February 25, 2009

The Action Movie Fairy Tale

The woman asks, why won't my man have sex with me?


80s and 90s action movies were often maligned not just for their violence, but also for their lack of depth and psychological sophistication.  "They're not important."

But these movies built a generation of men who are now in their 30s and 40s.

They didn't learn that killing is cool, which was the worry of people who didn't watch those movies and didn't understand.  This violence was central to the cinematic experience, but incidental to the story

The complainers ignored the story because they thought it was basic, trivial.  Wrong.  Write down the plot synopsis of every action movie, and awareness will come over you: 

A marginal guy must save a hot chick from bad guys; when he does, he gets the girl 


A generation of adolescent boys learned immediately three things:

1. marginal guys are the real heroes.
2. heroes never die.
3. bad guys exist as bad guys, not as good guys who went bad, or bad guys with some good in them also.  Darth Vader was unquestionably bad starting in 1977, unimaginable that he was once a sweet young boy with good in his heart.  That story had to wait a whole generation to be told.
4. in order to get (active verb: to obtain, procure, convince) a hot woman to fall passionately in love with you, you  have to do do some extraordinary things: take out thirty terrorists, master kung fu, be in the special forces, etc.


Focus on #4.  The question for today is, why do men have trouble having sex with the women that they are committed to?  Why does it seem that women have higher sex drives than men?

This is not a complaint I recall hearing in the 1970s or 80s.

Start with: there's something eerily adolescent about men today.

The movies say: until you do something extraordinary, or "save" the girl, then the love you feel isn't true love.   Women may be the ones looking to feel "explosions" inside telling them they're in true love, but men externalize those explosions in to real explosions before they know it's love.

How did you meet?  Was it a good story?  Did it involve defying the odds or secrecy?  You'll make it.  Did you meet in a coffeehouse or a bar? Then you're dating your future ex-fiance(e).

The male libido falls not because he's not interested in the woman he's with, but because he's not interested in the movie he's in.

Women say: you're wrong, it's porn, it's TV and magazines and airbrushing and implants and impossible figures...

Nope.  Consider that the serial monogamous relationships of these guys are with women who are actually quite attractive.  Other men want them.  If the guy's friends knew she wanted sex more than he did, they'd knife him.  And it's not boredom, either-- what, is masturbation so exciting?

For a man in a committed relationship, the porn is a distraction, not an ends.  They're not looking at porn to get off, they're avoiding sex.  Actual sex is exposure.  It reveals that he is not the fantasy man he thought he was. He'd be a better lover if he was.   Ha.  And women thought it was that they (the women) didn't measure up to the fantasies.  As an aside:  jealousy is directly proportional to sexual desire in these men.  That's not advice, just an observation.
The men love their girlfriends/wives, and are loved, but there's the feeling that it's not "real," she's not "the one."  Women have fantasies about what a relationship is like; men what a beginning is like.

A few points: first, for men, love is tied with a sense of accomplishment.  They can't imagine a woman would really want them if they weren't accomplished, so when a woman is interested, they think it's not the real thing.  Everything is a stepping stone.  But accomplishment isn't what makes him  "good enough for her."  It's not even to entice her.  It's not for her at all.   It's acquiring the pieces to his identity, like a Star Wars collection.  Success-- check. Money-- check.  Woman-- check.

This man goes through the motions of love: he is present, he doesn't cheat-- he doesn't even have the motivation for that!-- he is warm, loving, dutiful, respectful--

but he isn't there, he is always elsewhere, he has the thousand yard stare of someone who is expecting, any moment, his real life to come marching through the tree line.


"But then you are saying that the problem for these men isn't sexual attraction or commitment issues, but a psychological inability to love another person?"

What other person?  How can you love a person who doesn't actually exist?


"I think I'm one of those people, how can I change?"

You don't have to change, you look away from the pool.


It's similar to the complaints about fairy tales and girls: rigid gender roles and depictions of false success.  And now women are waiting for a white knight to sweep them off their feet.

Well, I don't know any women who feel this way, they learned quickly that those stories are only beginnings-- what happens next?  An example is the movie that wrecked a decade of young women in the 80s: 9 1/2 weeks.  20 years later, I still have yet to meet one woman who saw it and obtained the message, "be careful of charming men, they may seem great in the beginning but.."  Instead, women connected with it, wanted it, they'd describe their own  relationship like Rourke/Basinger's, proudly, they sought it out, they'd create it.  What they wanted about it was the passion, "I wish a man were that into me!"  What they learned from that movie is that in order to have a relationship as passionate as that one, with a guy as good looking and successful as him, you have to lose part of yourself, do things you don't really want to do.

Ah, but she left him at then end.  Wrong.  He'll be a part of her forever.  That's really what he wanted-- do you think he wanted to be with her when she turned 60?  Do you think she'd want him if she were 60?  She wants to know she was worth that much passion.

Too many women learned the wrong message, not that they should wait for a white knight, but that keeping a white knight may involve a heavy cost.  And they paid it, with abusive 80s and bicurious 90s, whatever it took.


The action movie was not about glorifying violence.  It was a manual: how to get an identity, how to get people to like you.

You disagree.  Twenty years of media studies and postmodernism says I'm wrong, "the action movie is catharsis through contradiction: death brings life; bad is good.  The action movie is says the hero must become antihero, take on all the bad, become bad, so that good can be saved and no one else has to be bad."

Well, reality says I'm right.  Ask: what would happen if a man saved the hostages by taking out out thirty terrorists in a LA skyscraper in real life?  He'd end up interviewed on TV, he'd get a makeover, and he'd get a million dollar book/TV deal.  In short, he would be rewarded.  The money and the interviews mean: you finally see me for who I always knew I was. 

This is a possible explanation for why depression and suicide is so high among combat vets today.  They fight a battle and then-- nothing.  They only get on TV if they do something wrong.  "I did all this, and I get nothing?"   One of the only 80s action movies that didn't have a damsel in distress was First Blood, in which Rambo, who actually was a Green Beret, came back to the world only to find that not only did no one reward his identity, they hated him for it.  But even that was a sort of confirmation.  You don't need a girl when enough people hate you for who you are.


The 80s adolescent hits the 90s full force, then 2000, and with every passing year it becomes more certain he will not learn kung fu or join the special forces.  Now what?  How is he supposed to find true love if he was never in the special forces?

Answer: go find a girl who was in the special forces.

Just in time for the first midlife crisis, Hollywood has our back: Alias, Underworld, Lara Croft, etc.  You think we like those women because they are sexy?  Then why wasn't Pamela Anderson's Barbed Wire the ultra-popular?  Was Jennifer Garner a Playmate?  It has nothing to do with sex, it is all about love.  The movies say: my reality is becoming increasingly limited by my uncooperative body.  It's probably impossible that I can take out thirty terrorists and save the girl.  But it's slightly less impossible that I could meet a woman who could do it.  Phew.


But at some point, a man has to grow up, and this is where it gets interesting.  At some point you realize the action movie isn't going to happen in real life.  You're going to have to confront reality, have to meet a girl and fall in love with her for real, and try to be happy, and know that you don't get to try on several different wives to find one you like.  Nor do you get to keep trying on identities.  You're going to have to face life as an accountant or a product manager, and not as a CIA agent, or music producer, or pro-ball player-- all of which are the exact same thing.  Then what?  Three choices:

1. alcoholism and depression, especially the subtle variety called ennui
2. accepting reality and finding one's place
3. the schizotypal condition

The one to focus on is #3.  What modern middle aged narcissist wants is to find a way to put one foot in reality, and keep one foot in fantasy.  A solution that lets him keep fighting the traffic twice a day without blowing his brains out.  To have just enough hope that one day the fantasies could come true that he keeps on going.  That a 30 year old man could suddenly know kung fu.

Fortunately, we find ourselves at the tenth anniversary of just such a solution.

Part 2 here.


I am impressed that you onl... (Below threshold)

February 25, 2009 7:26 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

I am impressed that you only said narcissist once in that whole article. Great as always, please please do keep it up.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 6 (6 votes cast)
dude, proofread. not up to ... (Below threshold)

February 25, 2009 7:41 PM | Posted by Aaron Davies: | Reply

dude, proofread. not up to your standards.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 0 (6 votes cast)
I find this essay fascinati... (Below threshold)

February 25, 2009 9:35 PM | Posted by Jered: | Reply

I find this essay fascinating, but lacking in evidence. There have been countless studies (for what they're worth) on the impact of media on society. Is this your personal impression of the measurable impact of the action film of male relationship psyche, or can you back it up with data? How does behavior correlate with other cultures not as enamored with the action flick?

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 1 (3 votes cast)
Today's male feels unmanly.... (Below threshold)

February 25, 2009 11:08 PM | Posted by Jack Coupal: | Reply

Today's male feels unmanly.

When masculinity raises its ugly head, it is pounded down. The active boy is prescribed a drug to make him civilized. The anti-war 20-something gets the chicks who reject the returning soldier considered uncivilized. The 30-something working at a keyboard for 8 hours sees 30 women around him doing exactly the same thing.

It's very easy to feel feminine. All one has to do is be genetically female. It's very difficult to be masculine, because society has decided that masculine behavior is outdated, not necessary, and dangerous.

If males are only experirencing ennui, that's a real blessing.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 5 (23 votes cast)
Ouch. This one hit too clos... (Below threshold)

February 25, 2009 11:18 PM | Posted by Barbara: | Reply

Ouch. This one hit too close to home.

(Woman, married to an adorable guy who has the sex drive of a 10-year-old girl)

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 1 (1 votes cast)
Meanwhile, us schizoid type... (Below threshold)

February 25, 2009 11:45 PM | Posted by Curmudgeon: | Reply

Meanwhile, us schizoid types are looking across the table and wondering what all the fuss is about.

There's a lot to be said for not trying to internalize, or live up to, the absurd ideas about human interaction that are promoted by mass culture.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 3 (5 votes cast)
Geez, I'm 58 and horny all ... (Below threshold)

February 26, 2009 12:08 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Geez, I'm 58 and horny all the time. Do I have a problem?

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: -1 (3 votes cast)
"Focus on #4. The question... (Below threshold)

February 26, 2009 2:23 AM | Posted by Dave Johnson: | Reply

"Focus on #4. The question for today is, why do men have trouble having sex with the women that they are committed to? Why does it seem that women have higher sex drives than men?"

Focus on your practice. Focus on the subset of humanity which pays you an inordinate amount of money to "treat." Is this a representative sampling of men? Or perhaps just a subset? Does it matter? Would you ever qualify your speculations? Do you even care?

Focus on your questions which are asked and answered with absolutely no evidence. How is it you regularly excoriate drug studies based on frivolous extrapolations of quasi-evidence when you can't even muster the thinness of their proofs?

In order not to get too terribly aggravated ... I focus on the energy of your writing. There's a lot of it. It moves. It's inchoate, but it's an urgent sort of movement.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: -1 (5 votes cast)
Tenth anniversary? <... (Below threshold)

February 26, 2009 2:33 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Tenth anniversary?

You did not just refer to "The Matrix" again. Please no.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: -1 (3 votes cast)
The active boy is prescr... (Below threshold)

February 26, 2009 8:22 AM | Posted by Matt P: | Reply

The active boy is prescribed a drug to make him civilized.

Well, 4.3% of them are. What keeps the other 95% from feeling manly (or, I guess, boyish)?

The anti-war 20-something gets the chicks who reject the returning soldier considered uncivilized.

Dude, seriously, have you ever been to a bar near a military base? Hippie chicks go for hippie boys, not a newsflash. There are plenty of other girls glad to go wild for guys in (or just out of) uniform.

Hint: Military service is still coded as working class, while the young women at anti-war rallies are more likely to be middle class. Any guesses why there might not be many love connections there?

The 30-something working at a keyboard for 8 hours sees 30 women around him doing exactly the same thing.

No quibbles with this one. Deskbound jobs are non-physical, and displays of physicality seem bound up in our ideas of masculinity. If you need your job to stroke your gender identity, be a fireman or a ditch digger.

...society has decided that masculine behavior is outdated, not necessary, and dangerous.

Nope. There are still plenty of places where Hank and all his rowdy friends are lauded. You'll just have to give up a lot of your white-collar comforts to get there.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 10 (16 votes cast)
Good idea. I think it might... (Below threshold)

February 26, 2009 9:35 AM | Posted by MedsVsTherapy: | Reply

Good idea. I think it might have merit. I will have ta think abt it to form my opinion. But has merit on face value.

My idea for a while has been that a lot of what you see is what I have decided to call "unsuccessful narcissism."

We can all think of successful narcissists. They charm and manipulate. Etc. When things eventually fail to work out for them, they just move on and do their thing somewhere else with a different supporting cast of characters to sustain their unique view of the world (themselves). They are successful because starting over is almost effortless to them.

The unsuccessful narcissist fails because he (or she but I mainly see "he") is just not very good. He builds up some world where he is cool knowledgeable, in control, an authority, a he-man. But no one else is convinced.

The unsuccessful narcissist will have a topic - a hobby or issue or area of expertise - that provides their sense of superiority.

These are the guys who will corner you with their haughty denounciations of any beverage except microbrews, and if you are lucky, will go on to tell you about how they brew their own beer. Or a "wine snob."

These are the guys who can talk so authoritatively about sports, or videogames, but themselves are totally un-athletic. And their physique shows this. Despite the beer belly, they can strut as if their physique belongs on the sports field.

These guys can pontificate all day about politics, but are actually ineffectual regarding politics: they have marginal memership in whatever political group they might align with, and when they do get roles, the role is minor. But they love to talk about it all. And will be there for the election night victory party, as if they coordinated the phone bank, put out the yard signs, formed the neighborhood associations, etc.

Most desperately, though, they need an audience. They can't just be home-brewers. They have to talk on and on about Czech hops. Or whatever. They have to argue stats with you when you make some remark of admiration or scorn about some sports figure. Clearly you don't know what you are talking about. They have to explain why their candidate / party is all-knowing. It is pretty much a one-sided discussion.

Lots of these guys actually have great knowledge. It is simply that they are unsuccessful at achieving the level of accomplishment that they claim to be at. They don't actually author a book or sustain a blog. They don't actually figure out a way to take knowledge and interest in a topic and turn it into a career.

People get bored, not fascinated. These guys do not otherwise have admirable lives. The boring job, family, etc., is not there to provide the normal esteem many of us have, and are satisfied with. THese guys neglect or belittle family members: wives, kids. If the wives or kids stick around.

Oh, and these guys love discussing action movies. And their home theaters.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 7 (7 votes cast)
No excuses, but some mitiga... (Below threshold)

February 26, 2009 11:58 AM | Posted by Christopher: | Reply

No excuses, but some mitigating factors:
"The woman asks, why won't my man have sex with me?"
1. Because you're fat. http://www.cdc.gov/women/natstat/overwght.htm
2. Because you're old. http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0005061.html
3. Because you bitch too much about your job. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_the_workforce
4. Because the fact that you have a job better than mine is a bit emasculating and tends to tempt you to throw your relative economic weight around. Id.
5. Because it's not like you're going to have my babies anytime soon so what's the point? http://usgovinfo.about.com/cs/censusstatistic/a/aabirthrate.htm See also, The Pill, Abortion, Genetic Screening, Sperm Donors, etc. etc. etc.
6. Hell, we're not even married! You don't demand or want to commit either. This is just a shack up. I don't owe you sh$t. I'm outta here. (Where's the nearest bar?) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/366289/marriage-rate

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 0 (18 votes cast)
I'm now starting to really ... (Below threshold)

February 26, 2009 11:01 PM | Posted by information addict: | Reply

I'm now starting to really get this narcissm business. I see it in places I never even thought of.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 4 (4 votes cast)
It seems to me that what yo... (Below threshold)

February 27, 2009 6:35 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

It seems to me that what you're arguing for is for people to realise that like pretty much sucks, and is full of compromise and takes a lot of work.

Basically, you seem to be arguing for people to wake up and realise that this is all their is, to stop thinking they're suddenly going to be in that action movie and to get on with life, despite that fact that and inherent quality of existence is it's unpleasantness.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 3 (3 votes cast)
So committing an action tha... (Below threshold)

February 27, 2009 9:01 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

So committing an action that is connected to the narcissistic ideal gives the idealist authority...wha...Can you please write about narcissism and authority, I`m sure you need it to get there.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 0 (0 votes cast)
Would you please create a f... (Below threshold)

February 28, 2009 5:32 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Would you please create a fake profile and log on to MANHUNT.NET? I think that will give you a new! perspective on narcissism. We, gay men, took it to a whole different level!

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 1 (3 votes cast)
Your just jealous because I... (Below threshold)

March 1, 2009 2:27 AM | Posted by John: | Reply

Your just jealous because I know Kunkfu.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 2 (2 votes cast)
In the Matrix, it was "bad"... (Below threshold)

March 1, 2009 9:41 AM | Posted by mark p.s.2: | Reply

In the Matrix, it was "bad" to be a battery in the machine. The battery might be a phallic symbol . We have Viagra now don't we?

Women in the past had the exclusive power over granting (hetero)male sexual pleasure, now the tide is turning?

The Last Psychiatrist doesn't mention videogames. Videogames are not on your RADAR and should be. Why? They make lots of money and consume more recreation time , than movies you cite as so influential.

"computer and video game industry took in about USD $9.5 billion in the US in 2007"
"domestic DVD sales fell 3.2 percent last year to $15.9 billion(2007)

I agree sexual fantasy and reality don't match up, better and safer to stay in the fantasy world of ones imagination. As reason for low sex.

Can you live up to the/your womans fantasy? and what specifically is it by the way? Is it attainable? Got to read her mind, or is my mind more important?

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 1 (1 votes cast)
Schizotypal? Check!<p... (Below threshold)

March 3, 2009 10:21 AM | Posted by Gino: | Reply

Schizotypal? Check!

Thousand yard stare? Check!

But I'm 62. And I don't think you meet your own standards for logic or proof in tying these problems to 80's and 90's action flicks.

As a sweeping generalization of the "Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars" type, your point about tendencies in men, in general, ring true, but men since the dawn of time. Where is your usual razor sharp analysis of the data and the logic?

I do agree about getting out of the pool. I did 25 or thirty years ago, and my second, wonderful, marriage has benefited greatly from the struggle not to drift back in.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 0 (0 votes cast)
What about Mental Porn? </p... (Below threshold)

March 3, 2009 11:38 AM | Posted by Philip: | Reply

What about Mental Porn?

Visualizing riskier sex with strangers to get off during sex with nearly whichever partner it is beyond the first few sexual encounters?

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 0 (0 votes cast)
I agree that a lot of women... (Below threshold)

March 5, 2009 7:09 AM | Posted by SusanC: | Reply

I agree that a lot of women complain that their husbands don't give them enough sex (privately, anyway...), and I agree with your plot summary of a lot of action movies. But it's a bit of a stretch to say that the latter caused the former.

If you want to play that game though, think of the really influential movie of our childhood [apologies here to younger readers], the one where we bought the toys, we played games as the characters, and - after all these years - guys still have a crush on the heroine:

"She's your sister, Luke."
Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 1 (1 votes cast)
This gets at a concept I've... (Below threshold)

March 5, 2009 12:39 PM | Posted by Joseph Bergevin: | Reply

This gets at a concept I've long held: everyone's identity is a facade. There is no "true" identity that people are meant to have, only the reflection of the expectations around them, and it could be no other way.

People have a basic temperament and level of intelligence, but what values they adopt and goals they set and spin they put on their baseline is entirely opportunistic. Whatever we see as valuable to our peers we adopt - political values, fashion, attitude, artifacts. They're all peacock feathers.

We do this because it gains us access to others, and we do this in proportion to the need we have for acceptance by others. What I want to know is why people vary in their need for others? Is that a basic temperament?

Vote up Vote down