The Bro Code. Directed by Thomas Keith. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2011. 58 minutes.
Tough Guise. Directed by Sut Jhally. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 1999. 82 minutes.
Many teachers strive to connect their students’ experiences outside the classroom to the content of the course. For those teachers who wish to make these kinds of connections stronger, two documentaries about the information environment and its influence on young people are worth utilizing as teaching tools: The Bro Code: How Contemporary Culture Creates Sexist Men by filmmaker and professor of philosophy Thomas Keith and Tough Guise by anti-violence educator Jackson Katz. These films open up a candid dialogue about how feature films, MTV, and cartoons serve up misogyny as entertainment, but also investigate how the construction of masculinity is manufactured by market-driven forces.
Keith proposes that the life world of young men has been colonized by a strident vulgarism with an emphasis on a symbolic unity of beer, sports, and money—key features of a distorted masculinity, he argues, that are disseminated by corporate profiteers. Keith sets up four organizing foci that frame his inquiry. First men are indoctrinated to womanizing; they learn to accept and practice homophobia, consent to control women, and accept that becoming an alpha male means co-opting the fatuous lie that behaving abusively toward women is “kewl.” Second, men are immersed in porn. This is the most poignant section of the film. Identifying how porn has flooded into the lives of young boys, Keith explains how it works as a curriculum of misogyny and sexual dysfunction. In addition, he qualifies in his commentary that he is not against sex, but against the destructive ways in which women are objectified by porn, and how this functions as a sexist confirmation bias. As a result, Keith argues, young men use pornography as a lens for learning about sex. Third, men are encouraged to make rape jokes. This is perhaps the most disturbing of the four foci. Part of the ethos of the bro code (by which Keith means an implicit acceptance of behavior) is to trivialize sexual assault. Finally, young men are taught to obey what Keith calls the masculinity cops. These are people who are not men (sisters, mothers, and girlfriends) who contribute to the fabric of lies about masculinity in that they police behaviors that they see as aberrations from the model of sexist bravado, or an accepted, dominant configuration of what men are supposed to be.
Overall, Keith's message is raw and disturbing. If what he claims—that many men develop their identities and views of women through the mélange of popular culture, including pornography—has weight, then teachers will no doubt find it useful to interrogate the ways in which entrenched sexism has formed a kind of hybrid, tribal masculinity. This topic is analyzed equally well by media critic Sut Jhally in his critique of MTV Dreamworlds.1 This film would be interesting to discuss in gender studies, philosophy of feminism, or cultural anthropology classes where an instructor can tease out how the production of masculinity is, at least according to Keith, a kind of social violence. Within the argument framework he posits, teachers would do well to mine how Keith’s points might be relevant in educational settings, but also in general work environments, to provide a way for students to talk back to what they see, hear, and read.
Although less graphic and explicit than the The Bro Code, Jackson Katz’s Tough Guise decries masculinity as an achievement script that men perform. Men are given a Manichean choice: be scary, strong, rugged, and controlling, or degenerate into a “wuss” or “wimp.” As a consequence, men are boxed in by a finite vocabulary of sexism that monitors those who may choose to be otherwise. Much of his discussion is situated in the background of the idioms of dominance, power, and control that men normalize from the influence of family life, cultural norms, and especially from the gatekeepers of commercialized masculinity: the corporate entertainment industry. Katz aptly argues that the performance of masculinity (presumably in the United States) is a guise and, as such, its effects are at the expense of men’s emotional lives. That is, in order to “shield one’s vulnerability,” men play the role of “loner” cowboys to escape from the freedom of who they might actually be: caring, sensitive people prepared to confront the depths of their own anxieties. In referencing popular conceptions of manhood, such as Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo character, comedian Dice Clay, Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern, Ronald Reagan, and John Wayne, Katz argues that these personas are examples of distorted masculinities. They have, as he puts it, “killed the message” from the messenger (those who question the dominant image) so that people cannot hear or see what authentic masculinity might be.
Katz points out that sports culture, interactive violent video games, and even professional wrestling are intertwined to form a kind of social pathology. As long as the masculinity-violence dyad flourishes, we may continue to see an incarnation of this realized in school shootings and other forms of violence that stem from varieties of subterranean alienation nascent in the lives of young boys. Indeed, as young men fall victim to the phenomenon of posing, they are strongly influenced by ubiquitous portrayals of sexual violence which, he argues, have psychological costs—such as backlash against women. In addition, the myth of invulnerability evidenced by the abuse of alcohol, driving dangerously and other risky behaviors has made the pursuit of masculinity as Katz puts it: “a public health problem.” However, there is a light in the cave. Public figures such as Garth Brooks, Muhammad Ali, and films such as Boyz n the Hood2 and Stand and Deliver3 present a new view of masculinity that is vulnerable, compassionate and caring. A reconstruction of male identity is therefore possible, at least in the entertainment industry, if traditional forms of masculinity are questioned. Katz’s insights couldn't come sooner as he ends his film with a new call for resolution and introspection. Here he is at his most reflective. If men are to relinquish the destructive patterns and dismantle the tough guise front, they must, as he says, have “the courage to look inward” to have a chance to be better men. Just what he means by “inward” is unclear, but if it means beginning a philosophical dialogue about self-knowledge and identity construction then it is certainly a project worth undertaking for teachers, parents, and other cultural workers that live, work, and share their lives with boys and men.
1 Dreamworlds: Desire, Sex & Power in Music Video. Directed by Sut Jhally. Media Education Foundation, 1995.
2 Boyz n the Hood. Directed by John Singleton. Columbia Picture Corporation, 1991.
3 Stand and Deliver. Directed by Ramon Menendez. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1988.