Steven Gardiner: Behold the Man

By Ben-Youssef, Fareed | Cultural Analysis, Annual 2013 | Go to article overview

Steven Gardiner: Behold the Man


Ben-Youssef, Fareed, Cultural Analysis


In his article, "Behold the Man: Heroic Masochism and Mel Gibson's Passion," cultural anthropologist Steven Gardiner identifies why Gibson's The Passion of the Christ so resonated with post-9/11 audiences. Gardiner fruitfully draws upon anthropological ideas on rites of passage to frame Gibson's film as a meditation on obtaining manhood through suffering. He finds that the film depicts a heroic masochism, a "socially desirable suffering inflicted on and accepted by men as a warrant for masculine privilege" (Gardiner 2014, 20). Finding a blind spot within the critical consensus, which has often seen the film as depicting pointless violence, Gardiner argues that The Passion of the Christ in fact employs the spectacle of incredible violence on the male body to cannily deflect contemporary concerns of a destabilized masculinity. By focusing on heroic masochism, however, Gardiner forecloses an understanding of the film's vision of a militant femininity, portrayed in the androgynous, violent figure of Satan. In this response, I will offer a reading of the film that will buttress Gardiner's reading of the strange militancy of Gibson's Christ and his relation to executive power. At the same time, I will engage with feminist theories on women in combat to fill a blind spot in Gardiner's account--how Gibson's amorphously gendered Satan contains a power to nullify the purpose of the divine warrior-son's sacrifice which the film never quite overcomes.

While Gardiner evokes the militaristic dimension of Gibson's Jesus--via his reading of the crushing of the snake in the Garden of Gethsemane--the film pushes even further, explicitly drawing connections between the Son of God and executive leaders of the military. When Pontius Pilate pleads with the Jewish leaders to spare the man, Gibson visually links Jesus with the Roman prefect. He places them side by side, their faces often intermingling within quarter-profile shots. These compositional equivalences, which highlight the shared reddish color of their garbs, have a multivalent effect beyond absolving Pilate of responsibility in Christ's death. Such a correlation with the Roman Empire's representative functions to present Jesus as emblematic of a spiritual empire of his own. The link also shapes our understanding of Jesus' dominion as a particularly militaristic one. The soldierly qualities of Gibson's Christ become illuminated by the juxtaposition of his bloody skin against Pilate's glistening armor, each wearing the uniform issued by their respective commander: one made of silver, the other made of flesh. The sight of Jesus on the right shoulder of a benevolent state leader whispering encouraging words while the multitudes attempt to sway his hand appears deeply imbricated within a post-9/11 moment when President George W. Bush often acknowledged God's wisdom while calling for retribution for the attacks. In the former president's 2011 autobiography, Decision Points, Bush recalls praying to himself, "Lord, let your light shine through me" before delivering a speech that intertwined pronouncements on God's divine love with the prospect of the nation's vengeance (Bush 146). The image of the military leader sharing the frame with Christ helps to underline the extent to which Gibson's biblical epic is not cleaved from, but is in dialogue with, a post-9/11 world--an allegorical interrelation that Gardiner very astutely highlights.

Gardiner, in his reading of the film, identifies the particularly masculine suffering of Gibson's Christ as "an intervention into masculine ideals in American culture more broadly" (Gardiner 2014, 32). When making this suggestion, Gardiner references the broader debates surrounding women in the military following the Abu Ghraib scandal. He finds that the Devil is identified for his presumed androgyny and said to "represent the seductive feminine pull of internal weakness" (ibid.). The underlying valence of this reading is that the film's allegorical analogue for the female soldier is the Devil. …

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