"Tough Guise": Violence, Media, and Masculinity’s Crisis
Tough Guise is an hour-long documentary about the “tough guy” archetype in American culture. Released in 1999 by anti-sexism activist and social critic Jackson Katz, the documentary interleaves movie footage, news footage and archival photographs with editorial commentary by Katz himself.
Although its production values and illustrative examples are 13 years out of date, Tough Guise and its claims are far more relevant now than they were then. Geopolitical events in the intervening years have, I feel, given new life to the oppressive and destructive idea that men are cold, hard, unforgiving, destructive and deadly.
The phrase “tough guise” implies that the tough guy act is just that: an act. In real life, toughness is not necessarily masculine, and masculinity is not necessarily tough, but if you ask American culture, it will tell you the two are the practically synonyms. The Marlboro Man. The Terminator. Rambo. Real men. Gandhi? You pussy.
Faced with such an anemic definition of masculinity, many American men resort to this, the only model they can think of. They put on the “tough guise” as a way to feel like a man, and to get the rest of this all-too-human culture to acknowledge and honor their masculinity. According to Katz, this inexorable pursuit of formal recognition fans the flames of destructive and self-destructive behaviors such as beating up other men, beating up women, drinking themselves into oblivion, drunk driving, drunk crashing, and shooting up a high school lunch room.
And it’s not just “psychos” and “sickos” who do these things, Katz argues. We use such terms because we don’t want to face the fact that the man-as-violent-machine is built into our “normal” culture from the ground up, and it’s a miracle more men don’t snap.
The tough guise, Katz says, dictates that women must be physically objectified. Katz shows footage of the well-respected radio shock jock Howard Stern instructing women to strip and criticizing their bodies on the air. Katz points out that while pop culture seems to view Stern as a bold new voice of free expression, Stern’s objectification of women is actually just a draconian throwback. He’s not a revolutionary; he’s a reactionary.
Katz offers up a few positive images as well. He cites the crying scene from Good Will Hunting, and the scene from Juice in which the protagonist courageously gets out of a car that was destined for violent revenge.
He also discusses the ways in which Blacks, Latinos, and Asians wear the tough guise, claiming that its genealogy may be rooted in Italian mafia movies like The Godfather. He goes on to note that suburban white boys imitate urban “gangsta” culture in desperate pursuit of their own masculinity. His point is that this subject knows no ethnic bounds, but rather bounces around from culture to culture as each one lookselsewhere for instruction on being a man. Because it certainly can’t be found here, wherever here is.
Had Katz consulted me in writing Tough Guise, I would have suggested pumping in some politics. The tough guy archetype—which is just as beloved as the American flag, apple pie, percocets and repetitive club music—also helps both men and women justify the abuse of economic and military power. Real men—or women in roles associated with stereotypical masculinity—screw people out of their life savings and collapse the economy. Real men sit in a helicopter and rain death on that Iraqi family who are running for their lives. We ain’t got time to moralize. This is rugged individualism, pal. Life’s a bitch, it’s dog eat dog—and look at my adequate testicles.
I also would have devoted some time to offering some alternative definitions of masculinity, or what it means to be a real man. The real problem is that many men feel they have no identity as a man. They feel they have been neutered by modernity. They feel they must reclaim their genitals. It’s plain to see that the tough guise is not only destructive, but also entirely inadequate for lending a sense of self-actualization to a man.
“Learn how to cry” and “Don’t kill that guy” are a start, but they are hardly a convincing enough replacement for the dominant cultural stereotype. More, please.
Your current frequencies of understanding outweigh that which has been given for you to understand.
The current standard is the equivalent of an adolescent restricted to the diet of an infant.
The rapidly changing body would acquire dysfunctional and deformative symptoms and could not properly mature on a diet of apple sauce and crushed pears.
—Saul Williams, “Coded Language”
We need a whole new archetype, and it has to be awesome. So I leave it to you, readers. What is a real man? Give us something we can sink these manly teeth into.