Travon Free wants to flip the script on masculinity

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Hey y’all, it’s Brittany. So, confession time, like a lot of folks, I have been a little scared to speak about Israel and Palestine, don’t get me wrong, I’ve long wanted to make my solidarity with the Palestinian people known. But it’s just I’ve seen the consequences of what happens when you do. Several friends of mine, Black, Palestinian and Jewish folks, have been shunned at work and online for being critical of Israel. I’ve been dragged just for the few words I’ve said this week. I’m a Black Christian woman with no ancestral ties to either place, and I don’t want to be accused of having beliefs I don’t hold or feel pressured into providing, I don’t know, some kind of receipts for work I’ve done with Jewish and Muslim communities, because, frankly, all of that makes it about me, and that misses the point entirely. So,  my momentary fear or someone else’s personal feelings against me are in no way comparable to the challenge of life in the Middle East. What’s happening in Israel and Palestine stems from decades, if not thousands of years of history and trauma and loss of life all around. But this storied history, it can’t be an excuse for cowardice because some things are quite, quite clear; like the forced removal of Palestinians from their homes, like the Israeli forces desecrating one of the most sacred sites in all of Islam during Ramadan. Like the second class citizenship imposed on Palestinians through Israeli law, like dying children and homes reduced to rubble in Gaza. These things aren’t complicated to me and they can’t be deemed acceptable. And my liberation is bound up with anyone suffering in this way. So, I won’t let my momentary fear or the fact that all of us will always have a lot more to learn stop me from saying what needs to be said. Our country’s leaders in America should condemn what the U.N. has continuously defined as Israel’s human rights violations and stop funding these atrocities in our name. Criticizing the government of Israel is not anti-Semitism. A lot of people have been making this point because this distinction matters. As we press on it is also incredibly important that our thoughtful discussions do not veer into anti-Semitism or Islamophobia. Now we can’t defeat oppression if we’re busy oppressing each other. And it certainly can’t be dismantled when we’re too damn afraid to even talk about it. Peace for all is a necessity, and it requires freedom. 


On the show today, Travon Free. I’ll be talking to the writer and director about his Oscar winning film Two Distant Strangers, and why he wants to flip the script on masculinity. 

Travon Free From the moment you are old enough to understand what being a boy meant, you put on that costume and then you picked up the script that society handed you that said this is the boy script. That script was written way too long ago and has not been updated, much like our Constitution. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s coming up, but first, it’s your “UNtrending News.”    

Oh, Gilead is happening y’all. On Monday, the Supreme Court announced that it will review a Mississippi law that would ban nearly all abortions after 15 weeks. The case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, poses a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade and the precedent that a woman has the right to choose an abortion before the fetus is viable, which is usually around twenty four weeks. It’s the first case that will be heard by the court’s new six to three conservative majority that now includes y’all homegirl, Amy Coney Barrett. If Mississippi’s 2018 ban is upheld, it will not only further restrict abortion access in the state where there’s literally one abortion clinic left. It would also pave the way for more abortion bans across the country. According to the Guttmacher Institute, four hundred thirty six abortion restrictions have already been introduced this year, including one hundred forty six nearly outright bans. So, we have to keep fighting to make sure that we do not lose autonomy and agency over our bodies, because if they can ban abortion, what can they ban next? 

Last Thursday, members of the squad in Congress gave some very moving speeches in support of Palestinian rights and against the policy decisions of both the U.S. and the Israeli governments. Alexandrea Ocasio-Cortez sharply critiqued President Biden’s status quo support of Israel. 

Alexandrea Ocasio-Cortez President and many other figures this week stated that Israel has a right to self-defense, but do Palestinians have a right to survive? 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham During her speech, Ayanna Pressley spoke out directly against America’s role in funding all of this. 

Ayanna Pressley We cannot remain silent when our government sends 3.8 billion of military aid to Israel that is used to demolish Palestinian homes, imprison Palestinian children and displace Palestinian families. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Rashida Tlaib who is Palestinian and has a grandmother still living in the occupied West Bank, called out the Biden administration’s lack of empathy for her people. 

Rashida Tlaib If our own State Department can even bring itself to acknowledge the killing of Palestinian children is wrong, well, I will say it for the millions of Americans. No child, Palestinian or Israeli, whoever they are, should ever have to worry that death will rain from the sky. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Ilhan Omar also talked about her own experience of war as a young child and Cori Bush made connections between Palestinians and the Movement for Black Lives. So far, President Biden has yet to condemn Israel’s military actions. But hopefully these speeches will mark an important turning point on this issue within the Democratic Party. It’s been the third rail in Washington for far too long. 

And finally, it turns out that working long hours is literally killing us. I know this is probably not a surprise to you all, but a new study from the World Health Organization found that in 2016 working long hours led to 745 thousand premature deaths. That’s a 29 percent increase since 2000. Specifically, it concludes that working 55 or more hours per week is associated with the higher risk of stroke and dying from heart disease. As for the life expectancy of this overworked crowd, 60 to 79 years. We ain’t meant to work this much y’all. Burnout is real, especially in a pandemic where the boundaries between work and home have been completely blurred. We have not been working from home. We have been living at work. People have been taking on more. So please, take care of yourself and do not forget what Tricia Hersey of the Nap Ministry always says, rest is our divine right. 

So, this past week, I was part of a virtual gathering put on by The Meteor called 21 for 21. The event brought together some incredible leaders to talk about the future of feminism and how we can build a better, freer, more just world. And of course, feminism is not just about changing the ways we raise girls. It’s also about redefining masculinity. And that’s why I was eager to talk to my very smart and talented friend, Travon Free, who’s been working to change the image of what it means to be a man. Trayvon has won Emmys for his comedy writing on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. And last month he won an Academy Award for his debut short film Two Distant Strangers. It is a heartbreaking and timely take on Groundhog Day, in which a Black man is killed by a police officer over and over again. His Oscar speech was powerful. 

Travon Free You know, James Baldwin once said the most despicable thing a person can be is indifferent to other people’s pain. And so I just ask that you please not be indifferent. Please don’t be indifferent to our pain. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I was excited to talk to Travon about the fight for both racial and gender liberation, because as Fannie Lou Hamer reminds us, no one’s free until we’re all free. Travon, first of all, congratulations on your Oscar. It’s pretty fire. 

Travon Free Thank you. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Okay, so before you became an Oscar winning director, you are not new to this you are true to this because you are already an Emmy winning comedy writer. So,  how did the idea of making Two Distant Strangers actually come to you? 

Travon Free You know, it started with seeing the repetition of, you know, Black people being killed on television and in the media. And when you see those stories over and over again, you know, with each one of them, you go through a cycle of emotions where, you know, you’re upset, you’re sad, go through a bout of hopelessness, like, you know, how long are we going to continue to go through this? And then you work your way back to being hopeful and wanting to continue to do the work to try to end the cycle, you know. In — and dealing with that and feeling it so often and then so close together at times. Or you find yourselves repeating the cycle before you’ve gotten all the way through it because another person, you know, gets killed. It put that — that feeling into my head. And I said it out loud. This feels like the worst version of Groundhog Day. And once I had that thought in my head, it was just — it wouldn’t leave. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I mean, you mentioned Groundhog’s Day, and I’m very sure that some viewers would hope that things would have turned out differently for the main character, a Black man named Carter. But spoiler alert y’all, or perhaps that isn’t a spoiler alert. He gets killed by the white cop every time. So, what did you really want viewers to understand about the reality that Black people face? 

Travon Free I wanted people to understand that the constant gaslighting that we get as Black Americans when we’re told you aren’t being killed at a higher rate and each one of these instances would have not happened had you done some performative behavior differently or had you complied with this or done that? I wanted people to understand just how like full of shit those things really are.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah. 

Travon Free And I wanted Black people to feel like they had something they could point to and say, this film tells the story of my emotional experience in the way that I am living it in this country, because so many people had already expressed that to me before I made the movie. And for — for non Black audiences, I wanted them to understand, you know, what it feels like to be us every day. You get to experience a twenty nine minute movie that expresses what twenty four hours of Blackness feels like. And then to land that story with the resilience of Black people, the resilience that we carry and we take every single day out into the world in order to survive and also perform and live and do — be parents and be employees or be bosses or whatever it is. We have to do all that with all those stresses on top of carrying this with us every single day. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham So, there is some humor and some hope in the film, which I really appreciate, but it of course wasn’t easy to watch right? Especially these days, because as you’ve already referenced, we are exposed to this constant barrage of Black trauma on all of our screens, the small ones and the big ones. What was your thought process in terms of that kind of imagery? Were you concerned about triggering your audience? 

Travon Free Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the whole experience was difficult for me to even go through emotionally from writing to filming to editing, which is like living with the images over and over and over and over and over again until you get them right, you know, even emotionally on the screen. And so, you know, I was aware that there was a level of pain that would come with watching the film, especially for Black people. But I felt like the — the message and the point of the film was bigger than the moments of pain, because I think as Black viewers of cinema and television, I think we we have to grow to understand the nature with which our pain, when it’s expressed visually, what it provides for us in reality, what — what story it tells for us in the real world. Because, you know, as Black people, as — as Black filmmakers, we really just gained the ability to tell the truth on screen like recently. And so what you find now is so many of these newly liberated Black filmmakers are now saying the quiet thing out loud, the pain and the trauma that we’ve been whispering about for so long, we get to now bring it front and center so that we can deal with it. And so while I understand people’s cry for Black joy on — on screen and for happy and, you know, Black stories that don’t deal with trauma, it’s important to recognize the place that films and pieces like this play in the larger scope of what what makes up Black cinema and television, because what you don’t want to happen is a crop of Black filmmakers or for the entire spectrum of Black filmmaking to become only about the fantasy of what we want Black life to look like in real life. You know, white filmmakers can tell a story about anything, the hardships that might have been endured during the Holocaust or, Dude, Where’s My Car? Right. And so we have the ability to Dude, Where’s My Car? But what is missing is our ability to tell the truth about our existence as it is through the medium with which we are provided to tell these stories. Because, you know, we don’t have a foundation in film and television the way white people have. We — we have just come to the table and are building this body of work to present what our experience has been like up to this point. And — and so I think there’s definitely room for both things. And I think it’s important to recognize what purpose they both serve and how we as Black people can be honest and confront our pain, then examine how it’s presented. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah, I mean, when you won that Oscar, at first I was busy screaming at my TV child, but after that I listened to this incredibly emotional and impassioned speech you gave acceptance speech you gave at the Academy Awards ceremony where you talk about the danger of that willful ignorance. You quoted James Baldwin, who said the most despicable thing a person can be is indifferent to other people’s pain. So, tell us more like ultimately, what do you hope the audience takes away? 

Travon Free You know, my hope is that, you know, knowing that this film was presented to a largely white, older body of people, it blew me away that we could make a movie like this and be this confronting about an issue that’s so divisive and and win for it. It was — it was very — I mean, if you look at my response after they say our name, I literally was like, holy, holy shit, it actually happened. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham  Yeah. 

Travon Free And so it was to say to the world, to the millions of people watching that what you see in Two Distant Strangers cannot end without you. And I want that feeling that people felt when, you know, when people describe particularly white people, when they describe the — the suffocation they felt watching the movie and the — the way that, you know, all they wanted was for him to survive and get home, I’m like, yeah, I feel that about all of us. Like, take that feeling beyond this film, beyond that last, you know, scroll of names that you see on the movie and want to do something about it, Like anything like just begin the journey of wanting to end police brutality. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah, I mean, this journey is obviously intersected with all the other oppressions. Right? So, I actually want to shift a little bit. You’ve said in conversations we’ve had and publicly that you consider yourself a feminist. So, I want to know how you define your feminism and why do you feel it’s important to actually fight racial, sexual and gender oppression all at the same time? 

Travon Free You know, for me, I, I define my feminism as the the necessary push for the equality of women everywhere in any shape or form, because I know that the — the rising tide of — of that boat only helps not only myself, but the world. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah. 

Travon FreeI mean, I know there’s this idea that somehow the equality of a woman equals the hindrance of a man. And it’s that — you see that same idea when it comes to race. If we give Black people this many positions or this much power it’s at the detriment of white people. And it’s just we know it’s not true. And so, I in my life, I’m always looking for ways to — to prop up people of color and women everywhere. Because, you know, I’ve had — I’ve had the experience of even though I tell people all the time my experience at Full Frontal was beyond incredible because I was working with 90 percent women, maybe even 95 percent women on that show. And having come off a show that was 90, probably 90 percent men, it was such a night and day experience of the — the difference in not only how the space feels, but how it operates in the emotional difference. As a man in that space, you recognize all the ways in which you have to perform as a man in a space filled with men, that you don’t have to do in a space filled with women. And so, you know, for me, it’s how can we communicate to men that what you are doing is an act? Because from the moment you are old enough to understand what being a boy meant, you put on that costume and then you picked up the script that society handed you that said, this is the boy script. This is the man script. Right? And so in doing so, that script was written way too long ago and has not been updated, much like our Constitution. And — and so if you can get men to understand that a lot of the things that are hindering your life are a product of this performance, you are so not free. You are so not free to be who you actually are or want to be or are capable of because you’ve been told you have to perform manhood in order to — to be what you need to be in opposition or relation to women. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah, you know, you have been really committed to changing the image of what it means to be a man. And like you said, those narrow ideas of masculinity, they don’t just hurt women and gender nonconforming people. They hurt men too, right? The ways in which men and masculine presenting people are not allowed to express emotion. Right? They have to suppress feelings. They have to use violence and aggression to portray power. So, how do we actually create a new generation of men who are not constrained, not limited by those old fashioned ideas of hypermasculinity and who are really committed to seeing gender equity as beneficial to their own cause? 

Travon Free You know, I think — I think it starts — I think at first it starts at home. It’s how we raise our boys. Right? Because the first thing they learn about who they are to the world is who their parents allow them to be when they enter the world. Right? It’s who we tell them they are in relation to the world. It’s who we tell them they can be or can’t be. And I think if we stop raising a generation of boys who don’t cry, boys who are tough, boys who have to perform the script as it’s been written, the moment you throw that script out and your son comes to you in tears and you don’t tell him to immediately wipe them away and to stop and instead you replace that with it’s okay to feel sad, it’s okay to cry, you know, get it out, like express yourself, talk about it, be all the things we tell little girls to be in order to separate them from boys and to understand that your masculinity is not tied to your toughness. It’s the thing that’s killing you. It’s the poison in the well of manhood to think that everything you do has to be encased in this steel barrier that is upholding you to society as strong when in actuality you’re being eaten away from the inside, where it’s like you can’t even dress the way you probably really want to dress because of how your male friends might respond to it. You can’t even talk about the fact that you might like musicals because of how your straight male friends might respond to it, which has no bearing on your sexuality whatsoever. And when you let go of that, when you accept the fact that the only thing that has anything to do with who I am as a man is what I choose to be and what I choose to embrace, and that there is no one thing in this world that can dictate who I am as a man other than what I choose. I think it’s a freedom that would curb so much of not only the violence against women, but the — the violence men commit against each other. And I think if we can find a way to raise young men up to understand that you can literally be who and what you want, it has no bearing on your gender or your sexuality. Then we get to a place where we live in a much freer and safer society for everyone, women included. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah, I mean, you talk about the intersections of sexuality in there because so much of the expectation of the performance is a performance of straightness. Right? You openly identify as bisexual. I’m interested what your own process in coming to questioning gender expectations has been like. How have you been thinking through what expectations have been placed on you and your performance of manhood? 

Travon Free For me, it was in my late teens when I was finally understanding who I was into my early 20s. I recognized where so many things I had been taught, bumped up against who I felt I was. And there — there comes a point where you have to decide who do I want to be? Do I want to constantly live with the pain and suffering of trying to perform this thing that I’ve been told I am? Or do I want to just begin right now being who I discovered that I am and let all those things fall away? And I wanted to live as free and as unburdened as possible was the thing that I came to. And I knew well, you know, for so long I’ve been seen as this large masculine athlete who is — what is people — what people hold up as the pinnacle of straightness and heterosexuality. And now I have an opportunity to debunk that myth with my existence. Right? I get to show up to a place and defy everything you know or think you know about sexuality and what straightness looks like, because I’m not any of those things that you would ascribe to me off my appearance. And so once I started that journey of letting go of, you know, especially coming from Compton, like a very rough like neighborhood where any level of perceived weakness can be can be death in some cases, it was am I willing to die in the truth of who I am or live my life in the lie of who I’ve been told to be? And the — the truth just felt so much better. And it — it created this life that I have now. Like everything I’ve built, everything I’ve done is grounded in the truth of knowing who I am at the end of the day. I can walk away from anything and feel good about it. And I think there’s just no greater freedom than that. And I hope — I want more men to experience it. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I’m curious how you think the ideas of Black masculinity and white masculinity differ. Like, are there specific challenges that you feel like you faced because of the performance expectations of Black masculinity in particular? 

Travon Free Yeah, you know, I think because Black masculinity is so rooted in how we got to this country in the first place and the freedom we have in this country now, where in order to be Black, you can’t appear weak in the face of whiteness or white supremacy. It is when you walk out that door as a Black man or woman, a lot of families, you have to be tough. You have to be strong. You have to be all these things. And it makes sense because we have to protect ourselves. There was a period of time in this country where we were being openly murdered, lynched, killed for the color of our skin. And so we had to steel ourselves against that. Now we find ourselves here in 2021 where we are oppressed in a different way. There’s not so much a — a ready made walk out of your door violence in the way it was in the ‘50s and ‘60s but the police still exist. The police still police us in the way that they did fifty, one hundred years ago. And so we are fighting a different battle but now we have to find ways of now examining our Black masculinity and our Black identity for the — the fail safes and the things that we built into it that we no longer need. How do we lighten the load? Right? How do we — how do we become more efficient at being who we are? And I think once we discover what those things are and we become better at understanding them, the stress of Blackness will lessen itself from that particular aspect. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I’m curious if you have names or people that come to mind when you think about what we aspire to, some examples of the kinds of masculinities that you want to see like more of in the world. 

Travon Free Yeah, I mean, I love, you know, my heroes are James Baldwin and Audre Lorde and Bayard Rustin, the people who — who literally put their lives on the line at a time when their identities were, you know, very, very difficult to exist within. And now I look at the RuPauls and the Billy Porters and the people who get to express themselves as Black men in a way that we’ve never seen before and be celebrated for it. I mean, I think that is — is tremendous. And, you know, I think about myself growing up and I wonder, you know, who I would be if I didn’t have the barriers that were in place when I was discovering myself and creating whatever masculine shell I was going to live in, because now a boy can grow up and if you happen to live in the right family or household, you are free to wear a dress and wear makeup and — or alter the things that just feel right to you. Whereas that just wasn’t what it was like when I was growing up. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I mean, while we’re talking about young Travon, do you have advice for young men today that you wish maybe you would have heard back in the day yourself? Young men who may or may not be confined by or beginning to question what masculinity actually means? And what in the heck all these limiting gender expectations are supposed to mean? Like, do you have a word for young Travon, a word for all the young Travons in the world? 

Travon Free Yeah, I mean, I guess if I — if I had to boil it down to a word, I would say, you know, truth. Like live in what feels true to you. And sometimes you don’t have the luxury of choosing freedom until you get to a certain age. And that’s completely fine. And that’s just, unfortunately, the world we live in. But if you have the choice to honor your truth at an early age, honor it because it will serve you and the world so much better as you become an adult in this society. And we need more people who are living in that truth. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s the word of the day, kids, truth. Travon, thank you for bringing it to us like you always do. 

Travon Free Thank you, Brittany. Thank you so much for doing this and for having me. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Travon Free is the writer and co-director of the Oscar winning short film, Two Distant Strangers. Your masculinity is not tied to your toughness. It’s the thing that’s killing you, it’s the poison in the well of manhood. Travon stays spitting bars and he is absolutely right. It is not just women who need to be liberated from gender stereotypes and expectations. Men need to be free too y’all. There’s actually not a way to reach that beautiful intersectional feminist future without dismantling patriarchy and redefining what it means to be a man. I mean, it’s all that toxic masculinity that got us here in the first place. And slowly things are changing. Travon mentioned role models like RuPaul and Billy Porter. I’m also thinking about Lil Nas X and Frank Ocean, Harry Styles, Jonathan Van Ness, Elliott Page. I hope we see more men living in their fully authentic truth. And I’m glad that Travon was the very first dude on our pod to help us spread the word. 

That’s it for today, but y’all know, never for tomorrow. 


UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 

Our lead producer is Rachel Matlow. 

Our associate producer is Taylor Hosking. 

Thanks also to Treasure Brooks, Grace Chen and Hannis Brown.

Our executive producers at The Meteor are Cindi Leive and myself, and our executive producers at Pineapple are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. 

You can follow me @MsPackyetti on all social media and our team @TheMeteor. 

Subscribe to UNDISTRACTED and rate us on Spotify, Apple Podcast or wherever you check out your favorite podcasts. 

Thanks for listening. Thanks for being. Thanks for doing. 

I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Let’s go get free y’all.