I happened to be in a breakfast diner this morning and the televisions were playing one of those “gotcha” talk shows. The title of this particular episode was “did my husband have a love child with my niece” - which I noticed primarily because the lady at the next table had a running commentary going where she was narrating the show as it happened.
The last few minutes of the show caught my eye. The sound was turned down and the subtitles were too far away to read, but the visuals were unmistakable. The man, presumably the husband, began to throw a temper tantrum. He threw a chair. He gestured wildly toward the woman on stage. She backed away, and then began to run away while he chased her, first around the stage and then through a series of hallways and back stage. She ended up on a couch, curled in on herself while he raged at her. He did not hit her, but it looked for all the world like he was about to. The cameras had more than one angle to show his rage and her fear. Finally, he raged off stage, knocking more things over as he went. The camera followed him, until he sat on a different couch and broke down in tears.
The visuals were very clear here - he was so upset he could barely keep himself from striking this woman. The tantrum was engaging to watch (aren’t they always?). But it made me wonder why we consider violent male tantrums to be a valid form of entertainment.
The movie Falling Down, with Michael Douglas, is another excellent example of this paradigm. The protagonist, played by Michael Douglas, starts the movie by becoming so frustrated by the morning traffic jam that he literally walks away, leaving his car in the middle of the stopped traffic. Never mind that he’s now made the situation worse for everyone around him, he’s free from the constraints. Later in the movie, he finds himself in a fast food restaurant as the lunchtime changeover hits, and the cashier won’t sell him a breakfast sandwich because he’s just a few minutes too late. His response is to pull out a large gun and threaten everybody in the restaurant with it, insisting that he’s simply a victim trying to become empowered to get the breakfast sandwich he deserves.
The person who insisted I needed to watch this movie thought it was a great scene, sympathizing entirely with the protagonist who was getting what he wanted through threats and intimidation. The viewer is encouraged to rejoice in the power the protagonist feels in this moment, threatening the life of a minimum-wage fast food worker for following the rules of their workplace.
In much the same way, the viewers of this daytime reality show are encouraged to sympathize with the tantrum-throwing man. At the end of the encounter, both he and the woman he was raging toward are curled up and weeping - and the last several moments the camera is on him entirely. He’s the protagonist here, the one the narrative seeks to help us understand and empathize with.
The message surrounding us here is that men who act in threatening ways are really sympathetic characters and they deserve our sympathy. We’re encouraged to identify with them, and to look for ways to help and heal them.
It’s clear to me that the men - both real and fictional - throwing these tantrums are suffering. What I’m a bit tired of is the free pass we give them to hurt others as a valid expression of that suffering. When a 4 year old in the grocery store begins knocking the candy bars out of the display at being told no, we firmly and clearly let them know that’s not appropriate behavior. When this man started throwing chairs, why did we act any differently?
Watching such behavior normalized or glorified in media teaches the idea that it’s reasonable for hurt men to hurt the people around them. Women who support them, and sacrifice themselves to heal those men, are praised as helpful supporting characters. And when the men they’re with are raging at them, we don’t step in to protect them.
It’s not nearly as dramatic to watch someone take one of these raging men by the hand and put them into some sort of time out. It’s tense and engaging to wonder if they are really going to hit or shoot the person they’re terrorizing. And if they don’t actually complete the violence, but instead simply threaten it loudly, we can sit back at the end and say “what are you getting so upset about, he didn’t even hit you.”
That uncertainty makes for engaging media, but it also makes for traumatic viewing for anyone who’s been in that sort of situation in the past. And the response that it’s all right because the violence didn’t happen (this time) is gaslighting those people. Being in mortal terror, and mortal danger, creates harm even if you don’t actually get beaten to death (not yet, at least). Having an audience that does not intervene in these situations because they’re waiting to see it play out does harm, because it suggests that terrorizing people is all right as long as you stop just short of actual violence.
But that is one of those lines that, once crossed, has tragic consequences. When we allow people to dance right on the edge of it because we don’t want to step in until it’s too late, we acknowledge that we’d rather err on the side of maybe letting someone get hurt than on the side of stopping threatening behavior before it goes any further. How would the world change if we, instead, begin to come down on the side of modeling civil, non-threatening behavior in our public discourse? And how quickly can we start working on making that shift, so that we can find out already?
This matters in the private sphere, as well. Where, in our personal lives, can we begin to push back on the idea that tantrums are a reasonable response to stress? This doesn't mean we can't blow off steam in physical ways - but it does mean that we should distinguish between blowing off steam and threatening others. It's not that we can't scream or hit a pillow or punch a tree, it's simply that we need to not do these things in front of anyone who might think we're broadcasting a desire and intent to do this sort of damage to them. There's a subtle difference between this sort of activity being stress relief for the person doing it, and this sort of activity being a not-so-subtle threat towards the person they're upset with. It's a nuanced distinction, but an important one.