Netflix’s The Punisher and Masculinity (VIDEO)
Last night I finished Marvel’s The Punisher on Netflix. It impressed me. It was probably the best Marvel Netflix show since Jessica Jones. It is flawed, but in its own ways. Unlike other Netflix Marvel shows it is decently paced and has episodes with individual plots and it doesn’t hit a slump in its back half. Where it drops the ball a little is in regards to a nuanced debate about gun control and properly challenging the titular character’s morality. However it mostly makes up for those issues with respectful discussions of veterans and PTSD.
The show also has a few opinions about men and masculinity. It depicts different ideas of masculinity and men and some are praised, some are not. Punisher primarily places an emphasis on forms of masculinity with integrity and respect for others, one that is genuine and not competitive. The show respects obviously traditionally masculine roles like soldiering as The Punisher is a veteran, but it also respects intellectuals and those in computing and other support roles.
Frank Castle, the eponymous Punisher, describes himself as ‘old school’. He’s a gentleman who treats women and children with respect and sometimes protection. However he isn’t a completely old school patriarchal sort who forces this protection on women. He respects career women in traditionally masculine jobs like federal agents and journalists, such as Agent Madani and Karen Page respectively. He doesn’t make snide jokes when they try to prove themselves and nor does he try to sleep with them. Which brings us to Billy Russo.
Billy Russo is a sort of dark, or darker even, reflection of Frank. He became a soldier to profit from war. In his post-war career he runs illegal paramilitary operations for more profit. He likes money, fancy suits and says everything he has done is to prove how ‘far he has come’. Whenever he looks in the mirror he clearly admires his own beautiful face. Rather than respect women like Agent Madani, he chooses to manipulate them for his own gain whilst sleeping with them for his ego. The show is obviously condemning Billy as he is the primary antagonist. A lot of emphasis is placed on Russo valuing his good looks, as opposed to Frank not caring about his own less than conventionally attractive mug. Billy is used by women as he uses them, but Frank is deeply trusted by every woman in his life. It’s clear what the show values more here.
Then we have antagonist Bill Rawlins. He’s an armchair CIA agent and Russo’s boss. Rawlins like to talk the talk, but he cannot walk the walk. In Afghanistan he clearly enjoyed abusing his powers over soldiers in his command. He likes to imagine himself as a conquering hero whilst letting others doing the dirty work. When Frank Castle punched Rawlins in the eye, rather than moving on Rawlins used his wound for pity to get promoted in the CIA. He pretended it was a genuine war wound and lied about having experiences no one should lie about.
Now one could see Rawlins as another warped reflection of Frank, however I see him more of a reflection of Frank’s partner Micro. Micro is a middle class and pampered computer whiz. He can’t do the physical work required for his and Frank’s mission, but the show repeatedly shows his skills as indispensable. Frequently he is able to guide Frank in to battle and make him aware of enemies he can’t see in addition to the technical wizardry Frank is incapable of. And the show clearly respects this role as his help frequently stops Frank catching a bullet or twenty.
Micro also had to fake his death to protect his family. He is frequently depicted as watching over them, unable to help them in their day-to-day problems resulting from his supposed death. We’re invited to empathise with him.
So what is The Punisher saying with all this? It’s saying that the good kinds of masculinity are built on integrity, as even The Punisher himself has a code. It’s saying people in both hard and softer combat roles are strong people, that men don’t have to be strong, they can be weak too. It’s saying that men that fail to help their families are still decent people if doing it for the right reasons. It does not idealise the traditional stern patriarch. The show also says that men can be weakened by emotional problems. Men with PTSD are still men. There’s nothing wrong with crying over trauma. Even The Punisher cries.
Whereas if you manipulate and use the lives of others for personal gain, either financially or social and sexual status, you are the real weak one. The show clearly has little regard for those who see women as their inferiors or just as sexual conquests too. The show doesn’t see fighting as something to pursue and enjoy, rather something that some unfortunately have to endure.
The best example of The Punisher embracing different kinds of masculinity for men is in the character of Sam Stein. He is Agent Madani’s partner. He is cynical, but essentially proactive. He’s witty, smart and sees Madani as an equal and as his leader. He clearly thinks the sun shines out of her arse, either as a friend or romantically, but we never find out which because he keeps things professional. He isn’t as athletic as Russo and Frank, but he’s depicted as a skilled agent in the field also in spite of his body type.
Admittedly The Punisher isn’t always great in portraying women as healthily masculine. It doesn’t judge Madani and Page for their occupations and natures, nor does it question their abilities, but the show sure does have them getting saved by Frank a lot. Sure, there is a point when Madani saves Frank. But she turns up and provides a brief distraction before being instantly knocked down and Frank does the rest of saving himself. Whereas Frank gets to tear men apart by himself when saving her or Karen. There are also some male gaze issues with Madani. Frank’s wife often appears in flashbacks and is portrayed more as a vision of wifely perfection, rather than as a human being.
But all that being said…
A military and revenge based thriller could all too easily fall into the traps of applauding taciturn and muscular men that murder people without a care. Instead The Punisher gives us a version of an iconic comic character who cries, is broken by trauma, respects women and has integrity in regards to his own beliefs and those of others, even though he still murders people. In this show the cold, uncaring, macho and egotistical are the bad guys.