A New Corruption of Masculinity
- Tuesday, June 06, 2006
In the film adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's violent novel, Fight Club, character Tyler Durden points to his generation of young men as the "middle children of history." Played by actor Brad Pitt, Durden represents the absolute collapse of masculinity into raw violence. This character joins his friends in seeking personal release and ecstasy through violent fights that send the participants regularly to the emergency room. In a haunting comment, Durden remarks: "We are a generation of men raised by women." Is this our future?
Reporting in the December 11, 2005 edition of The New York Times, Warren St. John describes the emergence of a new phenomenon--"Neanderthal TV." As St. John explains, this new approach to television venality and violence is being marketed to young males, mostly between the ages of eighteen and thirty. A male-oriented network, Spike TV, interviewed thousands of young men and determined that many of them wanted to see antisocial characters portrayed in television dramas. Beyond this, these young men are clearly identifying with these antisocial figures, along with their violence and amorality.
"Spike found that men responded not only to brave and extremely competent leads but to a menagerie of characters with strikingly antisocial tendencies," St. John reports. These characters include Dr. Gregory House, "a Vicodin-popping physician" who is featured on Fox's "House," Michael Scofield on "Prison Break," and Vic Mackey, a major character on "The Shield." Scofield is set on helping his brother break out of jail while Mackey is "a tough-guy cop who won't hesitate to beat a suspect senseless." As St. John remarks, "Tony Soprano is their patron saint, and like Tony, within the confines of their shows, they are all 'good guys.'"
St. John's article points to a new and troubling phenomenon. Many of the most popular male characters featured in the entertainment industry represent extreme violence, sexual perversions, an absolute absence of morality, and the very "antisocial tendencies" Spike TV found to be so popular. At the same time, these characters are not merely featured, but they are now admired by millions of young men.
The reporter quotes Brent Hoff, age 36, who remarked that the message from these shows is: "Life is hard. Men gotta do what men gotta do, and if some people have to die in the process, so be it." Hoff, a writer who lives in San Francisco, went on to explain that young men in his generation can easily relate to these characters. Speaking of Sawyer, a character on the ABC series "Lost," who refused to help a fellow character find his lost child, Hoff commented: "If you watch Sawyer on 'Lost,' who is fundamentally good even if he does bad things, there's less to feel guilty about in yourself." Of course, there is sufficient reason for concern when such a character is described as "fundamentally good even if he does bad things." Nevertheless, Hoff went on to apply this observation as principle, noting that the observation and contemplation of these characters leaves less room for guilt in his own self analysis.
What kind of morality is at play here? As St. John explains, these shows reduce morality to a Darwinian principle that "in the social chaos of the modern world, the only sensible reflex is self-interest."
Others have gone so far as to suggest that these characters and this kind of programming represent a new vision of masculinity. Gregory A. Randall, who is developing a new show for Spike TV called "Paradise Salvage," said that the emergence and popularity of antisocial characters--even leads--can be traced to an intentional effort by the networks to attract young male viewers by mirroring their frustrations. "It's about comprehending from an entertainment point of view that men are living in a very complex conundrum today," he told St. John. "We're supposed to be sensitive and evolved and yet still in touch with our neanderthal, animalistic, macho side." Randall went on to argue that watching male characters who demonstrate such deeply flawed personalities but who nevertheless come out on top of the social hierarchy, makes young men feel better about their own character flaws and frustrations with male identity.
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