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Friday, May 23, 2008


The Man of Vengeful Peace

An interesting discussion is going on at Slacktivist, talking about the way the Macho Sue myth is used to argue that any kind of political negotiation is tantamount to treasonable appeasement. It's intriguing, and I'd urge you to go and check it out.

It's also got me thinking of something else, to do with fiction rather than politics: the problem of male role models in today's movies.

Men watch the action film, right? Images of masculinity are all over the cinema and always have been - but there's something that stands out. Who, among these male leads, would you actually want to be? Not just for the duration of the adventure, but for your life, for your self, who would you choose to be?

My boyfriend and I were spending last weekend with some married friends, and the two men - both of them decent, unaggressive, masculine people - got into a discussion about how men seem to be presented in current films. There's the ultra-macho action man, typified by 300, a film I never stop hating on - but 300 itself is problematic: the ethos of it is so exaggeratedly macho that it ends up looking thoroughly camp. Slightly less extreme films may look less camp, but they still suffer from a basic problem: very few people in any way resemble Jean-Claude van Damme, any more than they resemble The Incredible Hulk in a green mood. The manhood of such extreme action heroes is so exaggerated that it becomes almost abstract, symbolic, a world of cartoonish absolutism that has no connection to real life. Such films are hardly the place to look for role models.

The other fella, who reads more science fiction than me, commented that there's been a rise of 'strong female characters' in that genre since the 1990s, which can't be bad, but in terms of male role models, it's not uncommon for the men in such set-ups to be goofy sidekicks, again, hardly a great model.

Where are the men, we asked? And then our friend pointed out something interesting: that in the more intelligent action films of late - the Bourne movies, Casino Royale - you have men who are undoubtedly strong, but who are also in some way damaged. A man can be masculine, competent, and capable of winning a fight, but only if the film-makers added in some emotional problems.

And thinking about that, I had a realisation: of course there's a problem. The terms of the discussion are all wrong. Because here's the thing: if you're capable of sustained and repeated violence, you do have something wrong with you. But that's what films present manhood as being.

I'm not talking about boxers or martial artists, to be clear; I'm talking about people who can use lethal force. Most people can't. It's not because they're weak, it's because normal people have a strong aversion to killing members of their own species. Studies have found that, without strong conditioning, soldiers have a time-honoured, secret custom of firing into the air, each probably convinced that his comrades are firing at the enemy, but each, whatever his intentions, finding himself simply unable to pull the trigger and send a bullet into a living man. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman in his valuable book On Killing remarks that there are four reactions under stress: fight, flight, posture and submit - and that the vast majority of people prefer to posture than to fight. You fire your gun and make a lot of noise, or you wave your spear and yell, or you deliver non-injurious shoves to the shoulders saying, 'Yeah? Yeah? Come on then, come on!' ... and basically you crack antlers, establish dominance, and the issue is settled without anybody getting badly hurt. Grossman remarks:

That the average man will not kill even at the risk of all he holds dear has been largely ignored by those who attempt to understand the psychological and social pressures of the battlefield. Looking another human being in the eye, making an independent decision to kill him, and watching as he dies due to your action combine to form the single most basic, important, primal, and potentially traumatic occurrence of war.

After all, he points out, battlefield surgeons are often in just as much danger as the soldiers, yet soldiers suffer much greater psychological injury from the stress of battle. The only difference is this: the surgeons are not expected to kill. They may be expected to die, but the risk of death seems to be easier to heal from than the risk of becoming a killer. The sudden, compelling resistance in your trigger finger is an almost universal trait, and you break it at your peril.

There are exceptions. But they're not happy exceptions. Some people can kill without trauma: these are sociopaths. There's something profoundly wrong with their empathy, their ability to feel emotions, their capacity for consideration or remorse. And there are others, too, who are able to kill, to fight rather than posture, under pressure. People fond of that lousy dogs-wolf-sheep analogy regard them as the dogs protecting sheep from wolves (in a battlefield, if you think about it, the odds are that you have dogs fighting dogs while the political wolves slink around the edges, ready to pick over the carcasses); others refer to them as 'warriors'. An oft-cited example is the much-decorated veteran Audie Murphy, who famously answered the question of how he found the courage to fight an entire company of German infantry by the simple statement: 'They were killing my friends'.

But, though Murphy went on to a career as a movie star and public hero, he was not a happy man. In Stiffed, Susan Faludi describes his perpetual inability to settle to peace, searching the streets for thugs he could beat up, sleeping with a gun under his pillow, plagued with insomnia and nightmares, and struggling with feelings a hero wasn't supposed to express:

He wrote that he had 'shed the idea that human life is sacred.' Finding himself in the ruins of the Riviera on the day of Germany's surrender, Murphy recalled his mood among the revelers. 'In the streets, crowded with merrymakers, I feel only a vague irritation,' he wrote. 'There is VE-Day without, but no peace within. Like a horror film run backwards, images of the war flicker through my brain ... It is as though a fire had roared through this human house, leaving only the charred hulk of something that once was green. Within a couple of hours, I have had enough. I return to my room. But I cannot sleep. My mind still whirls. When I was a child, I was told that men were branded by war. Has the brand been put on me? Have the years of blood and ruin stripped me of all decency? Of all belief?'

Murphy himself said that the 'nasty business' of war was 'not the sort of job that a man should get a medal for. I'll tell you what bothers me. What if my sons try to live up to my image? What if people expect it of them?'

Audie Murphy was brave, self-aware and intelligent - but there was something wrong with him, and he knew it: he was capable of violence. This is the problem with male action heroes we face today. What in reality is a flaw, a crack in the ice that may only harm others in the case of a psychopath, but will harm the hero as well if he has any virtues, is being presented as the essential quality of manhood.

But where are the alternatives? A favourite hero of my boyfriend's, and mine as well, is Juror Number Eight, the man in the white suit, played by Peter Fonda in 12 Angry Men. This man - Davis by name, as we learn at the end - is unquestionably masculine. The references to his personal life are scant but successful: he's an architect, a profession both artistic and technical, with three children - not merely two, like many couples, but a slightly above-average fertility. Davis is fairly ordinary, even down to his name, but at the same time, he's heroic. 'This man has been standing alone', a sympathetic fellow-juror remarks, naming the quality of heroes everywhere. But Davis's virtues are about moral and intellectual strength, not physical. He keeps control of his temper, he forges relationships with others in the room, he holds to his principles, he strives for fairness, he works out the logic of the case and encourages others to do likewise, and what he ends up saving, in microcosm, is the whole ideal of justice. Notably, we never find out if the boy he saves from the chair actually did commit the murder, and that isn't the point. It's not about being right, it's about trying to fulfil your civic duty. As another juror says, 'You can't send a man off to die on evidence like that!', and that's the point: you may or may not be right, but as long as you're not sure, you hold to the principle of innocent until proven guilty, and thus civilisation stands.

Davis, in fact, is entirely free of violence - the jurors who get angry and show violent feelings are presented as wrong, not just disagreeable but neglectful of their civic duty because they can't control a personal mean streak. It's only by avoiding conflict that the issues gets solved. Davis is a maintainer, not a frontiersman, and offers the kind of heroism that a reasonable person may aspire to.

Realistically, most people don't get into fights very often. There are all sorts of masculine virtues that don't involve violence - most of them virtues women can have as well, but nobody rational considers that men and women are such opposites that no quality can be possessed by both sexes. Decency, patience, self-control, stability, competence, integrity, creativity, stamina, honesty ... these are all qualities that daily life calls for far more often than the ability to win a punch-up or fire a weapon. And they're all qualities far more likely to lead to the kind of lives that most men actually want.

But we can't quite get past that violence. Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson remark in Raising Cain: 'Popular movies aimed at boys seem to prize only one kind of courage: standing up to a physically larger opponent.' This is why He was a man of peace ... until they came for his family! is such a compelling storyline. Most men are not naturally violent, and don't really want to fight anyone. What they are good at is loving their families, because men are people and people do love their families, and a man who's a good husband and father makes a tremendous contribution to the happiness of the world. But at the same time, men are supposed to be fighters. So a gentle man may end up saying to himself, 'What would I actually be prepared to fight for? Well, I guess if someone threatened my wife and kids...' The Man of Vengeful Peace is someone whose life resembles the majority of his audience's at the beginning of the story, but who is given a set of circumstances that, however improbable, push him into acting like the template action hero that the men of the audience do not, cannot, need not resemble.

But where are the men who make things? Where are the men who teach, or guide, or innovate, or improve? Not in the action movies, that's for sure - and that's the only genre particularly aimed at men. Romance is the genre aimed at women, and many women enjoy a good love story just as much as many men enjoy a good high-octane thriller - but women tired long ago of being offered no other heroic role than that of the swooning, rescued bride. The romance heroine by herself is not a malign figure if she's done well, any more than the physically brave hero is inherently wrong if he's done well, but it insults and stifles an entire sex to be presented with only one model of heroism. All of us deserve better.

And the world needs better. We find killing difficult, On Killing explains, but there are degrees of difficulty. Killing a man with your bare hands is harder than killing a man a knife's distance away from you, is harder than killing a man at bayonet range, is harder than killing a man the distance of a bullet away, is harder than pressing a button and dropping bombs onto an undistinguished blur of houses below. If we measure manhood in willingness to kill, but most men are not killers, what are we going to do? There are two choices. Either we must redefine our notions of manhood, recognising the virtue of the man who quails to kill his brother, or we must find ways of preserving the fantasy. To preserve the fantasy, we need killings, to prove that we have men who performed them. And how to do that? Training that overrides the soldier's natural hesitation is now a common part of the army, but you cannot train out the trauma that follows. The rate of suicide in army veterans currently stands at the highest figure in nearly three decades of record-keeping, and a third of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans - over thirty thousand souls - are suffering from some kind of mental illness. The lists of the psychologically wounded are rising, men and women who did things they were never born to do. And what's the other solution? Engineer situations in which killing is as easy as possible. A bomb dropped from a plane may cause less hesitation in the pilot, but it kills a lot of people below.

It's time to separate manhood from violence. It insults men, and endangers us all.

I love this post. I had the same realization five years ago, when the Matrix sequels came out. I’m not sure what prompted it, but I suddenly realized that Trinity was once a young girl, that didn’t quite fit into the world. She was given a choice that she didn’t understand, COULDN’T understand, and Morpheus snatched her away from her family, her life, to serve in his war against the machines; he conscripted her into his own child army.

Reloaded and Revolutions were pretty dull, but I was suddenly aware of a narrative unfolding beneath what we were seeing on the screen, and it was profoundly creepy. I find Morpheus a vaguely monstrous figure for this reason, and Trinity a tragic warrior who fights the machines because she has nothing else; Morpheus took her life from her, and she is sustained only by a vague prophecy of a coming Saviour.

Examples of this sort of protagonist abound in Japanese animation. When I first got into anime, the thing that most struck me was the prevalence of one particular character type: the pubescent killer, a perfect weapon in the form of a child, angel-faced with an astounding capacity to inflict death and destruction on human beings. See Kirika Yuumura in NOIR, the children in Neon Genesis Evangelion, the Gunslinger Girls, the twins in Black Lagoon, Burst Angel. When it comes to racking up a body count, these kids could easily match up to any of the musclebound killers played by Stallone or Schwarzenegger.

But these kids do not possess the physique of a John Rambo or a John Matrix; they cannot represent some idealized vision of strength or virility. There is no monster or Goliath for them to slay. They were created to kill human beings. They were given a tremendous talent to end the lives of others, and as payment for this talent, they were robbed of their childhoods, of their innocence, and of any chance of normalcy.

You mentioned Jason Bourne, and I think that that is a good example of a film that recognizes that willingness to kill another human being is indicative of a serious dysfunction. Achilles and Cuchulainn were most remarkable for their astounding ability to end the lives of their enemies, but we should always be mindful of the prices that they paid for their ‘gifts’.
There's a seriously disturbing Agatha Christie short story in which a rather unpleasant young woman tests all her would-be suitors by staging a fake kidnapping to see what they do. She then ends up marrying the one who beats up the "kidnapper". This is supposed to be a happy ending, as though tying yourself to someone for life based purely on their high capacity for physical violence made any sense at all.

Given that story was written about fifty years ago, it's a bit shocking how little's changed. I mean, there's still a great deal of anti-female sexism, I'd be the last one to argue with that, but at least a woman looking for a popular culture narrative where a positively portrayed woman is at the core of the story can now take her pick of anything from Mills & Boon to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A man is still stuck with the one-size-really-doesn't-fit-all action hero, the one who kills without remorse in a good cause (or at least a cause he's decided is good, which is a whole separate ball game). We really need more diverse images of male heroes in our pop culture. Ones that aren't sociopaths pretty much by definition, the way the action hero is.

See you!
Methinks you use the phrase "beck fever" too specifically. It can mean _any_ sort of rookie fuck-up, from freezing up and not shooting, to panicking and shooting the wrong people.
Hi Mike. Thanks for the info; I've changed the sentence accordingly. :-)
I think the problem is subtractive masculinity. If manhood is defined not as "being a good person and male" it's easy to have role models like Atticus Finch. But if manhood is a virtue that women do not display, then only strength and violence will do. At the extreme, every other virtue becomes effete, unmanly, because it does not show you are a *man*.

I think the idea that men and women are complementary, "made to match" and balance each other, very easily slides over into subtractive masculinity.
That's really interesting, it's a lot like that thing Virginia Woolf says in A Room of One's Own about (and I don't have a copy on me, so apologies if I misquote) "women have served all these centuries as mirrors with the delightful power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size".

She says people need to believe in themselves, and for men it's a kind of shortcut to self belief to say "well, I'm better than a woman anyway". Or something like that. Anyway, that's kind of interesting, particularly given we're talking about modern-day pop culture: these days, it's pretty generally accepted that women can do the vast majority of things as well as men or in some cases better. About the only thing men are definitely, indubitably better at is extreme violence. So films end up glorifying extreme violence because the men who make them want to see themselves, reflected in that pop-cultural mirror, twice their natural size.

And the problem with that, of course, is that they end up peddling a vision of masculinity that is, as Kit points out, not only insulting but actually harmful.
Hey Kit.

Great post, really interesting and well put.

I think part of the problem is this gendering of genres. I am a man and love a good romance as much as a good action film. As in I love good stuff. Which means interesting and engaging and "real". So a great action film is Terminator because its complicated and says complicated things about the world and life and a terrible action film is... well most of them in my experience. But at the same time The Wedding Singer is perfectly capable of making me cry and laugh (but not any other adam sandler films, apart from punch drunk love).

Anyway thats a bit of a tangent. What I am trying to say is that when we split things up into genres we always do damage (although we need systems to make sense of the information saturated world) but when we gender them we are doing a very bad thing. The connnection of men and action heroes is being broken down. As your friend said science fiction has been attempting to break things down for a while. Nowadays you tend to get women who are both objectified and liberated (as weird as that combination is) in that genre. And the intergection of more rounded female characters, who often take the lead roles (i.e. The Aliens films or Buffy) is a great combination as it has the effect of making the action more real and less macho and simplistic with dispelling the idea that men are active and women are passive within life.

The sad thing is there is lots of great art being made that deal with men and women realistically and powerfully and examine all these areas of life (The Wire being the most obvious example of work that can reflect the human condition back at us) and there is a lot of great art that explores our dreams and thoughts about who we are and what we are. It's just that the most popular fiction that is consumed tends not to fit these criteria. Or rather than popular perhaps I should say the most promoted work. Some are happily box office flops and often the most popular is the most evocative of what it is to be humans.

You are right. We deserve better. We deserve to have what art is great to be the art that has the money behind it. That gets pushed to people. Or better still reduce the pushing and calm things down and make it easier for people to decide for themselves.

I think roll models is almost a red herring. If we were given realistic representations of ourselves on screen then we would be able to form ideas of what and who we are in relation to them without feeling the need to be them. The grey areas are what we all are but it is always black and white that we aspire to.
Huh, some of your phrasing tripped a trigger from Sunday School--in the New Testament, after listing vices such as "hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy", the author of the letter to the Galatian church lists the expected results of a mature Christian life, definitely not 'merely feminine' qualities: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self‑control. Against such things there is no law."

Compare to Macho RTC Jesus. :(

(Ahaha, I keep quoting St. Paul at you. Sorry. All those years of church school gotta be good for something eh?)
The romance heroine by herself is not a malign figure if she's done well, any more than the physically brave hero is inherently wrong if he's done well, but it insults and stifles an entire sex to be presented with only one model of heroism. All of us deserve better.

This. Yes.

It makes me very, very happy to be reminded that killing is NOT easy and NOT wired into our brains. It's somehow comforting to know that we really are, as a species, more inclined to build and love than to kill, whatever our gender. Very cool. (Terry Pratchett says when discussing crime on the Discworld, it's a lot easier to kill someone you know and hate than some random stranger--when a person kills their spouse or neighbour, they have a *reason* that overrides their natural non-murderous instinct.)
(Also, I'm finally scooting over to read Doctor Science's essay on subtractive masculinity--a term I love, btw.)
It could be that violence as a male prerogative was more often talked about (or threatened) in times past than actually carried out. I'm thinking of the ancient Friesians, ancestors of the Dutch, who wrested their land inch by inch from the sea by building terps, (heaps of earth/manure from their barnyards, carried out at low tide and shaped into little island-like structures) which were then laboriously connected by walls of similar material. When a large enough area of the ocean bed had been closed off, the one remaining opening was blocked by a final wall, and when the sea rushed back in at high tide, the formerly-under-water area was more or less dry, ready to be prepared for agriculture.

The problem with these reclaimed areas, as with most of present-day Holland, is that the sea is always trying to get its property back. We all remember the story of the boy who plugged the hole in the dike with his own fist and saved his village from destruction. (Dutch people know that this isn't the way the dike breaks, one drip at a time--it usually comes down with a crash during a storm--but for the rest of us it was a memorable story of childhood heroism when we were young.) The dikes must be watched, maintained and repaired constantly to prevent Holland, the land-below-sea-level, from reverting to underwater real estate.

According to historians, the Friesians were a pretty aggressive lot, who would fight anyone--strangers or each other--at the slightest provocation. Perhaps this combativeness was due to the difficulty and brutality of their subsistence lifestyle. However, during the storms that threatened their homes, they would drop everything and, together, man these hand-hewn earthen dikes until it looked as though the situation was stable once again. I am guessing that at least some of the women were left at home to take care of babies and children, keeping them safe and out of the way of the dike-protectors. (Like it or not, this important job has frequently been the lot of women throughout history--not as invariably as many would have us believe, but some of the time, anyway.) However, only the men were penalized for failing to show up during a battle with the sea. If an able-bodied guy refused to help out in this time of dire and immediately life-threatening emergency, the prescribed punishment was to bury him, alive, in the dike.

My point is that I'm guessing this didn't happen too often, but that the existence of a punishment of this severity underscored the perceived seriousness of such delinquent behaviour. Kind of another case of "He was killing my friends," only in this case, the one doing the killing was a force of nature, and the human "criminal" was seen as aiding & abetting the enemy.

(Facts borrowed from "Of Dikes and Windmills" by Peter Spier.)
First, an FYI, sending email to kit at kitwhitfield daht comm bounces, complainging about a yahoo address.

Second, the short of what I was tryign to send boils down to a "War Pr0n" test I came up with a while ago trying to develop a way to objectively measure what you would call the "macho sue" narrative in a story. I ended up with a short list of things to check for and a point system. "300" scored a total of 600 war pr0n points.

You can read the test and the specific points for "300" at warpr0n.com.
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