In 2014, Aronofsky’s representation of Noah created quite the firestorm in evangelical Christian American circles. Some people loved it because one of the most epic stories in the Bible finally hit the big screen. Others hated it, decrying it’s biblical inaccuracies (rock giants, a silent God, and evolution?). Still others tried to remain more neutral, saying it was a good conversation opener to spiritual things, and acknowledging that since Aronofsky isn’t a Christian (pretty far from it, actually) we shouldn’t expect him to present the story in a Christian way.
Glaring Biblical inaccuracies and misrepresentations aside, I think the most valuable conversation that we can pull from this movie is about masculinity. I’d like to unpack that a little bit, and I apologize in advance, because this will be pretty long.
****SPOILERS AFTER THIS POINT****
One of the key subplots in Noah is Ham’s (Noah’s second son) quest to become a man. As we grow up, boys are always (passively or actively) looking for role models. We look to the men around us, find the ones we admire, and figure out what makes them a man. Then we try to incorporate those things into ourselves, because we know that, one day, we will be the men that boys are looking up to.
Ham is caught in the midst of this same struggle. Throughout the movie, there are four definitions of masculinity from four of the main male characters Ham himself, Noah, Tubal-Cain, and Shem. The first three are explicit, and the final is implicit. Sadly, it is the three limited and inaccurate views that are explicitly stated to/by young Ham. I’ll address this more later.
First, we’ll start with Ham’s own definition of masculinity: to have sex. Ham has grown up with his adopted sister, Ila, who falls in love with his brother Shem (go figure). Normally, this wouldn’t have been a problem, but the whole story of Noah hinges on the Creator’s destruction of the world via flood. Noah decides that the Creator intends to destroy humanity and that his family’s only role is to survive long enough to save the animals. Shortly before the rain starts, Ham and Noah have an altercation. Noah said he would get wives for his sons, but when he returns without any women, Ham exclaims, “No, you can’t do this. How am I supposed to be a man?… You want me to stay a child!” Translation: “I cannot be a man if I cannot have sex.”
This is very similar to the type of “manhood” that is discussed in junior high and high school locker rooms and in college dorms; the discussion surrounding, “how far” a boy has gotten with a girl, and the congratulatory high-fives and back slaps as the boys exchange stories of their conquests. However, as we grow older it becomes clear that having sex (and general hedonism) is insufficient as a definition of masculinity.
Over the course of the movie, it becomes clear that Noah very clearly has a sense of duty and responsibility, to nature (stopping Ham from picking a flower), to his family (the brief excursion into Tubal-Cain’s camp to find wives for his sons), and, ultimately, to the Creator (“[The Creator] chose me because he knew I would complete the task”). During the aforementioned altercation, Noah responds to Ham’s accusation saying, “I am asking you to be a man and do what needs to be done.”
Though less common among Millennials, this is a common definition of manhood. Shotgun weddings were based on this premise: you fathered this baby, you had better be a man and uphold your duty to care for this girl and your child. In modern times, this duty is primarily providing for one’s family. Get a job, work the job (even if you hate it), and support the wife and kids. Although it is more noble and politically correct than Ham’s definition, Noah’s definition of masculinity remains narrow and unsatisfactory, and actually leaves Ham nursing his wounds and vulnerable when he encounters the man who will give the third definition.
This man is never intended to be a character you’ll like, but he still has some powerful things to say about being a man. One thing that immediately stood out to me is that Tubal-Cain has a more Biblically accurate view of man than Noah does. While Noah becomes certain that the Creator has called him to save the animals and then die as the final humans, Tubal-Cain recognizes that humans are more than that, that they’re given dominion over the animals. Later he challenges the Creator, crying out that “I am a man, made in your image. Why will you not talk to me?!” Even the villain understands this crucial fact, which would have completely erased Noah’s agonizing decision that takes over much of the second half of the movie. Unfortunately, Noah fails to recognize the inherent value humans have for being created in the image of God, and Tubal-Cain overemphasizes it, acting like humans are, in fact, gods. Tubal-Cain’s understanding is clearly exhibited during his prayer as the rain begins, “I give life, I take life away; as you [the Creator} do. And I am like you, am I not?”
When Ham and Tubal-Cain cross paths, Tubal-Cain explains that being a man means that he is ruled by his own will, not by anything else. Capitalizing on Ham’s anger at Noah, Tubal-Cain even enlists his help to kill Noah, because “as a man, you can kill.” When Ham betrays Tubal-Cain by stabbing him instead of killing Noah, Tubal-Cain doesn’t express disappointment or shock. Rather, he gives Ham exactly what he’s been yearning for, saying, “Now you are a man.”
Value and autonomy are both important to the modern man. As with duty, the modern man often finds both of these at work, especially if he is good at his craft. Climbing the ladder, having associates that work beneath him and good rapport with those who work with and above him; society tells us that these are things strive for and possess. But, as seen in this movie, among gangs, and even in schoolyard bullies, seeking value and autonomy exclusively is not the sign of maturity, but immaturity. So these things, too, cannot be the essence of masculinity.
There is one final view of masculinity depicted clearly in Noah: that of Shem, Noah’s eldest son. Shem is shown to be kind and gentle, to woo the heart of a woman, to uphold his duty when he can, and to do what he can to protect those under his care. He honors his father, doing what is asked of him, but his obedience is not blind. When he is told that Noah would murder Shem’s firstborn if it is a daughter (because she could continue the human race), Shem first seeks to resolve the problem peacefully, creating a raft to escape and stocking it with provisions. However, when Noah destroys the raft, Shem is willing to stand up to Noah and fight to protect the lives of his family. Shem is a man who loves his woman, who willingly does his duty, who is a peaceful protector of life, but is willing to escalate to violence to protect the ones he loves and are under his care. Of all the views of masculinity in this movie, Shem’s is the most well-rounded and the most honorable. Unfortunately, this view of masculinity is never explicitly stated and can only be learned through observation and imitation.
This problem of silence continues today. Boys, seeking to become men, are left wandering about, seeing men but hearing only partially articulated ways to become men themselves. Just as Ham saw Shem wooing Ila and determined that having sex is what it means to be a man (his initial definition), so boys look and see men having sex, fulfilling duties, having worth and autonomy, and try to articulate to each other that this is what it means to be a man. The incomplete, insufficient, and unsatisfactory definitions of masculinity – the ones that mistake the part for the whole – are the ones that are clearly and explicitly stated, while well-developed, character-driven masculinity is lived out, but left unstated.
Aronofsky’s Noah does a good job of stirring up a discussion surrounding masculinity. But the takeaway isn’t so much the answer to the question, “What is a man?” No, the takeaway is the question, “How can we make true masculinity unambiguous and clearly defined as we train up the next generation of men?”