Hollywood’s Masculinity Problem

by Jennifer Siebel Newsom and Imran Siddiquee

As we piece through the aftermath of the tragic July 19th shooting in Colorado, it’s impossible to ignore the media’s role in the entire affair. While there’s no direct correlation between the movie onscreen and James Holmes murderous actions inside that theatre in Aurora, what is clear is the intentionality behind his decision to kill innocent people at a midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises. So, why did he choose this particular night and this particular film for his massacre?

Holmes is the most recent example of a young male resorting to extreme violence in lieu of dealing with deep psychological problems (evidence suggests he was also on drugs at the time of his crime). It’s left us wondering, what sends our boys over the edge in this way? Are these just fluke instances, or are there deeper cultural problems afoot?

Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is predicated on an attempt to deal with senseless violence in our modern society – so it’s fascinating to look at the films themselves to answer questions of motivation. Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight has become one of the iconic film performances of our time, winning the actor a posthumous Oscar (he died of a drug overdose) and the character, a legion of real-world fans. James Holmes clearly counted himself in this group of admirers. Identifying himself as the film villain on the night of his rampage, his decisions also seem to mirror the logic and style of the Joker – which is to say, there isn’t a whole lot of logic involved. The Joker has a stated goal of introducing “a little anarchy and chaos” into society. The films never quite define why he and the other villains are motivated to perform such heinous acts – just that they are outcasts angry at the system that has excluded them.

Of course, a movie is only ever one piece of a much larger cultural puzzle. Holmes, after all, didn’t just walk into that theatre because he imagined himself to be a film character – he committed his crime in pursuit of the fame and glory that the Joker represents. He wanted a stage, and in the media-created frenzy around the “most-anticipated” tent-pole blockbuster of the summer, he found it.

The incident highlights our society’s and media’s obsession with glorifying male violence, not to mention drug use. In many ways, the hero of the entire Batman trilogy is actually the Joker – he is the single most memorable aspect of the films and embodies the fear that pervades all of them. In the context of a society where more news hours are spent on violence than peace, it’s terrifying for our most-watched films to depict violence in such an exalted way, and perhaps even more problematic for the news media to create such hype around these stories. (There have already been numerous reports of attempted copy-cats as the story of Holmes’ actions spread).

Heath Ledger as the maniacal Joker

Movies like The Dark Knight Rises – which features a vicious climactic war led by mostly male outcasts – only perpetuate the idea that men solve their problems with guns and fists alone. Too often in these films, violence is the only option for men who are unable to express themselves in traditional or socially acceptable ways.

And even though the villains are defeated, it’s true that they are only done so via more violence from the hero. In fact, over and over again, Batman himself resorts to physically assaulting criminals in order to stop them.

This is not to say that film censorship is the answer, but it’s time we started having more serious conversations with the creators, not to mention, the enablers of a culture that encourages violence. Culture is learned, and therefore can be un-learned. And, while media literacy education is critical, it shouldn’t take mass murderers to get us to deal with the hyper-masculinity epidemic in America.

Our blame should move beyond the perpetrator of the crime towards exploring the institutionalization of violence in our country. Media companies and their various distribution outlets make millions of dollars in profits by encouraging individuals to buy into these fantasy worlds where violence is a perfectly acceptable form of self-expression and gender norms remain limiting.

Furthermore, big business and government have to take responsibility for having created a society where it is still legal for a 24 year-old to buy automatic weapons and ammunition in large quantities over the internet.

When you consider that recent studies have shown that the human mind doesn’t fully develop until at least the age of 25, it’s truly scary to think about the messages kids like Holmes are getting from mass media. The Dark Knight Rises is, after all, rated PG-13. (Don’t get us started on what is wrong with that.)

We need to give our young men the analytical and emotional tools to adequately process these violent messages so they don’t internalize it all, especially given that boys are taught very early on to “bifurcate their heads from their hearts” as Jane Fonda says in Miss Representation. It’s a shame we have encouraged an extreme of masculinity in our boys that is all about aggression and dominating others. Corporate America, which includes mainstream media and gun manufacturers, must begin to address the cultural ramifications of their products. It’s not just about the economic bottom line.

Think of the top films of 2012 thus far, and the way the males in these films are depicted. In The AvengersThe Hunger Games and Spider-Man (now joined by The Dark Knight Rises, which has made over $300 million) the male heroes are almost universally forced to use aggression to escape death and to prove their worth.

The box office receipts prove that this obviously makes for popular entertainment, but the studios have a huge hand in what wins at the box office (just look at their marketing budgets) – and they are just as capable of pushing different types of stories as their key “blockbusters.”

The aforementioned The Hunger Games might be an example of how studios can reach for greater balance. In it, the female protagonist is forced to use aggression – amongst many other techniques – to survive a dangerous game mandated by the government. Though it may still be too violent for its target audience (presumably teenagers), the protagonist also uses her brains, wit and friendships to find food, shelter and safety. We cheer her ability to survive more than her ability to hurt others. Similarly, in the animated Brave – which has made over $200 million thus far – the main character is great with her bow and arrow, but is ultimately saved by love instead of violent aggression.

It’s no coincidence that The Hunger Games and Brave – as examples of a more balanced approach to on-screen violence – have female leads. Just as Hollywood has primarily limited female characters to decorative sexualized objects, it has become stuck in its depictions of male heroes as non-expressive and often violent.

As we explore in Miss Representation, “If you can see it, you can be it.” Wouldn’t it be great if Hollywood had a hand in teaching boys and men the value of things which have previously been dismissed as “feminine” and therefore unworthy? Movies are instrumental in this teaching.

Everyone, male or female, deserves healthy inspiration and a diversity of role models to look up to. Talking about your feelings with friends, being open to change, creative problem-solving, seeking love – these are not feminine, and they are definitely not weak, characteristics. They are human, and they are what make us stronger as people. Studies have found that our most effective leaders excel at cooperation and active listening – yet how often do we see these types of leaders, male or female, exalted in Hollywood films? Where are the summer blockbusters where men rise up on the backs of thoughtful, emotionally intelligent decisions which benefit others?

Maybe it’s time we let go of the lone wolf ideal in our culture – which leaves boys like James Holmes feeling despair and the pressure to act out. Maybe it’s time to begin embracing men as the full emotional creatures that they are. And, maybe, just maybe, big media and gun manufacturers can take a leadership role in helping America heal as a culture.

Jennifer Siebel Newsom is the Founder and CEO of MissRepresentation.org. Follow her on Twitter.

Written by Imran Siddiquee at MissRepresentation.org. Follow him on Twitter @imransiddiquee