“Father,” he cries, “have I missed it? Have I missed the battle?”
“You have missed the war.”
Virtually any random scene chosen from Ridley Scott’s Gladiator could be the best part of another film, but I’m particularly partial to this one. The campaign against the savage Germanic tribes has been decided in a breathtakingly bloody and confusing final battle, mostly thanks to the intellectual and physical leadership of the general Maximus. As a dying Marcus Aurelius thanks Maximus for his service, the Emperor’s son, Commodus, rides up on a white charger. He’s been riding in a luxury wagon with his sister for virtually the entire trip up to the front, of course — he’s not some common soldier, doomed to cavalryman’s steed or shanks’ mare — but for his arrival he has switched to a battle horse and a set of shiny, completely undamaged armor.
And yes, he’s missed both the battle and the war, no doubt by design.
Aurelius chides him. Later on that evening, we see Commodus practicing his swordsmanship in a pre-planned demonstration with five of his slaves. “So much,” Aurelius notes with undisguised contempt, “for the glory of Rome.” The viewer is meant to see the contrast between the general Maximus, who fights for moral purposes and who longs to return home to his family, and the cowardly but arrogant Commodus, who play-acts at glory while avoiding danger. That contrast will inform the entire film, all the way to its conclusion in the Roman Colosseum where a weakened, poisoned Maximus fights a Commodus resplendent in blinding-white armor. The real Commodus, by the way, was notorious for fighting crippled animals in the arena, and for killing his sparring partners, but he was strangled in his tub, not beaten to death in the arena. Nor did his death restore the Roman Republic. The end of Gladiator is a complete fabrication, satisfying though it may be to watch.
You might say that Commodus is an extreme example of what is now called “toxic masculinity”, being both perverse and willfully cruel. He is almost a parody of Maximus, alternately executing senators with a smile on his face and crying helplessly in the cleavage of his own sister. He has the external appearance of masculinity without its true substance, all the vices and none of the virtues. He’s even a bit of a rapist, although that is given relatively little space in the film. There’s nothing particularly unusual about the Commodus role, other than its larger-than-life portrayal by Joaquin Phoenix; the “weak, cowardly schemer” has been a stock character since the Greeks wrote their first tragedies. We just have a new label for it now.
(A brief aside: A friend of mine from the street-racing days, a smooth-faced ex-military killer with a flat affect, blank eyes, and an unsettling catlike roll to his perambulation, worked for quite some time as a bodyguard for the elite. His happiest days were spent with Joaquin Phoenix: “Dude was a legit bad-ass and never hid behind me, never started anything he wouldn’t finish himself, never said an unkind word to anyone who didn’t deserve it.” No wonder Phoenix is never completely comfortable with Hollywood.)
This past weekend, the Gillette Corporation took some time off from mis-representing their Chinese junk as real American excellence to lecture American men on “toxic masculinity” via a YouTube video. It would be an understatement to call the video “poorly received”; although the “thumbs-up/thumbs-down” meter of the video has been repeatedly reset it has been at a consistently negative ratio. Tens of thousands of negative comments have been scrubbed by hard-working bugmen at Gillette and YouTube, but neither entity is able to control the fusillade of disdain sent Gillette’s way by entities as diverse as the Chateau Heartiste and the Detroit Free Press. I’d like to take a few minutes to discuss the live-action polemic here, but as with my Audi go-kart commercial piece I’m far more interested in the subtleties of the messaging than with the general Woke Capital stupidity of the stated message.
Let’s start with this: corporations, just like Commodus in Gladiator, don’t take unnecessary risks. Therefore, when you see a commercial from a major American corporation promoting a particular social message, you can be absolutely certain that the message in question has long been firmly ensconced in our secular ideology. Had the company run this commercial in 1975, you could make an argument that Gillette was being “brave” or “challenging” — but, as the flashback to a “sexist” Gillette ad in the video demonstrates, back then the product was sold in the most directly sexist, and sexual, terms imaginable. Which makes sense, because that was the style at the time. Well, the style at this time, in THE CURRENT YEAR, is Woke Capital. So it’s no “braver” for Gillette to support #MeToo in 2019 than it would have been for them to come out strongly in favor of Puritanism during the Salem Witch Trials.
You can argue that the correct response to an advertisement like this is to
0. ignore it
1. switch to Harry’s, which makes very nice razors in Germany.
The only problem is that I switched to Harry’s a year ago. Which leaves me nothing to do but to examine all the little ways in which the visuals of the piece are twisted. Let’s start with the biggest of the elephants in this particular room: in order to perfectly perform the rituals of our secular religion, Gillette had to attack men while somehow excluding MoC (Men of Color, for the non-woke out there.) Take a look at the image which opens this article: it’s of a television show supposedly watched by children. A white man sexually violates a black maid and the audience applauds. There’s just one little problem: the television show is a fabrication, and it does not represent anything that actually happened on any Sixties or Seventies TV show. Gillette is faking the past here, which is more than a little worrisome. How many young people will walk away from this believing in the reality of that rapist/racist television show?
The next scene shows us a rapper disrespecting women — but which rapper is this meant to represent? I’ll tell you, since I’m a bit of a rap scholar: this is a whiteface portrayal of Tyga, by an Italian or Hispanic actor. Just to drive the point home, the scenes from the “rap party” that follow are all-white. To do otherwise would be to show black men in a negative light, which would be a complete and utter career-killer in the advertising business. No surprise, therefore, that in the series of short vignettes than follows, the villains are all white men.
As with the Audi commercial I discussed a few years ago, however, these aren’t just white men — they are largely poor white men, almost always either overweight (which is Hollywood for poor) or old (which is Hollywood for evil.) And the children who are running in a group through the scenes, terrorizing people and bullying everybody they see? They’re lower-middle-class white kids, with sharp features and generic clothing. We see them running by a single mother and her son, as the insult thrown at that son — SISSY! — hangs in the air. The purpose behind the broad portrayal of these white-trash bullies, with their homophobic taunt? Why, it’s simply to distance them from the intended viewer and provide reassurance that the social distances are still in place. Again, this was done in the Audi Super Bowl ad: the bad kids were all white and poor. Still, it looks like they have the upper hand at the moment. Which is pretty scary, because nobody wants to live in a world where young white boys grow up to run the world. What is this, 1943 or something?
“But then,” the narrator intones, “something changed.” We see a bunch of news anchors talking about “#MeToo”. A bit of real-life footage is shown: Terry Crews, the former NFL player who detailed sexual abuse at the hands of other men in Hollywood, is shown saying that “Men need to hold other men accountable”. Are you surprised that it’s Terry Crews and not, say, Ronan Farrow, who took tremendous risks and worked like a dog to bring the Weinstein allegations into the light? If you are, then you haven’t really been paying attention.
Enough of that. Now it’s time for us to see some scenes of GOOD MEN stopping BAD MEN. Are you ready? Scene 1:
Huh. Are there no white men who can be of any help in this movement?
Note that there’s a black fellow standing in the line of BBQ LOSERS, but he’s overweight and dressed like his white compatriots. Not very woke of him. And we know this is a lower-class function, because the men and women are separated. The good news is that the bullying has been stopped. Except that this doesn’t look like bullying — it looks like two young boys fighting. Which, in any sane society, would be treated as less of a tragedy than the Rape of Nanking. It’s okay for boys to fight, particularly when it is one-on-one without weapons involved. After all, boys will be boys — shit, just by saying that I’ve identified myself as the next Juan Peron or something.
Not to worry. This scene won’t last. It’s all just a run-up for this advertisement’s money shot: a father stops bullying. Let’s take a look at the father:
Just your average curly-haired father walking down Wall Street, really. Unlike every other white dad in the ad, he’s not fat and he’s not poor. In fact, he’s kind of a “Marty Stu” Woke Dad: confident without being aggressive, manly without being toxic. Is he meant to be Jewish, with that hair and that business-casual approach to personal style? Could be. I’m not sure it matters, although I am dead certain that the ad agency took particular care in building the scene. I’d say that the actor is probably Jewish, something that you can’t say about any of the “bad” white men in the ad up to this point, most of whom appeared to have been chosen from community-theater takes on “King Of The Hill”.
He sees the bullies running through the street, towards some innocent victim, and instead of saying “Boys will be boys”, he decides to involve his adult self in a childhood disagreement. This would be considered trashy in any real-world context, but it’s okay, because of what we see when he runs to stop the bullying:
He may be Jewish, he may not be, but he is absolutely part of the fabled one percent. His son is wearing a day-school Oxford, while our hero is wearing an 18k gold pilot’s watch, something along the lines of this $13,200 IWC. What is this, a flippin’ Patek Philippe ad or something? In fact, it’s odd just how closely the father and his son resemble the father-son couples in upscale watch messaging. The only real difference is the ethnic appearance of the father. Not the child, who looks just like the Patek kids, but the father. Gosh, can being rich really turn your children into WASPs? Let’s not worry about that now. We have bullying to stop. Just in time, wink-wink, the protagonist, his spoiled-brat son, and his thirteen-thousand-dollar watch arrive at the scene of the bullying and stop it. The commercial fades to blue. The world is saved.
Have you figured out yet that this is not really a commercial about #MeToo, or about bullying, or even about razors? In reality, this is just a further development of the SuperBowl Audi commercial, in which a rich white girl and her rich white dad win a kart race against a bunch of white trash. In this commercial, we see a rich white-ish fellow who, after learning how to be a real man by watching the Men Of Color in the example clips, emulates their example and successfully stops a bunch of mean poor white trash from bullying a kid.
There’s so much more to discuss here, from the bizarre wish-fulfillment aspect of it (presumably this nerdy-looking dad was bullied himself as a kid, and now he can literally shove those same children around) to the dozens of cultural affirmations scattered through the footage (the mother of the bullied child is obese, the smoky desire shown by the bathing-suit girls towards their dreadlocked saviour, the fact that someone in that same scene is holding a VHS camcorder!) but I think the most important aspect of Gillette’s little lecture is how well it implements Rule #13 of Rules For Radicals:
“Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”
The target here is clearly bad-thinking poor white men, who are chosen, “frozen” into stereotypes, “personalized” in the vignettes, and “polarized” by being set apart from PoC and Woke Whites. And that point it’s really just a matter of when the women behind the whole thing decide to show mercy.
Alright. It’s a bad piece of work — maybe an evil one. Who cares? Well, given that the surface message of the advertisement is that children respond to what they see on screens, shouldn’t I be worried about image that show children like my own son as evil, malignant creatures who are subject to physical intervention from Woke adults? What do I tell my boy about this? That he needs to “be better” than the kids who look just like him? That he needs to be like… Terry Crews? Or the Patek Philippe dad? That there is no potential role for him in the future besides that of the villain? What if he took that to heart? In fact, what would happen if every high-IQ middle-class white boy in America decided that they were, in fact, villains, and decided to act as such? Doesn’t that take us directly to the world of Atlas Shrugged? Isn’t that how the Freikorps came to exist?
Thankfully, my son probably won’t see this ad. If he does, I’ll use another one of Alinsky’s tactics: I’ll ridicule it. “Oh, look at that wimpy dad beating up on ten-year-olds! Yeah, he’s real cool, isn’t he? What kind of goober thought this up?” My actions, however, will not change the fact that I, and all the other fathers of young middle-class white boys out there, will be fighting a battle on this subject for years to come. It’s not even a battle, really. It’s an undignified retreat, a headlong, panicked flight from the vicious and vengeful people who want to remove us from the American conversation. It’s our fault, really. While we were making money and buying homes and trying to be better men ourselves, there was a battle for the future taking place: in the media, on the campuses, in the minds of voters. We just didn’t miss that battle. We missed the whole war. And by “missed”, I mean “lost”.