Though prevented from having a wide theatrical release, the 2006 movie Idiocracy apparently has become something of a cult hit. For those of you unfamiliar, it’s a sort of devolution horror story. Since natural selection no longer seems to effect humans, the genes that get passed on are from people who have the most kids. According to the movie, it’s not the intelligent people who are breeding, but the idiots. In time, the intelligence of the gene pool drops significantly until the year 2505, when Joe Bauers, an army corporal remarkable only for his extreme averageness, and Rita, a prostitute, wake up after being frozen in a 2005 army experiment gone awry. They awake to a world of devolved vocabulary, extreme consumption of junk (Everything, from hospitals to government offices, is sponsored by Carl’s Jr.), and where their once average intelligence is suddenly considered effete intellectual snobbery (or, at least, it would be, except in 2505-speak the word is “faggy.”)
Idiocracy offers us a bizarre glimpse into a world of glorified stupidity, something that I found at times more terrifying than funny. Though there are no truly “graphic” moments, I did spend about a quarter of the movie burying my head in the nearest pillow; the culture of the future America presented in the film was just too painful to watch.
But “stupidity” is only half of it (and sometimes I’m not even sure the movie itself realizes that.). One of the most profoundly disturbing aspects of the film is that the world resulting from evolution gone-awry caters almost exclusively to stereotypically straight men. The most popular TV show is “Ow My Balls,” on the Violence Channel. Also popular is the masturbation channel, which, following stereotype, caters to (you guessed it) men. Starbucks offers lap dances (with extra foam.) and deadly monster-truck rallies are the new “rehabilitation.” A former wrestler (who didn’t even bother to change his name to “the mind.” Oh, Minnesota joke.) is president of the United States. All lawyers and doctors (if you can call them that) are men–the female receptionist at the hospital doesn’t even have to open her mouth thanks to prerecorded welcome messages. When Rita gets arrested for tricking a man out of his money, she is not arrested for fraud, but for “refusing to put out.” When Joe halts the arrest, the president’s guards offer to make sure that she “puts out” for him, and is at one point asked if he minds if they go “family style” on her (New-found, scary terminology aside, they ask him.). The one prominent woman amongst the 2505-ers is the Attorney General, portrayed as having more tits than brains.
Of course, this is a satire. The film’s message speaks out against this kind of culture, but I think part of the reason why I just can’t laugh at it full and long is that the roots of it are already here in our own pop culture (and, actually, in the film itself, but I’m pretty sure no one wants to read an analysis of a three-year-old film no one’s seen.). The so-called “idiocracy” government portrayed in the film lies upon a foundation of loud, obnoxious men and silenced, over-sexed women. It exists on the ideal of the over-consumption useless products that make things (to borrow a phrase from Daft Punk) “harder, better, faster, stronger.” And both of these tenants in turn exist upon the glorification of frat-boy-style masculinity as an antidote to or as being anti all things effeminate or feminine (I was tempted to count the amount of time people used the word “faggy” in the film, but never got around to it). But these products, this marketing are already here: from the new Burger King marketing technique that involves completely excluding women from the audience to Axe’s detailer shower tool (link to Youtube. It’s just a glorified body sponge, people!), whose commercial involves women cleaning a man as if he were a car in a car wash.
Whenever I’ve asked people about these products, their response is usually confusion at my annoyance: “It’s just a joke!” “They’re trying to be funny! And, to be fair, most of these products are marketed as humor. Take, for example, the book (which you will find in the humor section) Maddox’s Alphabet of Manliness:
What’s more awesome than a lumberjack punching Santa in the face? A) Nothing, or B) All the above. I gave this quiz to my friend’s wife, and she got the wrong answer. She kept asking questions like “what’s so cool about Santa getting punched in the face? That’s not cool, that’s mean. ” Wrong answer, bitch. The reason she doesn’t “get it” is the same reason all women don’t get it: Men invented ass kicking along with chainsaws, beef jerky, and happiness. (pg. 1)
(… I guess this would be a bad time to admit that one of my favorite cures for a bad mood is watching Emma Peel or Dana Scully kick the ass of someone who underestimates them.) It’s over-the-top, and obviously not “serious,” in that I’m pretty sure the guy writing it doesn’t actually mean it. Nevertheless, humor is still a reflection of our culture, and this simple humor book reflects a trend in our culture of trying to define man in terms of woman in an exaggerated, extreme fashion (No, it’s not a new trend, but I think it’s been re-emerging in a big way lately). There’s a now a whole obsession with proving that you’re a manly man. And I’m not so sure the consequences are that healthy for anyone.
Frank Miller, when asked about his recent comic book film flop, The Spirit, said, “I wanted to recapture some of the glory of manlihood that I feel the world has lost.” I perhaps shouldn’t be allowed to comment, as The Spirit just didn’t happen to make my “must see” movie list last month, but from what I’ve heard, it was pretty much the typical male fantasy film: brainless babes (a character who was a scientist in the comic books was actually demoted to secretary), epic battles–nothing unusual.
But Miller does raise a point worth looking at: what exactly is the glory of “manlihood” (and why must we use a word that doesn’t exist to name it?)?
And has it really been lost? In reading an article on the film on the Bitch Magazine blog, I noticed most of the commenters expressing disbelief at the idea that anyone would think masculinity was being threatened (believe me, I understand the incredulity.). But if men don’t feel threatened, why is it that unisex products are becoming few and far between, that the desire to define masculinity as being anti-woman, and, for that matter, anti-sissy/gay, has become even stronger than ever? The results of a recent “manliest man” contest put out by Old Spice (see this blog post from Feministing) came up with a man against not only women working, but women voting (Oh, please, your sexism is so 1920!). To the right is a full page Nike ad from a recent issue of CMKY magazine, which encourages parents to “raise a champ” (son) because “the only thing worse than going to the ballet is going to the ballet to see your son.” I’m sure the many well-adjusted, really awesome male dancers (gay, straight, bi, etc.) out there are feeling the love.
In addition to the ads, useless Man!Products litter our department store shelves. Kleenex in the UK has come out with special tissues for men, that are “mansize” and “manstrong” because men’s noses run fundamentally differently from women’s (and before anyone mentions that other, man-only use for tissues, I have to wonder what special manliness ingredient man!tissues could have that would make them better-suited to the purpose.) Dial, which I’m certain used to be unisex, now has special Dial for Men bodywash that has special 3D cleaning action (? as opposed to…) and offers a website that assaults your browser with the song: “Dial for men! We’re manly, manly men! I’m a man! Yes I am!”
In the din of all of this, I hear Virginia Woof’s shock at the astounding gender self-consciousness of her era. She was writing in Modernist England, one of the goldmines for gender-studies loving literature PHDs. Astute as always, Woolf blamed not only an emasculating war (WWI), but also the new freedoms women had gained for the resulting man panic of her contemporaries: “[Suffrage] must have roused in men an extraordinary desire for self assertion; it must have made them lay an emphasis on their own sex and its characteristics which they would not have troubled to think about had they not been challenged” (“A Room of One’s Own” pg. 99).
Is this crazy Man!culture really to be attributed to self-consciousness? Perhaps, because when I see these products, I see an attempt at self-definition. I hear, “I’m different than you! I’m a man!” In some cases, I’m sure men realize how ridiculous the whole thing looks, but, as with the winner of the Old Spice competition, even funny things can have serious consequences.
And I have to wonder how this is good for anyone. Even as men celebrate their masculinity, this kind of masculinity, as shown in Idiocracy, is glorified ignorance and stupidity. It’s the overconsumption of food and resources. It’s relegating caring and sensitivity to women, and dismissing treating women with respect as only for sissy boys, existing within the female imagination, or as a joking tactic to get into women’s pants. It’s based upon exclusion. And, honestly, I’m confused as to why anyone would want to use this stereotype as a celebration of all things male, even as a joke.