Supermanhood: Geek Guys and Hypermasculinity in Superhero Movies

(A shorted version of this article was published in The Independent UK on 11/27/15)

Thor and Captain America becoming friends in The Avengers (2012)

Thor and Captain America becoming friends in The Avengers (2012)

The trailer for Captain America: Civil War premiered this week and geeks all over the internet exploded with excitement. This is the 13th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and there are at least 10 more on the way to the big screen. Over the last decade the Marvel films have been a massive box office success for Marvel Studios and their parent corporation, The Walt Disney Company. It’s safe to say that superheroes have gone mainstream in a big way. Comic book stories are no longer the exclusive domain of geek subcultures.

Part of that success lies in the appeal of an old-fashioned tale of good versus evil. Part of it is the spectacle of some of the best special effects in the business. The scenes of conflict and destruction in these films are viscerally exciting, no doubt, and certainly get the adrenaline pumping. But there is something else at work here, something that has drawn self-described geeks and nerds to comic books for nearly a century, and that is an idealization of the aggressive hypermasculine superhero archetype.

Let’s return to the new Captain America trailer, one scene in particular generated a sense of palpable excitement among fans. The last 10 seconds feature a protracted fight scene in which beloved superheroes Iron Man and Captain America are shown beating the crap out of each other.

A staple of the superhero genre is the tendency to concoct these elaborate scenarios in which the iconic “good guys” end up having to fight each other for some reason or another. This is often framed as a way to resolve their interpersonal issues before they can go beat up the “bad guys” and save the world. Look no further than Hulk’s rampaging brawl with Iron Man in the second Avengers film, or Batman’s upcoming cinematic showdown with Superman. They’re the blockbuster versions of kids arguing in the schoolyard about which superhero would win in a fight. The ultimate macho pissing contest. Who’s the toughest tough guy of them all? This is evidenced by the showcasing of fights between Thor and Iron Man, Bucky Barnes and Captain America, and so on and so forth. Heck, now we even have Kirk and Spock throwing punches at each other on the bridge of the Enterprise in the rebooted Star Trek movie, Starfleet protocols be damned.

How do superheroes make friends? By punching each other in the face! How do superheroes resolve conflicts big and small? By punching each other in the face! Who gets the girl? Whose plan will be followed? Who is in charge? How is trust built among teammates? Face-punching can accomplish all this and more!

It is essentially male bonding or friendship-building by way of violence and it usually elicits wild cheers from audiences. It’s a plot point that I think should at least raise questions regarding the kinds of behavior being modeled for men about male relationships and communication.

What exactly is so appealing about this particularly aggressive form of hypermasculinity that it’s now become a worldwide movie obsession?

SUPERMANHOOD

There are many types of masculinities, some healthy and productive, others destructive and harmful. Hypermasculinity (sometimes also referred to as toxic or hegemonic masculinity) is one form of manhood that’s characterized by traits of physical strength, domination, aggression and violence as a primary means of conflict resolution. This is a perilous and decidedly unhealthy form of manhood and one that tends to dominate superhero narratives.

There’s a pervasive theme running through the MCU movies, for example, and that is that violence is an effective way to solve problems between men, both institutionally and interpersonally.

Back before The Avengers were household names, superheroes were the domain of geekdom, and particularly “geek guys” who, to some degree, felt personally ostracized and disenfranchised by the ideals of stereotypical tough-guy manhood in mainstream culture. I know that growing up I certainly felt that way.

Of course people of all genders may enjoy superhero comics but here I’m primarily addressing male fans and our ideological relationship to the genre.

Despite being made to feel subordinate to concepts of hypermasculinity in the real world, many geek guys have nonetheless embraced superheroes who embody hypermasculine traits and values. To an extent this is connected to a power fantasy in which comic book fans can project themselves onto powerful figures. The superhero is, in a sense, everything that they are not, but perhaps (at least in their imaginations) aspire to be. That’s not really surprising, nor is it limited to geeks; our larger culture also idealizes the combative behavior associated with hypermasculinity.

Men who fall outside of the idealized version of manhood and into the geek category might seem like they would be the first in line to challenge notions of hypermasculinity. But more often than not, they tend to idolize those ideals despite being alienated from them as individuals. This self-identification with hypermasculinity is no doubt one of the factors in the rampant misogyny that plagues the comic book industry and community.

The particular brand of superhero masculinity represents a popular conception of what it means to be a “real man,” a conception that is not relegated solely to the realms of fantasy. Hypermasculinity manifests everywhere in our culture and can be seen reflected in politics, international conflict, municipal policing, domestic violence and interpersonal relationships. All you have to do is look at global leaders who routinely pound their chests while advocating for the use of deadly force as a solution to complex social problems, as if they aren’t talking about delicate matters of international diplomacy but rather boasting about taking down a supervillain like Ultron or Thanos.

One common reaction I encounter whenever I bring up these questions is the concern that there’s no way to create exciting dramatic tension or movie conflict, other than resorting to violence as the ultimate resolution. Of course, that’s not true, as evidenced by one of the most exciting and intense pictures of the year, The Martian. A remarkable thing about that film is that it contains absolutely no violence or killing. All problems are solved through science, cooperation and human creativity. And yet the filmmakers behind The Martian managed to create a widely successful, thrilling, edge-of-your-seat blockbuster. Given the current state of the world, we could certainly do with a hell of a lot more heroes who solve complex problems with innovation and ingenuity rather than by punching each other in the face.

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5 Ways Men Can Help End Sexism

What role should men play in working towards an end to sexism? How much or how little should men be helping? In this video we will explore answers to those questions and share a few suggestions for how men can respectfully approach feminism. We also explain why ending sexism can be beneficial for men too!

This is the 2nd Feminist Frequency video I’ve hosted which addresses men and sexism. My 1st video highlights the 25 Invisible Benefits of Gaming While Male.

Full transcript available at Feminist Frequency.

FAIR USE: The multimedia clips included in this video constitute a ‘fair use’ of any copyrighted material as provided for in Section 107 of U.S. Copyright law which allows for criticism, comment and scholarship.

Here are some entertaining outtakes from that video shoot.

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Gaming Footage & Copyright Panel at TwitchCon

TwitchCon

I recently spoke on a panel at TwitchCon 2015 entitled “Can We Just Play? The Legality of Let’s Play Video and Streams.” I was joined by Art Neil and Teri Karobonik of New Media Rights (a great organization where I serve as an advisory board member). We discussed a range of issues surrounding the fair use of video game footage and video streaming technology. You can watch the full video stream archive below the fold.

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Déjà vu: Viacom removes Daily Show remix for 2nd time

Firefox 5(See below for update)

Last week I noticed my remix video entitled “Too Many Dicks on the Daily Show” had been removed from YouTube via a bogus takedown from Viacom claiming copyright infringement. The remix is a transformative work critical of the gender disparities on The Daily Show and constitutes a fair use of copyrighted visual material as provided for in section 107 of the US copyright law.

This is the second time Viacom has abused the DMCA takedown process to prevent this particular fair use video from being seen. It’s especially ironic considering each episode of The Daily Show relies on the fair use doctrine in order to satirically comment on mainstream news broadcasts. I am currently appealing this latest takedown with the help of my attorneys from New Media Rights.

Back in August 2013, after nearly 2 years on YouTube, my remix was also removed without warning by Viacom claiming infringement for “visual content” from The Daily Show. I immediately informed my attorneys at New Media Rights who in turn contacted Viacom to inquire about the takedown. Quickly thereafter I received an automated message from YouTube stating that Viacom had rescinded their copyright infringement claim. Viacom provided no other information or explanation but the video was again viewable on YouTube and so I assumed the matter had been resolved. Roughly a year and a half later I find myself dealing with the same exact situation.

Too_Many_Dicks_Remix_StillAs I explained in my original blog post, the video is presented as an episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart which is interrupted by a remixed critique of the show’s gender imbalance and “boys’ locker room” comedy stylings. The remix was created with clips borrowed from over 100 episodes of The Daily Show combined with a portion of the Flight of the Conchords song “Too Many Dicks on the Dance Floor” in order to subvert both sources.

Made in 2011, the video was meant to highlight the lack of women in on-screen or leading creative roles on The Daily Show over its 17-year run. At the time only 3 of the 12 regular correspondents/contributors on The Daily Show were women. Only 2 of the 16 writers were women and the numbers have not improved much in the 4 years since I published the critique (although Jessica Williams is a brilliant addition to the cast).

Google-Chrome-852On both occasions Viacom has abused the DMCA takedown system to remove my video, which has resulted in an unjust strike placed against my YouTube account. On both occasions I’ve been temporarily locked out of my channel and forced to attend YouTube’s copyright school and pass a test on fair use. This is particularly patronizing since just over a year ago YouTube invited me to their space in Los Angeles to give a lecture on transformative storytelling and to specifically highlight the fair use questions that arise when remixing video footage for the purposes of political parody.

I should also note that YouTube currently features another one of my remix videos as an example of fair use video on their official page explaining the fair use doctrine to their user base.

Again, I’m in the process of trying to get my video back online. For now you can watch it over at the Internet Archive.

One last note: New Media Rights has offered me invaluable advice and guidance throughout these battles. They are a small, non-profit, two-lawyer operation on a shoe-string budget fighting to make sure artists like me are heard. So if you can, please consider donating to them here.

UPDATE: Shortly after this story was picked up by TechDirt the remix video in question reappeared on my YouTube channel and the copyright strikes against my account vanished. I received no official notification about what had transpired from either YouTube or Viacom.

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25 Invisible Benefits of Gaming While Male Video

Here is a short Feminist Frequency video project wrote and directed. It’s based on an article penned for Polygon earlier this year called “Playing with privilege: the invisible benefits of gaming while male“.

Please note: This list is referring primarily to straight men who are not transgender but similar lists could be created for white, straight, cis, or able-bodied privilege and there would certainly be some overlap with the conditions identified in this video.

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