Genital massages and other things: A Critical Look at ‘The History Boys’ (film)

I’m a sucker (har-de-har) for English school boy films. Well dressed, potty-mouthed, English boys reading ‘lit-richt-chure,’ speaking abysmal French and singing forlorn Rodgers & Hart tunes?  I’m so there.

And so  I watched The History Boys yesterday night, adding to the slew of recent foolish decisions I’ve made to forgo sleep in favor of watching a movie.

I started the film, expecting it to be good. I finished the film slightly disappointed and massively confused, by the film’s blase depictions of ‘man-boy’ love.

(Lightning quick synopsis: Group of smart boys train to take the Oxbridge entrance exams; encouraged by their General Studies teacher Hector (the big man in the poster who likes to grope boys’ genitals as he gives them lifts on his motorcycle) and Irwin, a new hire history teacher with diametrically opposed teaching methods; based on the Tony-award winning play of the same name written by Oxford-educated historian/playwright Alan Bennett)

As usual, as soon as the film was over, I instantly went to the critics, so they could tell me how I was supposed to feel about the lovable Hector’s ‘genital massages.’ Writes Richard Shickel in his review:

What Bennett most wants to show us is that Hector’s homosexuality is preferable to the more closeted variety practiced by the extremely smooth Irwin. Bennett is also arguing, in his quiet and very civilized way, that especially in the context of an English public school almost a quarter of a century ago, homosexuality was not a very big deal. Bennett, who is an openly gay writer, accepts it as a part of life — particularly as a part of life in English public schools — something the boys come to terms with in essentially undramatic ways. For some it is no more than, shall we say, a brief encounter. For some it may be more permanently defining. For most it is just part of growing up, rather like coming to grips with the subjunctive in their French lessons.

Interested to hear a woman’s perspective, I went to Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly. Shwarzbaum says that Hector’s “penchant for genially groping a teenage boy’s genitals while the untraumatized student tolerates the ritual on the back of Hector’s motorcycle ” is tossed off by Bennett “as the minor foible of a lonely, passionate, sympathetic fellow,” Schwarzbaum doesn’t buy it, but she doesn’t exactly explain why she doesn’t.

So what do I, prudish American, make of all this?

Well, I am not unaware of the homosexual tendencies of boarding schools; my cousin Tobi has regaled me with more than enough sordid tales. Certainly, sex in general, is always on the forefront of any teenager’s brain, be it of the gay or straight variety. But true as Shickel may be in his argument that ‘homosexuality was not a big deal in the English public school,’ it does not excuse Hector’s behavior. It’s one thing for teenage boys to experiment with each other. It’s quite another thing, for a teacher to grope a boy’s genitals as the boy sits on the back of the teacher’s motorcycle. That the boys are not traumatized and see it as some sort of rite of passage does not justify the act. As the wise and deliciously sardonic Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour) says, “A grope is a grope.”

Hector (Richard Griffiths) on his bike

If anything, it’s sad that such behavior is placidly tolerated. Later we learn that Fiona, the school secretary is routinely feeled up by the headmaster. This ends up being the leverage one student uses to ensure that Hector keeps his job. And so inappropriate touching, in Alan Benett’s world, is all laughs and giggles. No harm, no foul.

I can’t buy that though.

Is it wishful thinking for me to hope that one day we won’t live in a world where sexual molestation (gay or straight) is simply tolerated?

And (unrelated, side note): Wow, people seem to love their English gay men sad. This movie compounded with 2009’s beautiful melancholia A Single Man is too much. Can’t we have a happy English gay for once?

*Also, I’m keenly aware that I’m five years late to this argument.


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