As I write this, hundreds of mourners in Brisbane, and many more around the world, are remembering the lost lives of the latest victims of horrific gender-based violence in Australia. Domestic violence is perhaps the most common and insidious of all human rights violations in this country, with one Australian woman killed each week by her current or former partner a familiar statistic. In the aftermath of this most recent familicide, the perpetrator was revealed as controlling and obsessive, his resentment morphing into hatred and shocking violence when unable to control access to his former partner and children. The crime has sparked a wider discussion about the cultural underpinnings of domestic violence, and the very real harms that may result from established beliefs about gender and identity. Public focus is also falling on the abject failure of Australia’s political and legal establishment, to deal with this national crisis of gendered violence, alongside the now customary call to action and new ideas for prevention.
What is new, and some cause for hope, is the widespread public backlash against the old legitimating narrative of the angry man of action who ‘snaps’ and is ‘driven’ to violence by some imagined injustice or slight to his masculine identity. As commentators in both mainstream and social media were quick to point out, this kind of ‘she made him do it’ discourse is dangerous and deluded victim-blaming, which fails to address the real issue of coercive control in intimate relationships. We know by now, this is not just about one mentally ill man: this is about the everyday exchange of fear and loathing, desire and resentment in a misogynistic culture.
What is missing from the public debate, however, is more in-depth exploration of where these dangerous man-in-control/man-out-of-control narratives are coming from, and how they are legitimated and even eroticised or romanticised in our culture. One space where this narrative framing occurs is in popular culture, where the image of ‘manliness’ is still mixed up with violent action and mastery of others, especially through the control of women and children.
According to the conventions of most familiar film genres, male anxiety, shame, paranoia or humiliation can only be effectively dealt with or avenged through violent action. In crime, action and thriller films in particular, the man-of-action protagonist can be represented through both positive (hero) and negative (antihero) behaviours, but both depend upon stereotypes of men in control through violent action.
Even action narratives which are essentially formulaic stories of a heroic man protecting or avenging ‘his’ (kidnapped, raped, murdered) women, convey the message that spectacular violence is the ultimate solution. In the fictitious world of these everyday narrative constructions, the male hero must enact revenge because the law (or playing by the ‘rules’ generally) has failed to protect him or ‘his’ family. According to such genre conventions, it is the act of vengeance through violence that typically transforms the threatened male protagonist from potential ineffectual victim to musclebound masculine action hero – at least in his own mind. With the expansion of online hate and the men’s rights agenda, such revenge narratives appear to be on the rise, both in ‘real’ life and popular screen representations.
Even as ‘just’ entertainment, these fictional narratives of popular film still teach and tell stories about angry men and their relationship to violent retribution which overlap with everyday gender politics. They also function as cultural capsules which capture the fears and tensions of the time.
One established feminist cultural studies argument is that these films represent and respond to a cultural backlash against popular feminism, advances by women and perceived threats to traditional patriarchal family structures. Hence, films about the avenging (hyper)masculine enforcer of the patriarchy were particularly popular during the 1970s, including for example the Dirty Harry (1971) series, The Enforcer (1976), Taxi Driver (1976), and the aptly named Love and Bullets (1979).
What these films have in common is a kind of toxic male paranoia mixed with a dangerous kick-down-doors masculinity, against a background of social upheaval and urban decay. The male oriented ‘morality’ of the narrative holds that women are not to be trusted and that only the ‘real’ man alone can restore (patriarchal) law and (gendered) order to a society in decline, by any means necessary. As both objects of desire and disdain, women are deployed only to define the character of the man – to mark him out as a man-of-action who takes his revenge, not just against individual women but against a supposedly corrupt (feminized) system. It is perhaps worth remembering, today’s middle aged men have grown up with these films – and 2020 is also the thirty-fifth anniversary year of Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985).
Even self-consciously enlightened audiences, who would not normally consider themselves sexist, may still consume these (dangerous) stories about gender and experience them as pleasurable. This is partly why these popular man-of-action revenge narratives deserve further critical scrutiny, especially if we are looking for answers in the cultural underpinnings of gendered violence. For, even in the female oriented romantic comedy genre, male heroes are frequently presented as persistent to the point of obsession with the object of their desire.
In recent years, there has been a revival of the avenging masculine in mainstream films. Today’s male heroes are morphing into antihero super-haters, the most obvious example being the critically acclaimed Joker (2019). In this origin story, the Joker’s mother is presented as being the real villain of the movie – for being insane, deceitful, neglectful and the archetypal bad mother. The Joker eventually smothers her with a pillow as part of his perverse journey of masculine self-discovery. He also murders the female counsellor who dares try to help him because, after all, she doesn’t really understand him and she represents a weak, feminised and ‘fake’ version of caring.
Like the masculine enforcers of the 1970s, which the films uses as cultural keynotes, the Joker takes violent revenge upon a corrupt and uncaring society. In his climatic morality speech towards the end of the film, he claims that men like him should not be blamed for ‘going werewolf, going wild’ in response to feelings of abandonment, shame, resentment and anger. He thereby reassures the male viewer that the ‘they’ will ‘get what they deserve.’
The sinister speech of the revenge narrative feeds into toxic male paranoia – that the enemy is intimate and women are not to be trusted. There is a clear cultural connection here to the victim-blaming discourse which still emerges when men turn murderous. Looking deeper, it is clear we need to rethink the very language of male violence, which is still imagined as a kind of beast unleashed when provoked.
We might like to think we have moved on to a more enlightened and educated age, but our popular culture still worships, rewards and romanticises violent masculinity.
There are alternative ways of reading the popular revenge narrative, however. There is nothing inherently righteous about a man on a vengeful quest, and there is nothing erotic about a musclebound man with a deluded obsession. If a man feels his control is being challenged, it is his responsibility to deal with that in socially responsible ways.
It is also time to teach young men to take responsibility for their own feelings of shame, abandonment or vulnerability, instead of just projecting them on to others. Part of being an adult is, after all, learning to live with disappointment or frustration without resorting to violent action against others. The language and the logic of misogyny, which has long held that every man has an inner demon which will emerge if not carefully handled by his women, is both outdated and dangerous. The ideal of the action man protector is perhaps even more dangerous, for it can turn far too easily from patriarch to avenger.
As a culture we need to stop romanticising the muscular man of violent action, and stop dehumanising women as objects won and possessed by such men. Anyone who has experienced a dysfunctional relationship knows that feeling that you can’t do anything right. This is because, through the logic of objectification, it is possible to be the object of desire and the object of disdain at the same time.
Unlocking the binds of toxic masculinity/toxic femininity is certainly a life or death matter. But it needs to go deeper than the failings of the legal system, to scrutinise the soft power of the fears and fantasies of our popular culture. In particular, we need to face up to popular fantasies of violent hyper masculine retribution, and the way these are enabled and consumed as entertaintment, by men and women alike.