calling it a “buddy movie,” (which emphasizes its homosocial nature) and Joel indecisively stating, “I’m not sure what to call it…It’s like a sort of black comedy I guess” (Allen 55). Ultimately, I argue that homosociality in Barton Fink is the key to Barton confronting his gender-based insecurities, leading him to develop a personal and subjective understanding of masculinity as an amorphous construct.

In this article I examine the role of homosociality in Barton Fink, focusing first on Barton’s insecure masculinity and naïve sexuality. I then explore how Charlie’s masculinity and the Hotel Earle act as an embodiment of Charlie. Finally, I analyze the homosocial relationship between Barton and Charlie and how their relationship affects and matures Barton, transitioning him from a boy to a man.

Although it may appear that Barton is subverting societal constructs of gender, he is in actuality underdeveloped and stunted, lacking the ability to connect to his concept of masculinity. It is often common to dismiss diverse forms of masculinity as non-masculine or effeminate. This thought is a product of “hegemonic masculinity,” informed by social constructions that constrict masculinity to narrow interpretations, centering on dominance and patriarchy (Anderson 567). Barton embodies a man who struggles to identify with his gender and his adherence to gendered codes and schema. Part of this is out of rebellion against the society of the time, as seen through his displeasure to accept praise from the socially elite at the introduction of the film. But Barton also struggles to accept and embrace the fact that he has developed into an adult man. A significant portion of this struggle is suggested through Barton’s sexuality, but this is also suggested through his interaction with other men: Barton is constantly surrounded by men with whom he feels inferior. In New York, Barton seems empowered, demonstrating confidence when speaking to Garlin and ambivalence when interacting with social elites. But when Barton moves to Hollywood, he crashes into gigantic men. Both Jack Lipnick and Charlie are humungous, imposing figures that represent a hyper-masculinized ideal. Producer Ben Geisler, though not physically imposing, is threatening because of his aggressive, dominant personality. It’s telling that the film’s most horrifying scene involves Barton being subjugated to images of gargantuan men wrestling, reminding Barton of his underdeveloped physicality and masculinity. Nicola Rehling comments on the rise of male hysteria, looking at “the instabilities of male identifications and the cost that the repression necessary for the assumption of normative male subjectivity necessarily entails for the male subject” (69). Throughout the film, Barton struggles to identify with the male gender because extreme forms of masculinity confront him, reminding him of his gendered insecurities. Rehling suggests, “In popular cinema, male hysteria takes a variety of forms, be it amnesia, shell shock, neurosis” (69). Neurosis is clearly evident with Barton, even prior to being tasked to write for Capitol Pictures, but his neurosis is exacerbated once he is confronted by overbearing constructions of masculinity and an alluring picture of a woman at a beach, which taunts his juvenile sexuality.

Barton’s desire and inability to act on his sexual urges further signifies his stunted development; however, Barton’s description of his own sexuality actually reveals his desire for homosociality and manhood. Though Barton Fink often avoids falling into a specific genre, the title character neatly aligns with the “loser” stereotype, common throughout the comedy genre. Ryan P. Doom explains, “Barton Fink is a wimp—the classic Coen loser. He’s a twitchy, unsure man” (47). Susanne Kord and Elisabeth Krimmer focus on the form of masculinity common to the “loser” character, looking at the sexual development common amongst “losers”, stating, “The problem is that [they are] caught in an arrested stage of sexual development. Geeky, shy, and inept around women” (201). This is evident in any of Barton’s interactions with Audrey Taylor, such as when he flinches at her touch, and later, when he sits sheepishly next to her on his bed like a prepubescent boy. His reaction to seeing Charlie’s pornographic tie also signifies his shyness toward sex and his insecurity surrounding his own sexuality. Kord and Kimmer assert that within the loser genre “A good woman’s love…is enough to transform even the most pathetic loser into a business genius or swashbuckling hero” (203). Barton contradicts this convention; instead of becoming empowered after sleeping with Audrey, he wakes up next to her corpse. This is partly due to the Coens’ approach to sex in general, as James Mottram explains, “Sex certainly does not sit well in the Coen brothers’ films, and punishment is indeed handed out to those who indulge in intercourse outside of wedlock” (81). Even Turturro explains, “Barton Fink is an anti-sex film and we wanted to punish the character for having slept with this girl [Audrey] by making him wake up in a bed full of blood” (80). Though the Coen brothers frequently depict sex negatively, especially out of wedlock, Barton is a unique character because of his sexuality rather than with his engagement in a sex act. Barton’s interactions with Charlie highlight this, specifically when talking about the wrestling film that he is commissioned to write. Mottram extrapolates this conversation, concluding that Barton’s disinterest in “’the act itself’…exemplifies Barton’s own life; purely cerebral, and close to asexual, he is insulated from the common man—a trait of which he accuses of other writers” (74). The phrase “the act itself” also carries sexual subtext suggesting a fear of physical intimacy with another man, queer or not. Within this context, Barton’s “insulations from the common man” seem contradictory, as “the common man” is both his focus and his fear. When questioned about his marital status, Barton timidly confesses his celibacy, explaining, “I guess it’s something about my work. I get so worked up over it. I don’t know. I don’t really have a lot of attention left over, so it would be a little…unfair.” This emphasizes the cerebral shield that Barton hides behind, but also his passion for his work—the common man—a passion that causes him to get “worked up.” Therefore, instead of commenting on his relationship with women, Barton alludes more to his desire for male intimacy and his struggle to realize it.

In a single scene Barton experiences the transition from being under the influence of a woman to being under the influence of a man—a shift which enables him to see through his sexual inadequacies and instead focus on his construction of masculinity. Barton’s room at first represents a desirable environment, a humble abode evoking the spatiality of the common man. But there is one item in the room that distracts Barton, a simple picture of a woman at a beach. Carolyn R. Russell suggests, “The picture of the beach girl above his desk seems to exert an irresistible siren call” (215). Though this is true, Barton is still able to write, and the siren call is more of a call toward his sexual immaturity and underdeveloped masculinity. This is shown through Barton’s first interaction with Charlie. Whilst typing, Barton looks up at the picture, and then slowly looks below it, at and through his room’s wall, focusing on inaudible movement in the next room. Then Barton calls the front desk to complain and is confronted by Charlie for the first time. This movement from picture to wall, from visual to inaudible, is important as it illustrates a shift in Barton, from being under the influence of a woman to being subjugated by Charlie and the room he inhabits. The transition from a visual image to inaudible sound reflects Barton’s mindset. His focus shifts from an external force to an internal one, framing his relationship with Charlie as something that will affect him internally. It is no surprise then that Barton is left blocked as a result of his interaction with Charlie, as he comes face to face with his shortcomings. Though the picture above his desk continues to bewilder Barton, the “siren call” represents heterosexuality that Barton is unprepared to answer and unable to act on. When Barton peers up at the picture, a piece of wallpaper suddenly peels away, reminding Barton of his insecurity.

The Hotel Earle acts as an embodiment of Charlie, and once Barton realizes this, he is under Charlie’s influence, as Charlie is a representation of “the common man.” The corporeal nature of Charlie’s room references horror films from The Shining (1980) to Videodrome (1983), where spatiality plays a supernatural force on the protagonist. In an interview with Michel Ciment and Hubert Niogret, Joel Coen discusses the design of the hotel, stating that it “had to be organically linked to the movie—it had to be the externalization of [Charlie]. Sweat falls from his brow like wallpaper falls from the walls” (Allen 52). Mottram explores this aspect, looking at Charlie as an “alter-ego of the hotel,” and asking, “Are we, in fact, not inside Barton’s mind, but Charlie—the mind of a madman? Barton, remember, is a tourist here” (85). Joel echoes Mottram’s notion when speaking to Ciment and Niogret, claiming, “At the end, when Goodman says he’s a prisoner of his own mental state, that it’s like hell, the hotel has already taken on that infernal appearance” (52). Both Joel and Mottram focus on the hellish nature of the hotel as an embodiment of Charlie’s mental state. Though this is undeniable, as explicitly stated in the film’s climax, there is more to both Charlie and the Hotel Earle than mere hellishness. Though Charlie doesn’t represent a platonic ideal of masculinity, he does represent the Bartonic ideal of the common man—the type of man Barton wishes to be.

Charlie represents Barton’s ideal of masculinity; through their relationship Barton is able to see how he should act as a man, reaching a form of masculine maturity that he would be unable to reach alone. Though the ending of the film places Barton in Hollywood hell, he reaches that point having fully realized his life’s work. When Barton finally finishes his screenplay, he exclaims to Garland, “This may be the most important work I’ve ever done.” The title of his screenplay, “The Burlyman,” immediately references back to Charlie, indicating the source of Barton’s inspiration. The unblocking of Barton is also rooted in his relationship with Charlie and is indicative of the confidence he has attained in his ability to connect with, and become, the common man. Barton is liberated from his writer’s block in a strange, sadistic way, using a parcel presumably containing Audrey’s head as a source of inspiration. To Barton this box comes to represent Charlie and Barton’s relationship, as well as Charlie’s masculinity and its effect on Barton. Using Fight Club (1999) as an example, Rehling looks at uses of alter ego and the relationship to male hysteria. Quoting Otto Rank, Rehling proposes that an alter ego is “the alienated part of the self who acts out the hero’s repressed desires, responsibility for which is projected onto another ego, offering ‘inner liberation’ from guilt caused by the ‘distance between the ego-ideal and the attained reality’” (70). Though there is ambiguity surrounding the murder of Audrey, it is apparent that Charlie disposed of her body with the suggestion that he removed her head and placed it in the box. In this act, Charlie represents Barton’s double, performing a task in place of Barton, as he is unable to do it himself. This act emphasizes the “distance between the ego-ideal” (Charlie) and “the attained reality” (Barton). When Charlie gifts the box to Barton, he ponders on its contents, saying, “Everything that is important to a guy, everything he wants to keep from a lifetime, and he can fit it all into a little box like that.” To which Barton responds, “It’s more than I’ve got.” This exchange further suggests a gulf between Barton and Charlie, as well as Barton’s desire to become “a guy” like Charlie. After hearing Barton’s response, Charlie encourages Barton, showing an understanding of his desire, “Well keep it for me, maybe it’ll bring you good luck. Yeah, it’ll help you finish your script. You’ll think about me, make me your wrestler.” Ciment and Niogret question the Coens about Barton’s obligation to be friendly to Charlie (due to Charlie’s social standing). Looking at this scene from Charlie’s perspective, Joel emphasizes Charlie’s “sympathy” towards Barton, while Ethan adds, “Charlie is equally conscious of the role Barton Fink intends to make him play, in a perverse way” (Allen 49). The Coen brothers’ remarks touch on the legitimacy of Barton and Charlie’s relationship as well as on Charlie’s consciousness of why Barton initially entertains him. This understanding transitions into an active attempt to help Barton, suggested when Charlie states that he sells “peace of mind.” The box also connotes the triumph of homosociality over heterosexuality and the removal of the feminine influence in Barton’s life, both of which cause Barton to focus on his relationship with Charlie and enable him to connect with the common man. Barton’s celebration after finishing his screenplay is also in contrast to his earlier images. Instead of flinching at the touch of a woman, Barton is shown dancing with a woman in a commanding fashion, claiming her as his when approached by military men (who themselves are archetypes of American masculinity). This scene represents Barton’s triumph and ability to act in accordance with his perception of masculinity. Even in the film’s somber, tragic ending, Barton is seen carrying Charlie’s box, grasping onto the thing that has made him a man.

It is true that Barton’s transition from boy to man is problematic because of Charlie’s demonic influence; however, Barton’s transformation signifies the vital role of homosociality in the development of masculinity, especially concerning contemporary constructions of gender–as they are more subjective in their formation. At the close of the film Barton is stuck in a type of purgatory, contracted to write for Capitol Pictures forever. Even Barton’s self-proclaimed masterpiece is derided, along with his general writing ability. Thus, Barton Fink may seem like a cautionary tale, dissuading spectators from making deals with the devil. However, examining the film through a gender studies lens reveals much more than a simple didactic narrative. Barton Fink articulates a collective, contemporary male hysteria. It is no coincidence that the film’s proceedings take place in the 1940s, a time when American men defined their masculinity through war and courage. Barton Fink is not one of these men but is instead bewildered by the constructs of masculinity that surround him. Most importantly, Barton succeeds in becoming the man he wants to be. The term “common man” that Barton frequently espouses indicates his search for a universal masculinity, as well as his subjective construction in response to his interactions with Charlie Meadows. Barton’s desire to attain a masculinity that subverts the class system is progressive, even if the results are questionable. Anderson emphasizes the destructive nature of hegemonic masculinity and its crippling effect on male sexual confidence. With knowledge of this, Barton Fink can be seen as progressive in Barton’s attempt to gain a subjective, proletariat masculinity. Jillian Sandell suggests, “in contrast to earlier, more totalizing theories of gender and social privilege, masculinity has never been fixed and stable but has always had an ambivalent relation to power and domination” (23). Barton Fink aligns with this theory by criticizing hegemonic masculinity through Barton’s disillusionment and by promoting a more idiosyncratic interpretation of masculinity. Ultimately Barton’s process of gaining his own masculinity is the most progressive. It is only through a homosocial relationship that he is able to gain direction and mature in his perception of gender. Depictions of homosocial relationships are frequent in Barton Fink (Lipnick and Lou Breeze, Detective Mastrionotto and Detective Deutsch) as well the Coen brothers’ other films (O Brother, Where Art Thou [2001], The Big Lebowski [1998], and Miller’s Crossing [1990]). Truly, depictions of homosociality and male intimacy are becoming more commonplace, suggesting a greater societal acceptance. Male hysteria has broken down dominant gender constructions, enabling and encouraging diverse redefinitions of masculinity, and, as Barton Fink suggests, homosociality and male intimacy are vital to the subjective development of individual masculinities.

Works Cited

Allen, William Rodney. The Coen Brothers: Interviews. Jackson: U of Mississippi, 2006. Print.

Anderson, Eric. “Masculinities and Sexualities in Sport and Physical Cultures: Three Decades of Evolving Research.” Journal of Homosexuality 58.5 (2011): 565-78. Taylor & Francis. Web. 21 Dec. 2014.

Barton Fink. Dir. Joel Coen. By Joel Coen and Joel Coen. Perf. John Turturro, John Goodman, and Judy Davis. Circle Films, 1991. DVD.

DeAngelis, Michael. Reading the Bromance: Homosocial Relationships in Film and Television. Detroit, MI: Wayne State UP, 2014. Print.

Doom, Ryan P. The Brothers Coen: Unique Characters of Violence. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2009. Print.

Kord, Susanne, and Elisabeth Krimmer. Contemporary Hollywood Masculinities: Gender, Genre, and Politics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.

Mottram, James. The Coen Brothers: The Life of the Mind. Dulles, VA: Brassey’s Inc., 2000. Print.

Rehling, Nicola. Extra-ordinary Men: White Heterosexual Masculinity in Contemporary Popular Cinema. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2010. Print.

Russell, Carolyn R. The Films of Joel and Ethan Coen. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001. Print.

Sandell, Jillian. “Reinventing Masculinity: The Spectacle of Male Intimacy in the Films of John Woo.” Film Quarterly 49.4 (1996): 23-34. JSTOR. Web. 21 Dec. 2014.