I’m just here to observe toxic masculinity

Since I’m living in China, it seems like I should watch Chinese movies. I fully intended to watch a Chinese movie last week, but because I didn’t pay attention to the date when I booked tickets, I ended up watching Shazam!, which is the type of movie I normally ignore.

It’s not that I necessarily hate the concept of superheroes — but I associate them with toxic masculinity. At first, I couldn’t decide if Shazam! was a movie that challenged toxic masculinity or reinforced the ideas in a convenient little box with slightly different packaging. But, now, I would argue that Shazam! is at least a step in the right direction.

Let’s first look at the villain, Dr. Sivana, in the movie. We first see him as a child, with his father and brother emotionally abusing him and telling him he’s not a real man. His father and brother are the prototype for toxic masculinity, taunting him by telling him he’s weak and that he’ll never be a real man. As I was watching, I thought, “are these characters meant to teach us a lesson about the harms of toxic masculinity, or are we simply meant to accept them as average ‘bad people’ with no connection to larger societal problems? Or, worse, are we supposed to believe that egging a child on and telling him he won’t be a real man is a fairly normal thing to do to a child who doesn’t properly adhere to traditional gender norms?”

I’d like to believe the latter is untrue, because this character later becomes a villain. He’s a terrible and fairly typical villain, but he’s also a human one — he is a villain who is the way he is because of how he was treated in the past. It shows us that people (and in this case, men) are often bad because of past experiences; not naturally. This is important because, often, when men are violent, it is marked off as “just the way men are.” We are supposed to accept that men are just naturally violent and can’t control it. This stereotype is lazy, making us believe that men can’t do any better. It hurts everyone and justifies bad behavior.

In the movie, we see a man who was emotionally affected by his past and isn’t just violent because he’s a man and that’s how men are supposed to be. He acts like this because his family taught him that proper men are this way — strong and violent. He wants to prove to his father and to everyone that he is a “real man,” and the emotions he expresses (anger, primarily) are ones that are stereotypically associated with men. Still, I’d like to argue that the movie doesn’t show us that these feelings and actions are natural for men — they were triggered by his family’s toxic masculinity. If he hadn’t had that influence and experience, we can assume he wouldn’t have been an angry, revenge-seeking and power-hungry villain.

Another important thing to note is that toxic masculinity doesn’t win — the villain loses. A strong, caring family defeats him. Still, I’m not sure how I feel about those people being children. It’s common to see children care for others; but the media doesn’t often show us adult men who are compassionate in quite the same way. However, I was satisfied with the interactions between Billy, the hero, and the villain. Not exclusively relying on violence, Billy talks to the villain and tries to relate to him, with an “I understand how you feel” approach. In this situation, the villain doesn’t simply say, “oh, OK, you’re right — all I needed was someone to talk to.” However, we are still presented with a character who tries to communicate and relate, without simply turning to violence.

Because of who I am as a person, I see gender issues and toxic masculinity everywhere, within everything I do. For many people, this movie is simply a fairly entertaining story, if even that. My expectations were quite low; I didn’t even want to watch it. However, I was fairly satisfied with the messages I could take away from it. I’m not convinced that everyone will leave this movie and think, “wow, toxic masculinity is really harmful,” but at least this movie didn’t normalize the same toxic masculinity that I’ve seen in other action movies. In this movie, toxic masculinity was a danger to men and to society, whether people see it or not — much like real life.