By Sean Buckley
Justified retribution is a narrative concept commonly expressed most profoundly in film and television of the 20th and 21st centuries. A character committing an ‘immoral’ action and later facing the punishment for that action is incredibly commonplace. It is more or less explicit depending on the exact nature of the story, but is possibly most apparent in a certain type of popular action film. To give a more specific example, a male character, likely in his 40’s as the age allows the audience to assume both that he is paternally wise and moral but also still ‘reasonably’ capable of physical violence. We are given scenes depicting what a good and morally upright man he is. He is wronged, has his honour insulted or is unable to defend those deemed under his protection (women, children, dogs etc) and thus exacts a campaign of revenge through acts of extreme violence. Almost immutably this violence seems to be exacted upon swathes of foreign or non-white people, used as cinematic shorthand to ensure the audience is more on board with their suffering.
The number of films this summary applies to is astounding, even limiting ourselves to the last two decades. John Wick sees Keanu Reeves tear through crowds of eastern Europeans and Denzel Washington obliterates the Russian mob with power tools and paternal stoicism in The Equalizer. Most egregious by some margin however, is Death Wish. The almost beloved trash classic sees Charles Bronson take violent revenge against the criminal and majority black/brown criminal underworld of 70’s New York. The first film is somewhat conscious of the moral ambiguity it is presenting the viewers with, but by the third Bronson is finding any excuse to take a bazooka to the local ghetto.
So what do these common threads tell us about the central idea? That we as an audience derive an intense pleasure in watching the immoral get their comeuppance is certainly true. It perhaps serves the purpose of reinforcing a cultural norm around crime and punishment through twisted allegory. Outside of the revenge narrative it is also a given that a large proportion of popular stories will present an antagonist that at some point receives a just punishment for his perceived crimes. For all our civility, violence is still viewed as an intrinsic and natural response to being wronged.
In a modern society, however, how useful is this allegorical function to us? It is becoming clearer that to prevent the ‘evil’ actions of a criminal it is far more necessary to understand the motivation behind them, and provide rehabilitation or redemption than to exact abstract retribution or punishment. This perspective is often accused of absolving an individual of responsibility. However, being forced to realistically better oneself arguably places more responsibility on the individual. The realities of a criminal act, and the effectiveness of a response to one, differ greatly from the distilled and idealised concept of crime and punishment.
Examples are arising in several countries, largely Nordic ones, that demonstrate the exponential effectiveness of a more humanised response to crime. A focus placed more on mental health and rehabilitation appears to lead to much lower rates of recidivism. A conclusion to be drawn from this disparity is that the reactionary inclination to severely punish criminals serves more to satisfy the primitive urge for idealised retribution than to deal with any cause, or even effectively deal with any symptom. It is perhaps easier for a society to see its criminals as the irredeemable villains of its story than the failure of its function, and view them as less than human to justify it. This is especially true in a society that allows prisoners to be dehumanised to the extent that they can be traded as if a commodity between private institutions and the state.
To take a heightened example, the conversation around the death penalty in the United States often makes the assumption that the families of murder victims want the death penalty for the murderer. This assumption rests on the view that a murder conviction and subsequent execution by the state is the equivalent of an immediate retributive act, as if you were struck and hit back. In reality, the process required to put someone to death is long, painful and protracted. To change this assumption is difficult as it is so profoundly ingrained into the conversation. Organisations like Murder Victims Families for Human Rights (MVFHR) aim specifically to combat this idea. Instead aiming to shift the discussion on to the more realistically impactful subjects of human rights and mental health.
Another integral factor of the ‘violent revenge’ example is how it demonstrates a stereotypically male narrative. This isn’t to say that the theme of retribution or revenge is an entirely male one, but often the initial act that forces the protagonist to action is one that is designed to offend an archetypal model of male honor and dignity. That his response consists almost entirely of extreme violence is also indicative. The protagonists are often defined by a reserved, paternal stoicism, and are entirely presented to the audience as an aspirational ideal. In terms of cinema, it is difficult to see what the feminised equivalent of the retribution story is. There are certainly films featuring a similar narrative and female protagonists. But these often suffer heavily from the severe obfuscation of the male gase.
Control and dominance, perceived as conventionally masculine traits, are also core tenets here. The protagonist’s aptitude for violence grants him power over those who have wronged him and the demonstration of that dominance is satisfying to the audience. While the narrative might seem immediately archaic to those in a modern ‘enlightened’ society, its prevalence and popularity appears to state that the story still holds important status in modern masculinity.
There are several examples to demonstrate where primitive masculine narrative clashes with the ideals of a modern society. The most gruesome of these would be the multiple ‘incel’ killings that have taken place, largely in north america, over the last decade. The term ‘Incel’ , for the uninitiated, is a concatenation of ‘involuntary celebate’. It has come to define a disparate community consisting almost exclusively of depressed young men who have formed some semblance of an identity around being unable to attract a partner. The community centers largely around online forums on sites like Reddit, 4chan, and the main forum incel.me and has constructed an elaborate, conspiratorial narrative to explain their lack of sexual prowess. These are known as the red and black pill, the latter being a gruesome extension of the first. Both are created from the ludicrous apex of misogynistic thought, interwoven with pseudoscience and demented social theory.
The ideologies boil down to a kind of contemporary phrenology, that the incel’s perceived contemptible position in society is the fault of a few millimetres of bone, and the claim that feminism has allowed all women to overestimate their value on the ‘sexual marketplace’. In turn, this leads the incels to an intense hatred of women, and sexually successful men, and have an increasing number of derogatory and vulgar terms to refer to them. The most alarming tendency of this community is the encouragement of violence. It directs this inwards, a regular sight on these forums is ‘sui’ or rope fuel, telling its members that any happiness is such an impossibility that suicide is their only option; the grim inevitability of black pill logic. Women and sexually successful men, as the criminal antagonist in their story, are also seen as acceptable targets for extreme violence.
The most recognisable of these events would be the 2014 Isla Vista killings. The perpetrator recorded his motivations before the crime as being retribution for women’s sexual rejection of him and his jealousy of young men who were sexually active. These actions hold a horrific reflection of a classically masculine narrative. A final attempt to assert masculine dominance over the outside world. His discomfort at the divide between his concept of masculinity, defined by sexuality, and his reality was great enough for him to psychologically justify a horrifically violent attack ending in his own suicide. Rodger has since become an idealised heroic figure within the incel community, because he fulfils the ultimate twisted and violent revenge story against the world.
It is unfortunately not a unique story as there have been several other similar events, increasing over the last few years, in which a young man has seen extreme violence as the only recourse against what they perceive to be their own disappearing masculinity.
To say all revenge films encourage all men towards violence and death is obviously untrue. But the presentation of their protagonists as ideal masculine role models is difficult to overlook. Especially when American police forces receive self-dubbed ‘warrior’ training, which seeks to explicitly reinforce a cinematic perspective on an individual’s role in the justice system and society. The core narrative surrounding retribution and revenge can be caught present in traces throughout art and history. We would not make these films, and they would not be so popular if there was not a strong, inbuilt and visceral reaction to them. But to look where the extreme fringes reflect popular mainstream stories provides an insight into what distilled concepts entertain and satisfy us as an audience and the further statements those make about us.
Mass shootings are an extreme example, and the above blatantly ignores important issues surrounding both mental health and the general public’s access to deadly weaponry. However, the regularity with which these events seem to occur and the fact that they are almost entirely perpetrated by young men speaks to a significant problem surrounding the idealised concept of the masculine. A number of groups that define themselves around some level of hatred often recruit from a similar pool of dissatisfied, young white men. The alt-right and neo-fascists, incels and anti-feminist movements all consist of a strikingly similar demographic. The conclusion to be drawn from the increasing power of these movements is that there is a disparity between the epitomised definition of a classical and idealised manhood, and what a modern society decides is positive. Why at the moment do we suffer from an epidemic of young, angry, white men? If mainstream society is failing to provide a replacement for the epitomised concept of the male for young men to form themselves around, are they looking for horrific surrogates in sad places?
The social movements surrounding feminism have broadly reached the consensus that the existing heteronormative gender roles of men and women are no longer fit for purpose. That the social enforcement of these roles leads to cruel oppression and an unjust society is evidently true, and it is therefore necessary to construct a new role. These social movements do an effective job of creating a new idealised concept of femininity, based around self-respect and dignity. However, to men it is simply stated that their idealised role is damaging and harmful while providing no acceptable replacement. Could this perceived disregard possibly leads a number of young men to reject the logic completely, and run into the arms of those attempting to desperately revive the corpse of the historical gender roles?