Thursday, August 19, 2010

My Granddad Can Lick Your Granddad: Comments on a Review of The Expendables

Josh Tyler has a review of The Expendables over at Cinema Blend.   I haven't seen the movie and have no plans to, but Tyler's review deserves some comments.  Tyler describes the movie as bringing to the screen a certain vision of masculinity that he says has been lost in recent years, and in the process pays backhanded compliments to his grandfather.   He begins the review like this:

When my grandfather was born ninety years ago, he was pushed into a world which expected certain things from him because of his gender. He was a man, he had to stand on his own two feet. He would be a provider, a fixer, and when it was called for, a fighter. A man had to be independent. A man had to be strong. A man had to be in charge. A man had hair on his chest and even more hair on his balls. He’d take care of women, knowing that they couldn’t take care of themselves. He’d keep his emotions to himself, because there were things to be done and no time for tears. He’d make a living with his hands, he’d grow calluses on his finger tips. A man’s role was certain, you were born knowing what kind of a person you were supposed to be.  [more...]

He describes The Expendables as hearkening back to the time of his grandfather, but as he moves into the actual discussion of the movie, he says this:

Every second of The Expendables howls caveman; it screams muscles, and sweat, and grit. You’ll never see any of the Men in this movie in a Toyota Prius. They ride motorcycles whenever possible. If one of these Men needs to drive a four-wheeled vehicle, then that vehicle must be a vintage pickup which growls with unseen power as it prowls down the road. Their guns blaze across the screen with a throaty, manly noise. Every bullet fired is like the roar of a lion, echoing across the savanna. But technology is never used, by anyone, when muscles will do. Why fire off a rocket, when you can hurl missles at your enemies using only the power of your bulging forearm? Characters grunt their lines at the screen, they wear their manhood on their sleeve. If someone gets a tattoo, they get it while sitting on a motorcycle, because while tattoos are manly chairs are for sissies. [more...]

One of these things is not like the other. Aside from the snide remarks about women not being able to take care of themselves and hair on balls, the description of manhood in the first quoted paragraph is worlds away from the description in the second.

I too have a manly grandfather, but he isn't about bulging muscles, grunts, or tattoos.  He came through the Great Depression and fought in World War II.  He taught himself to play the guitar.  He married one woman and stayed married.  He takes his hat off indoors.  He bought a piece of land that had driven previous owners broke and worked it by the sweat of his brow until he had saved enough to send his kids to college.  He doesn't guzzle beer and punch people in the face.  He doesn't drink at all.  He dislikes war films in which drill sergeants scream at the new recruits, because when he was a soldier, soldiers addressed each other calmly and respectfully, like gentlemen.  I have never heard my grandfather brag.  I don't think I've even heard him raise his voice.  He isn't the type to show off bulging muscles and probably never was.  He dresses modestly and practically, and wears a suit on Sunday.

Some years ago, it occurred to me that we may be suffering such a dearth of positive examples of masculinity that we're actually forgetting what it looks like.  I first began to think this when I encountered information about the Christian author of Wild at Heart, John Eldredge, who seems to think truly manly Christian men spend their time hiking and going to dude ranches.  The reductio ad absurdum of Eldredge's brand of Christianity is probably to be found in the Church for Men, whose writers describe everything they like in Christianity as masculine and everything they don't like as feminine.

I again worried that we'd forgotten what masculinity is when I saw 300, a movie I detested, which depicts the ideal man as a screaming, perpetually angry underwear model.  As he appears in that film, Leonidas looks more than anything like an overgrown five-year-old throwing a tantrum with a spear.

Now here it is again in Tyler's review, that same notion that being manly is about enjoying yourself, raging on everybody else, and showing off.  I don't know what Josh Tyler's grandfather was like; maybe he really was the sort of man who hurled missiles with his bulging forearm and talked about his hairy balls, but that's not the image of masculinity I get from my grandfather.  My grandfather is simply a self-controlled and abstemious man who treats others with courtesy, does what needs doing, and doesn't complain.  But masculinity as it appears in Eldredge or 300 or Tyler's movie review appears to be largely about telling the world how masculine you are.

That reminds me of something G. K. Chesterton wrote somewhere or other.  He says it isn't the healthy who are always talking about their health, but the sick.  Healthy people can afford not to think about their health.  If a man believes he has to show off his masculinity all the time, what does that say?   I have never heard my grandfather talk about his masculinity.

Our vision of manhood has largely degenerated into one of braggadocio and violence, which makes manhood that much easier to ridicule and dismiss.  Tyler wavers between praising and dismissing manhood.  Although Tyler argues that men need bloody, sweaty films like The Expendables, he also keeps insisting, "Most of those changes have been for the better."  He describes himself as a "weakling nerd," and says, "I like it that way."  Manhood, by contrast, he describes as the "inner caveman."

But I think what Tyler is calling the "inner caveman" isn't really the inner man.  It's more like the inner animal.  I too have the drives Tyler describes.  I too like action films.  I too would like to slaughter my enemies, but I don't mistake that urge for manliness.  Manliness, masculine power, or virtue, as it is sometimes called, is self-mastery, self-control.  It means properly restraining and harnessing the drives.  Outwardly, it manifests in being courteous, in not whining, and in getting things done, even if those things that need done are humiliating.  It may indeed involve violence, if violence is what needs done, but it doesn't consist in violence.  In fact, rage, such as appears frequently in 300, is a lack of self-control and is therefore unmanly.

I love action movies.  The stories we tell and the stories we enjoy tell us a lot about our desires and needs, and about who we are and how we experience the world.  Perhaps this film really is truly manly.  Perhaps, even though Tyler's own view of manhood is wishy-washy, under all the explosions, the movie is the tale of men being men and doing what they have to do, in which case I can concur with the title of Tyler's review, "Fathers, Don't Let your Sons Grow Up without The Expendables," or perhaps I would modify it to something more awkward like, "Fathers, don't let your sons grow up without the underlying message of The Expendables."  Maybe, even if it's more-or-less junk, it really is a father-son bonding film; I don't know.  I bonded with my dad over Aliens.   One way or the other, just make sure your sons learn a clear understanding of what manhood is.
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