In the film adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's violent novel, Fight Club, character Tyler Durden points to his generation of young men as the "middle children of history." Played by actor Brad Pitt, Durden represents the absolute collapse of masculinity into raw violence. This character joins his friends in seeking personal release and ecstasy through violent fights that send the participants regularly to the emergency room. In a haunting comment, Durden remarks: "We are a generation of men raised by women." Is this our future?
Reporting in the December 11, 2005 edition of The New York Times, Warren St. John describes the emergence of a new phenomenon — "Neanderthal TV." As St. John explains, this new approach to television venality and violence is being marketed to young males, mostly between the ages of eighteen and thirty. A male-oriented network, Spike TV, interviewed thousands of young men and determined that many of them wanted to see antisocial characters portrayed in television dramas. Beyond this, these young men are clearly identifying with these antisocial figures, along with their violence and amorality.
"Spike found that men responded not only to brave and extremely competent leads but to a menagerie of characters with strikingly antisocial tendencies," St. John reports. These characters include Dr. Gregory House, "a Vicodin-popping physician" who is featured on Fox's House, Michael Scofield on Prison Break, and Vic Mackey, a major character on The Shield. Scofield is set on helping his brother break out of jail while Mackey is "a tough-guy cop who won't hesitate to beat a suspect senseless." As St. John remarks, "Tony Soprano is their patron saint, and like Tony, within the confines of their shows, they are all 'good guys.'"
St. John's article points to a new and troubling phenomenon. Many of the most popular male characters featured in the entertainment industry represent extreme violence, sexual perversions, an absolute absence of morality, and the very "antisocial tendencies" Spike TV found to be so popular. At the same time, these characters are not merely featured, but they are now admired by millions of young men.
The reporter quotes Brent Hoff, age 36, who remarked that the message from these shows is: "Life is hard. Men gotta do what men gotta do, and if some people have to die in the process, so be it." Hoff, a writer who lives in San Francisco, went on to explain that young men in his generation can easily relate to these characters. Speaking of Sawyer, a character on the ABC series Lost, who refused to help a fellow character find his lost child, Hoff commented: "If you watch Sawyer on Lost, who is fundamentally good even if he does bad things, there's less to feel guilty about in yourself." Of course, there is sufficient reason for concern when such a character is described as "fundamentally good even if he does bad things." Nevertheless, Hoff went on to apply this observation as principle, noting that the observation and contemplation of these characters leaves less room for guilt in his own self analysis.
What kind of morality is at play here? As St. John explains, these shows reduce morality to a Darwinian principle that "in the social chaos of the modern world, the only sensible reflex is self-interest."
Others have gone so far as to suggest that these characters and this kind of programming represent a new vision of masculinity. Gregory A. Randall, who is developing a new show for Spike TV called Paradise Salvage, said that the emergence and popularity of antisocial characters — even leads — can be traced to an intentional effort by the networks to attract young male viewers by mirroring their frustrations. "It's about comprehending from an entertainment point of view that men are living in a very complex conundrum today," he told St. John. "We're supposed to be sensitive and evolved and yet still in touch with our neanderthal, animalistic, macho side." Randall went on to argue that watching male characters who demonstrate such deeply flawed personalities but who nevertheless come out on top of the social hierarchy, makes young men feel better about their own character flaws and frustrations with male identity.
Randall made his point with rare candor: "You think, 'It's OK to go to a strip club and have a couple of beers with your buddies and still go home to your wife and baby and live with yourself.'"
In his article, St. John compares characters of older television classics as "men who have the occasional affair or who tip the bottle a little too much." But these new characters are very different. "Instead they are unapologetic about killing, stealing, hoarding, and beating their way to achieve personal goals that often conflict with the greed, apathy, and of course, the bureaucracies of the modern world."
Others have attempted to explain this phenomenon in terms of social commentary. According to this line of argument, the popularity of these antisocial male characters can be traced to male frustration and being forced to work within a bland and bureaucratic corporate environment. Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, put it this way: "These kinds of characters are so satisfying to male viewers because culture has told them to be powerful and effective and to get things done, and at the same time they're living, operating, and working in places that are constantly defying that."
Of course, that line of argument has been around for a very long time. It was the theme of the 1956 movie The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and it has reappeared in new dress in virtually every generation. Professor Thompson goes so far as to suggest that the real "enemy" as understood by contemporary males is "the legal, cultural, and social infrastructure of the nation itself." Frankly, Dr. Thompson is overreaching, to say the least. It's hard to dignify this kind of media taste as social commentary. After all, these young male viewers are sought by the networks and cable channels precisely because they are the demographic that drives the sale of so many consumer products. It's hard to dignify and respect cultural angst in a generation that demands the latest technological gadgets and consumer goods.
Attracting the young male demographic is clearly the main ambition of those producing and marketing this new and savage form of television entertainment. As St. John observes, competition from the Internet, video games, and a vast array of cable channels has caught the attention of television producers who "are obsessed with developing shows that can capture the attention of young male viewers."
Spike TV, owned by Viacom, "has ordered up a slate of new dramas based on characters whose minds are cauldrons of moral ambiguity," he explains.
Paul Scheer, a twenty-nine-year-old actor and viewer of Lost, told St. John that a character can now even commit murder without alienating an audience. "You don't have to be defined by one act," he commented. On Lost, three characters have killed others in cold blood, "and they're quote-unquote good people who you're rooting for every week," Scheer observed. The moral he takes from these shows? "You can say 'I'm messed up and I left my wife, but I'm still a good guy.'"
Peter Liguori, creator of the FX shows The Shield and Over There, who now serves as president of Fox Entertainment, defended his programming: "I think that moral ambiguity is highly involving for an audience. Audiences I believe relate to characters they share the same flaws with."
That is a truly frightening statement. Are we to believe that he is intentionally directing the programming of his network towards an audience of young males who share "the same flaws" as the violent, perverse, and antisocial characters he so willingly presents?
We are now witnessing the corruption of the masculine ideal into absolute violence and amorality. This phenomenon has developed over time, as manhood and the role of men in the home and in the society have been undermined by social, legal, economic, and ideological forces.
We now know that boys are doing more poorly in school than girls and that young women now outnumber young men on college campuses. The vast majority of violent crimes are committed by young men, and young males drive the statistics in virtually every form of antisocial behavior. The absence of strong male role models for boys and young men to respect and emulate — especially fathers — is surely the largest contributing factor to the rise in the social pathologies and antisocial behaviors.
The last thing we need is a tidal wave of entertainment that presents these very behaviors and warped visions of masculinity as ideals to be admired. As the comments from the young men cited in this article indicate, many of those young males who would not join the rampage nonetheless find in this programming a comforting message of moral relativism. These young men may not — we should be glad to note — engage in these behaviors themselves. Nevertheless, watching admired characters engage in these very same behaviors allows young male viewers room to justify and rationalize their own character flaws, irresponsibility, and worse.
Hollywood, we are often told, is a mirror of America. The rise of this amoral programming, revolving around themes ranging from rampage to relativism, should serve as a dire warning of where this culture is headed. A society whose young men celebrate violence and moral ambiguity is headed towards something even worse.