#2. War Heroes
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I'm talking about real war heroes here -- you can still get famous by fighting a war in a movie, and you probably always will. But we used to treat real-life soldiers like pro athletes -- World War I hero Alvin York returned to the states a superstar thanks to a blockbuster movie made about him (Sergeant York, starring Gary Cooper) that grossed $400 million in the U.S., adjusted for inflation. The real guy -- not just the actor playing him -- could go to public appearances and draw huge crowds and sign autographs.
His mustache had its own fan club and radio serial.
And that's been the story for as long as anyone remembers -- George Washington had no experience with politics whatsoever when America made him its first president. All it took was him winning a war for him to become a media darling and international celebrity. Courage, strength, and lethal combat skills instantly meant you were qualified for anything. What else in society matters, other than those distinctly manly traits?
But Soon ...
This has already gone so much out of style that I worry some of you don't even know what I'm talking about. For instance, in my teenage years the war hero was General "Stormin'" Norman Schwarzkopf. He was the general of the U.S. Army invasion force during the first Gulf War and came home a pop culture superstar, greeted with a massive ticker tape parade ...
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... a blitz of media appearances, and constant pleas to run for president. For those of you born too late to remember that, does that seem like ancient history to you? I mean, I know George Washington was from another time, but President Eisenhower had never run for political office in his life, either; he went right from five-star general to president. Can you imagine that happening today?
Don't get me wrong -- we still hold parades and still buy bumper stickers boasting that we love our troops. And we still make war movies about real-life soldiers, the most recent being Lone Survivor, the Mark Wahlberg movie about a real-life Navy SEAL mission in Afghanistan. But that makes millions for Mark Wahlberg, not the real-life hero he was playing. Would you even know the real guy if you saw him?
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"Nailed it!" -casting director
Obviously these heroes were always the result of aggressive propaganda campaigns, and it's not like the military has stopped trying. During the war in Afghanistan, the military found a ready-made hero in Pat Tillman -- an NFL player who, months after the 9/11 attacks, was celebrated for giving up a multimillion-dollar salary to enlist in the Army. Two years later, we got the news that Tillman had been killed by Taliban forces, the military announcing he had died while charging up a hill, courageously defending his comrades and laying down his own life to save them. They awarded him a Silver Star for his bravery.
Then, five weeks later, it came out that he had in fact been accidentally shot by his own men during a botched operation. Well, so much for that.
Now look at SEAL Team 6, the guys who carried out the Osama bin Laden raid. Their operation went perfectly, they took out the greatest villain of the last half century, and they got an Academy Award-winning movie made about them. So ... do you know any of their names? The guy who did the shooting is leaving the Navy with nothing, not even health insurance. Others have cashed in by writing books, but it's not like you'd know their faces if they walked down the street.
Obviously, one reason the war hero market has dried up is that the wars themselves aren't popular -- we've had exactly one popular war in the last 70 years. But also the way wars are fought is changing, as proven by the fact that most of the dozens of other al-Qaida leaders we've killed over the years have been taken out by drones. And just like that, the 5,000-year reign of the soldier as the apex of manhood comes quietly to an end. Incidentally, it was at exactly this moment that the military decided they might as well start allowing women in combat. Gee, thanks.
Don't misunderstand me here: As long as there are assholes, and as long as those assholes are bigger and stronger than other people, there will be bullies. But the thing that is going away (and that has already gone away in many respects) is the institutional approval of bullying. We've mentioned on the site before how 1980s comedies always portrayed bully characters ...
... who not only routinely commit acts of assault against the underdog main characters, but actually repeatedly try to kill them.
And each time there's a very weird element to these movies that hopefully doesn't make sense to kids today: The bullied kid never tells an authority figure. Well, having grown up in the '80s, I can tell you why: The authority figures (teachers, parents, etc.) back then thought bullying was beneficial. They openly encouraged it and, in several first-hand experiences in my life, openly participated.
"If you know of a better way to teach this algebra class I'd like to hear it."
It was just implicit back then that the harassment of the weird or awkward kids was simply a necessary part of the maturation process, along with friendships, cliques, and dating. And when the occasional nerd or weird effeminate kid killed himself as a result, well, that was just a tragic but unavoidable side effect of growing up. The phrase I heard over and over again was "boys will be boys," and the message to abuser and victim both couldn't have been clearer: Masculinity means using your strength to inflict pain on those weaker, and failing to stand up to bullying -- or to do some bullying of your own -- meant you had not yet become a man. Cruelty is masculine, and masculinity is cruel. The more you have of one, the more you have of the other.
But Soon ...
The movement to actually do something about bullying is the second-most dramatic social change of my lifetime (the other being the acceptance of LGBT people -- two issues that obviously have a huge amount of overlap). If you look at anti-bullying/hazing laws for each state in the U.S., you notice one similarity across almost all of them: They're really fucking recent.
And here we see a connection to football again -- another NFL story that you non-fans probably have heard something about is the Richie Incognito bullying incident. Basically, he's a player who allegedly harassed a teammate into quitting the sport, and then the victim took it public. The NFL has taken action because, like the hugely profitable business it is, it can't stand this kind of bad publicity. And now cue all of the commentators complaining that this is a sign of the sad feminization of the NFL. Again, the bullying among masculine males isn't seen as an unavoidable evil, but a necessary good.
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"He's not the douchebag we deserve, but he's the one that we need right now."
This idea that society has decided that bullying is actually a bad thing regardless of context is so new that I can't even imagine a world without it. The systemic acceptance of it as a form of enforcing conformity goes back to ... the origin of the species, I think? Half of the fucking guys you pass on the street base their entire adult personality around the bullying they endured as teenagers. If you don't know what I mean, give this post by Mike Krahulik from Penny Arcade a read, and also take a moment to appreciate that by not knowing what I mean, you've already won life's lottery.
Shit, if we males can't establish our manhood via the inflicting of physical pain and humiliation, how the hell are we going to do it? By actually accomplishing things? Most of us wouldn't even know where to start.
Note: I realize that female bullying also exists, but I think the societal acceptance of bullying has always been a male thing. In other words, male bullies were the captain of the football team and destined to become CEOs, because bullying was seen as a key feature of their masculinity. Society doesn't treat a female bully as the feminine ideal.
And now, let's cleanse our palate with this video of a farting deer:
David Wong is the executive editor of Cracked.com and a New York Times best-selling author. His most recent horror novel is This Book is Full of Spiders, the paperback of which contains a 50-page preview of his next book, titled Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits.
Related Reading: Speaking of gender stereotypes, did you realize the idea that pink should be a girly color is actually pretty new? But it is true that modern life is robbing us of our manliness, in part by denying us the sun. And if you think that's insulting, check out the way these products were advertised to men.