[Blake] V/H/S (2012): Deconstructing Toxic Masculinity in 6 Vignettes, Pt. II

In the previous installment, we began to conjure up the general shape of modern masculinity as portrayed by the frame narrative and first two vignettes in 2012’s V/H/S. According to these stories, it seems that the inherent bent of masculinity in this day and age is towards sexual conquest at whatever cost to the women who have been used and disposed of by these perpetrators. If this description seems exaggerated, there are a handful of current statistics around sexual assault and abuse in America recounted in part one. The truth of this description has become much more difficult to combat in the wake of the #MeToo movement which began with an investigation by The New York Times and New Yorker into the various corroborated reports of sexual assault committed by Harvey Weinstein. The targets of the #MeToo campaign have largely been the men–and occasional woman–within the public eye. How much more prevalent must this behavior be in the parts of the country (and world) free of spotlight and communal shaming.

In the final three vignettes of V/H/S, we will begin to see just how deep the rabbit hole goes and what it might mean for all men in this country when the other shoe finally drops. Unlike the typical American presumes, the sins of individuals are either caused or amplified by the corruption of the society’s passive allowance. Americans have a healthy perception of individualism when it comes to success, but a horrible habit of blaming others when they have been shown to be flawed, sinful, or a failure at the national ideal of human flourishing. The idea that we receive blessings without our individual actions being the catalyst or curses for the acts of our peers is anathema in this country. By the end of this article, V/H/S may draw up a more brutal picture of the effects of communal toxicity amongst men.

“Tuesday the 17th,” written and directed by Glenn McQuaid

Three friends–two guys and a girl (Samantha) accompany a new friend, Wendy, out into a wooded area that she suggests for a camping trip. The characters almost fit the stereotypical slasher crew: the jock, the horny nerd, the busty blonde and the final girl who seems innocent by all standards. It comes out once they have arrived, however, that Wendy had been the sole survivor of an attack in the same place a year before and that she had lured the three friends to the area so that the killer–who is only seen obscured by VHS tracking errors and can be in two places at one time–would come back and she could kill “The Glitch” once and for all. Each of the friends gets dispatched in typical slasher fare and Wendy leads “The Glitch” through three booby-traps that ultimately take him down…or so she thinks. She begins to gloat over the body when the killer appears again, beats her to death with the camera and eviscerates her–thereby killing the final girl. “The Glitch” violently enters her body.

On initial viewings, this seemed to be the weakest of the vignettes because it trades a little too closely on the slasher formula without adding any real uniqueness to its narrative. However, it finds its place within the scope of V/H/S’s grand narrative by toying with subversion of the framing narrative and the first two vignettes. For most of the film, it appears that Wendy is pretty handily in control of the situation. She has a plan and she is ruthlessly following through with it at the cost of innocent lives. Her need for vengeance runs deep and she wants to end the life of the one who terrorized her and killed her friends a year prior. She is a person that–with the exception of offering up unwitting sacrifices–seems in the right as far as her motivation for justice goes even when her methods are not just.

It is this image that shows how violence and assault can affect the lives of the victimized. It can become their overarching narrative and identity. They are no longer who they once were, they are now defined by their victimhood whether they want to be or not. A singular moment becomes their life and sometimes their modus operandi. They cannot return to who they once were. They are forcibly removed from the gates of innocence. Wendy’s life is turned upside by his man, this killer, who seems to be more than just human, but still man. He is a “glitch.” One might find an allegorical way of seeing the brokenness and sin of the world as a type of glitch in the system. We are waiting on God to blow into the cartridge to restart the game. Yet the glitches remain and they distort and they impede clarity. Something is broken.

In a way, masculinity’s glitch is being brought to the light. We do so much damage and we don’t pay the price. We often walk free while those women who suffer at our hands take on all the cost of this new glitched reality on themselves. While Wendy is clearly empowered in the vignette to take justice at whatever cost, she ultimately fails because the glitch can’t die by her hand. Once she kills one, another one appears. The problem is bigger than the individual men who do these heinous acts. It requires a new program in which the glitches are removed. Even though the vignette leaves us with a depressing note, it seems fitting and darkly meaningful that the killer then violently enters Wendy’s body. The last act of the male perpetrator is to take her over completely. Her every thought, movement, breath held captive by his will. We get a faint glimmer of hope that this one girl might get some kind of justice, but instead we see just how deep the need for control goes within the realms of toxic masculinity. We want their very will to be in service to us.

“The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger,” written by Simon Barrett, directed by Joe Swanberg

Told through a series of video chats between a girl (Emily) and her boyfriend, the vignette builds to an intense climax that inverts everything the viewer has seen up until that point. Emily complains over video chat to her doctor-in-training boyfriend about a strange bump in her arm and the fact that she thinks her apartment is haunted after seeing a little girl in the middle of the night. Reaching a state of emotional frenzy, Emily takes a scalpel to her arm to get the bump out but her boyfriend dissuades her from going farther because of infection. One night, she attempts to contact the being in her house and she gets knocked out at which point we see her boyfriend walk into the room and cut an alien fetus out of her body. The aliens are using human women to incubate alien/human hybrid children and the “boyfriend” has been working with them the whole time. It turns out that he has several other girlfriends who have the same bump as Emily on other video chats as well. Many women are being used for incubation.

Not only is the alien incubation of these young women’s’ bodies an allegory for rape, but the complicity that the boyfriend has in controlling their narratives is truly terrifying. While the glitch wants to inhabit the body and will of a woman, the boyfriend in this vignette goes even further by controlling the very narrative in which they live their lives. They don’t even know they are being used by these aliens to “incubate” the alien/human hybrids. They are waking up with the scars of violence and sexual trauma and being told that something is wrong with them and the problem lies in their very mental health or biology. Emily’s boyfriend tells her–after he extracts the alien child from her–that her injuries were sustained by her stepping into traffic during a fugue state. She is left apologizing to her boyfriend for “how messed up she is” and telling him he would do better without her. Yet he continues the false narrative in order to carry on his/their control.

There seems to be an intensifying narrative that is being told through these vignettes up to this point. From prankster punks to petty anger when a woman says no to sexual advances to the attempt at metaphorically taking over a woman’s body and will to being willingly complicit in the control of the narratives of women in order to use their bodies for experiments–essentially raping them over and over to produce a child or any analogous male desire that can be taken from them.

At this point in the film, we come to what seems like a natural breaking point. Something has to give, but what is going to give? The women in these stories have continued to be the victims of male gaze, sexual abuse and assault, they are told that their bodies and wills are not their own and that they cannot even control their own narrative, the way in which they live and walk through this world. V/H/S seems to be interested in showing the whole spectrum of toxic masculinity and how that whole range is undergirded by the same presupposition: men continually see women as owned objects instead of human beings with their own souls, bodies, thoughts and will in order to feed our increasingly distorted and unsatiated desires, because we (men) don’t want to do the work of relationship and building women up as respected, whole humans.

What happens at this precipice, however? Where does a continued history of violence lead men? How does it even affect the “good guys” that exist in the world, the ones that actually attempt to do right by women and respect them and love them as whole human beings? Are they the key to turning the tide? This is where the final vignette may inform us about where all of this sexual violence leads.

“10/31/98,” written by Radio Silence & Justin Martinez, directed by Radio Silence

Four male friends dress up for a party on Halloween in 1998. They enter the house where they think the party is supposed to be at and find it instead abandoned. They go through the house and start witnessing paranormal activity, yet they think it’s just a super realistic haunted house and so they just go with it. They happen upon what they originally think is a set piece in the house’s attic where a group of men (that look to be from another time) seem to be exorcising a young woman who is suspended from the rafters. The men start chanting and the four friends start to chant playfully along still believing it to be a fake act. The leader of the exorcism reacts violently towards this interruption by physically assaulting the young woman and some of the men in the room are pulled up into an unseen darkness. More paranormal events take place and the four friends freak out and begin to run away. However, they stop and recognize that they should go back and get the girl and help her escape. So they go back up in the attic, untie her and lead her out of the house as hands come out of the walls and various things attempt to stop them from leaving. They make it to their car and drive off. Suddenly their car stops and the girl disappears and reappears in the street in front of them. They then realize that they have stopped on a train track and they are not able to open the car doors. A train rams into the car killing all four guys.

On a very surface level, this story seems to be the outlier in that the main male protagonists actually make the right choice to go back in and stop the torture and assault that is taking place in the attic. Compared to the men in the rest of the vignettes, these guys are saints. Once they realize that what they are witnessing is more than just a funhouse skit, they make the choice to do the hard thing: go back. Yet, what is their reward for doing this? Well, they don’t get rewarded. Instead, they die at the hand of the ghostly (perhaps possessed) girl who appears to actually truly be bad news.

If taken apart from the rest of the V/H/S film, it would be fair to take a cynical view of the story where doing the right thing by women will ultimately land you in a bad place. A guy is just better to ignore it and go on about their business. Act like nothing has happened. It’s a possible reading especially if the reader’s masculinity is defined by cultural standards of manliness. However, it is not separate. It needs to be read in the context of the rest of the stories. “10/31/98” shines light on what happens in a culture that allows toxic masculinity to bloom unimpeded.

The sum total of the rest of the stories should weigh heavily upon the viewer by the time they arrive at this vignette. Men are not portrayed in a good light. The statistical evidence out there shows that this portrayal is far from caricature in America today. Masculinity has reached a peak in its toxicity. The first thing to be taken from this vignette is that in the economy of men, there is no good guy. The four friends in the final story do a good and right action, but individual actions will not save them from the systemic cost that has come due.

There is a concept in the Bible that drives much of how God relates to his people in a broken world. It is called a covenant. There are moments in the Old Testament when specific Hebrews–God’s chosen people–disobeyed the command of God and he places a curse on his people. Same with a truly devoted Hebrew who followed after the righteousness of God, his actions could deliver blessings from God upon all of His people. Individual actions have corporate consequences. When the Hebrews disobeyed God in the desert, He didn’t just punish those who committed the disobedience. He sent His people, the whole lot, to wander in the wilderness for forty years basically giving the blessing of the promised land to the new generation once the old generation had passed. According to our standards of American individualism, today, this would not be considered fair. However, it makes our actions have consequences for others in defiance of what has become a starkly totalizing definition of privacy. Covenants make us recognize how our sins and righteousness will affect the communities, tribes and cultures in which we live. No act is private, no matter how secret it is.

When we look at the statistics of largely male-on-female sexual assault and abuse, no amount of individual action will save us from the decay that we have sown in our families, communities and society. We (men) all must pay the cost even if we, individually, have not actively participated in these unholy acts. However, none of us is innocent from passively allowing the culture of toxic masculinity to exist and grow. We have all turned a blind eye: not reporting something we saw, refusing to believe the testimony of a woman we know, etc. Some of us didn’t actively perform the evil, but the blood is still on our collective hands. The four friends in “10/31/98” died even when they made the right choice, because they, too, are part of the problem whether actively, passively, or an uncomfortable mixture of both. The curse of prolonged, unchecked toxicity will come to fruition at some point. If one truly wants to “man up,” repenting of your actions and turning towards the righteousness God often means being an ally to women in this society. This is a picture of true masculinity.

The other side of this story is that if we continue, as men, on the path we are headed without turning and repenting of our toxicity, we can’t blame women for finding whatever means they can to push back and come out from under the thumb of patriarchy. They will make their voices heard just like the prophets of old who railed against the sins of their people and the injustice of the systems and authorities that ruled in their lands. As Lily in this year’s Assassination Nation states: “You may kill me, but you can’t kill us all.” Their witness will be heard whether in peace or in violence. God makes His will known through surprising mediums sometimes. Best start listening to women now.

So as we start the march into 2019, the modern definition of masculinity is looking like it needs a death and rebirth. Something is significantly flawed in its current conception, so flawed that any individual convictions will not fix it. It is an infection within society perpetuated by systems and cultural norms set up by men. The problem with systems is that they will be inherently and often unconsciously built to conceal what their makers want kept in the dark. Whenever women and people of color speak out about representation in all aspects of society, they do so in order to weed out the biases and glitches in the system. They are not doing it to necessarily bring “the white man down,” but if white men really have slumped to the privileged depths of degeneracy we witness in these super-concentrated doses then that may have to be the unfortunate consequence of a righting of this ship. Lord have mercy on us all.

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