Depictions of Masculinity: Jacob "Cinnamon Roll" Kowalski

October 14, 2017

 

In our multimedia age video essays have grown in popularity and there are few channels I enjoy more than the Pop Culture Detective on Youtube. Focusing in on the intersection of entertainment and politics (particularly representations of masculinity), host Jonathan McIntosh recently tackled the Harry Potter series' latest installment with "The Fantastic Masculinity of Newt Scamander." I encourage everyone to watch the video for themselves, but for our purposes here I will simply acknowledge that Mcintosh's analysis was my starting point for this post. In thinking through Newt's masculinity, it occurred to me that he's far from the only subversive character in Fantastic Beasts.

 

We need to talk about Kowalski.

 

Yep. This guy. 

 

In many ways Jacob Kowalski embodies the sidekick stereotype to a T. He is subordinate to Newt in all things magical and his status as a Muggle allows him to play the role of Mr. Exposition, with his ignorance giving other characters a reason to explain anything the audience might need to know----who are you, what are you doing, what are the rules of this world? Only once does Jacob get to come out as the more knowledgeable character: when he leads Newt to Central Park, and that moment is largely played for laughs. Jacob's ignorance provides much of the comic relief in the film ("I love house elves. My uncle is a house elf") even to the point of self-deprecation---"I ain't got the brains to make this up." He's the inept one; the sweet one; the purest of cinnamon rolls in a group chock full of them. It would have been incredibly easy for the film to position Jacob as nothing more than a "failed" version of our protagonist, someone whose ineptitude is both a joke and a means of telling us who the true hero is.

 

 

 

However, right off the bat Jacob can't fit into this bumbling sidekick mold for the simple reason that Newt doesn't fit into the roll of a traditional action hero. Unlike Harry----as McIntosh's video lays out----Newt's heroism is positioned as based in intellect and empathy. Like Newt, Jacob doesn't win his fights through violence, but rather generosity, with no pushback from either the narrative or the other characters for this choice. On the surface there should be pushback, considering that within the traditional rules of an action/adventure story, Jacob is fairly "useless" as a male hero. He not only embodies feminine traits (compassion, crying, skill in baking, etc.) but fails to embody any of the conventional masculine traits that we've come to associate with toxic masculinity. Yes, Jacob was in the military, but this history doesn't translate into violent tendencies as we might expect. The only time Jacob does employ violence is in defending himself or his friends: hitting Newt with his briefcase and punching Gnarlak after he betrayed them. He's not an athletic man. Jacob is, in fact, a fat man who is particularly vulnerable by wizard standards----"Your skull is susceptible to breakage under immense force"-----yet he somehow manages to get through life happily that way. Though the film does briefly use his fatness as the source of a joke (when he attempts to enter Newt's suitcase) for the most part Jacob is an excellent example of how fat does not equal "worthless" or "unhealthy." He's still perfectly capable of running from the Erumpent, or kicking down a door when Queenie's unlocking spell doesn't work. Jacob is not a weakling who's going to collapse the second someone touches him.

 

 

Still, that doesn't mean that Jacob's physique is common in an adventure series. His lack of muscles and his love of baking make him an unusual action star. In fact, given that baking is Jacob's primary skill and joy, it would have been easy for the film to make him more "masculine" by highlighting violent emotions instead, like jealousy. One of the more fascinating scenes is Jacob's introduction to magical cooking wherein, surprisingly, he is ecstatic at Queenie's use of magic in baking.

 

Picture it: here's a man who is thrown head-first into the magical world and (despite his well-meaning friends) still feels very self-conscious about it. Jacob is the one constantly in need of clarification. He's not someone who can defend himself against these magical forces and he's constantly under threat that his memories will be stollen away. He works at a thankless job that he's just been told he can't escape. The only thing Jacob has going for him is his baking, a skill he learned from his grandmother, and though this talent "feminizes" him to a certain extent, it's all he has. Jacob is proud of his baking.

 

Then enter Queenie, who is not only stronger than Jacob through her possession of magic, but makes a stunning strudel in seconds flat. The film emphasizes that the one skill Jacob possesses can be done better and faster with magic----and this would have been an easy place to insert jealousy. Anger even, to prove Jacob's "toughness." Not so, though. Jacob remains optimistic, upbeat, and above all, loving towards his new friends.

 

The only place Jacob truly portrays a typically toxic, masculine persona is in his very first interaction with Queenie, wherein she says, "Oh, don't worry, honey. Most guys think what you was thinking first time they see me." However, even this sexualization of a woman only lasts a brief moment and is presented as an unfortunate mistake. One could even argue that Jacob is in the position of a victim here, given that Queenie holds the power and is the one who, intentionally or not, invaded his privacy. Jacob never voiced his thoughts, his manner doesn't reflect them, and they're something Queenie wouldn't be aware of without her skills as a Legilimens.

 

Rather than being physically strong, dominant, jealous, angry, and mysoginistic, Fantastic Beasts gives us a sidekick who shows that true strength is found in compassion, respect, and the ability to make friends.

 

 

In fact Newt says straight out, "People like you, don't they, Mr. Kowalski?" and expresses envy that this is the case, saying that most people find him annoying. Likability is presented as a coveted trait and, more importantly, it acts as the catalyst for Jacob's entry into the magical world. It's only because he's trying to help out a stranger----"Hey! Mr. English Guy! I think your egg is hatching!"----that he's able to get involved with Newt in the first place.

 

After that it's Jacob's love of both human and animal nature that keeps him around. Jacob isn't just interested in helping his new friends, but in helping Newt's animals as well, which immediately endears him to our hero. Jacob is, to date, the first person besides Dumbledore who truly supports Newt's desire to educate people about magical creatures, rather than killing those creatures in the name of human safety. It's telling then that most of Jacob's interactions with Newt's creatures are violent ones: he's bitten by the Murtlap, nearly killed by the Erumpent, almost crushed to death by the Occamy, and is warned of the Obscurus' dangers by Newt himself. Despite this, Jacob never once suggests that they kill the animals in turn, only capture or avoid them. His ability to recognize that these individual encounters do not mean that all magical animals are evil is crucial to Jacob finding his place within Newt's circle and by extension his place within wizarding society. Jacob's willingness to forgive makes him one of Newt's most powerful allies.

 

Ultimately, it's compassion that makes Jacob extraordinary-----a part of the magic. Queenie is the first to welcome him into their world, saying that Jacob is "one of us now" while in the midst of helping another, namely saving Jacob himselffrom being obliviated. She later claims that, "I ain't never gonna find anyone like you" and when Jacob (focusing on his supposed normalcy as a muggle) says that there are "loads like me," Queenie draws the audience's attention back to the uncommonness of his caring nature with, "No. No. There's only one like you."

 

 

A character like Jacob isn't just rare, he's downright magical. Our film ends with his smile----he's the very center of Fantastic Beast's moral message----but before it does Newt makes sure that he (and we) know exactly where his worth lies.

 

Jacob: Everybody knows Newt only kept me around because... Hey, Newt, why did you keep me around?

 

Newt: Because I like you. Because you're my friend. And I'll never forget how you helped me, Jacob.

 

Jacob: ...Oh.

 

Oh indeed.

 

 

 

 

 

Image Credit

 

Image #1: http://aminoapps.com/page/harry-potter/9676783/jacob-kowalski

Image #2: http://ashevillegrit.com/movie-review-fantastic-beasts-and-where-find-them-2016

GIF #1: http://nerdist.com/fantastic-beasts-dan-fogler-would-like-to-own-pickett-the-bowtruckle/

Image #3: https://www.pottermore.com/explore-the-story/jacob-kowalski

Image #4: http://thegeekiary.com/fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-frolic/39445/screen-shot-2016-11-17-at-12-58-02-am

GIF #2: http://crevvt.co.vu/post/154469843982

 

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