Monday, June 22, 2015

'Band of Brothers' Can't Save You - The Cult of Idealized Manhood

Okay. I want to start this off by just saying that I do not consider myself an expert on masculinity or male issues. I'm really not. I'm not a man and I really can't say that I have any real experience with male culture. I'm not in a long term relationship with a man, I don't have a boyfriend, I don't even talk about these issues all that often. But I do think about them. And most recently I've been thinking about how our culture projects this idealized almost cultish vision of what manliness or masculinity should be, based almost entirely on these films and TV shows that, while usually pretty good, only show one kind.

It comes up, weirdly enough, a lot in Christian culture lately, but I think it's also true of the larger culture too. And I don't think the list of which films and TV shows is really going to shock anyone. 

We're talking Braveheart, Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Band of Brothers, The Patriot, The Lord of the Rings, Saving Private Ryan, Dances with Wolves, Kingdom of Heaven, and so on. We're talking movies and shows about predominantly white men in historical settings fighting in wars. That seems to be our culture's biggest reference point when it comes to talking about what it means to be a man.

I'm pretty sure that's not healthy.

I mean there are the obvious reasons why it's probably a bad idea to define one entire gender based on a handful of stories that are all about one incredibly small percentage of that population - it ostracizes people who aren't like that, it's a very narrow definition that is inaccessible to most others, etc - but there are some hidden reasons too. For starters, even if you are a white man in his thirties or forties watching these films, it's easy to idealize the characters without paying any real attention to the setting. 

Like, it's really easy to look at William Wallace and think, "Ah, now there was a man!" But it's hard to then back out and remember, "Ah, now there was a man living in a completely different historical context than the one in which I live, portrayed by an actor and written by a screenwriter, and existing as a character in a semi-fictionalized war that I cannot truly comprehend." For some reason, most people don't think like that.

And I understand that, I really do, but I still think it's bad. Just because I totally get why people think Major Dick Winters from Band of Brothers is the most perfect man doesn't mean there aren't still problems with declaring anyone the most perfect man at all. I understand. That doesn't mean I agree.

So let's get down to brass tacks. What are these very specific portrayals of masculinity saying about our culture, and what can we do about it?

First off, I think it's clear to see that these men, these characters, are all united in a couple of key ways. Now, this isn't completely accurate across the board, but it's the majority rule. They're all soldiers. They're all white. They're all in the past. And, arguably most importantly, they're all fictional characters being played by actors. Got it? Good.

I felt the need to emphasize that last point above the others because, well, I don't think we bear that in mind enough. We watch these films and think to ourselves that this is how a person should act, but we tend to forget - at least, I do - that these are not real people. In the best of cases they're very well written and feel like real people, but they aren't real. 

They're inventions of someone else's brain, and the choices they're making aren't free. In fact, the choices they make frequently represent not the most healthy choice in any given circumstance, but rather the choice that makes for the most dramatic narrative.

In other words, it's problematic to hold these men up as ideals of masculinity if for no other reason than because they aren't real and they don't deal with situations that any of us are apt to ever have to face. I'm even including genuine historical fiction like Band of Brothers in this, because recent though it was, the men of Band of Brothers functionally exist in a completely different world than we do. We might as well be on another planet.

And this problem feeds into the others. We forget that what we're watching is fiction - even if it's really well-sourced fiction - and so we forget that we need to distance ourselves from the emotions and intentions of the characters. So when we see historical characters fighting in a historical war, we think that this is how we ought to behave. Their wartime behavior is brave and strong and full of fight, so we think that's what ideal manhood is. It's bravery and holding down your feelings and breaking out of the hospital to come back to the front lines with your brothers in arms.

What makes it really hard to dispel these ideals as the optimal form of masculinity is the simple fact that they work. I'm harping on Band of Brothers here because it's the one I've seen most recently, but also because it's the important case of a show that really does try to give you a nuanced and complex view of what it means to be a man at war. They do a really good job. The problem - and it's not the fault of the people who made the show at all - is that a man at war is completely different from a man out of it.

That's the heart of the issue. And I totally understand that there is always a war between good and evil fought around us every day. I completely believe that. But I also believe that there's a pervasive, seductive idea that comes from viewing Band of Brothers and Braveheart and Kingdom of Heaven as the code to a good life: it's the idea that you are at war in your physical life too. Not just the metaphysical realm of good and evil, but also the very physical world of your job, your marriage, your life. I think that's very dangerous.

Band of Brothers shows very complexly and very well what it means to be a white man in his mid-twenties to late-thirties in World War II. It does a great job at that. I particularly actually really respect it for making clear that men who are good soldiers are not always the same as men who are good men. 

There are a couple of characters where the show makes it clear that these men are amazing soldiers precisely because they are terrible human beings. And in the last few episodes it gives us heartbreaking scenes where we see the impact of men who have been at war suddenly not being at war. How the traits and habits that have served them so well in foxholes and trenches are suddenly not just useless but actively working against them.

I really respect the show for doing that. I just wish more people paid attention to that part.

Going back to the beginning, though, I think it's worth taking a minute to examine exactly who we're saying this ideal man is. And here's what I've got so far: he's white, in his mid-thirties, very intelligent and strategically gifted, and incredibly skilled at violence. He doesn't cry. His feelings are stuffed so deep inside him they're practically on a subatomic level, and if he's ever wounded he refuses to acknowledge the hurt.

He's great with women and they really like him, but he's also not actually particularly interested in them. They're just sort of there in the background to remind us all of how much of a stud he is. And he's very loyal, very honorable, very strong and full of righteous conviction. He's a "man's man", whatever that means.

Some of these traits are good, and none of them are really the kind of thing that means you should call the cops because they're clearly the traits of a serial killer, but I think it's really damaging to limit the definition of masculinity to this. Not just damaging, but also kind of dumb?

I mean, it's demonstrably not true. Are we going to say that Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were not men worth idealizing? That their masculinity was not worthy of admiration and imitation? Or are we insisting that no one should ever want to be like Scott McCall from Teen Wolf because he's not entirely white and he's a teenager and he talks about his feelings all the time and he's genuinely sensitive?

By privileging this one form of masculine expression, this one idea of what it is to be a "perfect man", we completely lose whole swathes of our culture that we desperately need. We need the part of our culture that reminds us that the nobler victory is often found in nonviolence. We need the part of our culture that values planting seeds and holding children over fighting wars we've already won. We so desperately need visions of masculinity that privilege the free expression of feelings over the clenched teeth and bitten tongues of so many action heroes.

It's not that I think that the men of Band of Brothers are bad or not worthy of our respect. And, I should note, my favorite character in the whole series - Doc Roe - is less traditionally masculine than the others. He's a medic, he's non-violent, he talks a lot about his family and a tradition of healing, he cares for others in a very genuine way. There are characters like that in the show. But they're not the main heroes, and they're really not who everyone comes away talking about.

In a lot of ways, my problem is more with how our culture remembers shows like Band of Brothers than with the show itself. I'm cool with Band of Brothers. I like it. It's really well done. But I deeply dislike how narrow our view of it is. How we focus so intently on the parts of it that fit our definition of ideal manhood and ignore the rest.

Look, William Wallace is a great character, but I don't think he should be your end all and be all idea of what it means to be a man. I don't think anyone should. I think, when we look at human beings and fictional characters, you can't pin it all on one person. You have to look at a range. A swathe. A whole host even of great men and very different ideas of what it means to be masculine. Is masculinity found only in physical strength? In mental?

Is Steve Rogers only worth looking up to after he gets the supersoldier serum and can pick up cars, or is he a good vision of masculinity before that too?

I said at the beginning that I'm not an expert on masculinity, and that's very true. I don't think anyone is crazy enough to say that I am. But I am an expert on how the media we consume affects us, and I shouldn't have to tell you that defining masculinity according to an incredibly narrow band of fictional experience is deeply unhealthy. It's exactly as unhealthy as saying that the only way to be a woman is to be a Stepford Wife or a Disney Princess.

Men matter. You're half the population. You guys deserve to have a vision of masculinity as complex and diverse and nuanced as you are. So maybe if we all stop accepting this one, we'll get it.


  1. My biggest problem with your analysis is how you've chosen to see the same Band of Brothers that a shallow teen boy would see: war is glorious, etc. Dick Winters is not admirable because he's repressed. That's the tragic part, and you see it in the last episode, the almost Brokeback notes of the elegy. He's admirable because he loves his men over and above duty. There's no way BoB is comparable to Braveheart except in the sense that it is about white men fighting wars. No way anyone could watch the last episode and not get the sorrow and the point about love and the sameness of enemies.

    1. My thoughts exactly, this essay makes no attempt to highlight the difference between a completely bastardised portrayal of a historical character and winter's admirably accurate one, as well as the examples of other fictional figures that actually should be looked up to despite the fact they are white men (which is usually a disqualifier). Plus, I look up to MLK and Ghandi for their message, not the way they treated their wives, same as I don't look up to Indiana Jones because he assaulted a minor, or Boromir for assaulting someone who looked like a minor, but because they are intelligent, realised figures doing all they can for a righteous cause.