This summer marks the 15th anniversary of Napoleon Dynamite, a film so unique and divisive that computer scientists now use the term, “Napoleon Dynamite problem” to describe the difficulty of predicting an eccentric movie’s likeability. From thrift-shop chic to nerd culture, Napoleon Dynamite lingers in the millennial identity— for proof, check out the comic book sequel coming this September. 2019 feels like the right time to analyze how the movie portrayed gender and sexuality to a generation that has since navigated high school, pushed for LGBT rights, and championed the #MeToo movement.
In this essay, I rely on the fraught, stereotypical terms “feminine” and “masculine”. It’s an imperfect schism— Women don’t have a monopoly on emotional sensitivity any more than men hold a lease on courage or power. But these terms accent how the adolescent Napoleon forges his adult identity through gender performance and subversion of stereotype, and I wanted to exploit those connotations. Subvert gender stereotypes, and all your wildest dreams will come true.
Napoleon Dynamite begins as our eponymous hero boards a school bus full of children. The age gap is obvious, but the gap in maturity is less apparent. A child asks, “What are you gonna do today, Napoleon?” Napoleon, played by a 26 year old Jon Heder, replies, “Whatever I feel like I wanna do, gosh!” Then, to prove his point and provide the movie’s framing thesis, Napoleon throws a toy wrestler out the window to drag it behind the bus with fishing line, an adolescent’s sadistic catharsis against the image of masculinity.
At school Napoleon is bullied, taunted and laughed at by various incarnations of the plastic wrestler, until he calls his brother Kip to plead for rescue. The Neville Longbottom to his brother’s Harry Potter, Kip is as important to the film’s point as his titular brother, because Kip’s journey offers an inversion of Napoleon’s. The Dynamite brothers embark on separate quests for the film’s central motifs: companionship and, most importantly, adult masculinity. The two grails overlap frequently in the form of various role models and gender performances the brothers engage with. But Kip is left foundering in delusion while his brother successfully reconciles his masculine and feminine identities.
The critical intrusion into the Dynamites’ stasis is Grandma’s removal. Grandma Dynamite has been the orphan brothers’ anchoring role model, a sexless matriarch providing shelter in a sea of gender performativity and social isolation. The brothers’ first conversation shows the stark contrast of these two worlds as the wounded Napoleon seeks refuge with the school receptionist (herself a Grandma-type haven) to call Kip at home, where the 32-year-old “chats online with babes all day” and revels in the freedom to remotely assume an identity so far from his real-world grasp. When the hypermasculine Uncle Rico arrives (an unwelcome intrusion in itself), he reveals that Grandma’s been lying to the brothers to adventure across dunes with a secret boyfriend. Now lacking Grandma’s sexless solidarity, the Dynamite brothers begin their quests to find the companionship and adult masculinity they’d convinced themselves they were successfully living without.
The day after Rex Kwon Do’s emasculating karate demonstration, Napoleon echoes the macho-man and asks if his new friend Pedro has his back. Pedro’s confused “What?” evokes a moment of vulnerability as Napoleon looks off and breathes “Never mind.” To Napoleon, Pedro is an enviable specimen of masculine maturity, possessing bike pegs, confidence with women, and the ability to grow a mustache. When Pedro says he intends to ask Summer Wheatly to the dance, Napoleon rivals Pedro’s masculinity by showing off his made-up girlfriend. “I like her bangs,” Pedro says. “Me too,” Napoleon replies, staring at a picture of a stranger.
Kip’s identity is even less stable than his brother’s. Despite being older, Kip is physically and emotionally weaker than Napoleon. Uncle Rico becomes Kip’s first stable companion and masculine role model and, happy to play the toady instead of the victim, Kip becomes a tool for Rico’s deluded ambition. Rico’s masculinity exudes the usual toxicity: self-absorption, disrespect for women, a desire to get ahead. His fixation on his life’s masculine peak as a young athlete is particularly telling, revealing both his worship for manhood and his own stunted maturity. In their first one-on-one hangout, Rico and Kip talk about women, and it’s Kip’s turn to try on masculinity as he describes his own incredibly suspect girlfriend. She has a non-descript “pretty good-looking face,” as well as “sandy-blonde hair” that Lafawnduh, when we meet her, doesn’t have.
Like so many “Magical Black” characters, Lafawnduh is interesting and underdeveloped, entering the story mainly to provide solutions for white characters. In this case, it’s black identity itself that offers Kip an answer. Just as Rico’s retro chic embodies his antiquated vision of manliness, Kip’s transformation reflects the widespread early 2000’s appropriation of black fashion and music to express white masculinity: third wave ska bands like Reel Big Fish, clothing trends like pants-sagging, and white rappers like Eminem all brought black culture into vogue to an extent unseen since the 1950s.
Meanwhile, backed by the proper companionship and cultivating a respect for the feminine, Napoleon continues to hone in on his adult identity. Napoleon’s companions, largely devoid of the white (or black-appropriated) masculinities surrounding Kip, are feminine archetypes, compassionate and artistic. The duo serve as surrogate parents for Napoleon, with Deb exuding cleverness and creativity, and Pedro displaying vulnerability as a mustachioed, socially confident man. Pedro’s head-shaving provides a key lesson in Napoleon’s education. The replacement wig, provided courtesy of Deb’s pink-draped studio, exposes gender identity as performance, malleable and superficial. “I think this matches your season,” Deb declares. Pedro responds with a soft smile.
Another important lesson arrives the next day, after Napoleon offers a bullied student one of Deb’s boondoggles to symbolize Pedro’s protection— a feminine craft symbolizing a masculine strength. When the bully returns, Pedro’s macho cousins chase him off, and Napoleon witnesses the paradox of masculinity that sociologist CJ Pascoe calls “fag discourse”: though masculinity offers endless ways to dominate and police others, even the manliest identities are never secure. Masculinity is a never-ending performance, a contest that can’t be won. Uncle Rico learns this lesson later, and his broken arm, along with his broken masculine delusion, usher a female energy into his life that the gentler Rico welcomes with Pedro’s soft smile.
Napoleon’s perception of Rico and the adult manhood he represents sours as the adolescent realizes what misery the grown man leaves in his wake: clogged toilets, electrocuted groins, and superficial relationships. Rico shames Napoleon for not having a job, and the subsequent chicken-cooping work earns Napoleon a dollar an hour and Hamlet-level resentment of his uncle. He courts Summer’s popular friend Trisha, only to find the relationship with her brand of femininity unfulfilling and unsustainable. When Napoleon and Rico finally come to blows in a confrontation that can only be described as Oedipal, two important revelations emerge: Napoleon realizes he has reached his tolerance for toxic masculinity, and that this masculinity is, when elbowed, vulnerable to Napoleon’s own strength. Napoleon is done lying about wolverines and supermodel girlfriends to survive within masculine discourse— now he knows he can harness the power of his emotions. It’s been suggested that the Tree of Knowledge provides Eve not with a magic apple, but with the indelible knowledge that she has the ability to disobey. Isn’t it fitting that Napoleon launches his rebellion by throwing fruit?
Napoleon’s identity struggles reach an impasse at the school election. After the fight, Rico tells Deb that Napoleon recommended her for herbal breast enhancement. Napoleon’s relationships with these masculine and feminine pillars are now in jeopardy, and Napoleon must decide which character’s energy is more important to him. Once again, black gender identity arrives to save a white character, but now black femininity rather than masculinity supplies the tools for victory. D-Qwon’s dance tape gives Napoleon the feminine power of dance as physical expression— contrast this with Kip’s physical outlets of Rex-Kwon-Do and cage fighting— and Lafawnduh hands Napoleon the cassette he’ll give the soundbooth. (Despite all this, I’m aware that Napoleon’s dance moves are incredibly white.)
Napoleon’s dance, a triumph of femininity over masculinity, performs a vulnerability that brings the previously blank-faced student body to its feet. The students see themselves not in Pedro’s or Summer’s campaign speeches, but in Napoleon’s harrowing self-expression. Napoleon gambles his physical and emotional self on Pedro’s behalf in an act so free and selfless that Deb realizes Napoleon would never fall prey to a “Bust Must+” femininity. The fact that the audience connects with the dance, the fact that it wins Pedro the election, doesn’t matter. What’s important is that, like Spirited Away’s Chihiro or Russian Doll’s Nadia, Napoleon confronts a final test and produces a correct answer, one containing an immutable inner truth.
After the climax, with one at the end of his journey and the other hopelessly lost within it, the Dynamite brothers cross paths one last time. (MTV filmed a campy post-credits scene of Kip and Lafawnduh’s wedding, but that’s not part of the film’s original thesis.) Kip, in full hip-hop regalia, doesn’t notice his brother as he and Lafawnduh board a bus. Napoleon watches helplessly across the street. This scene always makes me sad, partially because we didn’t see Kip telling anybody he’s leaving— it seems like another confused, uncharacteristic move. These brothers, having started the story together in their sexless grandma’s stasis, have ended in completely different worlds, and Napoleon, having painstakingly forged his adult identity, can only watch as his lost brother continues his own quest for meaning.
R3id Libby is a musician with a degree in Literary Studies and Theatre Performance from Beloit College. He is interested in the ways music intersects with language and performance. He lives in Chicago.