Friday, November 12, 2010

In defense of MTV's Jackass:not just another adventure in misogynist hyper-masculinity

The Jackass movie and television series from MTV is a variety stunt show of the skate-punk genre whose primary methods of entertainment involve very crude jokes or pranks about body parts or bodily functions. Superficially, the show appears to be just another juvenile adventure in misogynist hyper-masculinity as it centers on men competing in very violent 'sporting" activities. In the last week, I have watched the second and third Jackass movie. This was my first re-exposure to Jackass since my MTV laden youth. To my great surprise, I found the last two movies to be almost intentionally free of the typical behaviors of misogynist competitive environments.

Wikipedia describes hegemonic masculinity as an expression of masculinity that includes the two key elements of males attempting to dominate other males while also subordinating females. Jackass certainly qualifies as an expression of hegemonic masculinity in that the entirely male cast focuses on constantly dominating each other in their abilities to withstand pain, humiliation, fear and true disgust. Where Jackass deviates from the norm of misogynist masculinity however, is in the show's attitudes towards women.

Typical misogynist competitive shows often include women cast in sexist roles (NFL cheerleaders for example). Evident in the last two movies and generally thematic throughout the Jackass series is an almost total lack of women cast members or references to women at all. The only woman on the show regularly is one of the cast member's mother. This sole woman tends to be regularly placed in the "all-mother" role for the entire cast. While the conception of women as only mothers is certainly misogynist, this representation is a great deviation from the usual heavily sexualized depiction of women in hyper-masculine shows. The show's only woman is also not protected from pranks, as traditionally misogynist behavior might encourage that she be.

Jackass's general lack of depictions of women might be viewed as misogynist in that the activities of the show may be considered to be so hyper-masculine that women are not considered participants at all (again the NFL for example). This idea could be supported with evidence of sexist language used to control, coerce and dominate each other. In misogynist environments, men use female associated slurs to subordinate other males during competition. For example, how common is the phrase "Don't be a pussy" among teenage males competing with each other? Using female associated language creates the misogyny of the behavior. It demonstrates that the intent of the social display of competition is to establish a dominant hierarchy of men based first upon the subordination of women as the other, the weaker, etc. Jackass seems to totally lack this intent.

The language of competition in Jackass remains almost constantly one of mutual camaraderie focused on the abilities of one's self, or one's own body. Not once in either of the two latest Jackass movies did I hear a cast member use a sexist slur towards another man. Most encouragement doesn't even focus on being a "man" at all either, or at the least the roles of manhood. Instead, if the cast members coerce each other, it is with phallus centric language. I often struggle with whether phallic symbols or imagery can be separated from patriarchal intent. They seem so deeply entangled with each other. Again, Jackass surprised me. For all of the encouragement based upon personal phallic symbology, I never once felt as though it came from a place of misogyny. In fact, hearing the cast members of Jackass empower each other by referencing their testicles, however crude, reminded me of feminist music artist's Bitch and Animal's old adage that "it takes eggs (ovaries)" to do something scary. I certainly never thought I would be drawing feminist relational lines between Jackass and Bitch and Animal.

Another common trait of hyper-masculine competitive environments is compliance with heteronormative behaviors, including tolerating or participating in expressions of homophobia. Jackass so completely fails to display such heteronormative behavior that after critical analysis I believe Jackass is an intentionally queered expression of masculinity. Robert Heasley of Indiana University of Pennsylvania created a typology of queer masculinities among straight men. One type of queer expression of straight masculinity he defines is the "Social Justice Straight-Queer." The social justice straight-queer is a man who exhibits non-heteronormative behavior and alignment with queer politics to intentionally disrupt heteronormative standards. I identify Jackass with this type of masculinity. While Jackass has always been thick with homoeroticism, during the second movie there was an intentional statement by one of the stars that their homoerotic behavior was not meant to be homophobic in any way,that it was meant to make you think and finally he went on to strongly discourage homophobics from viewing their show.

I am not suggesting Jackass is a golden egg of good boy masculinity. The second movie had one scene that was incredibly sexist, racist and fatphobic that could and should have been avoided. It is also possible that sexist language is actually used and then edited out. With a critical lens that can look past all the poop humor and sadomasochism, Jackass can be seen as an expression of competitive hyper-masculinity that frees itself (mostly) from the oppressive constraints of the patriarchy and provides a good example for how to be a crude, strong, competitive, pain tolerant and risky (all traits of hegemonic masculinity) while not participating in misogyny.


gtg263r said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
gtg263r said...

I thought this was a fairly interesting blog post - starting with the blog post title. I have only seen the first Jackass movie, but am (overall) a fan of the show. It's never really occurred to me to consider whether Jackass is misogynistic or hyper-masculinized.

I suppose I could see the point that it is hyper-masculinized (in the sense that the show revolves around young men goading each other into acts that require incredible bravado/stupidity) but the antics on the show have always been so over-the-top and absurd that it is hard for me to view the show as anything but social commentary (albeit, possible unintentional) reflective of modern popular culture.

Moreover, as Dusty alluded to in his blog post, the overt homo-eroticism on the show (whether sincere or not) does set it apart from typical hyper-masculinized posturing.

Now that I think about it, I have noticed a clear absence of women from the show. I am not sure of the significance of this, but I tend to take the show at face value and view it as gleefully nihilistic, base entertainment which fits perfectly in a popular culture steeped in violence and viral-video cultism.

Chez Marta said...

Dusty, you say that "social justice straight-queer is a man who exhibits non-heteronormative behavior and alignment with queer politics to intentionally disrupt heteronormative standards." Could this be applied across all genders? I consider myself a social-justice straight-queer (wo)man and am happy to challenge heteronormative standards whenever I encounter them.

Dusty said...

Chez Marta, in response to whether the typology of Queer identities I referenced can be applied to genders other than straight men, I absolutely think so. Personally, I think most sexual identities and gender identities are super complex and highly personalized, and that all of them have the potential for being queer or having "queered" behaviors regardless of whether the person may or may not be involved in some degree of heteronormative living or identification.