The 2021 Disney movie Luca is a coming-of-age story about a young sea monster boy on the cusp of adolescence; but it is much more than that. It is a repudiation of conventional, restrictive male socialization, and a celebration of expansive, healthy, male emotional connection.
Inspired, perhaps, by Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, the main character, Luca’s call to adventure interrupts his humdrum life. While exploring tantalizing sea objects, he encounters a seemingly carefree boy, Alberto, who introduces him to a simultaneously exciting and frightening new world beyond the waters of ordinary sea-monster life. Luca quickly discovers that he has as much to learn about himself as he does the broader world he inhabits.
Luca’s first obstacle is his fear of transgressing the status quo boundaries that have dictated his life. Alberto tells him, “You’ve got a ‘Bruno’ in your head”—Alberto’s term for our inner critic; the one who says, “you can’t.” Rather than obey the critic, Alberto teaches Luca his mantra for courageous and authentic living: “Silenzio, Bruno!” While there are times our inner critic is just the voice of prudent caution, often it prioritizes propriety over authenticity. Alberto teaches his friend that our “Bruno” sometimes holds us back from our true self.
Sex, Gender, and LUCA
Luca beautifully subverts patriarchal masculinity—a damaging vision that not only presumes men as inherently superior to women, but also asserts that men are naturally domineering, violent, and detached from life. That expression of manhood limits—and diminishes—men’s lives. Luca succeeds in honoring the parts of boys’ humanity they are otherwise expected to “kill off—the emotional parts of themselves,” as bell hooks put it in her 2004 book, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. The film is an antidote, presenting a healthy and humane vision of boyhood masculinity.
Luca and Alberto have plenty of adventures—they ride a makeshift Vespa off a dangerously constructed ramp into the sea, go to a forbidden land, and evade a menacing antagonist. They also befriend a girl without any ulterior motive of romance, and they take time to get to know each other. They hold meaningful conversations, share their dreams, and openly express their emotions. Instead of belittling each other, they encourage one another. And while they make a few choices that would lead most parents to worry for their safety, Luca and Alberto aren’t aggressive or violent. Such a portrayal of adolescent males starkly contrasts with conventional expressions of masculinity that normalize aggression, violence, misogyny, and winner-take-all competition.
Given the dearth of representations of gay, lesbian, and bisexual young people in popular culture, it’s understandable that many people were disappointed when Luca’s director announced that the boys’ relationship was never meant to be interpreted to include romance, but, rather, to show them forging nonromantic friendships. Others have suggested that Luca’s struggle with acceptance—and having to hide his true self—reflects the experiences of many in the LGBTQ+ community.
Though this interpretation has validity, it’s also true that virtually all boys struggle (though in different ways), with painful, alienating patriarchal socialization. From a very young age, boys are subjected to a pervasive education in the patriarchal masculine ideal. As hooks says, “Today, small boys and young men are daily inundated with a poisonous pedagogy that supports male violence and male domination, that teaches boys that unchecked violence is acceptable, and that teaches them to disrespect and hate women.”
The lesson is soon made clear, hooks says: “They know they must not express feelings, with the exception of anger; that they must not do anything considered feminine or womanly.” In such a world, neither boys nor girls are permitted to freely explore and then develop a complete, multifaceted identity. Instead, they are pressured, or shamed, into fitting in to limited, one-dimensional models of boyhood.
LUCA’s Loving Boys
Those arguing that Luca and Alberto’s relationship can only be understood as gay reinforce this damaging patriarchal conception of boyhood masculinity, while others believe Luca and Alberto are obviously gay since they embrace one another, exchange emotionally intimate moments, and plan to live together. Slate associate editor Marissa Martinelli observed that “[Luca and Alberto] have their share of moments that could be easily interpreted as puppy love, such as when they’re stargazing with their arms around each other… their secret time together is liberating for them. It’s also forbidden,” she pointed out. “[T]heir relationship is very physically intimate for a friendship. They put their arms around each other. They watch the sunset. They’re stargazing. It’s a little bit romantic.”
Reflecting on Martinelli’s interpretation reminded me of hooks’s sad observation about how lovable boys can be: “Boys are not seen as lovable in patriarchal culture.” Though boy children undoubtedly possess unearned privilege that girls do not, hooks also noted, “status and even the rewards of privilege are not the same as being loved.” In patriarchal culture, men receive praise and societal prizes for displays of power and usefulness—on the job, in athletics, and in the military. Past a young age, though, boys are frequently deprived of affection from parents not only out of homophobic concerns that the child might be “made gay”, but also out of concern that they develop the “necessary” toughness to endure a cold, fierce world. The notion that Alberto or Luca could only be loved by one another romantically reinforces that very patriarchal idea.
What’s revealed is a potent cultural bias that narrows the vision of masculine humanity. Imagine if Luca and Alberto were two girls of the same age and circumstance who embrace one another, exchange emotionally intimate moments, and plan to live together. Would those details be sufficient to confidently deduce the sexuality of the two characters? Probably not. Presuming that men of all sexual orientations are incapable of a nonsexual connection with other men—friends, family members, or children— reinforces the dehumanizing patriarchal stereotype that men lack emotional intelligence and are solely driven by sexual desire.
How LUCA’s Boys Are Different
Rather than the usual media representations of “boys will be boys”—including abusive banter and teasing—Luca and Alberto are generally kind to and mutually respectful of one another. They take time out of adventure and play to reflect, talk about their emotions, and tenderly empathize with each other. Happily absent in the film are representations of meanness, cruelty, bullying masquerading as “play,” and bonding over putting girls down. (The film’s one mean, cruel, misogynistic character is also its villain.)
The timing and context of Luca and Alberto’s bonding is also important. Their friendship develops when Alberto is particularly vulnerable after his father disappears. Before meeting Luca, Alberto was feeling isolated and abandoned; hurt and anger lurk beneath his exuberant exterior. In this sense, Alberto is like a lot of boys in society. “Many boys are angry,” hooks notes, “but no one really cares about this anger unless it leads to violent behavior. If boys take their rage and sit in front of a computer all day, never speaking, never relating, no one cares.”
What makes Luca such a powerful expression of healthy, humane, and feminist masculinity is precisely that it suggests any boy—of whatever sexual identity or orientation—can be a caring, loving person. Luca and Alberto might go on to be in romantic relationships with other men, women, or both. (Or, with no one.) What the movie makes clear, though, is that boys do not need to wait for romantic love to act lovingly, or to be in love. Luca suggests that boys are not strictly motivated to outdo other boys or to prop up their egos by insulting girls. Instead, the message of the film is that boys can be as expert at caring for others as they can be at, say, winning a race. Ultimately, Luca is a hopeful movie, an affirmation of male humanity at a time when popular culture offers too few meaningful examples.
Jeffrey Nall, Ph.D., is a father, professor, and civically engaged scholar. He teaches courses in women, gender, and sexuality studies at Florida Atlantic University. A decade ago, he created and taught a course there, “Men and Masculinities,” examining masculinities and patriarchal culture. He is the author of Feminism and the Mastery of Childbirth: An Ecofeminist Examination of the Cultural Maiming and Reclaiming of Maternal Agency During Childbirth (Academic Press, 2014). www.JeffreyNall.com.