While it is important to talk about toxic masculinity, examining the inverse—healthy masculinity—is also crucial. Often, films give us realistic examples of harmful masculinity—depicting men who use their strength to harm others or who become overprotective and possessive. These films can teach important lessons about negative behaviors to unlearn and avoid. Films that portray healthy masculinity are equally crucial—they present positive models of masculinity for viewers to follow. (It is important to avoid the assumption that masculinity = men because not all men pursue masculinity as a goal and plenty of non-men embrace masculinity.)
Masculinity is often tied to the concept of strength, which in turn can be harmful or healthy. Often, when imagining strength in the context of the natural world, we think of destructive, cliché images like explorers slashing their way through jungles with machetes or strong muscles hacking down trees for firewood. What Craig Foster accomplishes in My Octopus Teacher
requires immense strength, but of the opposite, constructive kind. To navigate underwater, Foster must strengthen his body to become a stronger swimmer and strengthen his lungs to hold his breath longer. He must also be strong in the way of endurance: to traverse the gorgeous undersea world
and gain the trust of the small and inquisitive octopus, he must visit as often as is possible, typically once per day.
The octopus is a trickster both to elude predators and to entrap pray. To become close to an octopus, one must avoid any behavior that could be perceived as a threat. Above all, one must be gentle.
Often gentleness is often coded as feminine, and due to misogyny, it is thus often coded as inferior. Men are told to “man up” and to show less sympathy to animals or people who are more vulnerable. To gain the octopus’s trust, Foster must be careful, gentle, and unobtrusive, despite being tall and muscular. Foster is honest about the challenge: once, when he approached too fast, he almost doomed his experiment by scaring the octopus away. Only by careful research and tracking does he find the octopus again.
When the octopus does become trusting, she holds hands with Foster and nuzzles against him, similar to a snuggling dog or cat. These scenes are portrayed with gorgeous, calming music, and are truly stunning to observe. By being gentle, Foster experiences rare and incredible interactions. Because of his tenderness, he observes behaviors in the octopus that he can find no prior documentation for, like her ingenious strategies for overcoming predators. Gentleness can lead to greater scientific knowledge. Healthy masculinity, compassion, and tenderness are not hindrances but strengths.
My Octopus Teacher
contains some frightening scenes. While most of the film has gorgeous music and serene views of the ocean, sharks are an ever-present threat both in the environment and the documentary’s narrative. When the octopus is attacked by a shark, he worries that his presence could have somehow lead to the attack. He admits that due to this guilt, he fed her a meal while she convalesced. Although driven by a scientific mindset to not interfere, Foster was overcome by his care for the octopus. Rather than demonizing this display of emotion and portraying it as a bad thing that ruined an experiment, Foster acknowledges his emotions, doesn’t try to hide his interference, and concludes that his actions likely didn’t make a difference.
Later in the film, we find out the octopus has innovated a new hunting strategy using Foster. She traps a lobster between herself and the observing Foster, preventing her meal from escaping. This differs from many famous nature documentaries (like March of the Penguins