I was waiting to see Todd Phillips’ controversial Joker before writing this post but now that I have seen it, I have very little to express about it –except indifference. And puzzlement that Mr. Cow Saviour (a.k.a. Joaquin Phoenix) has chosen to play a creep rather than a vegan hero, a figure we really need. I also feel nostalgia for the late Heath Ledger and his marvellous ability to lend Joker an air of mystery: we never know who the villain really is nor can we predict any of his reactions. Phillips and Phoenix’s Joker is, in contrast, a victim of mental health issues that have nothing to do with the colossal sense of entitlement behind villainy. To tell the truth, I found movie and characters more pathetic than thrilling in any way. I wasn’t even offended with this umpteenth portrait of the white heterosexual male as victim. I was, in contrast, incensed by a much smaller film, which is the inspiration for today’s ranting.
David Yarovesky’s film Brightburn(2019), written by Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn is a horror film full of gory violence which uses as its starting point a scene that will immediately sound familiar. Tori and Kyle are a couple of farmers in Kansas unable to have children. One evening, as they get ready to try again, a strange artefact lands on their backyard. Next thing we know, they have an adopted twelve-year-old son, Brandon. As he hits puberty, the boy starts noticing that there is something odd about him, manifested in his uncanny powers to move heavy objects, materialize elsewhere, and so on. Yes, this is Superman’s story but with the darkest possible twist; spiteful, entitled Brandon totally outcreeps Phoenix’s Joker, believe me. I stopped watching the movie after a particularly gruesome murder. I next checked the spoilers on IMDB [skip the lines until the end of the paragraph!!!] and was scandalized to learn that horrid Brandon gets away with his violent rampage against parents, family, and fellow citizens. Just the story we need in our times!
[Spoiler alert over] I’m not fond of superhero comics or cinema but I think that characterising Superman as an evil pre-teen boy is much more than a bad plot decision: it is a sign of the decadence of the United States as a civilization incapable of furnishing its men with adequate role models. I’m sure that the scriptwriters would disagree and defend their work as a dark take on so many absurd superhero movies. Yet, though I would certainly welcome healthy parody, their screenplay is just a very unhealthy revision of the only genuine hero left from the Marvel and DC combined collection. How about Tony Stark, Thor, and all the others? What makes Superman special, you might be asking? Call me naïve but he is the only one without dark corners: meek as a man, humble as a hero, always gallant, helpful, altruistic, devoted to doing good. No wonder he is an alien from outer space! If we lose Superman, then we are all lost.
Brightburn, although just a minor horror film, is a clear symptom of a terminal malady, I insist: the American/Western/world-wide (choose!) inability to imagine positive representations of masculinity as role models for boys. This is a conversation I’m having with my doctoral student Josie Swarbrick and my good friend Isabel Santaulària. Josie is finishing her dissertation on the monstrous images of men in recent science-fiction cinema and, now that we are at the end of the road, we have realized that negative representation is dominant. It seems that as women make progress towards better representation in fiction and the media, and personal advance in real life, men retreat, showing themselves under the worst possible light and behaving in bad ways which show an evident increase in misogyny, homophobia, racism, etc. Isabel and I have the project of editing a volume on the good guys that might be an alternative to those nasty boys but we are having serious trouble finding examples. If you know of any, email me.
It is very difficult to say with certainty when the hero –as the highest male role model– started losing his charisma but he is now in the same position as the fairy Tinkerbell in performances of Peter Pan: unless the audience screams for him to reappear, he will vanish for ever. He cannot be the same man he used to be: boys do not need military genocides as role models, or patriarchal abusers of power. Boys need civic heroes: men who work for the good of the community without seeking personal empowerment, and who do so because they think it is their duty. Yes, I’m describing Harry Potter, possibly the last big hero, though if you notice few really admire him except for his ability to do magic. Certainly actor Daniel Radcliffe, who has done the impossible to play really whacky roles in whacky films, is no Potter admirer. Possibly the best boy character of recent years is Miguel, the protagonist of Pixar’s perfect animated film Coco (2017) but I have not read anything in his praise. Just let me say that Miguel and the Brandon of Brightburn are as different as two twelve-year-olds can be, and it’s easy to say who you want your boys to imitate.
Am I exaggerating? Not at all. Girls are increasingly benefitting from the feminist demand of better representation for women. It has been understood that fictional representation is extremely important for little girls to imagine themselves as self-confident persons capable of overcoming patriarchal pressures. There is much to be done along that road because female representation is still very limited in variety but the case is that, whether out of political correctness or sincere feminist belief, the number of positive women characters is growing. The mirror held up to girls is returning a much better image. In contrast, the mirror help up to boys is reflecting a much diminished image of masculinity. Who do boys see on the news or in representation today? Corrupt politicians –beginning with the President of the USA–, rapists (Weinstein and company), mass and serial killers (on Facebook transmitting live or on the many true crime series of the streaming platforms), young men of talent killed by drugs and rampant gang violence (I have lost count of the rap stars killed that way), cheating sportsmen (Lance Armstrong, anyone?)… Where, I wonder, are the charismatic men, the truly good men? Please, don’t name insipid Leo Messi.
If you do a quick Google search, as I have done, the panorama is devastating. Click in “good men” and this leads to the controversial website The Good Men Project (https://goodmenproject.com/about/), which went through a serious crisis in 2013 when a female contributor claimed that a ‘nice guy’ who had sexually assaulted a woman should not be really treated as a rapist (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/dec/18/nice-guys-commit-rape-conversation-unhelpful). The Wikipedia entry for the label ‘nice guy’ warns that the term can be used negatively in relation to “a male who is unassertive, does not express his true feelings and, in the context of dating (in which the term is often used), dishonestly uses acts of ostensible friendship and basic social etiquette with the unstated aim of progressing to a romantic or sexual relationship”. The ‘nice guy’ as major creep is the object of a vicious attack on the website Heartless Bitches International (http://www.heartless-bitches.com/rants/niceguys/ng.shtml). “All too often”, the contributors write, “we hear self-professed ‘Nice Guys’ complaining about why they can’t get a date, and whining that women just want to date jerks, etc. etc. The truth of the matter is that there are genuinely caring, compassionate, decent, fun guys out there who have NO TROUBLE meeting people, getting dates, and having relationships”. Notice two things: a) the problematic ‘nice guys’ are the ones describing themselves as such (whether you are a nice guy, or a good man, this is judgement other people should pass); b) the “genuinely caring, compassionate, decent, fun guys out there” are like unicorns: often mentioned, much loved, but never seen in the flesh. Show me who they are, please…
One of the creepiest things I found out during this hurried search is that Hasbro had marketed for a few years in the mid to late 1980s Mr. Buddy, a male doll intended to be a pal for little boys (see https://nothingbutnostalgia.com/my-buddy-doll/). Screen writer Don Mancini transformed Mr. Buddy into Chuckie, the Good Guy doll protagonist of the slasher film franchise Child’s Play, started in 1988 and still ongoing (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child%27s_Play_(franchise)). This is a doll and I’m reluctant to take 1988 as the departure point for this negative view of men I am describing. I am, though, unable to fix a specific date for the beginning of the current process. When, in short, do men start focusing on nasty male characters as protagonists, pushing the do-gooders to the margins? If you follow my drift, what I mean is that even though there have always been negative representations of masculinity (I have just published a book on patriarchal villainy…), there is a tipping point after which the bad guy takes centre stage. I have the strong suspicion that the trend begins in 1950s USA, with novels such Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (1952) and Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo (also 1952), and that it might be connected with the extremely traumatic but silenced experience of men in WWII. I cannot tell for sure. Others might argue that the Vietnam War is the trauma that makes it impossible for American men to still believe in positive representation. Rambo replaces John Wayne, whose ridiculous movie The Green Berets, of 1968, is certainly anachronistic. But when exactly the hero begins his downhill journey into decadence remains elusive to me.
I’ll finish by stressing that I’m writing this post for feminist selfish reasons. In recent fiction and even ads (the Audi ad with Romeo and Juliet, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4yu4hLYEwak&list=PLE48D5CD449F1818D) young women abandon toxic relationships to proclaim their independence, or simply free themselves from burdens they dislike (haven’t you seen Frozen 2 yet?!). Heterosexual relationships, though, are assumed to be short-lived affairs with a long string of men who always turn out to be inadequate. One thing, I must say, is enjoying your sex life as a free woman, tasting as much happy variety as you want, and quite another moving onto the next guy because all of them are below par as companions. Check what women say of their Tinder dates, wonder why so many Satisfyers have been sold, and come to the conclusion I have reached: heterosexual women do not really like heterosexual men. I’ll go further: heterosexual men are beginning not to like themselves because they have no positive role models to measure themselves against. It’s not just a matter of what women want from men but of what men have lost in the process of facing the worst aspects of patriarchy. Very selfishly I’ll claim that positive role models are necessary, particularly for heterosexual men (I think other men are doing much better), because without them I see little personal happiness in heterosexual women’s love lives. Women, of course, could do better if they stopped overvaluing the bad boys and praising the real nice guys as the good men we all need.
I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/