Casting a Bright Light on the “Good Guy” Defense
If you’re a male over 40, it’s hard not to feel some sense of embarrassment and guilt about how the male species has behaved over the last 30–40 years. And this past weekend’s film choice pushed that shame to new levels.
My wife and I rented the movie Promising Young Woman. Neither of us knew anything about the film. But the “Tomatometer” gave it a 91%.
At first, we thought the movie might be a dark comedy about a hopeless romantic woman that has given up on men and becoming a doctor. She keeps meeting the wrong men in the worst possible ways. And the movie’s rhythm leads you to believe all she needs is one “good guy” to restore her faith in love.
But that’s where the movie sneaks up on you and reminds us of how ugly, cruel, and debasing our male culture can be.
When the “good guys” are bad
Over the last two decades, there have been countless scandals about how men have misused their power, fame, and success to take advantage of women. Pick any of these folks—Anthony Wiener, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Eliot Spitzer, R. Kelly, or Jeffrey Epstein—and you get a taste of how depraved some men in power can be.
But then there are the “What a shame” men like John Edwards, David Petraeus, Tiger Woods, or Brett Kavanaugh.
Or how about the American radio and television host, Billy Bush? He lost his job for having a lewd conversation with Donald Trump about women. I don’t condone their behaviors, but I cringe because I’ve been in the presence of well-known men that talk this way.
And what do we do with the comedian Louis C.K.? Depends on who you ask.
These sex scandals and media spectacles captured my attention, but none of them made me feel the way a Promising Young Woman did.
That’s because films have the power to transport us into the protagonist’s role of fighting off the evil villains. But in a bizarre twist of movie madness, the enemies are the “good guys.” And I found myself hating myself, or at least my male species.
In one scene, the film’s protagonist is “too drunk to drive herself home,” and the “good guy” offers to help her. In another, she becomes the role-playing stripper at a bachelor party. You know, the disposable stripper/dead hooker corpse scene we’ve seen a hundred times in movies. And the boys? Well, they’re just having some fun. Except for this time, the stripper has feelings, a backstory, and a life. And most inconvenient of all, she’s a human, as her character should’ve always been.
In Promising Young Woman, the evil forces aren’t the traditional “bad guys.” No, the bad guys are the “good guys.” The successful businessmen in fancy suits, the talented lawyer, and the revered institution of doctors. The ones who take an oath to “do no harm” but end up being the worst societal offenders. (Think Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics National Team doctor).
The movie is a real mind-bender, particularly for professional khaki-wearing males, like me, who like to believe we’re the “good guys.”
And this movie forced me to confront that reality head-on.
Evil vs. Wrong
A Promising Young Woman made me think about the sneaky, snakey, and subtle ways men prey on women at bars. My buddies used to enlist me in that ritualistic male hunting expedition. And they tried to teach me the “game” of picking up women. But I had “no game,” as many women informed me, and I gave up out of embarrassment.
But I’ve often wondered how my life might’ve turned out if I was super-wealthy, a famous athlete, or a handsome celebrity. It’s a test that millions of other men and I might’ve failed.
Under no circumstances could I ever relate to, much less comprehend, the evil behaviors of folks like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and Jeffrey Epstein. What they did is repulsive, cruel, and sub-human.
However, the entanglements that John Edwards, Kevin Hart, Tiger Woods, and Brett Kavanaugh found themselves seem imaginable. I cheated when I was young and didn’t know better. I’ve had office affairs when I just started my career. I felt the uncontrollable urges of temptation that men wrestle with at a young age. And I can’t imagine how money, fame, and celebrity would’ve exacerbated all that.
A lack of control?
Our current culture wants to expose and scare men into thinking right, controlling themselves and stop being so stupid. This approach has had some impact, but I don’t believe it’s enough to cure the ills of “men behaving badly.”
The problem for men isn’t a rational or intellectual dilemma or an issue of awareness. If it were, the smart ones with great future potential would make better choices and recognize the consequences of poor decisions. (Look at how many warnings Anthony Weiner had.)
The problem is that many men are soaking in a 40-gallon drum of a lethal chemical called testosterone that makes them violent, keeps them on the sexual prowl, and distorts their judgment.
And culture and privilege combine with this testosterone-loaded cocktail to create a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde character who acts one way on the street and another way in the dark recesses of their mind.
This explanation is not an excuse, justification, or hall pass. It’s an appeal for our culture to look for more effective ways to raise better boys and get help for the men with sexual disorders much sooner. The average non-criminal male needs a better explanation and more honest answers for their suppressed deviant behaviors than, say, “a lack of control.”
The male role models
I’ve often wondered how our male culture got here.
But I know how we got here:
I was there as a young kid in the 1970s when society taught boys to “be a man” like John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, James Bond, Sylvester Stallone, the Marlboro Man, and so many others.
And there I was again in the 80s as an unsure, identity crisis high school and college kid. Seemingly innocent films like Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High established my generation’s values, social norms, and template of how males and females should act and behave.
When I arrived in the early ’90s, I was a clean slate, ready to learn how to be a respected man in the business world. But my elder bosses at two different firms took me to strip clubs to conduct business over bottles of champaign with the power-hungry, “Greed is Good,” Gordon Gekko wannabe clients.
And the cultural messages of male/female dynamics continued in movies like Pretty Woman, American Pie, Ms. Doubtfire, and You’ve Got Mail. Added to those parables were the warnings to watch out for the “crazy ladies” using sex to ensnare and trap us men in movies like Indecent Proposal and Basic Instinct.
And when I showed up in the 2000s, the hyper-visual and anonymous internet tools allowed Pornhub, Only Fans, and Seeking Arrangement sites easy access into the male dopamine center. And it’s not a fair fight for many men.
Now, mind you, I’m not above any of this. I’m part of it. But as young boys and impressionable men, it’s hard to swim upstream against the river of movies, role models, and overwhelming cultural forces that washed over our society for the last forty- years.
For most of my life, there’s been an overpowering misogynistic attitude and limiting effect of women in the movies, workplace, home, schools, churches, clubs, and politics that is so clear now, but not so then.
Did I object or speak up? No.
Did I take part in it? I like to think I didn’t because I was one of the “good guys.”
But after watching the movie Promising Young Woman, I realize the “good guy” is the worst of all because we were witnesses to these social injustices. And as bystanders to these iniquities, we should’ve done more.
I’m ashamed of how my generation of men treated women. I feel like a coward for not saying anything about it, intervening, or feeling more empathy. And I hope the women of the world can forgive me for not having the awareness, courage, and strength to have done more to stop it.
When will this end?
Not a month goes by that we don’t read about another sex scandal involving well-known men taking advantage of women. And there will be a lot more to come. Our best hope is to start over with the mission of raising decent men, which this next era might do.
While the MeToo movement helps cast a bright light on this problem, a movie like Promising Young Woman puts men in the lead character’s role of being victimized. And it allows them to feel how degrading and humiliating our male behaviors have been for generations.