Thursday, June 25, 2015

"I've Got Family" - Masculinity and Community in 'Fast and Furious


Way way back in the bowels of this blog there's an article I wrote about why we as human beings are so incredibly obsessed with werewolves. I don't really recommend tracking the article down - there's a reason I'm not linking to it - but I've brought it up because I think that the core argument I had there is worth taking another look at. Basically, I said that people like stories about werewolves primarily because of the werewolf pack. We like to hear about these groups of people who love and support each other no matter what, who will fight and survive and live together, through thick and thin, and so on.

We really really like that. It's the core of what makes werewolf stories appealing, and, frankly, the reason I prefer them over the narrative of the lone vampire.* As human beings, we long for community and family and the feeling of being perfectly known and accepted. It's the heart of who we are to want that.

I'm bringing all of this up, obviously, because I think I've found another sweet spot in our culture where this desire for community and deep relationship comes through. I'm talking, of course, about the brilliant and incredibly under-appreciated Fast and Furious series, a bunch of movies that most people write off as pure schlock (including sometimes me), but which actually represents possibly the most powerful collective wish fulfillment our media has to offer.

No, it's not the cars or the hot girls or the ridiculous stunts that get more and more improbable each movie. It's not Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson having a scene where his character literally flexes his way out of a plaster cast. It's not cars leaping between two buildings, or even three buildings. And, shockingly, it's not even all about drooling over the custom cars.

Instead, I think the actual appeal of the Fast and Furious movies comes down to one thing: the people. Yeah, those not necessarily well-developed characters are really the heart of the film. And, as it turns out, they hold the key to some really interesting conversations on masculinity, social norms, and the value of emotional connection.

But, for those of you who have completely lost me by now, allow me to explain. The Fast and Furious franchise is a group of seven films (with another on the way) that loosely follow a bunch of street racers from Los Angeles. Originally conceived as sort of a Point Break ripoff, the first film was a standalone action movie about an undercover cop, Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker), being embedded with a bunch of illegal street racers in order to bring down some sort of criminal activity. The course of the first film saw Brian become more and more enmeshed in the world of street-racing, bonding with Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) as they took him into their family and their hearts. Which of course ended tragically when they found out he was a cop.

The second film was all about Brian, now back in Florida, getting further into street-racing. The third movie - by now the studio had realized what a cash cow they had but not quite how to use it - saw a completely new cast of characters and set, this time following street racing in Tokyo. But from the fourth film onwards, the movies fell into a set pattern, mostly revolving around Brian and Dom and their massive cast of family members and friends as they did crime or tried to stop crime using fast cars and massive stunts all over the globe.

The cast of actors involved typically includes big names from both high and low culture, with MMA fighters Gina Carano and Ronda Roussey both having pretty big roles in the films, alongside appearances from Gal Gadot (our future Wonder Woman) and Nathalie Emmanuel (Missandei from Game of Thrones). Oh and Kurt Russell and Ludacris. No big deal. The cast for the films is actually one of the more genially mocked features, with some people pointing out that keeping track of everyone and their relationships requires some kind of chart or at the very least a quick primer.

But, like I said above, that's part of the whole appeal of the films. The point is how big the cast is, how filled with really fun likable characters it is. How villains from one film become allies in the next and family after that. How the relationships shift and evolve. How the characters form bonds that are so incredibly strong.

It's this bond that explains why the entire franchise nearly derailed when its star, Paul Walker, died during filming. Obviously that would be a problem for any film, but in this case, with a franchise that is so strongly built around ideals of family and relationship, it's not hard to see why it was completely devastating for the cast and crew. And it's really not surprising that they turned his final movie into a loving sendoff.

Because here's the thing: the reason we like these movies isn't just because we enjoy watching the people in them get along so well, it's because we get to feel like we too are there and we too belong. Dom even says as much in Furious 7. He says, "I don't have friends. I've got family."

That's what we want. We want to be in Dom Toretto's family. We want the level of security and protection that means. The idea that he would fly across the world just to keep us safe. That he'd jump out of a speeding car for us, that he'd move mountains and make miracles happen because we matter to him. I know I want that, and I'm willing to bet that you do too.

The secret of these movies isn't a secret at all, but it's a hope so deeply buried that we tend to be afraid to pull it out. It's why the films are so often laughed off as "junk food" and "mindless entertainment". Yeah, they're a little mindless. But who cares? They are far from heartless, and I count that much higher.

And it's even better than just wanting the feeling that must come from being on Dominic Toretto's inner circle. The family cookouts and hugs and love must be amazing, don't get me wrong. But the idea that someone like Dom not only loves you but also expects you to be your best self? I can see tha being incredibly motivating.

I'm not saying that Dom as a character is perfect, but he's certainly come a long way since the early days of the franchise, and yeah, I want to be the person that Dom Toretto thinks I am. I want to be part of his crew. But mostly I want to be his family, because when Dom says that he loves all his friends like blood, I believe him. And it makes me long for that in my life.

I've been very lucky over the years to belong to a lot of communities worth being in. The best of them are like Dom's: sprawling, loving, open, and full of people who want to show how much they care. And it's funny how having tasted this, knowing what community can really feel like, only makes you hungrier for it.

I think that, in a lot of ways, this is the real gift the Fast and Furious movies have given us. In showing us a community and a family worth pursuing, it makes us want it. And when we acknowledge that desire to ourselves, then we're a lot closer to actually going after it.

But before we close out, I want to just take a second and recognize that these movies are unique not just for building out a cast of really supportive loving characters, but for doing it all centered around two traditionally masculine male leads. 

Particularly with Dom, he comes off like every stereotype about a man's man that you can imagine. He's huge. He's ripped. He works on muscle cars. He talks in a low gravely mumble. His girlfriend/wife, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), is hot as hell and can beat you up. Women fall all over him and men want to be him.

And he's also the single most emotionally sensitive person in the franchise, as well as the kind of softie who cries and talks about his feelings and spills hard truths about love and honesty all the freaking time. It's amazing. Dom Toretto - and by extension, Vin Diesel - is a walking, talking subversion of the tropes of classic masculinity. He doesn't bottle up his feelings, he wears them like a badge of honor, and if you've seen the movies you can agree with me that it by no means makes him a less appealing person.

In fact, his emotional intelligence and openness is a huge part of what makes Dom the kind of magnetic leader you want to follow. No one cares about Dom because he's a muscle-bound he-man. They follow him and love him because he loves them back. Because he cries sometimes. Because he talks about his heart. 

Men don't have to bite down on their feelings to be strong, and I love this franchise for making that abundantly clear. But that's really just part of the larger whole. The story of Fast and Furious is one of love between two men who didn't ostensibly have anything in common at the start and ended the seventh film as brothers. 

The unabashedly sentimental ending of Furious 7 isn't something to be embarrassed about, it's just an expression of the core values of the series. These aren't movies about fast cars and explosions. They're films about love. And also fast cars and explosions.

So thank you, Fast and Furious, for reminding me of what I really want in my life. I want community. I want family. I want people who talk about their hearts and ask me about mine. I want to know that I belong, that I'm known, that I'm in the inner circle. I want to feel so strongly that the people around me are just as invested as I am. And now that I know I want that, I can make it happen.

I am definitely not ashamed to admit that I want this.
*There are other reasons, but that's the main one.

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