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Jeremy Allen White, “The Bear,” and the Return of Sleepy Masculinity

I didn’t want to watch “The Bear,” but what choice did I have, really? I am one of those content-starved fools who devours an 8-episode show in two days and returns to the scene of the crime, hungry for more.

So of course I watched “The Bear.” Of course I watched the show that every critic has been waxing eloquent about since it premiered a few weeks ago. I watched it twice. And what I found surprised me, especially in relation to time.

It’s not that “The Bear” presents a version of time that feels warped or unfaithful to the present day: it’s that it’s a show that seems to be able to carry multiple timeframes within it. This doesn’t just work through flashbacks (which are few and far between) or tricky cutting. It’s in the behaviors of each character, the subtle transformation of the show’s physical setting from Episode 1 to the series finale, in which young “Carmy” Berzatto promises to reopen his brother’s failing, if stalwart, sandwich joint into a profitable business under new management and a new name. “The Bear” is a show about change in the broad sense, and it takes the challenge of showing multiple realities seriously. 

Because time works differently in a restaurant. On slow days, hours are punishingly long and the clock won’t budge. On busy days, time vanishes: you’re caught up in the hustle, and in the movement of your body as it moves from one filthy space to another, weaving between other bodies, hurling words at people and things, and using the barest possible communication to get your needs across. You’re coexisting with people who have been here before you and who will stay here longer than you: teenagers just out of school commingle with seasoned line cooks in their 40s or 50s. Different class backgrounds clash and merge and inform each other, and everybody’s sh*t comes out eventually. It’s this energy that the show gets right, and it does it in a fascinating way: by placing the slowest person at the center. 

Carmy, as White plays him, is that most rare of masculine artifacts in the media: a man who embraces sleepy masculinity.

It’s not that Jeremy Allen White’s portrayal of Carmy isn’t realistic: it absolutely is. He’s a young man dealing with grief: there’s the loss of his brother, the chaos of his workplace, the abrupt shift from working under an abusive, egotistical top New York chef to being his own boss at a downscale sandwich shop in Chicago. But unlike most of the men around him, Carmy doesn’t turn this pressure, pain, and guilt into anger. He does something more interesting with it. Because Carmy, as White plays him, is that most rare of masculine artifacts in the media: a man who embraces the type of sleepy masculinity of past film icons like Robert Mitchum and Alan Ladd. 

It was Mitchum that I was first reminded of watching White’s performance: it’s in the permanently drooping eyelids, the voice that’s never raised, the hair that’s never washed. It’s a performance that understands the bodily exhaustion engendered by 3am nights of walking home from the bar, the restaurant, the diner, and falling asleep on the first surface your body hits. It’s a portrait of a man doing the bare minimum, because that’s simply all he has the capacity for at the moment. 

It’s not something we see a lot of anymore: most of the time, masculinity is allowed to be one of two things onscreen. Angry, or pathetic. This is broadly true of “Shameless,” the 11-season show where Jeremy Allen White got his start playing “Lip,” the sensitive, beleaguered eldest son who strives not to fall into the same traps as his father. Carmy is almost a graduated version of Lip with a slightly less chaotic family but similar values: on “The Bear,” Carmy is defined by the loss of his brother and the loss of his own self-confidence as a chef. He’s the rare man on TV who lets us in on his insecurities. We see him, in flashbacks, being bullied, called worthless and a waste of life. We see him in the present day being argued at—not quite with—by his brother’s best friend, the toxic Richie, who’s also the only character who feels free to hurl anti-gay slurs around the workplace. Richie is a version of masculinity that feels left over from a different era: possibly the early 2000s, when workplace dramas like “Rescue Me,” “The Sopranos,” and “Grey’s Anatomy” freely embraced anti-gay slurs, general misogyny, and a sense of angry men as tortured heroes in need of saving–usually at the cost of the women in their lives. 

Carmy is the rare man on TV who lets us in on his insecurities. 

The measured use of anti-gay slurs in “The Bear” is telling: they’re around, but mainly to suggest that Richie’s need to use them places him squarely in the restaurant’s past. He’s the old legacy the new crew has to overcome. His masculinity is combative, angry, red-faced, sweaty, and out-of-date. Most importantly, perhaps, it is insecure. It’s peak white masculinity: fragile, embattled, unable to accept its own obsolescence. 

Perhaps this is a long-winded way of explaining why the Internet has gone absolutely insane over Jeremy Allen White’s particular brand of sleepy masculinity. It’s quiet, it’s overwhelmed, it goes to Al Anon meetings, and it carries with it the quietness that comes with true, if pained, self-confidence. Carmy might be a mess in everything else, but he has nothing to prove when it comes to masculinity. His world-weary, embodied version of it strikes a chord with hearts, minds, and dicks everywhere. 

I wasn’t immune to the Jeremy Allen White effect either: after a few episodes, Carmy started becoming hotter and hotter to me. It was that trademark combination, I think, of sleepiness, vulnerability, and unwashed long hair that did it. 

“I think he’s hot in a young Sean Penn kind of way,” a colleague told me. “Sort of emotionally simmering, trying to rewrite the narrative of his family and suppressed emotion.”

“Confidence is sexy,” another colleague said, “and he has that!”

But again, it’s that quiet confidence. It’s that beaten down, sleepy, sad, kind of defective masculinity that’s got everyone falling in love with this—paraphrasing the Internet’s own words—totally average white boy. 

In show business, an industry where white men are constantly bemoaning a fall from grace, it’s still a well-established truth that you need at least one white boy to get a diverse show greenlit. And if you have to have a white boy at the forefront, it should be someone like Carmy, especially as White plays him. He’s introspective, he’s fucking up, he’s failing, and he’s suffering. What he’s not doing is turning the abuse he’s faced outward, becoming the angry, toxic type of man that Richie is all too comfortable being. Carmy isn’t the one slinging the f-slur around when things get too hot in the kitchen, though nor does he discourage it from Richie.

He’s surviving, and doing the best he can to keep his head above water. Or, in some cases, above fire. Perhaps even better than sleepy masculinity is its cousin: exhausted masculinity. Burned-out masculinity. A masculinity that’s too concerned with basic survival to care about being macho. 

That’s the kind of thing I’d personally like to see more of: not a reversion to the old types and tropes of being a man onscreen, but a thoughtful, balanced reversal of them.♦

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