Our Spring magazine is finally here! Click here to view and read our new articles!

Using Satire to Explore Toxic Masculinity

*Content Warning* This review contains spoilers for the films Fight Club, American Psycho and The Wolf of Wall Street.

(Image Courtesy of MUBI, originally from Red Granite Pictures)

Satire as a comedy style has developed over the years from more than just a sly line here and there to being argued as an entire genre. We see this most commonly in shows like Saturday Night Live and The Catherine Tate Show, which both tend to poke fun at a variety of people (fairly) harmlessly; although these can often evoke controversy. However, when using satire to explore more politicised themes like gender, race or class, the lines between satire and seriousness become muggy. The further this line is blurred, the more texts tend to ensnare and accuse the viewer of the actions that are being shown. Rather than see the ridiculousness of a character, the audience may begin to agree with them or see them from a glamourous perspective. This is particularly interesting surrounding discourse of toxic masculinity which rather seen as absurd by satire, is glamorized in a way which cultivates an impressionable audience.

The main films that come to mind when discussing satire and toxic masculinity are David Fincher’s Fight Club, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street and Mary Haron’s American Psycho, all of which offer different approaches to the exploration of masculinity and therefore, have different effects on an audience.

These films offer explicit forms of satire to expose and ridicule the hyper masculinity of their characters; all of which are men that struggle to comprehend manhood beyond violence, brute force, and power. This is hilariously done through the use of breaking the 4th wall for lengthy (and pretentious) monologues, objectively twisted statements, overly stereotypically masculine appearances and values, and an entirely warped moral code. By making the satire so blindingly obvious, it is hard to read these signs in any other way; however, it is evidently possible from the number of adolescent men that seem to idolise these characters.

A few of my personal favourite gags in each film are: the threadbare and disease-ridden house where The Narrator (Edward Norton) and Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) stay in Fight Club, the purposeful casting of identical looking characters in the office in American Psycho, and the cult-like chest beat started by Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) in The Wolf of Wall Street.

However, a topic as treacherous as toxic masculinity is inevitably going to have pitfalls. The fine line between satire and glamorization is prominent in the discourse surrounding this topic, particularly in reference to The Wolf of Wall Street. Leonardo DiCaprio’s character of real-life stockbroker Jordan Belfort has some very questionable experiences involving drugs, infidelity, greed, exploitation, and outright narcissism which sometimes appears as more of a funny anecdote than a questioning of character.

The film is undoubtedly an exploration of toxic masculinity in the capitalistic sphere; however, Belfort conducts a lot of immoral and even criminal behaviour without ever truly paying the price. He dodges his already reduced jail sentence for a brief 22-month stint and is continually uplifted by those around him throughout the film which will undoubtedly have a conflicting effect on those impressionable audiences watching.This continual praise extends into real life where Belford became the subject of adolescent male fascination for years after the film was released.

Furthermore, the overt objectification of women throughout the film is something I find impossible to be satirical. The lack of female speaking roles along with the blatant reduction of the prostitutes, strippers and Belfort’s wife, Naomi (Margot Robbie), into just sexual milestones feeds into the preconceived misogynistic views of the main demographic for the film, allowing them to see women through their already established male gaze. 

These issues which are seen in excess in The Wolf of Wall Street are reminiscent of Fight Club and American Psycho; although, I would argue much less. Fight Club explores toxic masculinity through the traditional view of violence and physical strength, with lengthy discussions between the two main characters about the value of fighting and which celebrities they could fight. The glamourization here, I believe, is manifested through the character of Tyler Durden. Portrayed through Brad Pitt (a widely accepted 90s crush), this character is conventionally attractive and a womanizer; it is not hard to see how a receptive male audience could mistakenly idolize this character. Furthermore, the toxic relationship between Marla (Helena Bonham Carter) in which she repeatedly receives the short end of the stick is damaging for both male and female audiences. However, upon discovery that Tyler is only the facet of a mentally ill imagination, this idolisation may be stunted. 

American Psycho, I would argue, has the least amount of glorification due to the character being unequivocally flawed; a ruthless, yet fastidious murderer who is in constant competition with his colleagues. There could be an argument to say that the physical appearance of our narrator, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), would have similar desirable attributes as Fight Club’s Tyler Durden; however the overt psychotic nature of his murdering sprees seems to contradict this.

The contrasting readings I have argued for seemingly similar texts begs the question: why are they so? In the case of The Wolf of Wall Street, the treacherously fine line between satire and glamourization may be because of Jordan Belfort, the subject of the biopic, being the original author of the novel which the film is based on. By this account, the way in which the film is approached may have been catered to the way in which Belfort saw himself. In addition, Scorsese is a true advocate for hypermasculine male-centred stories and therefore is more susceptible to making the lifestyle look in some way appealing. 

Fight Club, on the other hand, attempts to showcase hyper masculinity as a side effect of a desperate, mentally debilitated brain. Before the introduction of Tyler Durden, The Narrator lives a miserable experience of insomnia and going to cancer support groups as his only expression of emotion. Tyler appears as a saviour figure to the monotony, only to make the hell-like existence worse through the obsession of the fight club. By viewing toxic masculinity through this lens, Fincher does not aim to glamourize but implicate it as a cause of wider societal problems. 

However, American Psycho’s director being Mary Haron, means a woman (who I would say are the most disadvantaged recipient of toxic masculinity) can have a hand in how this topic is explored. Her female perspective allows American Psycho to be more successful in the exploration of the damaging effects of a male centred world which employs ideas of hyper masculinity. A female director allows for the male gaze element, which lets down the other films of this style, to be removed almost entirely and focus on the true core of the film, which is the obsession with fitting into the capitalistic, masculine format. This is not to say that women cannot employ the male gaze to appeal to heterosexual men, but Haron’s priority in her direction is clearly not this. Furthermore, Haron’s subtleties really make American Psycho a true masterpiece for me; the way Paul Allen’s (Jared Leto) disappearance is investigated extensively throughout the film whereas none of the other equally grotesque murders of low-income women, or the black homeless man have a mention after the event. This is a clear dig at the way the justice system favours rich white men over other members of society, furthering the freedoms of men like Patrick Bateman in a male centred cycle.

As you may be able to tell, the subject of toxic masculinity is not easy to construct an argument on because there are no definitive answers. The extent to which satirical explorations have a negative effect on the audience is inevitably dependent on the individual. However, it must be called into question why so many of the same kind of misogynistic, hypermasculine men ‘see themselves’ in these characters. I find it particularly interesting in relation to Martin Scorsese’s unwavering fanbase, whether he is too a part of this damaging ideology or rather, enjoys exposing these kinds of people when they become too infatuated with characters like Jordan Belfort. Overall, the fact that these films evoke a very diverse yet necessary discourse is a positive that must mean we’re heading in the right direction in terms of removing toxic masculinity from society as a whole.