A few days ago I watched the movie An Unfinished Life starring Morgan Freeman, Robert Redford, and Jennifer Lopez. Though it was recommended as a sensitive psychological drama, and though on the surface level it criticizes (male) violence against women and animals, on a deeper level, it confirms the association of masculinity with violence, suggesting that violence is the way men resolve their problems with each other.
At the beginning of the film, Robert Redford, who lives on a ranch in Montana, picks up his rifle with the intention of shooting a bear who mauled his friend Morgan Freeman. This act of violence is stopped by local authorities who arrive to capture the bear. However, the bear is not removed to a more remote area, but rather is given to a local make-shift zoo where it is kept in a small cage. At the end of the movie, Redford frees the bear after Freeman realizes that it should not be punished for injuring him. The bear is last seen crossing a mountain ridge in the distance.
Redford is grieving the death of his only son who died in an automobile accident while his son’s wife (played by Jennifer Lopez) was driving. After being beaten by her current boyfriend, Jennifer Lopez escapes with her daughter and ends up on Redford’s doorstep, announcing that her daughter is Redford’s granddaughter. Redford, who believes Lopez is responsible for his son’s death, grudgingly allows them to stay.
When Lopez’s boyfriend tracks her down in Montana, Redford drives him out of town, threatening to kill him with his rifle. When the boyfriend comes back, Redford shoots out the tires of his car, smashes the car’s windows with his rifle, and beats the boyfriend bloody before putting him on a bus out of town.
The movie asks us to condemn the boyfriend’s violence against Lopez and Redford’s desire to kill the bear, but it also asks us to condone and even to celebrate Redford’s violent acts against the boyfriend. After all, in this case, justice is done. Right?
In recent days a number of articles discussing the association of masculinity with violence have appeared on my Facebook feed. Reflecting on the Orlando murders, the authors point out that mass killings are almost always carried out by males. They note further that the vast majority of murders are also carried out by males. When women who murder men who abused them are taken out of the picture, the numbers are further skewed toward males as the ones who murder. According to Damon Linker, “Murder is an overwhelmingly male act, with the offender proving to be a man 90 percent of the time the person’s gender is known. When it comes to mass shootings, the gender disparity is even greater, with something like 98 percent of them perpetrated by men.”
Reflecting on these statistics, Amanda Marcotte writes:
[T]oxic masculinity is a specific model of manhood, geared towards dominance and control. It’s a manhood that views women and LGBT people as inferior, sees sex as an act not of affection but domination, and which valorizes violence as the way to prove one’s self to the world.
Quoting Marcotte, James Hamblin adds:
When men seek that control—when we feel it’s our due—and don’t achieve it, we can resent and hate. Toxic masculinity sets expectations that prime us for disappointment. We turn that disappointment on ourselves and others as anger and hatred.*
Coincidentally, while the murders were occurring in Orlando, I was stranded in an airport with only one piece of reading matter that I read more than once: a small pamphlet titled Liberating Life: Women’s Revolution, a compilation of writings by Abdullah Ocalan on the need to make women’s issues primary in every struggle against injustice. Ocalan writes:
[I]t is important to place on the agenda the problem of man, which is far more serious than the issue of woman. It is probably more difficult to analyse the concepts of domination and power, concepts related to man. It is not woman but man who is unwilling to transform. He fears that abandoning the role of the dominant male figure would leave him in the position of the monarch who has lost his state. He should be made aware that this most hollow form of domination leaves him bereft of freedom as well. … When man is analyzed in this context, it is clear that masculinity must be killed. (50-51)
Is it masculinity or toxic masculinity that must killed? Adding the word “toxic” in front of masculinity softens the blow, suggesting that it is only the extreme forms of masculinity—for example those that lead to mass murders—that need to be rejected. This suggests that everyday garden varieties of masculinity are not shaped around concepts of male dominance and the threat of violence.
When I first read Ocalan’s statement that “masculinity must be killed,” I was shocked that a man would say such a thing. No, it was not Mary Daly speaking, it was the respected imprisoned leader of the struggle for Kurdish liberation.
If we are unable to make peace between man and life, and life and woman, happiness is but a vain hope. … The male and female identities that we know today are constructs that were formed much later than the biological male and female. (51)
From this perspective, I would say that An Unfinished Life attempts to criticize “toxic masculinity” identified with men who batter women and men who shoot wild animals. At the same time, it celebrates and condones the “ordinary masculinity” in which problems between and within men are sorted out with fists and the barrel of a gun. A deeper critique is clearly needed. This is why Ocalan coined the unsettling slogan: “masculinity must be killed.”
What would be left after masculinity is killed?
How about the human values of love, care, compassion, and generosity which are not the exclusive property of any sex?
*This also illuminates the reasons so many angry white men are drawn to Donald Trump.
Carol P. Christ is author or editor of eight books in Women and Religion and is one of the Foremothers of the Women’s Spirituality Movement. She leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in Spring and Fall: Sign up now for the fall tour and save $150. Follow Carol on Twitter @CarolP.Christ, Facebook Goddess Pilgrimage, and Facebook Carol P. Christ. Carol speaks in depth about the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in an illustrated interview with Kaalii Cargill. Photo of Carol by Andrea Sarris.
A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess will be published by Far Press in 2016. A journey from despair to the joy of life.
Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology with Judith Plaskow will be published by Fortress Press in August 2016. Exploring the connections of theology and autobiography and alternatives to the transcendent, omnipotent male God.