Tough Guy Nation
“In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.” – Czeslaw Milosz (Winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature)
For millennia, people have been confusing brashness for toughness; he who acts hard must naturally be hard. This deeply flawed mode of thinking has produced a society raised with a manufactured ideal of what constitutes a true badass. We now commonly associate badassery with a certain hyper-masculinity, a physically intimidating presence that instills a sense of great fear, resolute reverence, or both. To this end, our perception of a badass is usually associated with muscles, facial hair, arrogant bravado, illegal armament – any number of perfunctory manly characteristics that properly assure us mere pedestrian suburbanites of our place much further down the hierarchical rungs of the human food chain.
John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Teddy Roosevelt, Charles Barkley, The Marlboro Man, Foghorn Leghorn – these are but a few classic examples that come to mind when we think the all-time tough guys of history, and rightfully so.
But I’ve always felt that badass is a more variable term; it means something different to everyone and is based on outward manifestations of our personal interests. This isn’t to say that this idea of masculinity as toughness is patently false, but rather that its scope is far too limited.
The Criterion Collection
So if the notion of badassery means something different to everyone, the key in any debate over the topic is establishing at least a modicum of common ground, a foundation from which we can build an argument. This can be difficult, however, because of our singular perspectives. For example, to some people, David Bowie is an androgynous wimp, while, to others, he’s a pioneering badass of Alternative Rock and Roll. Despite steep divergence, both views on Mr. Stardust are equally valid. This is a problem.
So how do we reconcile these opposing viewpoints? Well, we need some broad but direct criteria that are divorced from common perceptions of badassery based purely on machismo. Not everyone is super-ripped, MMA trained, or capable of growing a sweet set of mutton chops on demand. However, most people are at least capable of eclipsing the everydayness with which we’ve all been infected through their actions. Bravery in the face of danger, integrity in the face of hypocrisy, initiative in the face of dire obstacles, and humility in the face of mindless adoration – these are the attributes that make a true badass. Toughness is more than a bit of brawn and a loud mouth; it’s acting in opposition to the banal expectations of modern society – a form of rebellion against the designed stasis of our self-imposed isolation and conformity.
Therefore, badassery does not consist of a few masculine ingredients haphazardly tossed into some strange brew of misconceived ideals. Instead, it is a tonic of transcendent humanity that exalts the character in question to badass status, separating him or her from the rest of us wimps. The beautiful part of this definition, if I may be so bold as to call my own definition beautiful, is that it is afforded to us all equally while remaining fluid and open to deviation based on circumstance. Badasses defy cultural norms and override the status quo. An aging housewife can take on the role of badass in defense of her child just as easily as Sergeant John Rambo mowing down an entire rice patty of Viet Cong!
Throughout history, there have been many instances of men and women posing as badasses. Pontius Pilate, Henry VIII, Joseph McCarthy (no relation), and Sid Vicious immediately come to mind, but this posse of pretenders represents less than a single droplet on the tip of a gigantic iceberg. The problem with poseurs masquerading as badasses is that they strictly rely on false swagger, pompously flapping their jaws and consistently biting off more than they can chew. But talk is cheap in the glorious realm of the badass, and, historically, someone has always been ready and willing to pull the poseur’s card when they inevitably carry the charade too far. Mr. Pretentious Preppy Ponytail in Good Will Hunting was rhetorically asked whether or not he likes apples, Saddam Hussein was strung up like a deer on You Tube for all the world to see, and Alex Rodriguez is currently being run out of Major League Baseball… by his own team! (1)
This is the way the world should be. This world makes sense. But this world is moving on.
A pretender is born every minute. Meanwhile, the genuine article seems to be a dying breed. This is causing a seismic interruption that is reverberating throughout society. The scale is beginning to tip in the favor of the wannabe, creating an imbalance in our once harmonic system of checks and balances. For every Clint Eastwood, there are a dozen Vin Diesels, and J.K. Rowling has unwittingly spawned a thousand Stephenie Meyers. The assumption is that external representation is all that matters, especially when coupled with money, looks, and inherited power. Pretty and rich doesn’t automatically equate to counterfeit badassery, but it’s usually a good place to look for potential offenders of such.
Perhaps the bland ketchup topping this rotting meatloaf can be traced back to the supreme douchery of Brody Jenner. This kid’s father is one of the finest athletes the world has ever known, one whose Olympic greatness should be a source of pride for any patriotic ‘Merican. Yet his son is a sniveling shell of a 30-year old boy who can be found running his incessant mouth on any reality show that will have him. The saddest part of all… So can his dad. (2) Like son, like father I suppose.
This is the type of world we are living in. Instead of teaching them how to be principled, honorable men, fathers are now mimicking their sons’ moronic behavior to maintain their own relevancy. Without teachers, there are no students, and without students, nothing can be learned. So, we make it up as we go along and assume that talking a good game is just as good, if not better, than actually acting in accordance with what we know to be right. And when we fail to do the latter, there’s always an excuse. (3)
So what’s the scoop? When did we forget the faces of our fathers? When did we begin willingly sacrificing the source of our toughness, our integrity, for cowardice? Once upon a time, we were a nation of badasses, from the schoolteacher who didn’t tolerate bullying nonsense in the classroom to the business man who would shed his suit when he got home and fix that damn leaky sink with his bare hands. Where have these pillars of the collective American badass spirit gone?
The last practicing breed of badass is being phased out of our society by a number of factors. Technology is excusing us the demands of physical labor, reality television is assuring us of our inalienable right to be worthless, and the politics of political correctness are forcing us to adapt a foreign dialect of double speak – a way of thinking, speaking, and posturing of which we’re rapidly becoming accustomed. On top of that, we’re not properly educating our young people. I suppose that all of this is both inescapable and inevitable, but that doesn’t really make me feel any better. The fact that the vanishing badass is just another aspect of the logical continuance of an “advancing” society isn’t any less depressing.
The sad truth is that true badassery is an endangered ethos, and what we’ll be left with when it is gone for good is a generation of foul-mouthed, heat-packing teenagers cutting in front of your grandmother in line at the grocery store. I fear that we’ve come too far from this trend, but if such upheaval remains possible, it’s probably best that we follow the advice of one of history’s great badasses, Marcus Aurelius: “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”
1: This is the only truly admirable thing that the New York Yankees have done in the 112 year history of the franchise.
2: This applies equally to Bruce Jenner's wife Kris Jenner and her daughters - Kim, K-something, and K-something.
3: I was discussing the nature of domestic abuse the other day with a relative stranger who remarked, “You NEVER, EVER hit a woman… Unless she hits your first.”
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