Masculinity: The Strong, Silent Type
The Rise of the Machismo Anti-Hero & How Media Shapes and Reflects Our Understanding of Masculinity
“Sometimes, how you ingest this idea of masculinity as projected onto you by the world could be the difference of life and death.”
— Barry Jenkins
More than 20 years after its premiere, I finally managed to watch and complete HBO’s “The Sopranos”. I was able to breeze through the 6 season series in under 2 weeks due to a well-timed bout with depression that kept me sequestered to the couch in my office. Slow-roasted by my fireplace-style space heater, I consumed the beloved series that depicts a Jersey mob-boss grappling with depression, all the while trying to present a front of unfaltering strength in order to avoid the fate that awaits most who engage in the world of organized crime.
In an underworld defined by brute strength, adherence to orthodoxy, tradition, and unapologetic machismo, there is little room for genuine introspection and growth.
I felt connected to Tony as I watched, my couch serving as my own equivalent to Tony’s chair in his therapist’s office. He expressed feelings of detachment, an unavoidable air of apathy and darkness that seems to poison everything around you.
The main difference between Tony and myself is that I am not a sociopath, nor am I connected to organized crime. We are both Italian, we are both men, we are both terrified of death, and we both seem incapable of finding happiness in our present circumstances.
It is natural for us to relate to characters in fiction, they help us to understand our own issues by allowing a degree of separation — plausible deniability for our conscience. The rise of the anti-hero in modern media, specifically male protagonists, sprung out of the inner drive in our society that sought to truly understand what it means to be a good person (or not) in our crazy, cynical, present.
Most media prior to this maintained the story structures of old: the hero, a call to action, a quest, the defeat of evil, the triumph of good. Black and white, simple morality to temper our complex hearts. Superman was a boy scout, the cowboys beat the Indians.
But as society advanced and the counter-culture’s ascension to the mainstream made cynicism vogue, our media too began to reflect this change in temperament.
We were no longer satisfied with our flawless heroes, our Christ-like figures — we wanted to understand Pontius Pilate.
Most modern critiques of this type of media bemoan that viewers often find themselves not only relating to these clearly flawed and problematic protagonists, but emulating and idolizing them, regardless of the creator’s intentions.
Don Draper, the womanizing advertising executive from AMC’s “Mad Men”, served as an idol for men disillusioned with the ongoing reevaluation of masculinity and the denouncement of any “toxic” variant of it. This reactionary response to even the acknowledgment that our society’s patriarchal structure and favorable dynamic towards men warrants a conversation shows how truly fragile masculinity is. At the same time, the ferocity and breadth of that response serves to showcase the grip it still holds in our minds.
Masculinity, specifically the protagonist’s understanding of it, serves as a central tenet in all of these stories. For Tony Soprano, masculinity is the force that allows him to maintain power and avoid being “whacked” by his competitors. For Don Draper, his masculinity serves as a mental crutch to justify his infidelity and drinking. For Michael Corleone, the protagonist of Coppola’s “The Godfather”, its adherence to familial obligations and the maintenance of the patriarchal structure leads to his inevitable corruption.
Tony Soprano references his admiration of classic Hollywood star Gary Cooper, characterizing him as the “strong, silent type.” The type of man that handles his own problems and doesn’t “whine” to others or, God forbid, a shrink. The characters that Cooper played embody the old concept of masculinity, the idea that the admittance of any flaws is an unforgivable weakness and antithetical to the very idea of “manhood.”
Tony claims to embody this spirit, propping himself up a stalwart of unabashed machismo in the face of eroding values and permeating weakness. Whether it be the growing tolerance of homosexuality (“fanooks” as the New Jersey wise-guys say) or the push for equality for women, the “machismo” man feels threatened by any force that inherently questions the superiority of his own.
In the mind of the reactionary man, any gain by another is a loss for himself.
The large majority of these works are unabashed in their depictions of these men as hilariously flawed and hypocritical. Tony, the self-proclaimed “strong, silent type”, can’t get over losing a fight with his subordinate in front of his wife and rattles on like an insecure high schooler. Don Draper, rotating through women as fast as his clients on Madison Avenue, berates and threatens his wife upon learning she has been unfaithful to him even once.
“Goodfellas”, Scorsese’s mobster epic from 1990, shows the rise and fall of mobster-turned-“rat” Henry Hill. The heights of glory in the form of front row seats at the Copacabana and beautiful women at his beck and call is juxtaposed masterfully with the valley of jail time, addiction, and his betrayal of the very “family” that provided so much luxury to him in an effort to escape death at their hands.
The moral is clear, or at least it seems to be. In spite of this, movies like “Goodfellas” serve as nothing more than a source of aspiration for some men who see only the summit of the mountain and not the deadly descent that follows. The hedonistic benefits that are reaped from succumbing to the worst tendencies of masculinity.
Michael Douglas, the actor who portrayed greed-consumed broker Gordon Gekko in 1987’s “Wall Street”, claimed that fans would come up to him and admit that Gekko served as a personal hero to them. Douglas was horrified — Gekko is portrayed transparently as nothing more than a corporate psychopath. Someone who would burn down the world around him as long as he had something to gain from it. Yet, for many of the men who play with the wealth of billions like game pieces every day on that famed street, he is a source of aspiration.
The idea of endless conflict, that “dog eat dog” mentality, is still instilled into boys as soon as they can walk despite the fact that we have built a world of relative stability and safety. Because of this, for a large population of men, the world is still very much a zero-sum game to them.
“If I don’t take what I want, someone else will.”
Untempered masculinity acts not only as the driving force in pursuit of these base pleasures but also serves as the numbing agent that allows men to avoid the resulting guilt and pain that follows.
In a way, “toxic” masculinity is a perfect feedback loop — driving us towards self-destruction and undercutting our ability to face that fact and address it.
Tony is petrified that others will learn that he is attending therapy. In the mind of the strong man, there is no greater shame than showing weakness, let alone admitting it. His anger towards himself for broadcasting this weakness is directed outward towards those close to him. Dr. Melfi, his therapist, is physically threatened on more than one occasion. His children and wife suffer on the domestic side of things while others in the same world of Tony find their lives cut short, be it a major or minor infraction towards the boss man.
Tony is a product of his parents, as we all are for better or worse, but he is also a product of the same society that forged his parents. The same society that forged their parents, and their grandparents, and their great-grandparents, and so on till the very first homosapiens who decided to settle down and toil the land. Even as we are seeing a large scale grappling with this type of destructive masculinity, we are also seeing the pushback that arises from it.
The stereotypical “Boomer humor” posts that adorn Facebook, contrasting images of the soldiers preparing to storm the beaches of Normandy to anything ranging from men participating in the upbringing of their children (viewed as a weakness) to trans-women (viewed as “failed men”), are a common expression of an ill-conceived nostalgia that accompanies every generation as they age. “Men just ain’t what they used to be,” and similar sentiments.
The more dangerous examples of reactionary responses have taken the form of right-wing political actions that aim to curb the progress of all non-cis-men, as well as acts of violence perpetrated by “incels” (involuntarily celibate) and other groups like the “Proud Boys”. For many of these groups, religion is used to call for a return to patriarchy in the mold of the early Abrahamic religions. The goals of these groups in America is not too distinct from those of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the only difference is the their respective Abrahamic schools of thought. They share a similar vision — a world in which the fiercely masculine man rules unopposed.
The portrayal of the men of the past as somehow more masculine and “strong” is itself built on delusions fueled mainly by insecurity. Kurt Vonnegut’s most famous novel “Slaughterhouse V” was given the alternate title “The Children’s Crusade” by the author in response to his friend’s wife’s angry outburst regarding what she assumed the book would depict about World War 2:
“You were just babies then!”, she said.
“What?” I said.
“You were just babies in the war — like the ones upstairs!”
I nodded that this was true. We had been foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood.
“But you’re not going to write it that way, are you.” This wasn’t a question. It was an accusation.
“I-I don’t know”, I said.
“Well, I know,” she said. “You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.”
So then I understood. It was war that made her so angry. She didn’t want her babies or anybody else’s babies killed in wars. And she thought wars were partly encouraged by books and movies.
So I held up my right hand and I made her a promise: “Mary,” I said, “I don’t think this book of mine will ever be finished. I must have written five thousand pages by now, and thrown them all away. If I ever do finish it, though, I give you my word of honor: there won’t be a part for Frank Sinatra or John Wayne.
“I tell you what,” I said, “I’ll call it ‘The Children’s Crusade.’”
She was my friend after that.”
These heroes of the past, the Gary Coopers and John Waynes, and the characters they portrayed served to reaffirm traditional masculine values and reinforce a patriarchal mindset for society at large. Young men seeing John Wayne take on the “savage” natives in defense of American glory and culture inspired them to do the same against the countless foreign enemies that Uncle Sam has faced on the battlefield. To serve was manly, to object to the war or stay home was cowardice. General George S. Patton, the epitome of masculinity to some, famously slapped soldiers who were suffering from PTSD or “shell shock” during the Second World War.
Patton believed that showing weakness stripped a soldier of the right to call himself a man — death was a preferable alternative to emasculation. John Wayne never showed any fear, nor did Gary Cooper.
The quote that began this article is courtesy of Barry Jenkins, the director of the Oscar-winning film “Moonlight” from 2017. As he states, our media not only reveals our values, it also shapes and molds us as individuals. Even in 2023, media is still utilized to reinforce traditional ideas of masculinity. John Wayne’s escapades against the Indians has been replaced by Tom Cruise’s dogfights with pilots from an unnamed foreign country. Our society’s geopolitical enemies may have changed but the need to direct angry and impressionable young men with a chip on their shoulder towards the needs of a particular cause has not. The shaping of our concept of masculinity through media is crucial to maintain the violent patriarchal power structures that define our world.
Jenkins’ “Moonlight” adds another layer of complexity to the question of manhood by making the protagonist homosexual and Black. The defense of masculinity became a core mission of the Black Power movement of the 60s and 70s in response to a century of emasculation at the hands of white-dominated media and society — another example of masculinity being weaponized in media to reinforce existing power structures.
Homosexuality between men has always served as a graver insult to the machismo man in comparison to homosexuality between women. The same can be said about trans-woman, that is those assigned male at birth who transitioned or identify as women. The anger and vitriol towards these groups is amplified due, in my opinion, to the “insult” it presents to traditional masculine thought.
Both “Mad Men” and “The Sopranos” feature supporting characters who are outed as homosexual and suffer the horrific consequences of defying traditional gender norms. For Tony’s crew, a “fanook” in their ranks shows weakness and acts as an insult to their orthodox adherence to Catholicism (regardless of their tendency to brake the commandment related to murder frequently and with much fanfare).
In Mad Men’s “Swingin’ Sixties”, homosexuality was still something that went unmentioned in good company. “Confirmed bachelor” was the polite term assigned to unmarried men in order to avoid what was an uncomfortable reality for many people back then. Even though Don’s coworker (Salvatore “Sal” Romano, portrayed by Bryan Batt) was the recipient of unwanted advances from a male client, he is still unceremoniously fired by Don due to the client demanding it in an effort to punish Sal for failing to reciprocate.
Don showcases a relatively progressive viewpoint for the time period, refusing to engage in racist activities and conversations multiple times throughout the series. Even after becoming aware of Sal’s homosexuality months before the issue with the client, he only advises Sal to keep that part of his life better hidden, rather than firing him outright. Unfortunately, the client’s needs trump Don’s conscience. In a chilling reminder of the cruelty of the time period, Don angrily scolds Sal for failing to camouflage his sexuality, quietly muttering “you people” in bitter disappointment to someone he considered a friend and colleague.
To the machismo, masculinity is the ultimate virtue. To be a man is a gift from God, a claim to the inheritance to the world and its spoils. To question this role or to even consider abandoning it in favor of “weaker” qualities like femininity or homosexuality is nothing short of heresy to the machismo.
This is why the response to increased representation of the LGBTQ+ community in media has been so vitriolic, even violent. The men standing armed and opposed outside of libraries across America in protest of “Drag Queen Story Hours” view the growing tolerance for “non-traditional” attitudes as an existential threat to their very identities.
To the machismo, there is a war raging against the very idea of “manhood” itself.
Jenkin’s quote beautifully illustrates the power that fiction has over all of us, particularly men who may feel lost in a modern world that does not feel so inclined to surrender to them unconditionally as it had done so in the past. The depictions of our heroes in fiction reflects on all of us, our collective mindset. The ones we uplift, the ones we celebrate and emulate, tell us who we are and what we value.
The rise of the anti-hero came at a flashpoint in modern culture. The societal values that favored complacency over rebellion, stability over change, were abandoned with mainly good intentions by the previous generations. They sought understanding in a world rocked to its core by the threat of nuclear annihilation, senseless war, and the uncomfortable push for civil rights from the marginalized.
This self-reflection, for better or worse, also led to the rise of cynicism in the face of seemingly unstoppable forces. Greed, terrorism, technological advances. Nostalgia serves as a safety blanket when the world outside looks completely different from the one of only 20 years past. We all have that insecurity present in us, the one that calls us to shield our eyes from the bright, unfamiliar horizon and turn back to the familiar, darker, past.
This is why so many find comfort in these characters that exhibit the extremes of hyper-masculinity. The lonely man without much luck in the romance department sees the carefree and effortless philandering of Don Draper and envies him, all the while ignoring the crippling depression that drives Don and almost leads to his suicide. The man with an inferiority complex sees Tony Soprano instill fear into his subordinates and the world at large and aspires to do the same, regardless of the fact that Tony’s entire tough-guy persona is nothing more than a pathetic façade masking utter fear and incompetence.
To love these characters unconditionally requires the viewer to ignore their realities and flaws and instead project ourselves into their positions and ignore the terrifying truth —unabashed masculinity can not rid us of our faults and fears, it can only help us to deny them.
The world of today is not the same as the one of Tony Soprano or Don Draper. Yet, the grip of unabashed masculinity still looms large and threatens to reel back the progress that has been made to fix the faults that plague our world. On the personal level, it threatens to deny men the very real chance of self-actualization that can allow us to find happiness in the present.
For every boy that falls prey to the allure of “red-pill” influencers, there is another learning that we do not have to be slaves to the ideals of the past and the tortures that come along with it. We have a chance to be better, a chance to reject the easy route of the machismo — the submission to that “dog eat dog” worldview and the denial of our right to mental health.
We do not have to be the “strong, silent type.” We can admit that we are scared, depressed, anxious, terrified, helpless, hopeless, lonely. We can grow.