SNARK WEEK: Man-Ick Monday – Historical Men Are the Worst

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TW: Discussion of sexual assault and physical violence

I recently walked in on my boyfriend watching the newest season of Peaky Blinders, a show that I have tried repeatedly to get into and failed every time, and after about 2 minutes of attempted rape, spousal abuse, child endangerment, and all manner of creative gratuitous violence, I had to ask him what in the hell he found compelling about this show that just out and out glorifies the absolute worst aspects of male behavior.

Cillian Murphy is just one creepy looking motherfucker.

Peaky Blinders is not the only show like this, obviously. Historical flicks largely fall into two separate and distinct categories: the ones about “lady” things (romance, quietly persevering in the face of insurmountable social odds, pretty dresses) and the ones about “manly” things (violence, trudging through vast amounts of mud, general dickswingery). Yes, these are broad categories and often films have a bit of both to appeal to the broadest audience (rape, after all, is a substantial plot device in a lot of female-centered historical flicks — we’re looking at you, Outlander).

But then there are shows that are apparently trying to portray men as irredeemable (yet somehow relatable?), shit-stains (and don’t get us going again on the manchildren of costume dramas!). Within this is a much deeper conversation to be had about the gender binary and how mainstream culture does its utmost to keep it alive and well, but that’s not the object of today’s post, because it’s Snark Week, and I had to start taking blood-pressure medication so we’re keeping it light and snarky. Take it up in the comments, if you must.

 

Taboo (2017-)

Taboo (2017)

Pretty much just an excuse to show Tom Hardy without a shirt.

We were generally conflicted about Taboo, because it, like the rest of the shows listed here, had a lot of good things about it: costumes by Joanna Eatwell (Wolf Hall, The Miniaturist), Tom Hardy, spooky plot … But watching the series, I had to tap out numerous times because all of the characters were just shitty in some way or another, and the main character was this uber-violent crazy person. I guess we are supposed to find that exciting, but all it was in the end was exhausting.

 

Deadwood (2004-6)

I am a sucker for a man in a pinstripe suit.

When this first came out, I binged about 3/4 of it in one go, got super-depressed, and had to walk away. I ended up never coming back to it, and that was 15 years ago. The only thing I really can say now is that yes, it is insanely good, but also, it’s insanely violent and depressing. I’m not lying when I say I will watch anything with Ian McShane in it, but I’m also not saying I can stick it out to the end.

 

Peaky Blinders (2013-)

Peaky Blinders costumes

Do not be fooled. This is not Downton Abbey.

What obviously inspired this post. I want to like this show, truly I do, but the main character and all of his cohorts are just such shitty people that I have to be cajoled into sitting through an episode at a time. It’s unfortunate because it is by all accounts a good show. Just, ugh.

 

Boardwalk Empire (2010-14)

I’ll still eventually get around to reviewing the (admittedly very good) costumes in this show, but it’s gonna take awhile.

Boardwalk Empire is maybe a touch less violent than the other three I’ve mentioned here, but it still glorifies asshole men being assholes for fun and profit. The costumes are amazing, though, and Steve Buscemi is fantastic. But … ugh. Testosterone poisoning + automatic weapons = Sarah’s eyes glaze over.

I’m not saying that films have to tone it down, because if anything, I am all about cranking up the dial on action and drama. I’m just saying I noticed a theme of late, and when I notice a theme, I write a post. Especially if the theme I’m noticing is the tendency for plots to focus on shitty male characters because of the mistaken belief that violence and assholery makes for interesting characters. It really doesn’t. If anything, it just makes them caricatures.

Feel free to pick a fight with me in the comments!

 

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Sarah has an undergraduate degree in Clothing & Textile Design and a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture, with an emphasis on fashion history. When she’s not caught in paralyzing existential dread, she's drinking craft cocktails and writing about historical costume in film and television. She's been pissing people off on the internet since 1995.

36 Responses

  1. Stephani Miller

    Much as I love Tom Hardy for his talents (ahem), I have noticed that he portrays a LOT of incredibly violent characters. Like, a LOT.
    I wanted to watch Peaky Blinders and Taboo in particular but just from the previews icould tell how violent they were likely to get and there’s only so much of that as plot device that I can take.

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      I’m not a big Tom Hardy fan, but I did watch Taboo to appease the boyfriend (who loves TH). And even though I love a dark, gothy, supernatural theme, man, that show was hard to take. By the end of it I felt like I needed a bath. The whole incest subplot which I didn’t even go into in this post was so… bad… Like, really? THIS is the guy we’re supposed to be rooting for?

      That said, I loved Tom in Legend, which is about the Kray brothers. He plays both twins, and is fantastic. Also proof that I can appreciate a film about ultra-violent male characters if there’s a shred of humor or self-awareness about their shittiness included in the plot.

      Reply
    • Amelia

      I must say I agree a lot with this post. As someone who’s gone through some horrible experiences and trauma, things like Peaky Blinders (which does admittedly have such a good plot and acting and costumes) are just not great for me. Even Outlander, something that so many people have recommended, is something I’m avoiding just because of the rather central r*pe plot that is just kind of ignored by so many fans bc the rest is romantic?? Not good at all.

      Reply
      • Sarah Lorraine

        I’m glad we’re helping!

        And don’t get me started on Outlander. I started write out a whole reply that ended up being SUPER triggery and stopped myself just in time. ;)

        Reply
      • Elise

        Amelia, I want to give you a hug. (if you want one, that is) Similar to you, I must be careful with shows, and I am so glad that I found the recap industry about a decade ago (wow). At first, it was because I was too busy with graduate school to watch shows, but now it’s so that I can keep up with characters and shows (and books, like Game of Thrones), but without having to re-live the trauma.

        Also, I do want to point out about Peaky Blinders, as a military spouse and mental health professional, that war can absolutely break a person and also make a person more violent. That is something interesting for the show to explore, but sometime in the second-third season, the show became more about glorifying violence, and not exploring the “why”.

        Reply
  2. Wildfyrewarning

    Aww, I’ve always thought Cillian Murphy was cute. I think it helped that the first thing I ever saw him in was “The Wind That Shakes The Barley,” where he is much more soft and mild than in some of his other rules (note: this is obviously relative, as his character in “The Wind” is, you know, an Irishman fighting against British occupation).

    Reply
  3. Kate Dominguez

    My friends know I have a “Kate-safe” threshold. Friends will recommend a movie to my husband and then add, “it’s absolutely not Kate-safe.”

    I avoid watching excessive violence (especially 1 on 1 violence, I’m more okay with watching war violence than boxing), any sex, incessant swearing… I’m okay with depressing movies if the costumes are good.

    I will occasionally watch movies with moments above the Kate-safe threshold if it’s really witty or funny or well costumed.

    So Frock Flicks does me an extra service, allowing me to drool over costumes in movies I will never watch. Thank you for your work, ladies!

    Reply
    • Renee

      I need to add that my husband is a huge fan of movies without dialog. Think Michael Bay enthusiast

      Reply
    • Becky Sawyer

      I absolutely love Peaky Blinders….the clothing is sharp and on point. Plus looking at Cillian Murphy all the time helps too.

      Reply
  4. Poetryqn

    You had me at ‘dickswingery’. I snorted my tea. And thank you for pointing out why I can’t get into any of these shows. Now. Can you please explain to me why Cillian Murphy keeps showing up in my Pinterest feed??? He may be a nice guy, I dunno, but his looks have always creeped me out. (Sorry, Mrs. Murphy. I know we all love our sons…)

    Reply
  5. Nzie

    Well, I know what shows I also will not be watching.

    Honestly, I think there’s kind of a trend where writers think This Bit Over The Line Thing is Good Writing® because it’s over the line, and that’s simply not true. And somehow it always involves disturbing sex and/or violence. At which point I peace out regardless. My sister called these things “poop cupcakes”–even if every other ingredient was organically farmed and processed by faeries and elves, you don’t care once you learn about the pooh in it. Maybe this sort of content is more tempting with historical stuff because It Was Gritty Back Then or something. But for whatever reason, hard pass (and even faster under pandemic stress).

    Reply
  6. Adina

    Shouldn’t Mad Men also be on this list?
    True, pre-weiner being outed as a creep, it also works as a critique of showing the seediness behind the glamour of the 60s, but still, Don gets away with everything and is pretty much fine by the end of the show, Roger is still kicking and in a high position at a new firm, same with most of the other men from SCDP.

    Reply
    • Katie O.

      I watched the very first pilot when it was added to Netflix and by the end of it I was just like, I do not care what happens to this man. Any other show he would have been the villain not the protagonist.

      Reply
  7. Amanda J Shirk

    I don’t believe the point of Peaky Blinders is to glorify violence. I listened to a Peaky Blinders podcast for seasons 1-3 (hosted by a very vocal feminist) and they pointed out that they like the show because the point of it is to highlight how this kind of violence ruins your life, also how war ruins your life and how it can drop you into destructive cycles where you need violence because it’s all you know how to do. I can appreciate not understanding that or wanting to watch it but Tommy Shelby and everyone in his family SHOULDN’T be relatable but to many people, especially those who suffer Post Traumatic stress, they are and watching the acknowledgement the effects violence and the effects of war is cathartic.

    Reply
    • Eddie

      Cathartic? How, really? Fight fight kill kill rape rape… a really good script doesn’t need to focus on these. That said, I have tuned out of many a show because (in particular “action films) just overdo this shit to lengthen the program.

      Reply
      • Marie McGowan-Irving

        If you haven’t watched the particular show, how do you know what the contents are? I’m sorry that you don’t enjoy this show; it wasn’t written for you.

        I would rather watch Peaky Blinders than Bridgerton. Peaky Blinders passes the Bechdel Test for a start.

        Reply
        • Trystan L. Bass

          “Peaky Blinders passes the Bechdel Test for a start.” That’s a hugely debatable point. It’s been a while since I watched the first 3 seasons of Peaky Blinders, but there were very few women, & even Helen McCrory’s character mostly talked to the men, if she talked to the women it was about what the men were doing. In Bridgerton, Eloise & Penelope have a strong friendship & are onscreen together w/out men repeatedly, & only sometimes does Penelope talk about men.

          Reply
          • Marie McGowan-Irving

            Honestly, Bridgerton holds absolutely no appeal for me whatsoever. It’s not to do with the costumes or the casting but rather the nature of the source material. I love some of the actors in it. I have seen the ‘it’s a fantasy’ about the costumes over and over. I just cannot find any trace of interest in watching it.

            I really was hoping that there would be more than a single meme’s worth of snark so far but even that brought out all the people who can’t stand to have it criticised even a little bit and that, more than anything, is putting me off.

            Reply
            • Trystan L. Bass

              I’ve never read the source material & that’s not what I watched on Netflix. But you’re allowed to dislike Bridgerton, but we’re allowed to like it! But if you’re going to critique it, I don’t think the Peaky Binders/Bechdel Test angle is your strongest point.

              Also, we have 3 non-Snark Week posts on Bridgerton noting the good & bad in great detail, so I think we’ve addressed it sufficiently. We have more Bridgerton snark memes (hey, it’s only Tuesday), plus Bridgerton Snark Week promos, if you think we only praise it. Tho’ I can’t quite tell if you’re complaining that we’ve only snarked the show once so far or that on that first meme, of the 137 comments on FB, about a dozen ppl seemed to enjoy the show, so not every single person said it was trash? ¯_(ツ)_/¯

              Reply
    • Elise

      I want to challenge. This is right in my wheelhouse, professionally and personally. The first season indeed looked at the “why” and focused on the lifelong tragedy following PTSD during WWI. There was the man who turned away from violence to become a preacher. There was talk about the older (veteran) brothers about the future of their younger brother: Could a person who had not been in war be effective in a gang? There was tension between the women who ran everything during the war and the men who came home from the war and kicked them out of the business side. There was the man with the recurring flashbacks. And then super-violent Arthur, who resembled the Nazis in Russia who became super-violent after murdering so many Jews in the Holocaust.

      THAT part was interesting, because the violence was tragedy. After the first season, though, the violence became bitterly dickswiggery. (stealing that) I tapped out.

      Reply
  8. Michael McQuown

    If you want to cleanse your pallet, look at some Gary Cooper films like Friendly Persuasion. Cooper played a lot of western heroes and some contemporary ones. He was always strong, honest, and got tough when he had to be, but the definition of manliness in that age didn’t require excessive violence and taking off one’s shirt.

    Reply
  9. Michael McQuown

    Addendum: Glenn Ford was another cut from the same cloth. Ford was a Marine in WWII. My fave of his is The Sheepman, where he beats the bad guys with his wits more than his fists or a gun.

    Reply
  10. MrsC (Maryanne)

    Can’t now unsee it. So true. Is it some kind of selective thing like me loving Midsomer murders and Endeavour and Morse and Lewis even though the amount of murder in these makes peaceful parts of England a blood bath? But the thatched roofs!!!

    Reply
    • Bess.

      I think the Midsomer Murders, Endeavour (to an extent) and Morse and Lewis don’t focus on the violent aspects of a “murder mystery”.
      MM is in a sense, almost “sending up” the “perfect English countryside” trope as most of the “murders” are ridiculous in the extreme.
      E, M and L all have the “intellectual” side – the investigation and the myriad of links.

      My DH and I watched Luther (Idris Elba) a couple of month ago. Idris Elba is an excellent actor and I love his character and the series is good – but….it got just too much for me in the end and I simply checked out of watching.

      Taking back to a costume specific series (so Luther and Lewis probably don’t count)….I love watch Jeeves & Wooster! Fabulous costumes, Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, gentle comedy, Set in the 1920s; Grand Estates, Countryside, London…what’s not to love!

      Reply
    • Stephani Miller

      I think the difference with murder mystery shows (I love them all; currently bingeing Midsomer) is that 1) yes, the violence is often a little ridiculous and almost a parody of trad murder mysteries; and 2) everyone gets their comeuppance, nearly 100% through applying the laws of the land. In that way, it’s a comforting genre. Bad things happen, but criminals are brought to justice. IDK, maybe that’s a very simplistic view, but I’ve been thinking about why I find these shows so satisfying to watch, especially during this very difficult time, and this is what it boiled down to for me.

      Reply
  11. Tracey Walker

    I’m doing a rewatch of Deadwood right now with The Storm podcast on Slack. We watch an episode a day and chat with each other on slack during the show. It really helps to be experiencing it with other people. I had forgotten from my first watch how kickass some of the women are, so yes there is a lot of violence but Alma, Trixie, Joanie and especially Calamity Jane are very strong fully written characters and more than hold their own, so I can’t write this one off as just a violent man show. The language, although seriously peppered with obscenities is beautifully written, the language is almost Shakespearean. I have to watch with subtitles on because sometimes I get so caught up in the beauty of the language that I don’t understand what it is they are actually saying.

    Reply
  12. elinoora sews

    Only tangentially related, but I used to live in Liverpool (Toxteth) when they started filming Peaky Blinders. The most surreal part was the repainting of the houses: the area was derelict, but they had a few workmen repainting the houses and then painting bricks on top. Made me chuckle every time I walked to Tesco’s. I watched a few episodes under the ‘it was filmed right here, must watch’ but by season 2 the violence was too much for me as well.

    Reply
  13. Lily Lotus Rose

    Other than one or two episodes of Deadwood, I haven’t seen any of these shows because I don’t have a taste for violence. I checked out of Game of Thrones for that very same reason. Beyond violence, or as a subset of violence, I also don’t like gory scenes–battle or crimes. Frock Flicks-wise, I checked out of The Alienist and several shows related to Jack the Ripper type crimes. Like many people around the world, I fell in head over heels in love with James Purefoy as Mark Anthony in Rome, but I haven’t been able to make myself re-watch the series in a very long time due to my squeamishness over the violence.

    Reply
  14. Addie

    I think what’s frustrating besides violence-for-violence’s sake just showing up regardless of it being historically accurate so we can all pat ourselves on the back for being Enlightened Now (regardless of people investing a TON into putting this on screen for enjoyment) is when people try to make showing violence about facing reality.
    Like, regardless of the quality of the storytelling, acting, cinematography, etc. I think we can all agree that hyperviolent dirty people isn’t inherently more realistic than fancy pants in castles Doing the Romance. I’m fine with people enjoying it, though I do try to avoid it myself, it’s just the idea that somehow your eyes are more open to the world if you watch stuff with rape and gore, because grimdark is “more realistic”. I’m like, really? how many gunfights do you get into on a daily basis? The reality of the world is mostly grocery shopping and folding laundry and staring at the clock waiting for a meeting to be over.
    Also it should be noted that people who actually are in dangerous/toxic situations (people with bad home lives for example) or who deal with dark topics on a daily basis (EMT’s, therapists, etc.) often avoid hyperviolent fiction because it’s just too much to deal with on top of everything they have in the real world.

    Reply
  15. Charity

    I’m not a big fan of shows where there’s not a single person to root for or one person you can like. “Peaky Blinders” is a good example — all the men in that family are unrepentant psychopaths, especially his awful brother who just beats the hell out of people for no reason. Also hated “Mad Men” where everyone was a jerk. It’s amazing — one or two episodes of “Mad Men” will make me depressed. Every time. :P

    Reply

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