Illustrated by Mieko Tsurumoto (They/Them)
Content warning: mentions of transphobia and queerphobia
“When Men Were Men” follows a young transmasculine person grappling with his existence in his rural Irish Catholic hometown. Starring, written, and directed by Aidan Dick (they/them) and Izzi Rojas (they/them), the film is intimately truthful to the transmasculine experience and draws inspiration from the filmmakers’ own lives. It’s gorgeously shot by Dick and cinematographer Samantha Aspe (she/her) and wonderfully scored by composer Victoria Romano (she/her).
During a Q&A session at the LA premiere of the film, Dick and Rojas shared that they specifically sought out a rural conservative town near a liberal city for the film’s setting. This contrast serves to mirror the protagonist’s dualistic identity. Because Dick and Rojas are American, they did consider the American South but eventually settled on an Irish town, an hour out from Dublin.
The film’s major conflicts center around the protagonist Kieran, played by Rojas, and his interpersonal relationships. As a transmasculine individual, he struggles with being stealth, passing as a cis man, at his acting group and closeted at home and school. His mother continually tries to suppress his trans identity, and his girlfriend frequently threatens to out him. Understandably, Kieran spends much of the film angry. Nevertheless, the narrative shifts when he finally connects with Egan, a gay boy, played by Dick. Their blossoming romance opens Kieran to self-love and acceptance.
At first, I expected the movie to follow a typical queer coming-of-age formula, but it subverted my expectations by unabashedly depicting complex queer identities and relationships.
The film is overwhelmingly queer, sporting theater, gay kisses, and a GC2B binder among other things. It doesn’t cater to cishet audiences and rejects easily digestible explanations. Notably, Kieran never says he is transmasculine or transgender. He never “comes out” in a traditional sense.
Coming out scenes have a place in queer media, but we need queer media that delves beyond them. Coming out can be traumatic, more beneficial for the cishet people in a queer person’s life, or only the beginning of a queer person’s journey. Yet so many queer films have their characters monologue about the specifics of their identity, oppression, or dysphoria for a cishet audience’s sake.
By removing clear-cut explanations, “When Men Were Men” does not strive to educate a cishet audience. Rather, it thrusts its arms elbow-deep into the queer experience and drags out the lovely, the difficult, and the raw for us to wade through and process.
For instance, near the film’s close, Kieran shares he has attempted to be Kay, his birth name, and Kieran, his chosen name, when his truth actually lies somewhere in the middle. He doesn’t call himself nonbinary or say he’s rejecting his prior hyper-masculinity, though arguments can be made for both interpretations. Instead, he simply dons a button-up and a single earring — a melding of his past presentations. Prior to this, he only wore earrings in “girl mode,” so reclaiming a small part of his femininity heralds a new era of self-discovery. Masculinity, the film asserts, isn’t confined to a singular manifestation.
In addition, the film tackles complicated queer relationships. At the movie’s start, Kieran is dating Charlotte, played by Chloe Steele (she/her), a presumably cis girl who knew him pre-transition. As previously stated, Charlotte threatens to out Kieran more than once, and after he cheats on her, she does out, misgender, and deadname him. However, during the argument that follows, Kieran tells Charlotte that if she’s outed him everyone will know she’s a “lezzy.”
I was taken aback by Charlotte’s arc because it felt disturbingly accurate to people I’ve dealt with as a trans man. Her enigmatically queer relationship with Kieran feels laden with internalized queerphobia which prevents them from truly meeting each other’s needs. Charlotte never confirms Kieran’s claim that she’s a lesbian, and we never learn if she and Kieran dated prior to his transition, but the film’s very refusal to sort them and their relationships into straightforward boxes reflects a true queer reality. Dick and Rojas explained Charlotte as a safe space Kieran grows out of despite their initial real connection. Sometimes, we can’t explain the people whose lives we touch for better or for worse, and the film doesn’t shy away from messy, nuanced queer relationships forged out of both necessity and genuine love.
In a second example, early on in the film, Kieran meets Egan, who moves to the neighboring farm. From Egan’s lighthearted teasing to their rapid, intense attachment, their dynamic reflects a familiar one between queer people.
Not only is Egan Kieran’s gay awakening, Egan is the only character who self-identifies as queer in dialogue. He calls himself a “puff,” and much to Kieran’s shock, does not hide it. He hangs a rainbow flag in his art studio, paints dicks, and wears his mother’s earrings. Opposingly, Kieran is drowning in his self-hatred. He desperately attempts to hide his queerness, so Egan’s shameless queerness triggers in him both wonderment and fear.
I’ve seen queer media where someone with internalized queerphobia dates a more experienced queer person before, but often, the media erases the subtleties of these situations. This movie does a fantastic job of capturing their conflicting emotions. After Kieran lashes out at Egan multiple times, Egan tells Kieran he’s been where Kieran is before, but he can’t go back there. Still, they remain together as their relationship switches between joyful connection and poisonous fear.
The film lays bare how an oppressive society can lead people to weaponize their pain against even the people they love. Kieran leaves Egan visibly hurt each time he pushes him away or tears him down. Often, Egan tries to push back against Kieran’s self-hatred; other times, he shuts down; still, other times, he fights back. But despite how Kieran wounds Egan, their situation’s morality remains gray because the film captures the complexities of queer solidarity in a difficult environment. Thankfully, the film does end with Kieran in a healthier place and working towards being kinder to Egan.
Overall, the film bleeds tenderness. Each scene is imbued with so much care and thought and permits for unprecedented nuance. It is a must-see for everyone but especially if you’re transmasculine, so keep your eyes open for when it’s hopefully available for streaming early next year. If “When Men Were Men” is the future of queer media, I know I’m thrilled to see what comes out next.
Author: Rainer Lee (He/Him)
Artist: Mieko Tsurumoto (They/Them)
Copy Editors: Belize (They/Xey), Bella (She/They)