Academic journal article Cultural Analysis

Behold the Man: Heroic Masochism and Mel Gibson's Passion as Masculine Rite of Passage

Academic journal article Cultural Analysis

Behold the Man: Heroic Masochism and Mel Gibson's Passion as Masculine Rite of Passage

Article excerpt

With over $370 million in domestic ticket sales, director Mel Gibson's 2004 film The Passion of the Christ is, as of mid-2014, the highest earning R-rated movie in U.S. history. Its closest competitor is Andy and Lana Wachowski's cyberpunk epic The Matrix Reloaded, almost $100 million behind (Box Office Mojo 2013). A lot of people have seen Gibson's film, but The Passion is outsized in a second way: the mass of commentary, criticism and controversy it engendered. The journalistic responses across a range of media from the New York Times and CNN to Christian Right publications--such as those from James Dobson's Focus on Family--are best measured in gigabytes. The scholarly literature alone easily runs to thousands of pages, a looming bulk daunting to anyone considering jumping into the fray. (1)

Reactions from anthropologists have, however, been relatively sparse. (2) Yet the event at the center of Gibson's Passion--the graphic depiction of a prolonged episode of judicial torture and execution--is best read less as a rite of sacrifice and more as a rite of passage of the particular type that has long fascinated anthropologists. And while the cinematic violence perpetrated in the film certainly contains a sacrificial component, the main ritual work it accomplishes is initiatory: the man Jesus is transformed through the performance of a blood-soaked rite into the Christ. Anthropologist Maurice Bloch (1992, 1998) argues that both types of rite--sacrifice and initiation--are intimately related, both requiring a symbolic or concrete act of killing. However counterintuitive this might seem, in the special logic of sacrifice and initiation such violence is necessary to the efficacy of the rite: the initiate must pass through death, through a great emptying out of the ordinary vitality of life, to be born again in a transformed state of being (Bloch 1998, 176). At the level of ritual initation, the scourging and crucifixion constitute not a punishment, but a privilege.

The initiatory character of the violence depicted in The Passion of the Christ holds true for virtually all Passion narratives, including those presented in the gospels. But in its emphases and stylizations--and perhaps most of all in its extra-canonical artistic license--Gibson's version relies upon the gendered character of the narrative. While not all rites of passage are gender specific--e.g. boys and girls both become Christians through the rite of baptism--an explicit gendering of the initiate is often central to the socio-politics of such rites. More than just transforming one type of person into another, initiation permanently separates those who can be initiated from those who never can be because they are of the wrong gender, race, class or background (Bourdieu 1991, 119).

Looking at The Passion of the Christ with awareness of rites of passage into adult masculinity and privilege, I insist that gender is crucial for understanding this film. My key argument is that the particular Passion narrative selected by Gibson interpolates its audience so as to constellate a militarized, masculinized form of Christianity that presumes, indeed depends upon, the socially authorized suffering of obedient (read "soldierly") sons. While the controversy generated by the film bears witness to the ways in which this constellation of gendered religion, militarization, and public consent is resisted and rejected, the incoherence in much of the criticism speaks to a significant cultural blind spot related to masculine suffering.

The highly stylized suffering of Jesus in the film--which makes use of some 135 digital effects to produce the viscerally "real" affect attested by sympathetic viewers (Magrid 2004, 57; Prince 2006, 13)--depends on a male body at its center for ritual coherence. A powerful form of gender politics is at work in The Passion, grounded in what I have elsewhere called heroic masochism (Gardiner 2013a): the socially desirable suffering inflicted on and accepted by men as a warrant for masculine privilege. …

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