12 Strong, ‘Toxic Masculinity,’ and click-bait triggering

NOTE: I have not seen 12 Strong. What follows is my commentary on a conversation about the movie, not a review or critique of the movie itself.

No More War Movies: Leftists Angry Post-9/11 Movie ’12 Strong’ Promotes ‘Toxic Masculinity’ blared the headline. Before long, Twitter was aflutter with tweets and retweets of the Daily Wire article.

With Leftists going all-out to criticize such a heroic movie, such gripes should be easy to find. Or so one would think.

As it turns out, the Daily Wire piece didn’t quote a selection of “Leftists.” It depended on a single movie critique.

And nowhere in the critique was the term “toxic masculinity” used. Not even in scare-quotes. (The article received enough traffic it was eventually posted by other sources like True Pundit and Joe Miller.)

The review in question was written by Peter Maass and published at The Intercept, a not-even-trying-to-hide-it liberal news and opinion site. Per his bio, Maass:

has written about war, media, and national security for The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post. He reported on both civilians and combatants during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is the author of Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War, an award-winning memoir about the conflict in Bosnia, and he wrote Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil.

One may not agree with Maass’ conclusions on the movie or masculinity, but he seems to have arrived at his conclusions thoughtfully rather than reflexively, unlike the flock of tweeters who regurgitated the witch’s brew article at the Daily Wire. (Here’s a 1996 interview with Maass, following the publication of his first book.)

Even the typically astute David French, writing at National Review, quotes the non-existent phrase. In his article The Question That Reveals the Heart of the Culture Wars (spoiler alert: “What is a man?”), French writes:

Last week in The Intercept, writer Peter Mass [sic] took direct aim at the “outdated model of masculinity” in the movie 12 Strong. The movie tells the story of one of the first special-forces teams inserted into Afghanistan after 9/11. It’s a team that helped win a key battle and liberated a community from the ultimate form of “toxic masculinity” — Taliban tyranny.

French, following in the footsteps of Daily Wire’s Emily Zanotti, uses words Maass never uses: “toxic masculinity.” And, while the phrase “outdated model” appears in the title, French—of all people—should know titles are not always written by the author.

The phrase Maass does use is “a model of masculinity that does violence to us all” (emphasis mine). Rather than calling masculinity “toxic” he’s calling out Hollywood for perpetrating an image of masculinity in some war movies that is often one-sided and incomplete.

French seems to miss the entire point as with this Maass quote and his follow-on comment:

“What matters is that well into the second decade of our forever war, the combat movies that populate our multiplexes and our minds are devoted to a martial narrative of men-as-terminators that should have been strangled at its birth a long time ago.”

No, it’s not about “men as terminators.” It’s about “men as protectors,” and if we don’t cultivate that virtue and advance that narrative then who, pray tell, will protect our nation, our culture, and our civilization?

But, Maass is not arguing that men are terminators; he’s arguing that some Hollywood efforts, lacking proper breadth, paint men solely as terminators and that such a model is presented as the best portrait of masculinity. In Maass’ own words:

The time has come for Hollywood to turn away from war movies that, while satisfying to both a studio’s bottom line and a flag-waving concept of patriotism, perpetuate a model of masculinity that does violence to us all.

Don’t get me wrong, soldiers often do brave things and shouldn’t be denied credit for it. I’ve reported on the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Bosnia, so I’ve seen heroism from soldiers of many nationalities, as well as cowardice and abuse.

Why should we believe this particular model is what Hollywood has in mind? Maass continues:

While “12 Strong” is marketed as a true story based on a nonfiction book by Doug Stanton, there is nothing in Stanton’s book that resembles the climactic scene of Hemsworth bravely shooting his way on horseback through a gauntlet of waiting-for-paradise Talibs. There is one passage in the book in which the Special Forces soldier played by Hemsworth rides his horse into the corpse-strewn aftermath of a battle, but the fighting and dying are over by then. When I asked the film’s public relations team about this difference, they sent me the following statement from Stanton: “This scene is an amalgamation of the horse charges that the [Afghan] Northern Alliance made against the Taliban, and which the [American] horse soldiers themselves observed and assisted in. But as it appears in the movie, the same scene does not appear in my book.”

Per the book’s author, the movie’s climactic scene of bravery and fierceness in the face of withering fire was fiction. Not only was it fiction, it was cobbled-together from the actions of Aghan soldiers fighting the Taliban, not American ones. Maass calls it “cinematic stolen valor.”

If that is not Hollywood perpetuating a “model of masculinity” for ticket sales, what is it?

Consider the movie American Sniper. Who’s is the embodiment of masculinity in this half-billion-dollar earning movie? Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle. But, what about Chris Kyle’s brother? The awkward, not-quite-brave, thin guy who goes off to battle anyway? Chris Kyle, with record kills, huge biceps, and great instincts, is the picture of a real man. His brother is an afterthought; a lesser man.

Contra the Daily Wire headline, Maass does not suggest Hollywood should stop making war movies.

The best war film of the last year, “Thank You for Your Service,” based on the nonfiction book by David Finkel, quietly focuses on the troubles of a group of soldiers after they come home from a deployment in Iraq. The film has only two battle scenes, and both are excruciating to watch because their violence is frightening rather than glorious – the opposite of Bruckheimer’s feel-good shoot-’em-ups. The men in “Thank You for Your Service” are struggling with PTSD, painfully coming to the awareness that the combat that gave them such purpose in Iraq has injured their psyches. Nobody looks like Thor in this movie, nobody behaves like Thor, and the John Wayne style of masculinity that these men might have aspired to emulate is shown to be an artificial and harmful construct.

In other words, it is neither masculinity nor heroism that is toxic. But the expectation that wounded warriors should man-up and play the part despite their wounds, certainly can be.

There’s a word for films that show all the positives and none of the negatives of war, that intentionally gin-up emotion for a war effort carefully avoiding that which would cause the public to question strategic errors, tactical blunders, political head-winds, and body counts. That word is “propaganda.”

In a different critique of war films as a genre, Maass writes:

Hollywood is not a classroom. The problem, however, is that movies, despite the bonfires of distortion in many of them, can shape our understanding of political events just as much as think tank reports or Pulitzer-winning books. For instance, a lot of major movies are taught in schools. It is disingenuous for the screening room cognoscenti to pretend that films are of no political consequence and shouldn’t be critiqued for historical accuracy — and that’s particularly true for war films.

His critique of Zero Dark Thirty is a critique of embedded journalism and the nearly inextricable mixing of fact and fiction. He criticizes American Sniper for lack of historical context, not for toxic-masculinity (and 13 Hours for the same reason). As a result of Hollywood one-sidedness, Maass believes “we’re getting the myth of history before getting the actual history.”

What Maass seems to be saying about 12 Strong is we should not allow war films to propagandize our understanding of masculinity.

One can read Maass and come to different conclusions about war, about movies, about how men are portrayed in them, and whether any of it makes any difference. But, as a former correspondent in several wars on at least two continents, he seems at least as qualified to speak of the effects and aftermath of war as a Second City-trained comedian.

Zanotti’s article is classic click-bait: find an angle (toxic masculinity) that is red meat to your readership, pepper it with opinion-as-fact, then promote it as below:

After straw-manning Maass’ article, the Daily Wire attempts more honesty at the end:

Of course, he’s not saying soldiers don’t deserve to be recognized. He just prefers that movies about war argue against the concept of international armed conflict and, perhaps, in favor of hugging it out so that no one is ever hurt, and no member of the military is ever exposed to harm. [Sarcasm courtesy of Second City. -Ed.] He’d prefer war movies depict the “real” cost of war — the lives destroyed, the posttraumatic stress disorder, the violence, and perhaps ultimately, the defeat.

“War movies that depict the ‘real’ cost of war.” Given what’s at stake humanly speaking, given that masculinity sometimes leads to the avoidance of war and the securing of peace, is that really too much to ask?

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

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