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The Brutal Masculinity of Jackass

Source: IndieWire

At the end of last year, after watching the initial Jackass Forever (2022) trailer, I found myself being sucked into a world that I had been shut out of due to the fact that I was an infant when the original show first entered the culture. I'd absorbed the general conceit of Jackass and was aware of its popularity throughout my teens to the present, but hadn't ventured into it for one main reason - I didn't want to ruin people's fun.

Media from the early 2000s seems to, almost universally, age incredibly poorly, which might seem like a moot point, as most things age poorly with time, but there's something particularly special about how unfunny, cruel and ubiquitous this brand of MTV edgy humour was. I think it affects me more than, say, a politically incorrect 70s film would because it was created within my lifetime, when surely, we should have known better. Unfortunately, films and TV from this time contain a barrage of transphobia, ableism and a surprising amount of black and brown face, all done as the joke. Not self-aware, not interesting, not intelligent. 

What I'm trying to say is that the comedy of this time did not give me high hopes for the franchise. I wanted to watch Jackass Forever for the same reason that everybody else did - slapstick is the foundation of comedy and comedy, at least in the medium of film, has been dead for a while. This past couple of years has been hard and I needed to laugh. My main worry was that in going back to see where it all began I would resent this film for existing in the first place.

Thank god I was wrong.

Jackass, as a franchise, seems to be the answer to the question desperate for a response in the early 2000s: 'what if my friends tried to murder me and how could I make that funny?'.

This is not to say that parts of the franchise have not aged poorly. They have. Like I said, that's a natural part of culture. As we gain more knowledge, we change as people and sensibilities evolve along with this. But I was honestly surprised at the lack of offensive material, both in the series and the films. I was honestly bracing for the worst and instead found a group of men in their 20s who, for the entertainment of themselves and the audience at home, would pursue self-inflicted (or group-inflicted) pain for the sake of making each other laugh. What the show epitomised was the ability to laugh at oneself in unfortunate and painful situations. The joke was (almost) always on them, with the occasional stranger being momentarily traumatised as they witnessed two men drop a coffin in the street with a corpse in it, for example*. 

Source: The Hollywood Reporter

What's interesting about Jackass, particularly the series, is its influence on culture, and not in the scaremongering way, though I'm sure there were parents who vehemently opposed this show and its subsequent films due to its influence on their children. There is so much of the original show that seems like a precursor to YouTube and meme culture today. The stars would talk directly to camera, with the most iconic quote from the show being 'Hi, I'm [name] and this is [insert stunt here]'. They would act like a friend group filming themselves messing around rather than professional stunt men making a TV show. Furthermore, there would be a break in verisimilitude, particularly in later films, where, during the credits, we would be allowed to revisit pranks we had just seen but with the victims of said pranks being made aware of what was going on and ultimately laughing along. The veneer of professionalism just wasn't desired from this TV show, and MTV seemed to revel in its amateurish feel, relating to a younger generation in a way that something more polished might have felt alienating.

The conceit of the show being this group of men, who you probably wouldn't see on television if it weren't for the show, enact controlled violence on one another seems to be both a subversion and assimilation of traditional masculinity. Hegemony insists that the only way men may express any kind of physicality with one another is through violence, often with the intention of cementing one's heterosexuality in the process, as queerness is often associated with weakness and femininity. When society insists that the only way men can have homosocial relationships with one another is through some kind of violence, you create men who need to be violent in order to express anything. 

What Jackass does with this is a magnification of this process, turning it into a series of strange dares that the participant consents to being shown on TV. And to top it all off, they are often half-naked or fully naked during this process. It exists in this weird middle ground where these men are so comfortable being around one another that the pranks and stunts almost seem incidental, as if we are just being invited to watch some male bonding. Their nudity isn't treated as strange in the same way that being repeatedly hit in the genitals isn't either. Along with this, there are very few times when watching the series or the films where I asked myself if the people involved were okay because they would show the audience the aftermath of each stunt, with the surrounding cast members checking on one another afterwards, seeing if they were alright. 

When I say that the franchise is able to subvert and subsume this version of masculinity at the same time, what I mean is that the early 2000s was not the time for conversations about toxic masculinity, men talking about their feelings or even men talking about being in pain. The best we could hope for was a group of men willing to laugh at each other and more importantly themselves as the pain was happening. This didn't seem to be masochism but it also wasn't these men punishing each other either. They pursued this image, despite not being considered the most masculine men, because it was fun to see what happened, and in doing this, they presented a brutal masculinity that was weirdly subversive, at least for the time. The show depicted men having fun, despite being in pain and it showed men looking after each other during the aftermath of said pain. More than anything, the show insisted on the merits of vicarious joy shared through the consumption of extreme brutality.

After my experience of the original show and subsequent films, I sat in the cinema fully ready to enjoy Jackass Forever after having my mind changed by the series and its fans, both of which confirmed that there is joy to be had still and that this joy is shared amongst many people. I have to say, it was an honour to watch this film in a full cinema, hearing the joyous laughter and sounds of disgust all blended together amongst the camaraderie of the men I had gotten to know over the past few months and the new cast members who more than showed their chops for mindless danger and violence.

The most important thing to take away from the franchise is that there is no why, which I think is the reason many adults didn't connect with it when it first came out, but it resonated so deeply with its teenage audience. Fast-paced and optimistically nihilistic, the show does not warrant deep thought about what it's own purpose is. (Yes, the irony of this post isn't lost on me). It wants to show how each stunt is done, who is doing it and what the end result is (usually vomiting if we're being honest). Then, the screen will fade to black for a second and another stunt will be up next for your viewing pleasure.

*What I will say is that the bits that have aged the worse are the pranks on regular people - any prank where you are annoying a customer service worker who is not paid enough to deal with your shit, for example, is a bad one. I will maintain this even as I praise the franchise.