The Punisher

Source: Patrick Harbron / Patrick Harbron/Netflix

Male rage is so yesterday. Like, literally, yesterday. And the day before that. And the day before that. There’s been a major shooting in America every single day of 2017.

According to the Mass Shooting Tracker, there have been 394 such shootings as we approach Thanksgiving. Even that doesn’t give you any idea of the throng of violence that surrounds men constantly. Every male relationship is immersed in the threat of it. Each interaction compensates for, hides, or replaces direct violence with institutional or systemic ones. The offshoot of that violence is fear. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in Between The World And Me, “Fear ruled everything around me, and I knew, as all black people do, that this fear was connected to the Dream out there, to the unworried boys, to pie and pot roast, to the white fences and green lawns nightly beamed into our television sets. But how? Religion could not tell me. The schools could not tell me. The streets could not help me see beyond the scramble of each day. And I was such a curious boy.”

So, in struts The Punisher, an anti-hero from another age, a paragon of male rage, to get us swept up in his weighty human drama. His wife and kids have been murdered. He’s a man with special skills. His government has betrayed him. Society shuns him. He’s out for revenge. Men are always out for fucking revenge.

The ballast of being a man is all-encompassing. In our world, rage is a constant. Like gravity, it pulls us down to its center, forcing our entire society to turn through and around it. Male rage— and its aftermath, male violence— are the currency through which we practice our systems. The center around which our history of maleness turns. As James Madison said in the Federalist Papers of 1788, “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” He was right. Except he forgot who were the executors of that tyranny. Who the punishers were: men with guns. Or, perhaps, he didn’t, and he assumed we all knew who the hell he was talking about.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lIY6zFL95hE

It’s been this way since we could all remember. Since Victorian notions of men as virtuous and civilized became cowboys killing Indians, men killing “commies,” lynching n***ers, burning women at the stake. James Madison wrote those words even as Black women and men’s bodies toiled, enslaved, despised of their humanity, to prop up his fledgling democracy.

His wife and kids have been murdered. He’s a man with special skills. His government has betrayed him. Society shuns him. He’s out for revenge. Men are always out for fucking revenge.
With, I add, women holding both the weight of their enslavement and the weight of their sexual slavery against a torrent of male rage—of the enslavers and the enslaved. Both slaves and freed Blacks weren’t allowed to own guns in his day, either. A current of American law that has passed down through generations. That they were denied those rights, even as federal law began to demand they be given them, is a seam showing amidst a cascade of historical fabric. They knew guns were a central component of power. Of which Blacks were meant to have none.

https://twitter.com/ThePunisher/status/932369252194988032

But, now, as social media begins to pull taut reams of hypocrisy, women are actively taking back their bodies, long the fuel, the plunder of the power vacuum men hold over society. The swathe of women accusing powerful, ordinary, shy, nice, gregarious, mean, taciturn, roguish, republican, democrat, whatever, men of sexual assault or abuse or harassment has begun to turn that nightmarish power against their wielders. Given hope to women, again, that it’s possible to seize back their humanity. It’s begun to erode the words of men: their thoughts, their actions. It’s begun to erode the moral core of manliness, itself.

With this upending of the sexual paradigm, it can feel, especially now, that maleness is being encroached upon from all sides. The effects have been devastating. A wave of nationalism has wrung through our world, as each country falls to its mythology of manliness, of separateness, of glory, of tragedy.

White Supremacists March with Torches in Charlottesville

Source: #NewLookSameRacism / Getty

And so stories like The Punisher feel infantile; didactic. A wooden storm door bracing itself against a battering hurricane. The show’s writer, Steve Lightfoot, spoke to Vice about how a show like The Punisher would be perceived in today’s light. “In terms of the bigger issues surrounding it…look, what happened in the last few weeks was just sickening and horrifying. Like everyone else, I look at it all with despair, sadness and in amazement that this keeps happening,” said Lightfoot. “But it’s also important to note, that in the light of that, I wrote this show a year ago. We didn’t exactly write it last week or in the scope of all this. People would ask me about it, and I’d say, well my show isn’t even out yet.”

From a purely creative standpoint, I understand the nature of this stance. How could he have known? But I’m also aware such a point stands, incredulously, outside of actual history. The history of male violence is as long as it is vast. He went on to say, “I admit that I’m no politician, but what I did try to do with the show, since it is an ongoing issue, is try to let the characters have those debates among themselves.”

Which is what strikes me most about this new Punisher. It takes its aim at men that do wrong through a baptism of violence. Punisher dips them in the waters of sniper shots to the head, knives to throats, hands wringing the necks of those responsible for the deaths of his wife and child. To the death of his life, his happiness, and his morality. In the world of men, of comic books, heroes and villains, it is not his violence that makes him an anti-hero, it is death. His goal is destruction, not remediation, unlike heroes who use violence to that end like Batman or Daredevil. In a male world, this pulls him closer to the line of male morality. But this line continues to shift beneath our feet. Each mass shooting, each sexual assault or harassment accusation exposes us to the heart of things. This violence has become a feature of manliness. A main dish served piping hot to whoever wants to the play this game, which men have created.

I remember listening to Jay Z’s Reasonable Doubt for the first time back in 1997. I was a child, just 14, and I remember inching closer to the violence he so vividly spoke of with my friends. We begun by play fighting. Shadowing each other and sizing each other up. Then slap boxing. Still trying, naively, to command our power with skill. We knew these mechanisms had social coinage. It taught us how to move within power, how to wield it. With a sample of The Stylistics “Hurry Up This Way Again” lighting his way, Jay let off a dissertation on the politics of hustling with the projects towering over you, these hierarchies of power your only lullabies.

“Politics as Usual”:

“You can catch me/ Skatin’ through your town/ Puttin’ it down, y’all relatin’/ No waitin’, I’ll make your block infrared hot: I’m like Satan/ You see a nigga struggle/ Y’all think a nigga love to/ Hustle behind the wheel, tryin’ to escape my trouble?”  

It was obvious he did not, but it was his birthright. Once he spoke jarringly about in a piece for Vibe in 1998, penned by Dream Hampton. “It starts off as one thing,” says Jay. “Then it becomes another. In the beginning it’s, ‘I gotta take care of my family’, but you can’t keep saying that, because in your first month, you’ve changed their whole situation around. Once you start living The Life it’s just no stopping… It’s like making the money, the sound of the money machines clicking—for some people the sensation of the coke under their nails, like dirt for construction workers—the constant hustle, everything from the living to the actual work. It’s completely addictive.”

This is the way violence encircles you as a man. It comes for you, first as something to avoid; then as something to exercise; then as something to worship.

As Frank Castle worships the pull of his violence. As he reads F. Scott Fitzgerald in his pot hole studio apartment and has flashbacks to when his life was simple and happy, it obscures the full picture of his existence. Who is he, really? It’s a mystery that, after 13 episodes, is never quite solved. It serves to make him a fantasy. One, by men, of unfettered male violence acted out with grand moral impunity.

So who are men, today, really? That’s simple enough. We are all small pieces of Frank Castle. All only moments away from an extreme act of violence. Even those we consider no big deal. We are all capable of these things because our lives are defined by conquest. Consider our president, Donald Trump: “I’m automatically attracted to beautiful [women]—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything … Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”

“You can do anything” is what we’re taught, as boys become men. As long as you’re willing to be violent enough. As though that act were a test of a will instead of an encroachment; instead of a crime.

Punisher rails against a set of rules that have failed him. That has been violent toward him without meaning or consent. But his problem is the belief in such a system to begin with. That it betrayed him should come of no surprise. That it trained him to kill efficiently and expeditiously was its point. Violence in our society is baked in. It is owned, from the hustler in Harlem to the President, by men. And it’s men who have to change it.

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