Taylor Embrey, author
Dr. David Magill, faculty advisor
awarded second place for best humanities paper
Chris Lynch’s Inexcusable follows its protagonist, Keir Sarafian, a respected football player, through his final year of high school. Lynch tells Kier’s story to explore adolescent identity, especially how that identity changes based on performance of gender. Throughout the novel, Keir behaves in ways that he thinks are expected of him because he is male, but he takes these expectations to the extreme. Lynch has structured the novel in a way that switches between past and present tense; the present is Keir being yelled at by a girl, Gigi Boudakian, for something he feels he did not do, while the past tells the events that solidify his self-made identity as the quintessential good guy. Gigi claims Keir has raped her, which he thinks he could not have done because he loves her and because her claims directly contradict the way he sees himself. This final event is the culmination of all the toxic ideas Keir has picked up from others and created himself. Lynch uses the combination of Keir’s heavy involvement in sports culture and lack of positive male figures both in his friend group and at home to show that expectations associated with these things can cause adolescents to develop a skewed perception of what it means to be masculine. Lynch uses Keir’s character to demonstrate that the narrow expectations for masculinity, a large part of many of the activities that adolescent boys participate in, can be misconstrued, causing boys like Keir to think they are so-called good guys despite their often harmful behavior.
Constructions of Masculinity and the Father’s Influence
Keir’s perception of himself and his behavior is based on constructions of masculinity that he has learned from his peers or synthesized himself. Keir sees himself as a good guy who is always in the right, always doing what he is meant to do. Early in the novel, he imagines what people would say about him when asked about his character—“Rock solid, Keir. Kind of guy you would want behind you…. straight shooter…. Loyal, polite. Funny. Good manners. He was brought up right” (Lynch 3). No matter what he does, Keir cannot see himself through any lens but the rose-colored one he thinks about himself through. His performance of masculinity is based on these ideas, as well as the ideas he picks up from his peers. In her article “Displaying Practices of Masculinity,” Josephine Peyton Young describes ways that adolescent males preform gender. Young states, “boys and men are held accountable to display gender in situationally specific ways…. Gender, then, is not something one ‘accomplishes’ once at an early age; it has to be publically displayed over and over again in accordance with the structures of social contexts” (5). Because maintaining masculinity is such a constant performance, it can become essential to a boy’s identity because it is how he interacts with most of the world. Individual masculinity allows men and boys to fit themselves into the expectations associated with their gender while remaining somewhat unique. In Kier’s case, the masculine identity he has created from other people’s expectations of him has become an essential part of his personality that he does not give up even when he acts against it.
Boys do not create their perception of what it means to be masculine on their own; they often take some of their ideas from older, male family members. In their article “Fathers and Sons: The Relationship Between Violence and Masculinity,” Mark Pope and Matt Englar-Carson discuss the role fathers have in shaping the masculinities of their sons. Ray, Keir’s father, does not attempt to do any shaping of Keir’s behaviors, even when they begin to become dangerous. Keir refers to Ray by his first name and describes their relationship as “father and son, brothers, roommates, bastards, and buddies” (Lynch 27). Pope and Englar-Carson state “fathers can engage their sons in a dialogue, helping them to understand why [they] and others behave the way they do” (368). Ray has multiple opportunities to start this dialogue with Keir, but never takes it. After Keir cripples a rival player during a football game, Ray handles all of the questions from the press instead of allowing Keir to speak for himself, and only tells his son “[he’s] a good boy,” when he feels he needs to be reminded of that (Lynch 20). Ray never asks if Keir has any negative feelings about the incident or even tries to discuss it at all. Keir maintains that the play he executed was perfect, he did what he was supposed to, and that the only reason the other player was injured is because he was not doing what he was supposed to do. When someone suggests he should be sorry for what he has done, his reaction is “why do I have to feel sorry if I didn’t do anything wrong? I don’t understand that” (Lynch 30). Keir has internalized the idea that excessive violence is okay if the outcome is ruled an accident or otherwise does not negatively affect him. This means that in Keir’s version of masculinity, violence is permissible as long as there are no consequences for him. The lack of direct consequences for violent or otherwise harmful behavior teaches Keir that these behaviors are all in good fun, as they are mostly treated as boys will be boys situations. Lynch uses this as a comment on how many negative things adolescent boys do are dismissed as typical and unable to be changed.
Throughout the novel, Keir interacts with a wide variety of people with a wide variety of opinions about him, including his father, sisters, and friends. However Keir displays a disconnection from the many of people in his life, as well as with his own emotions, a phenomenon discussed in Pope and Englar-Carson’s article. They state, “boys who are confused with societal messages about what is expected of them as boys will most likely become men who continue to feel disconnected” (Pope & Englar-Carson 367). After the football incident, Keir becomes popular, but decides that “[he] didn’t necessarily want to be buddies with people…. That took involvement, which, to be honest, [he] didn’t do very well (Lynch 32). Keir revels in his popularity and his new nickname, “Killer,” and that despite that “a guy’s not supposed to care overly much about what other people think of him, [he cares] a lot” and figures out that he likes being liked (Lynch 32). Keir knows that people liked him, but he keeps himself emotionally distant from them, creating an aggressive façade based on his new place in school as “Killer Keir” and his deliberate distance from his peers. When young men create these facades, they “learn to protect themselves…and learn to express the only acceptable male emotion, which is anger. Violence is the final step in a sequence that begins with this emotional disconnection” (Pope and Englar-Carson 368). Keir internalizes the idea that he is the “Killer,” causing him to develop patterns of behavior in keeping with his newfound popularity and the reasons behind it. This pattern continues Lynch’s critique of how inconsistently negative reactions or consequences are applied when a boy’s behavior fits into some aspect of generally accepted masculinity. Many men are perceived to be aloof, so it is not recognized that Keir has taken this trait to a potentially dangerous extreme.
Keir’s disconnection from people goes and in hand with a lack of empathy, made worse by the fact that Ray will not open a dialogue to “support [his] son’s innate ability to empathize with others” and help him “begin to feel less shame about his own vulnerabilities while understanding the emotional experiences of others” (Pope and Englar-Carson 368). Keir explains a lot of his thoughts with phrases like “I know a guy’s not supposed to…” and “a guy needs to,” when talking about himself and others (Lynch 32 & 98). Because Ray has never talked to Keir about empathy or any kind of feelings, these ideas are very black and white to him, and any violation of them, especially when done by someone else, angers Keir. Because he cannot understand why other people act the way they do, he is able to make excuses for his own behavior, but is offended when others do not do what he expects of them based on his limited perceptions. During conflicts with other characters, Keir says things like, “I hate it when people I love condemn me” and “I hate it when people I love refuse to speak to me,” showing that whenever he is faced with other people’s feelings, his will always take precedence (Lynch 30 & 84). Keir acts the way he thinks young men are supposed to act, and when people do not fulfill their part of his internal script, then it is their fault for falling short, not his fault for behaving unacceptably. Because Keir sees himself as the epitome of a good guy and is so disconnected from others, he will always see himself as in the right and anyone who goes against his expectations as in the wrong.
The Role of Sport in Masculinity
Sports, specifically football, make up a large part of Keir’s identity and involvement with peers. Football provides Keir with another platform to express his masculinity and his skill contributes to his ego and positive self-image. In his article “Sport and Images of Masculinity, Murray Drummond uses the lens of sport “to identify the problems associated with masculine identity [to provide] a looking glass for the problems associated with the social construction of masculinity for men in contemporary Western society” (129). Lynch uses Keir’s character in much the same way. “Sport has long been regarded as a site for the development of masculine behaviors” and is “one of the most important sites if masculinizing practice and socialize[s] boys into many of the values, attitudes, and skills considered so important in the adult world of men” (Drummond 131). Many of Keir’s expectations for himself come from ideas rooted in sport. Derek Kreager, in his article “Unnecessary Roughness? School Sports, Peer Networks, And Male Adolescent Violence,” states that masculinized sports, like football, “create conditions where violence becomes an acceptable means of ‘doing’ masculinity and maintaining valued masculine identities” (709). Keir’s perception of himself as a good guy comes partially from the idea that “contact sport athletes are admired for their strength and determination and rewarded with increased prestige and access to exclusive peer groups” (Kreager 709). Keir saw himself as good before the incident that turned him into “Killer,” but the reward from his peers in the form of greater access to their social scene feeds his perception of himself as the ultimate good guy. This elevated level of peer acceptance following a sporting achievement is an accepted, although problematic part of high school culture. Lynch highlights the danger of the correlation between sports violence and increased peer acceptance with the nickname “Killer,” given by Keir’s peers and used as an identifying feature that is a marker of the increased popularity that he revels in. Keir’s peers reward his so-called accomplishment, confirming Keir’s feeling that he did the right thing, like good guys do.
Keir’s skill at football increases his popularity at school and benefits him in other aspects of his life, including his self-esteem and his college prospects. Drummond states, “being good at a sport is at least one way of creating a positive self-esteem in the face of other perceived adversities…. Some young men view sport as a method of outwardly promoting a positive self-image” (137). After the incident, Keir is materially rewarded for his act of on-field violence when he “quietly receive[s] an offer of a football scholarship. The next day [he] quietly receive[s] two more” (Lynch 22). The news of this spreads, and Keir essentially coasts through the rest of the school year, both socially and academically. However, once the season ends and he is without the practice of sport, he gains weight. When he notices this, he “turn[s] angrily away from the mirror, like it was the mirror’s fault. It certainly wasn’t [his]” (Lynch 72). Without active participation of sport, Keir’s self image changes to one that is significantly less positive; he loses a significant amount of self-esteem and sees himself as less of a man until he begins to exercise again, because to him, men are supposed to be fit, like professional athletes. Because fitness is part of his perception of real masculinity, Keir feels like he is only manly when he is in peak physical shape, so he begins running, which begins a “hazy fantasy, in which [he] had achieved something heroic and monumentally physical and was running around acknowledging the love and respect of the townspeople” (Lynch 75). Keir needs sport and the ideal masculine physique to “help prop up his masculine identity,” without it, he does not see himself as worthy of the popularity he has received from it (Drummond 140). Keir places a majority of his self-image on his athleticism because it earns him the likeableness and perception of goodness that he craves. Lynch uses this aspect of Keir’s character to show that it encourages “traditional gender stereotypes and can negatively impact social change” (Drummond 140). To Keir, good men are fit and athletic, and accepted by their peers for their physique and their accomplishments and without one of those elements, the performance of good masculinity is incomplete.
Peer Influence and Groupthink
Keir’s football team is a tight-knit group, and although he stays someone distant from them emotionally, he is still intertwined with them and goes along with what they do. He participates in their activities because not participating would set him apart, then rationalizes his involvement into things he can accept later on. Although he plays both football and soccer, Keir has unconsciously sided himself with football, the sport he thinks is more masculine, but has disconnected himself enough that he still believes he cannot do anything wrong, even when the team does. After the football team essentially hazes the seemingly inferior soccer team, Keir sees himself on the film forcing the soccer players to drink alcohol and wade into a freezing body of water. Because respected peers are doing it, Keir sees it was something that was all in good fun, until he sees himself participating too. He is originally sickened by what he sees on the film, saying that “the camaraderie of sportsmen having a laugh all together” got erased and replaced with “some grotesque… blurry horror film” (Lynch 49). He then later decides that he could not have possibly been in the film, instead, he convinces himself that he was on the outskirts of the action, despite evidence to the contrary. In moments like this, Keir is caught up in the groupthink of his peers, only to justify his actions later by saying that the film “couldn’t quite manage to get hardly any of the good fun parts” and that the film could not capture the good guy that Keir sees in himself (Lynch 50-51). Keir choose to make the football players his peers, and “peer selection and pressure reinforce each other, with individuals gravitating toward friends with similar beliefs and then having those beliefs strengthened through shared experiences (Jacques-Tiura 1001). Keir tries to remain distant from the other football players, but often gets caught up in the moment and mimics their actions, as evidenced by the videos.
Although Keir is a member of a high school football team, many of the team’s behaviors can be compared to those of a college fraternity. A football team is comparable to a fraternity because, the bonds are similar and both heavily involve participating in what everyone else is doing, or risk being excluded in the future. This comparison can explain many of the negative behaviors Keir participates in and how he incorporated them into his masculine identity. Keir purposefully exists on the fringes of this brotherhood, but that is by his choice, not by theirs; as far as the rest of the team is concerned, he is one of them. In their research on the social politics of fraternities, Patricia Martin and Robert Hummer found many attitudes that can be compared to the attitudes Lynch gives to Keir’s teammates. A football team is not a fraternity, but both are groups of young men that share a fierce closeness that can become toxic. Martin and Hummer found that “fraternities are vitally concerned with masculinity. They work hard to create a macho image and context,” which is comparable to the masculinity performed by Keir’s teammates (460). Like fraternities, football teams also require “a willingness to submit to authority, to follow orders, and to do as one is told” because those behaviors are “viewed as a sign of loyalty, togetherness and unity,” traits without which a team cannot function (Martin & Hummer 462). Keir goes to a graduation party at the home of a character referred to as “Quarterback Ken,” where he is led into a room with many of his fellow players, who are “good enough to have arranged themselves by position…with our fearless leader Quarterback Ken there to stir the ingredients as necessary (Lynch 110). Ken, the unquestioned leader, values the players for their contributions to the team, as well as their willingness to submit to his whims. Lynch has positioned Ken as the alpha male despite his negative qualities, mirroring the reality of many real life cliques. Ken is the most powerful and stereotypically masculine, so the boys who aspire to be like him will follow him, even if that means following him into dangerous behaviors.
Fraternities seek “a stereotypical and narrowly masculine [set of] attributes,” including willingness to indulge in alcohol and other debauchery, and Ken seeks similar traits for his inner circle (Martin & Hummer 460). Under Ken’s leadership, the team goes on a window-smashing, statue-destroying rampage early in the novel, essentially hazes the soccer team, and eventually joins him in an alcohol and drug-filled house party. At the party, Ken tells Keir that “everything is on the house,” and gives him a handful of random pills, which Keir then takes. Many of the girls at the party, included Gigi, are heavily intoxicated and dancing, much like at a fraternity party, where it is possible for young men to use alcohol as “a weapon against sexual reluctance” (Martin & Hummer 464). That is not necessarily what is happening at this house party, but it does provide Keir with an excuse to talk to Gigi when her guard is down. Lynch uses the football team to show that despite what he says, Keir is not morally better than his peers, because he will always sink to their level and go along with their behavior, later twisting it so he can feel like he is still the good guy in the situation.
Perceptions of Love, Sex, and Consent
The ultimate discrepancy between Keir’s perception of himself and how he actually is comes in his relationship with Gigi Boudakian. Keir has loved Gigi throughout the past-tense portions of the novel, leading up to the event occurring in the present-tense portions. In the past, Kier loves Gigi and is given the opportunity to take her to prom, despite her relationship with another boy. He says that although other people thought he could be counted on not to try anything with her, “[he] tried everything…. within reason,” to get her to return his feelings (Lynch 55). Later in the novel, an intoxicated Gigi leaves Ken’s party with Keir while fighting with her boyfriend, so Keir tries his chances again. She does kiss him, but initiates nothing beyond that and eventually falls asleep, purposefully separate from him. From there, Keir kisses, touches, and eventually has sex with her, rationalizing that it “was all right to kiss her lips. It did not seem all right not to kiss them” (Lynch 159). Because she showed him kindness and some level of affection, Keir seemed to think that since he loves her, it was okay for him to cross the boundary that she set by refusing to sleep next to him. In her article “I Never Called It Rape,” Robin Warshaw states “miscommunication may occur because men and women often interpret behavior cues and even direct conversation differently…. Men give a more sexual reading” of these behavior cues (332). Skewed by his feelings for her, Keir takes Gigi’s kindness as flirtation and allows himself to think that it is okay to initiate sexual behaviors with her, seeing her as a “Sleeping Beauty” waiting for his touch (Lynch 159). She never gave any consent, so Keir has in fact raped her, but he cannot see it that way.
In his article “Men on Rape,” Tim Beneke writes, “a logical extension of ‘she asked for it’ is the idea that she wanted what happened to happen; if she wanted it to happen, she deserved for it to happen. Therefore, the man is not to be blamed” (327). In each present-tense chapter, Keir gives reasons why he could not have raped Gigi and why what happened was a loving moment, reasons based in his unwavering perception of himself as good. Early in the novel, he says, “good guys understand that no means no, and so I could not have done this because I understand, and I love Gigi Boudakian” and “the way it looks is not the way it is,” already shifting blame away from himself (Lynch 3). As more of what happened that night comes forward, it becomes clearer that it is exactly the way it is and clearer that Keir will not admit that he has done it; he even tells her, “whether I did something or I didn’t, I am sorry because of how you feel about it” (Lynch 69). Keir sees himself as so inherently good, as such a good boy because that is what his father, his teammates, and even Gigi herself have all said about him in the past. No one has ever told him he is bad, so he cannot process things he does in that kind of way; he cannot take the blame and shifts it to someone else, so he can remain good in his own eyes. The closest he gets to taking the blame for the rape is saying, “nobody at all can say exactly that they are innocent. I don’t want to prove to you that I’m innocent, Gigi, I just want to prove to you that I’m good. Good is better than innocent because good is possible”(Lynch 162). He begins to accept his guilt, but he still clings to his need to be perceived as good.
Kier Sarafian has an unwavering perception of himself as a good guy—unwavering because he twists his circumstances into ones that allow him to minimize his role in anything that could be perceived as bad. Chris Lynch, author of Inexcusable, uses Keir’s character and his actions to show the danger of the rigid expectations of masculinity society possesses. Keir takes societal expectations of masculinity and goodness and internalizes them without analyzing their meanings and effects. Keir’s constant insistence that he is good, despite a plethora of evidence that he is not, shows the harm that can be done when bad behaviors are not corrected, when boys are not told that they do not have to be the men the see in media or in their day-to-day lives. Keir takes what he sees accepted in the world around him and applies it to himself in ways that suit him and allow him to fit in with other adolescent boys. Because of strong involvement with peers who are negative influences, Keir has no choice but to construct for himself a masculinity that is based off of theirs, with no parental figure to encourage him to think about the choices he is making. Keir wants to be seen as a good guy so desperately that he is quick to denounce the behaviors of others, even when he has shared in said behaviors. Keir’s views are black and white, good and bad, masculine and feminine, with no grey area in between. Lynch uses this novel to show that gender performance can and should be a grey area that Kier cannot see. Masculinity and femininity are not mutually exclusive, but Keir sees them that way, leading him to fulfill as many masculine stereotypes as he can to avoid being perceived as anything other than a good man. Inexcusable critiques commitment to solely what society says is masculine and the behaviors that go along with it. Society often encourages gender to be a specific set of stereotypes, but that can create men like Keir, who rely heavily on male stereotypes and expectations to create a positive self-image while their behavior is dangerous to others. Keir thinks that because he is doing what he feels he is supposed to do and because he has never faced any real consequences for his actions, that he must be a good guy, but Lynch’s portrayal of Keir’s actions shows that this perception is inaccurate.
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