The documentary film Tough Guise: Violence, Media, and the Crisis of Masculinity presents sharp critiques of representations of masculinity in the media. Jackson Katz, an American educator and social activist, communicates his ideas about the problems and their solutions. He asserts that boys are increasingly pressured by various forms of media to project a masculinity defined by violent physical confrontation and eliminating emotional vulnerabilities.
The documentary’s claim of not enough diversity of masculine representations in the media is rather dubious. Throughout the documentary, clips from films are shown out of context and images from hip-hop subculture are especially attacked for propagating hyper-masculine ideals of toughness and coolness. The issue of masculinity is not a simple black and white issue and even the representations that Katz criticizes can offer diversity if taken in the appropriate context. For example, if we divorce a few Tupac Shakur songs from his collective discography, we can make all kinds of claims about his morality and masculinity without understanding the full picture. Diversity does exist in representations of masculinity but popular discourse is often too caught up in superficially placing value judgments on art. Instead of censuring the art as violent, a more honest discussion needs to take place about what we take away from it. A prime example is the controversial 1983 Brian De Palma film Scarface which chronicles the life of Tony Montana, a Cuban immigrant who takes the Miami drug underworld by storm.
Scarface is a nightmare for those who are sensitive to portrayals of violence, drug use, and profanity. The film is laden with its 226 uses of the f-word, the sale and consumption of cocaine, along with a grotesque off-screen chainsaw amputation. One reading of the film may result in superficial conclusions: power at all costs, crime pays, drug dealers make exorbitant amounts of money, and gangsters are above the law. As a key film with influence on hip-hop music, it leaves many rappers romanticizing the actions of Tony Montana and often building their alter-egos around his personality. There is more to Scarface than meets the eye. It is about the rise and subsequent destruction of Tony Montana. Spiralling further into the world of narcotics and with more power, Tony loses all sense of himself and leaves a trail of blood. At the end of the film, Tony dies as a product of his own brazen machismo and hyper-masculinity. If the film’s aesthetic is the only focus, as is the case with the approach taken in Tough Guise, then we conclude with a superficial understanding of the film. If we examine Scarface closely we find a message that crime, greed, and wealth all come at a very high cost. Katz is correct in saying that we need to approach the idea of manhood differently but the answers are often already in front of us. Ultimately, if we are worried about art’s effect on impressionable minds, then we need to equip them with the correct tools of media literacy.