Justin Timberlake embodies a clearly different man from the Super Bowl LII (one of my absolute favorite performances!) in Apple TV’s Palmer, a small town drama that contrasts evolving concepts of masculinity.
After serving 12 years prison, the story starts with Palmer moving back in with his Aunt Vivian, the warm, elderly woman who raised him. Tattooed with all the markings of the traditional masculinity, Palmer is stoic, strong, & feared as someone you don’t want to mess with— but he’s also restless and lost with no road map to grow beyond juvenile delinquency and struggles with finding his place in the world.
An erratic single mother lives next door with her son, Sam (played by Ryder Allen). He’s an 8-year-old boy who likes to wear dresses, watch princess cartoons, and play with dolls. Despite being made fun of & pressured to change, he does not bend. He knows exactly who he is.
When the boy’s mother goes missing on a manic bender, Palmer’s Aunt takes Sam in, forcing a visceral collision course of masculinity. These young men start off as strangers who share a deep grief; they each lost both their masculine and feminine caregivers. Palmer comes from a harsh and toxic masculinity, that often lacks mature role models, and Sam’s very presence, combined with his innocence, threatens to rewrite all of it for new generation.
There are three themes —shame, curiosity, and maturity— in the film I want to pull out and examine in the context of transitioning from toxic masculinity to holistic masculinity.
At first, Palmer didn’t speak into the gender stuff with Sam, because he’s not his kid. He has no business entering into that sensitive area, and he knows it. Palmer starts off as someone trying to redeem himself by putting his head down and working hard to earn his right to exist in the eyes of people in their small town. Sam is an interruption to those cultural norms, because Sam doesn’t need anyone to give him his own right to exist. But before Palmer understood that, he tried to educate him on the standards of acceptance because he started to care for Sam. If we’re open to it, we learn interruptions to these social scripts are invitations to actually live.
Palmer: “How many boys do you see on that [princess] show?”
Palmer: “What does that tell you?”
Sam: “That I can be the first.”
Why does shame thrive, even when we know how toxic it can be? We participate in the shaming of people we genuinely care about, when they don’t conform to social and gender norms, because we know what the world will do to them. We know the cruelty reserved for anyone outside the script. We know the life will be beaten out of this sweet, unique, and innocence kid, so our subconscious response is to do it first. Really? Unfortunately, that’s exactly what unhealed intergenerational trauma of toxic masculinity does.
There is a moment where Palmer is sitting by himself on the couch, playing with one of Sam’s snow globes that marks a profound change. Curiosity about the world others live in and experience dignifies the humanity of us all. Things start to turn around when Palmer starts to be curious about Sam’s world.
Curiosity comes when we sacrifice our own cynicism and comfort for the well-being of another human being. Being curious about the strange, foreign, and scary experiences, of a boy who likes dresses, princesses, and snow globes allowed Palmer to experience wonder. Toxic masculinity only knows how to kill awe and wonder.
He open to himself, to his own wounds, and to how other people experience him.
But just like Palmer, even in our weakness, we have something significant to offer when we offer our un-condemning presence.
Through his availability to Sam, and his willingness to engage, Palmer becomes a guide into maturity. We see this in how Palmer teaches Sam the importance of not stealing or lying and making things right when you make mistakes. He uses his power to help the vulnerability in Sam, which in turn helps develop the resiliency in both of them as they grieve their shared lost of nurturing mother figures.
They both transition from a polarizing toxic masculinity, Palmer for an excess and Sam for a lack of it, to a holistic masculine identity that allows many different forms of expression but has the same roots of maturity, kindness, and inner strength.
Palmer made good on his promise, “I will not abandon that boy. I will not,” which helped bring about his own redemption for his criminal and toxic past. These words become a plea for us all to enter the future without abandoning our own inner child.