A column published by the New Yorker this week argues that Daniel Day-Lewis’ final film, Phantom Thread, is “toxic masculinity” propaganda.
Celebrated actor Daniel Day-Lewis made his final film appearance in Phantom Thread, which was released in the United States in December. In the film, a period piece set in 1954, Day-Lewis portrays Reynolds Woodcock, a popular fashion designer who is demanding and controlling towards those who work for him.
The film centers on Woodcock’s romantic relationship with a character named Alma, who learns that co-existing with the controlling fashion designer is harder than she originally imagined.
This week, New Yorker contributor Aleksandar Hemon argued this week that Phantom Thread is propaganda for “toxic masculinity,” an emerging social justice buzzword. “Toxic masculinity” refers to the belief that society encourages men to adopt a range of unhealthy behaviors. These behaviors include repressing emotions and responding to conflict with violence. Some, like Hemon, also argue that “toxic masculinity” involves the adoption of unhealthy attitudes about women.
Hemon argues that Phantom Thread promotes a brand of “toxic masculinity” because the character of Alma exists only within Woodcock’s world.
Reynolds Woodcock, the controlling dressmaker played by Daniel Day-Lewis, governs a domain peopled exclusively by obedient and loyal women. Among them, Alma distinguishes herself by refusing to be used and discarded by the couturier. But, for all her relative agency, she exists only within the world of Woodcock. We have no idea who she was before entering it, where she might have come from, or what she might have wanted from her life. Soon after she meets Woodcock, he measures her for a dress. When, in a fit of internalized misogyny, she apologizes for having small breasts, he says, “Oh, no, you’re perfect. It’s my job to give you some—if I choose to.” Just as her body is significant only in his dress, she has value only in relation to his ever-present, shamelessly metaphorical hunger.
It is, of course, possible that Alma’s role in the film is limited because Day-Lewis’s Woodcock character is the main protagonist. After all, the film is a look at Woodcock’s life, not Alma’s.