Masculinity, Mayhem to Moral: Rules, Rituals, and Integrative Initiations in The Art of Self-Defense

The Art of Self-Defense by Riley Stearns

SPOILERS AHEAD. Act accordingly.

The draft of screenplay that I read – though not the film – opens with a list of “Dojo Rules” which includes “tap or hear it snap,” and “tap or take a nap,” as well as a number of other less gruesome rules about dojo etiquette such as “no shoes on the mat,” and “stay hydrated.” The film itself opens with it’s hero – Casey – meek, cringing from the world – a man who may very well have never stepped foot inside a dojo or gym of any kind in his entire life, seated in a café, staring at a plastic sippie-cup of orange juice and a pastry. A French couple enters the café. The man looks around and comments – in French – that “everything is shit…the coffee is shit.” The couple then sits, and begins a game – in French – in which they ruthlessly mock what they consider to be Casey’s pathetic lack of masculine power from across the café; it’s worth noting that it is the man who initiates the game and who presses forward to increasing levels of ruthless mockery while it is the woman – far less enthusiastic in her mockery – who requests that they stop playing when the jokes become too savage. We read their jokes in subtitles (“When I pee, I take my penis out of my pants without looking at it and stare straight ahead, because if I catch sight of it my entire day is ruined.”) and assume Casey is as oblivious as he looks. Cut to Casey in his car, listening to a French language teaching tape; “bonjour and congratulations! You have just completed lesson twenty-five. You should now have a firm grasp of the French language.” Casey heard and understood every word of their game.

Casey lives at home with his mini-Dachshund in an extremely modest, mild mannered, bland home. He is uncomfortable at work and doesn’t fit in; he is surrounded by alpha-male salesman types who have no idea what to do with Casey’s awkward timidity.

The first major event of the film is a wake up call. On his way home from picking up food for his pooch at the grocery store, Casey is mugged and badly beaten, hospitalized. When Casey gets out of the hospital, he can’t even bring himself to go to the store at night to get more food for his sweet dog. The darkness has paralyzed him into submission. One night while flipping channels, Casey happens upon the corniest, cliched cop show of all corny and cliched cop shows, just in time for the cop to deliver the film’s inciting nugget of wisdom: the perp is on the ground, groveling for his life, pleading with the cop not to kill him, “this isn’t how it’s supposed to go, you’re not playing by the rules,” to which the cop replies, “there never were any rules,” before blasting him away. Seed planted. Casey decides to buy a gun. Next, on his way home from the gun store, overhearing shouting, Casey wanders upon a karate class and is immediately intrigued. In a pre-class pep talk, Sensei reminds the class of rule 10: “guns are for the weak.” We see that this idea speaks powerfully to something in Casey, who subsequently calls the gun shop to let them know that he no longer needs the gun, that he’s "found something better." Casey begins training in karate and we see him beginning to transform; at first it’s not integrated – it’s a clunky, stilted attempt at the masculinity he is trying to perform – he’s reaching for a caricature of it, but it’s a start.

The film steals, smartly, from Fight Club with homage-like blatancy; As Casey begins to step into his newfound power he stops being a doormat at work and starts disrespecting his boss – a man who was Casey’s only friend, pre-Karate. He also begins putting on his karate belt at home whenever he needs a little boost, and even imposes some new relational norms with his dog: “I need to stop coddling you, it’s for your own good.” The midpoint comes after he initiates a confrontation in a parking lot and gets embarrassed by a guy who dinged his car. Sensei takes him aside after class, noticing that something is wrong, and gets Casey to admit why he really came to the dojo – that it was because he was mugged and that what he really wants is to “become what he fears,” not unlike the caped crusader I mentioned in a recent post. After their heart to heart, Casey joins the “night class,” where things are more extreme. He starts listening to only heavy metal and focusing on “German stuff,” both on Sensei’s urging that “everything should be as masculine as possible.” Cut to the chase – I’ll avoid any of the major spoilers, in case you’d like to be surprised by them – Casey does, indeed, become what he fears and realizes it’s not what he thought it would be.

This movie does a few things really well, philosophically. Stearns makes a very nuanced case about the utility of traditionally conceived of masculinity - that is to say, the utility of developing one’s capacity to assert themselves powerfully - while also acknowledging that (as with anything) when taken too far it becomes both ridiculous and harmful. What makes this effective is that we see – in darkly comedic tones – the profundity of Casey’s suffering at the beginning of the film. We see, with painful certainty, that not being able to assert one’s self doesn't anybody; weakness isn't goodness. A controversial Canadian psychologist’s words come to mind, “harmless and moral are by no means the same thing...being harmless isn’t virtuous, it’s just harmless. A rabbit isn’t virtuous – it can’t do anything except get eaten.” The words of another philosophizing iconoclast also come to mind: "the world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door."

The film is darkly satirical, unmistakably so, and makes a mockery of those elements of "masculinity" that could use to be mocked, but I don't think Stearns' film is as simple as many have made it out to be; it's a nuanced examination, despite the rather stark, unambiguous characterizations. The phrase toxic masculinity is a profound one, and not one to be thrown around as haphazardly as I've heard it thrown, of late. It's become too easy, I think, to dismiss the more monstrous dimensions of "masculinity" as being wholly without utility, wholly without virtue. The idea that "societies need strong men" - as cliched, tired, tone-deaf, or out of date as it might sound to some of you - is an idea worth considering. If we can leave the oversimplifying provocateurship of people like Candace Owens, and the Elliot Hulse-esque schools of macho-preachiness **, out of the picture, can we not agree that there does exist such a thing as a sort of uniquely "masculine" strength? And, further, that such a thing might have some redeeming value that we might not want to cast so eagerly into the shadows? And might we not - if able to appreciate the value of masculine strength and masculine competence - then be able to more usefully distinguish those useful dimensions from what we might consider masculine tyranny, or "problematic" masculinity (problematic being another too-haphazardly wielded word, in my opinion - and one that has lost almost all of it's punch as a result of such haphazard use)?

** both of whom (Owens/Hulse) might be worth a follow, if only for observational curiosity. Hulse's posts often feel as absurd, and farcically self-serious as Sensei; wouldn't have to change much in devising an equally outlandishly awesome film-foil. The more interesting question, to me, is what it is that leaves so many men in the sort of void that makes someone like Hulse appeal to them - what is it that leaves so many men starved for the sort of fatherly (psuedo-fatherly?) guidance - that Hulse claims he provides - on what it is to be a man? Are we starved for a conceptual framework or is there something deeper missing in our appreciation, or lack thereof, for the value of masculine strength and competence - not to be confused with oppressive, belligerent, or blundering masculinity? We seem ready to embrace the idea that there's something tangibly real about "femininity," and all of the utility therein, but that "masculinity" has worn out it's welcome and is ready to be thrown out to pasture. Perhaps the final stance taken in the film is the one - "forget about all these words we use to describe ourselves - just be what you wanna be." Or do our labels invoke something valuable? Also interesting that the film's final handoff of power is from a man to a woman - a woman entirely deserving of the karate promotions she's been denied (clearly because of her sex), but a woman, nonetheless, whose salvation was dependent on Casey's own heroic development. Not sure what to make of that...does it take a uniquely masculine capacity for mayhem to uproot certain facets of masculine oppression in order to hand opportunities off to women? Or is this another purposeful layer of irony - a playful but purposeful deprecation of Casey's triumphant benevolence?

Trying to shame the aggression out of men is a recipe for disaster (trying to shame the aggression out of any human is a recipe for disaster). An idea I like infinitely better: by bringing one's capacity for monstrosity and aggression into integrated, sophisticated alignment with the rest of one's persona, one makes themselves a forceful presence to be reckoned with, and a more useful instrument for themselves and for the world around them, whatever their gender. Having access to, and having harnessed those darker dimensions of one's self gives a person agency, "makes you a person who can say 'NO!' and mean it," a requirement, is it not (?), for any sort of self-determined morality. Even in situations where physical violence is far outside the realm of possibility, harnessing one's capacity for forthrightness, for violence even, can't help but aid one in their attempts to become a more forceful presence to be reckoned with in any interaction where they would want (or need) to be respected, where being taken seriously would be an imperative - again, whatever one's gender. We're all capable of tremendous aggression and tremendous monstrosity within us (and I'd suggest that anyone unwilling or unable to recognize that capacity within themselves has work to do); the suppression of these capacities is not good;" having them under voluntary control is. It is also the case that by coming to recognize those capacities in one's self, one develops the sight to see those capacities in others - to more readily recognize monsters in one's midst; takes one to know one, doesn't it? Can you think of a more useful capacity for one intent on keeping the "bad men from the door?" In Casey we see - at the outset - a man incapable of actualizing any of his ideals into the world - a world terrorized by masculine monstrosity gone off the rails. In fact, at the outset, we have no idea what any of Casey's ideals might even be. Outside of his appreciation for the French language we can't begin to tell what he's even about as a person, because he's got no teeth. By the end he's got teeth, they're sharp, and he's brought it all into voluntarily controlled, sophisticated alignment. Benevolence and harmlessness are, definitionally, mutually exclusive, and Casey learns this.

In contrast, the film's landscape is littered with the corpses (figuratively, then literally) of men who have tried and failed to traverse the deserts of Dojo-sponsored masculinity. Henry, by far the nicest - and sanest - practicing karateka at the gym, is the perfect example of a man suffering in bardo. He's reticent to become the monster that Sensei demands of his subjects, but is desperate to be taken seriously and respected as a man. He knows what's required of, but can't muster the conviction to make the leap, and pays the price. In the tyrannical world these characters find themselves in, he would have been wise not to start a journey he couldn't complete.

We see Casey’s normal life and normal world as the comfort zone that it is - a world that Stearns shapes with exacting detail - from Casey's meal choices, to his dog, to his cringe-inducingly soft spoken, timid and fear-tinged physicality. Stearns makes his case with blatant clarity while still showing and not telling, and does it cleverly enough to create opportunities for hilarious reveals and reversals (don’t want to spoil any more). Also – Stearns touches on some ideas about norms and molds worth sitting with, but does it with such off hand, irreverent humor that it never becomes preachy. The major philosophical seed being the words that incite Casey’s blossoming: “there never were any rules.” In the framework Michael Ardnt, who wrote Little Miss Sunshine, among others (Endings Lecture), we might consider the cop's inciting wisdom, "there never were any rules," the underdog values, as in “there aren’t any rules for how to do life," while the Dojo rules would be a symbol for the dominant values of the world Stearns has set up, which could be understood as “there are definite, strict, rules for how to be in the world - especially as a man.” In the end, the underdog values don’t triumph over the dominant values so much as they become synthesized and integrated in the new world Casey brings forth. Casey utilizes the underdog values to secure his triumph, and then integrates his triumph with the preexisting dominant values (again – I am speaking in abstractions here so as to avoid spoilers).

Stearns is, himself, a highly accomplished martial artist, so I don't imagine value of martial arts training and the associated philosophies would be lost on him, and the film's ending evidences that. He’s not mocking the martial arts world so much as he is making an observation about the dangers of dogmatic enthusiasm, and the ways that – in the wrong hands – wisdom can become fanatical lunacy. Casey, himself, becomes what he fears and realizes it wasn’t what he thought it'd be. In the climactic moments of the film we see Casey’s terror at what he’s become. The film is actually very “martial arts" in Casey's discovery of his own "way.” Casey finds a middle path through which to restore balance to the force. He goes as deep into heart of his own darkness as he possibly can - before losing himself entirely - to find the light that the world needs.

Throughout the film Sensei repeatedly pays homage to "Grandmaster," whose picture is on the wall, accompanied by the infamous RAINBOW Belt - the principal emblem of Grandmaster's legacy. In spite of the father figure that Sensei becomes to Casey, he is more appropriately likened, I think, to the archetypal wayward son who, having lost sight of the most urgent underpinnings of the ancestral father's wisdom, must be banished from the kingdom if order, and Grandmaster's wisdom, are to be restored.

Stearns did something else I loved: there’s a scene early in Casey’s karate training where Sensei tells the class that “today we are going to kick with our hands and punch with our feet,” and that “you’ve been told throughout your life that you can only punch with your hands and kick with your feet, but this is not the case.” So, even though the dojo is a symbol for the dominant, oppressive values of the universe he’s set up, Sensei is positioning his teaching - and himself - as a liberating force, while also giving a nod to that cult-like, slippery-slope potential of language. One step at a time, one foot-punch at a time, one loses their grip on what seems real, or reasonable. It starts with a gently intriguing idea, like the idea that we can punch with our feet and kick with our hands, and before you know it you’re brutally beating someone to a pulp “for their benefit.” The dominant value realm of Stearns' world offers a taste of the light on the way to something darker.

Another thing Stearns did effectively was keeping Casey’s characterization grounded in self-interest. The events of the film render all of Casey’s choices almost purely selfish, which works I think – given the tone. The film is dark, darkly comedic, and satirical, and there’s no room for anything that could begin to wreak of phony altruism in Casey's intentionality. We see Casey’s heroic streak, and his desire lead the Dojo out of tyranny, but it always feels like it’s as much about him as it is anybody else. Perhaps, from Stearns' point of view, that’s the true nature of heroism: that it’s never without a selfish basis, and never truly, or purely altruistic, no matter how beneficial it might be for the tribe, when all is said and done. Casey has a major chip on his shoulder, and something major to prove to himself and to the world, and it’s not until he’s proved it that he can become the giving, benevolent savior the world needs him to be.