Representations of Masculinity in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho
Gus Van Sant’s groundbreaking film, My Own Private Idaho (1991) follows the story of two young male prostitutes: Mike Waters, played by River Phoenix and Scott Favor, played by Keanu Reeves. Over the course of the film we watch as the pair search for Mike’s estranged mother, whilst dealing with the trials and tribulations of their everyday lives.
Through his lens, Van Sant eloquently tackles the difficulty of being a man and finding oneself while also showing these characters as they try to navigate life as male sex-workers. In these characters Van Sant is able to represent two very different men. From the outside, it is hard to see the difference; however, as the film goes on, the viewer is able to see both of these characters come into their own. Mike suffers from narcolepsy, and although it is never clearly or overtly stated, is gay. He has a very lonely and sad life. He has no one and his only way of survival is prostitution. On the other hand, Scott comes from a family of a higher status. His father is the mayor and Scott wants nothing more than to be a disappointment to him; hence, his reason for becoming a male prostitute. This is one of my personal favorite films and to me, the greatness lies within the relationship between Mike and Scott, as well as the fantastic performances by River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves.
Something that this film does really well is, it represents masculinity in two ways. Through Mike we see a healthy (or as healthy as it can be), normal example of masculinity and through Scott we see an example of “toxic masculinity”. This separation can be identified most easily by way of the campfire scene. It opens with Mike and Scott sitting by the fire under the moonlight. They sit and essentially talk about life, while subtly comparing their different upbringings; however, what makes this scene so important is Mike’s “proclamation of love” to Scott. The conversation is as follows:
Mike: I’d like to talk with you. I mean I’d like to really talk with you. We’re talking right now, but, you know… I don’t know. I don’t feel like I can be close to you. I mean we’re close. Right now we’re close… but, I mean…
Scott: How close?
Mike: I don’t know… whatever.
Mike: What do I mean to you?
Scott: What do you mean to me? Mike you’re my best friend.
Mike: I know. I know I’m your friend. We’re good friends, and it’s good to be, you know, good friends. That’s a good thing.
Mike: So, I just… that’s okay. We can be friends.
Scott: I’d only have sex with a guy for money.
Mike: Yeah, I know.
Scott: And two guys can’t love each other.
Mike: I really wanna kiss you man.
The acting in this scene is incredible and it brings about a feeling of utter vulnerability on Mike’s part. This scene not only critiques the homophobic ideals that are associated with masculinity and what a man is suppose to be, but it also brings light to a man who has accepted himself and who, despite being turned down, was able to show Scott that his problematic thoughts towards homosexuality were wrong. It proves that, although Mike is gay, he and Scott are really no different to a third person perspective. Mike rebuts Scott’s claim that “two men can’t love each other”, by directly telling him that they can and that he in fact does love another man. Mike is in love with Scott and he knows that Scott will not reciprocate these feelings; however, he still puts himself out there and says it, without fear of what Scott will think.
Scott represents toxic masculinity because he refuses to understand even the concept of homosexulaity. Which in turn is setting himself up for a life in which he can easily be put in a box. We can see this in the film’s ending. As the film comes to a close, Scott’s father dies. It is at this point in the narrative that Scott decides that it is time to take his inheritance and become a “productive member of society”, leaving Mike and the life of male prostitution behind him for good. As Scott attends his father’s funeral, we are given a juxtaposition between two very different funerals. Bob (William Richert) who was a mentor to Scott and who loved Scott dearly has also died. As Scott sits solemnly by his fathers casket, Mike dances around and celebrates Bob’s life with the other street hustlers that knew him. To me, this scene shows that, despite the tough life that Mike has, he is free while Scott is not. Scott will go on to live a boring and plain life just like his father did before him. He will become exactly the person he hated most, all because he refuses to accept that a man can be something other than like that of his father.