David Brooks’s recent New York Times column, “Before Manliness Lost Its Virtue,” argues that Americans should look back to the men of ancient Greece for an antidote to “the varieties of wannabe manliness” currently on display in Washington. Brooks mentions “honor,” but it’s no coincidence that his examples of Americans who’ve reached the pinnacle of “Greek manliness” are all military leaders-turned-politicians like George Washington and John McCain. What Brooks admires most about these men isn’t just their assertiveness and courage—it’s their lack of emotion. He describes the “magnanimous man” as one who “does not show his vulnerability,” and focuses so much on surfaces and emotional detachment that it’s as if he’s describing the white marble statues of Greek heroes rather than actual human beings.
I thought of Brooks’s words when President Trump began tweeting about the “beauty” of confederate statues in the wake of a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. As protesters around the country began actively removing sculptures of folks like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson from their local parks, schools, and state houses, Trump effectively argued that we should preserve these monuments to hatred on the basis of their aesthetic value. And though it’s unlikely the president cares much about saving anything other than his own power, his and Brooks’s admiration for the surfaces of straight white men resonated with a lot of Americans.
After all, Americans are trained to instinctively idolize and stand in awe of the white men of the past and present —whether it’s in our city parks or at the movie theatre. And since The Birth of a Nation premiered in 1915, films that glorify the violence of white men have been repeatedly presented as “impure and imperfect” masterpieces worth celebrating because they explore the inner depths of these men. Today, we often watch anti-heroes like Walter White (Bryan Cranston) “break bad” under the guise of tragedy or disgust—even as we lionize the character’s most violent actions. Westworld’s Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) may be disturbingly dominant, for example, but we still learn to gape at his stoic performance nevertheless — to feel a sense of empty wonder as he uses his power to control the lives of others. And though Jon Hamm might personally think the misogynistic Don Draper is “despicable,” millions of men still want to be as cooly detached as him.
Just a few days before the events in Charlottesville, University of Pennsylvania professor Amy Wax lamented the loss of “bourgeois culture” in an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer that was accompanied by an image of John Wayne as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. Wax, along with co-writer Larry Alexander, includes an argument that Hollywood films of the 1950s—presumably like John Ford’s ahistorical western—did a better job of celebrating positive values. But in fact, even when telling the story of America’s genocide or chattel slavery, mainstream film has tended to avoid outright condemning racist leaders and has instead chosen to center tough guys like Edwards, who express a Gone With the Wind-style of “tragic racism.”
For the most part, the racist “anti-heroes” in cinematic and television history could be described as the perfect Greek man Brooks champions—“a bit aloof, marked more by gravitas than familiarity…He does not show his vulnerability.” This is because ideal masculinity in this country is tied to the emotionlessness, dominance, and whiteness that we are supposedly meant to reject in Don Draper. Popular media’s fascination with the dark side of white men is rarely working to inspire change, but instead reinforcing the status quo. After all, David Benioff and David Weiss’s Game of Thrones isn’t the most pirated show on the web because it imagines “a better world” or shows us the other side of winter.
Game of Thrones has spent seven seasons creating a fictional universe centered around the violence of white men. Even as the story has progressed to include more women’s voices, the most recently completed season still relies on—and has been celebrated for—its spectacular scenes of white brutality.
In a similar way, white filmmakers have preferred to explore the “complexity” of so-called white Civil War heroes, instead of highlighting their complicity in slavery — let alone interrogating the worldview of confederates like Lee. A 2016 Hollywood Reporter list of the “10 Best Civil War Films,” for example, is dominated by films like Cold Mountain and Glory which, even when they include Black people, choose to uplift white saviors instead of facing the true ubiquity of white supremacy (the THR list begins with The Birth of a Nation and ends with Gone With the Wind). So a necessary result of this search for forgiveness on-screen has been a collective portrait of slave-owning leaders — from Jefferson to the aforementioned Jackson — as simply “flawed” people. It’s a much different picture than the outright “evil” typically reserved for depictions of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.
It’s not hard, in an environment where the greatest men are stoic white patriarchs, for a Robert E. Lee to become (or remain) a Walter White or Ethan Edwards-like figure; a white man in power who has just made some “mistakes.” Not a hero, but not exactly a villain either. And though these types of stories hide behind a veneer of “complicated truth,” in reality they just perpetuate a fascination with looking at whiteness and masculinity. There is rarely any real interest in figuring out how harmful ideas of race, gender, and power intersect in the lives of white men like Edwards or Jon Snow, but rather a lot of furrowed brows, looks of deep introspection, and the occasional violent outburst.
In other words, confederate leaders and white supremacists don’t just resemble sympathetic anti-heroes on-screen, but their performance of masculinity is also not so different from those of regular old white heroes like Batman or Jason Bourne — who seek power over others, and maintain a statuesque ability to avoid crying.
A common thread from The Searchers to Cold Mountain to Game of Thrones is not only benevolent racism, but this celebration of dominant white masculinity. The ultimate point of these works of art, not unlike confederate monuments, is to walk away venerating inscrutable white men. So it makes sense that Trump’s response to his critics after Charlottesville has been to draw a comparison between the confederates and “the founding fathers” of this country — men whom Brooks sees as ideals of manhood. Trump’s point is that these men also owned slaves, and that it would be silly to claim that they weren’t worthy of admiration. Our history books, movies, and statues tell a story of white American manhood which maintains his underlying premise: hard-shelled white men are mostly “good,” and always worthy of attention.
It’s hard not to believe that HBO’s upcoming Confederate show will continue this dive into the darkness of white hypermasculinity, without attempting to imagine a solution. In the initial press release, showrunners Benioff and Weiss even spoke excitedly about “the world” they’ll be able to create, where “slavery remains legal” in the United States. As history shows, Hollywood’s desire to wallow in these shadows is rarely about critique and almost always about providing power fantasies to white men. This illusion of analysis and the hesitancy of white creators to unequivocally condemn white supremacist patriarchy over the years though, has created room for a false picture to easily persist.
It’s given us a visual language through which Brooks can describe imperialists like George Marshall as “perfect magnanimous” men, and a culture where millions of white Americans can continue to buy the argument that there’s “beauty” in the darkness of all white men — that there is “beauty” in the violence of cold white men. And that this beauty deserves preservation and awe.