Lee was a big guy who wore cargo pants to the office. He had a thick neck and the kind of freckly skin that looks like it has spent time fighting a war in the desert. On my first day he sat down opposite me, spread legs wide apart and said, “You don’t need me to tell you about me because you’ve already looked me up.”
That was true. (Thank god.) I was an unpaid intern writing for a relatively low-profile section of a popular news website. I was a sideshow. I watched him abuse his paid staff with shouting and swearing and mild emotional violence. They got far worse than I did. But still I hated him. He made me feel like crap. He scoffed at my ideas and he looked bemused when I handed in my work.
I had thought about trying to get a job there, but I realised I don’t want to work somewhere like that. I can’t stand people who operate through intimidation. I’ve experienced it with other people since Lee—always men—and it always shocks me. I don’t think I would last in a workplace based on intimidation. I would answer back with sarcasm and then I’d get fed up and I’d just stop rising to it. Anger doesn’t make me angry; it makes me care less.
I have been hit in the face twice in my life and both times I’ve walked. One time, the guy followed me and whacked me again, desperate for me to hit back. It was pretty funny really. I was a weedy young man walking home from the shop with a carton of juice when a band of lads decided to have a pop. The one they sent over to hit me must have been confused when I ignored him and carried on walking. He stalked me and hit again and I continued, the juice carton swinging by my knee in a carrier bag. The situation began to look unusual and stupid. My attacker cut his losses. He quit and returned without a story to his friends, who were waiting on their bikes on the other side of the street. I was scared, especially because I was near my house and they would probably see where I lived. I unlocked my door with my heart pounding and quickly got inside, but they’d dispersed by then.
The truth is, just as my thighs are not built for racing in the Tour de France, I am not made to fight nor am I made to intimidate. I just wouldn’t be able to bring myself to do it.
But what a thrill to see it happen in a film like Whiplash!
As a viewer you are positioned to dislike and admire Fletcher, the band leader and teacher, at the same time. Like Lee, he barks orders as if he’s in the army. He’s bald and tough-looking. His veins stick out on his head when he’s yelling. He uses insults designed to threaten his victims’ masculinity, calling them girls and faggots and cocksuckers. This is part of Fletcher’s method of working out the best in his musicians, along with chucking furniture at people.
His other method is not to have any women in his band. This is not explored in the story—blink and you’ll miss it—but it is a fact. In fact, in the whole film there’s only one woman who has a speaking part and she has only three short scenes. (Of course this is not unusual in Hollywood.) There’s a storytelling reason why there are no women in the band. For Fletcher’s power to be credible it has to go unchallenged. Most of the band members don’t even have speaking parts, let alone the chance to challenge Fletcher on his abusive method. They suck it up. Like good soldiers, they don’t question his authority.
It is an appalling but authentic representation of how many of us often feel. Have you been in situations at work where you want to question a man who has power but you know the only way it could ever work is if you simply shout louder and harsher? I’ve thought about doing it but I don’t think I’d be very good. I’d try to form quick and dirty put-downs worthy of Malcolm Tucker but in the heat of the moment I’d resort to blowing a raspberry and stomping my feet. I wouldn’t win because I can’t perform that kind of intimidation. And yet it would be the only choice: if you want to get rid of a Fletcher your only choice is to become a Fletcher.
So if you can’t beat him, join him. If you believe in the thing he’s trying to get you to do—for example, become a world-class musician—then you’ll accept his method. This means that because the men in the band want to be the best they can be, they suffer Fletcher’s violence in silence. It is a very masculine thing to do. (I don’t think this is a good thing.) Michael Kaufman has written about the importance of permission in assisting male violence. If the band had women in it, there would be an entirely different dynamic in the rehearsal room. I believe the acceptance of Fletcher’s behaviour would seem less credible. I believe Fletcher wouldn’t be so sexist, so homophobic and so violent. Men are of course violent towards women and in the presence of women. But there is something different about the violence that men do only in the presence of other men—and this is what Whiplash shows, brilliantly. It is why for the story to work there can be no women in the band.
Men-only violence is linked to conventional traits of masculinity. From Whiplash let’s lay three of them out.
Obsession: it’s more acceptable for a man to be obsessed about something than women. Think of the mad inventor, the adorable but slightly stalky Romeo, the political firebrand, the friendless musician… Violence can be used in order to justify an obsession. In Whiplash, we are just as obsessed as Andrew about his drumming, so we tolerate Fletcher and his violence. We even tolerate Andrew’s violence against himself. Sure, we squirm when the calluses on his hands bleed…but we do still want him to master the piece he’s trying to play.
Competence: men have to be good at their chosen obsession, or at least their job. Whiplash revolves around competence. In this case, Andrew desires supreme competence and will make seemingly any sacrifice. Again, this game justifies violence.
Success: men have to win. Whiplash builds several types of winning into the story, from Andrew’s approval for his drumming, to Fletcher’s approval, and to more objective approval, portrayed through music competitions. And if you want to succeed, you have to take the strain, right? No pain, no gain.
These are three conventional traits of masculinity that Whiplash portrays and uses to justify the violence in its story.
So I wondered when the drop was going to come. There was so much build-up. The story focuses in closer and closer on Andrew’s obsession with getting his drumming perfect and the pressure he feels from Fletcher. The shots get closer and closer to their faces, cutting back and forth. And the violence escalates. There is a scene where Andrew has to compete with two other drummers for a place in the band. Fletcher works all three for hours, and they are not only sweating, distraught and exhausted by the end. They are broken. Fletcher orders the two who don’t make the cut to clean the blood off the drum kit.
I was thrilled as I watched. I was enthralled in the usual voyeuristic way that Hollywood gets to us. We know we should dislike what we see but we just can’t turn away. We know Fletcher has done wrong—we’ve just had our hearts pounding for an hour watching it. We are shocked at his audacity. But we also laugh at the absurdity of this level of intimidation and violence happening in a jazz band in a music school, not an army base in Helmand. So we’re rooting for the kid, and we find Fletcher’s methods distasteful but also entertaining and acceptable.
I thought: this can’t go on. I knew that it had to end, and it did. The story shifts subtly. The time signature switches and the mood changes. We begin to turn away from Fletcher. I felt like there was a whole new film starting. I love it when a film or a book changes course completely while building on and developing what has come so far. Actually Whiplash does that only a little bit. The emotional abuse committed by Fletcher against Andrew after this sidestep is just subtler, dirtier. And we are left thinking, Yes, the end justifies the means. I did feel elated in the way the director wanted me to. But I also felt ashamed about this.
I felt ashamed because the film made me give in to Lee. And Fletcher and all the men like them.
One of the main themes in the film is how far can you push yourself. It’s a classic story usually told in films about sport or the military. Think Top Gun, with less stadium rock and more impossible drum rudiments made for a jazz bar. We have to watch poor little Andrew, who desperately wants to be a truly great jazz musician, play the drums until he bleeds. We watch him hurt himself, alienate his loved ones and even develop his own form of intimidation against others. And the story makes us ask ourselves: is all of this worth it? I think the film thinks it is worth it. Andrew is a man, so he can afford the cost.