Apologies in advance for what is likely to be a somewhat rambling post. I came across this music video for Twisted Sister’s 1984 hit “We’re Not Gonna Take It” somewhat randomly on a political blog and watched the first bit out of curiosity, then found myself engrossed and rewatching the whole five minute video. The imagery has stuck with me for the last couple days, tying in with a lot of the themes of maleness that I’ve been thinking about recently.
To start off, watch the video. (The whole thing. Seriously.)
What is so striking about this video is the way it echoes, in a dim and rather unwell way, the model of a male initiation. All the requisite players are there: father and family, son, and initiators in the form of the band; but it’s all off somehow, like a portrait done in Silly Putty and mashed almost past recognition.
The portrayal of the father immediately sets things off on a wrong note. He rants and spews incoherent spittle and disdain, but there’s no hint of real strength as he’s harried through his house and repeatedly defenestrated by the menacing band members. Bullying and loud, yet ultimately impotent, he exemplifies our cultural perception of unreconstructed maleness. As such, he is interesting, but the main question at the moment is how this father will affect his son’s initiation into manhood.
A common theme of male initiation is violence on the part of the initiators. They kidnap the boy, take him to a strange place, wound him. The initiation is a thing to be desired, yet feared; entering the fellowship of men is a dangerous thing because a man is a dangerous thing.
Consciously or not, in the video Twisted Sister clearly echoes the image of male initiators. They appear at a critical juncture to pull the boy from his home and family and offer him a new life, represented by the later shot of him at a Twisted Sister concert as they roar, “We’re not gonna take it, no we ain’t gonna take it, we’re not gonna take it anymore.” The band’s stylized, disguised appearance and menacing behavior complete the picture of a band of initiators. Yet the initiators in this story do not kidnap the boy – they rescue him.
As the boy faces his threatening, angry father, the band rushes in to confront the man. Their challenge is for the father, and he becomes an object of mockery as they reveal his true weakness. Rather than a danger, these initiators represent safety and excitement, away from the unpleasantness of dealing with challenging maleness. Saved, the boy joins the ranks of their headbanging fans, cheering enthusiastically while the band cries, “Oh you’re so condescending / your gall is never ending / we don’t want nothin’, not a thing from you / your life is trite and jaded / boring and confiscated / if that’s your best, your best won’t do.”
While it’s certainly possible to read too much into an 80’s glam rock production, I would argue that the video offers a vivid picture of the state of male initiation in America. Today, the cultural energy that might go toward ushering boys into manhood is instead directed at rescuing those boys from a manliness that is seen as brutal and loutish, or at best merely outdated and unnecessary.
In a culture where child custody cases end with sole custody for the mother 70-80 percent of the time, manliness is not seen as beneficial, but as an inconvenient or offensive obstacle to teaching a boy to be gracious, orderly, studious, sensitive, open, patient, and civilized. Because of this, boys must be saved from masculine tendencies and influences by schools, family, and media. As Harvey Mansfield writes in Manliness, “Even when ‘man’ means only male, ‘manly’ still seems pretentious in our new society, and threatening to it as well. The manly man is making a point of the bad attitude he ought to be playing down.” Like the band in the video, these would-be saviors rush in to separate the boy from masculinity and set out to shape him according to their ideal in a sort of soft, amoeba-like initiation.
Such pressure creates several different types of young men. Some simply absorb the message, give up, and cease to be manly in any meaningful sense. Fight Club and Wanted are anthems to the awakening and late initiation of such men. They are usually very nice and very civilized; women often like them because women tend to be fond of children. Though these men sometimes become more manly as they age, even then there is always a hint about them of someone who is trying to remember where he left something important.
Other men absorb the message but do not quite cease to be manly, so they respond as a man does when confronted with badness: they fight. Of course, the badness they confront and fight is maleness itself. They become Twisted Sister: “This is our life, this is our song / we’ll fight the powers that be, just / don’t pick our destiny ’cause / you don’t know us, you don’t belong.” They stand up in manly disdain to disdain manliness. Much of the American intelligentsia – among them, perhaps, President Barrack Obama – falls into this category.
And finally, some men reject the devaluation of manliness and, in the absence of mentors, initiators, or instruction, try to make themselves manly. Sadly, they usually become some variation of the father in the video, desperately aping the most obvious characteristics of masculinity without the solid inner core that only comes by absorption through long contact with true manliness, and without which the superficial attributes of manliness easily cave into wrongness. The hip-hop culture, with its loud rebellion, glorification of meaningless violence, and hypersexualization of women, is the result of boys trying to create their own masculinity. Less dramatically, our society is full of fathers who respond with everything from withdrawal to violence as they come to the choking realization that they have no idea, on a level deeper than mere intellect, of how to actually be the man their wife and children need.
“If that’s your best, your best won’t do,” declares the song, and it’s hard to disagree. Yet, as the father asks, “What kind of a man are you?” “What do you want to do with your life?” there’s a thinness to his son’s defiant response, “I wanna rock.” He is looking for identity and meaning, but there is no one to guide him; only well-meaning rescuers who pluck him away from the danger, challenge, and responsibility of becoming a man.