A Crash Course in Masculinity

In “Point and Shoot,” a recent episode of the PBS series POV, filmmaker, Marshall Curry, tells the unsettling and sometimes harrowing story of Matt VanDyke, a journalist in his 20s, who decides to join the rebels to fight and depose Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. Curry’s fine documentary follows VanDyke’s wild ride to Libya and back. But, what it shows most graphically is how, in the age of the selfie, we use cameras to both capture and craft our stories; more specifically, it shows how we use video not just to recall our histories as men, but to validate our masculinity.

The film portrays VanDyke’s impulsive decision to go to Libya, his initial meetings with his war comrades, a harrowing five and a half months of imprisonment in solitary confinement, and numerous battle scenes; these are almost entirely of men shooting wildly with no enemy in sight.

A question of manhood

Curry’s interview of VanDyke, after his return home to the United States, is interspersed throughout the video. In the final moments of the interview, VanDyke describes his experience as “a crash course in masculinity.” Curry asks, “Was it successful?” We are not allowed to hear VanDyke’s response. Curry’s explanation is that we should all struggle with the question of manhood and VanDyke’s response would too much influence our thinking.

I didn’t have to do a lot of thinking about VanDyke’s crash course in masculinity. It was, for me, clearly a journey into the darkest side of manhood. What disturbed me was not so much the idea that the violence of war can prove one’s manhood, but that these men’s masculinity was disturbingly adolescent, amazingly narcissistic, cravenly careless, and absolutely un-examined.

Justification for war

Although the desire to end tyranny and sectarian enmity may have played a role in this conflict, it was painfully obvious that the agenda of many of these fighters was much more to prove their masculinity than to depose an oppressive ruler.

The film is replete with shots of guys posing together showing off their huge weapons and selfies of them looking tough and victorious. In one particularly long sequence, a big guy standing tall and tough, shoots off rounds from his machine gun simply for the fun of it while other guys stand around and applaud. Like the men who join ISIS, these guys appear to be men without healthy egos, looking for adventure to fill their empty lives.

Masculinity at its worst

In the end, it’s unclear if VanDyke’s crash course in masculinity ended up with egotistic admiration for, and bonding with, his fellow soldiers, or with the humbling and shaming recognition of the childishness of it all. Certainly, there are times when war might be justified. But, war for the sake of war is masculinity at its worst. Fortunately, Curry’s depiction of all the strutting and posturing on camera makes this war look like the enormously destructive version of king-of-the-mountain it really is.

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