Perpetuating the Cult of the Badass — Or Not

I know some of you have started to read A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry, either via my rec or elsewhere, so you’ll have already seen Devereaux’s sequence of posts about the idea of the “universal warrior.” (If not, then tl;dr — he thinks the notion is absolute bollocks.)

But I want to particularly highlight the last post in the series, about the “Cult of the Badass.” I’d picked up this general vibe before, of course: the idealization and idolization of a certain kind of tough masculinity that we see all the time in books and movies, in TV and video games, and in real life (at least aspirationally). And it isn’t hard to miss flaws like the toxicity of that concept, or the sexism baked pretty much into its core.

What’s new to me is the extent to which the Cult of the Badass maps to the values of fascism.

I’m not going to recap Devereaux’s points in that essay; you can go read them for yourself (the part about fascism is under the header “Echoes of Eco”). The reason I reference his argument — apart from the fact that it’s a good one — is because recently I also read an essay by Ada Palmer that . . . okay, has vanished from her blog in the time since I read it, and I’m not sure why. I guess this is what I get for not posting about this until now? Anyway, it was her transcribed remarks from (I think) a convention she was a guest of honor at, talking about how we commonly teach the Renaissance as being about these few visionary guys who knew what the future could look like and tried to bring that vision into reality, which — surprise! — is a massive misrepresentation. They were trying to change the world, sure, but not to look like the world we have now. And much of what we have now is the product, not of a few visionary guys, but of huge quantities of people having their own little conversations all over the place. The essay had a great example of this, in the form of how the unknown individuals who wrote the printer’s forewords to various editions of a particular Greek philosopher (I can’t remember which one, dammit) led to this philosopher being taught all over the place, in ways that very much influenced the change in culture.

Anyway, here’s my point, somewhat undermined by not having Palmer’s piece available for linking. When she talked about lots and lots of people having their conversations about things and the power of that to change society, I found myself thinking about Devereaux and the Cult of the Badass and fascism. Because the more we tell and consume stories about how awesome it is to be a warrior at heart, the more we repeat and reify the notion of a particular kind of strength (and implicitly, screw all the people without that strength) . . . the more we nudge society in that direction. But by telling other kinds of stories, by reading different books and watching different movies and recommending them to our friends, we dilute that trend.

I got tired of those stories a long time ago. But now I’m more than tired of them: I reject them. I don’t want to give them my time, my money, or a place in my skull. War is not the metaphor around which we should be organizing our lives. There are better ways, and I’m going to try to have the conversations that lead to them.

4 Responses to “Perpetuating the Cult of the Badass — Or Not”

  1. Mike Reeves-McMillan

    I feel the same, which is why I continue to struggle to write books with ensemble casts in which violence isn’t the solution and lots of undistinguished people working together is.

    Those are hard stories to tell, but I think it’s worth the effort.

    • swantower

      Ensembles of more than just a few people are hard in the logistical sense. But yeah, I find myself more and more conscious of looking for ways to resolve things without violence.

  2. Jaws

    The flip side of the Cult of the Badass is that those who aspire to be badasses are unusually easy to manipulate — and I don’t just mean from the perspective of a supervillain (“I made you destroy your own parents hahahahahahahaha!”), but in merely warping objectives. Sometimes that’s at its worst when the Badass has attained power after being a Badass and proves… seldom well-suited to holding or wielding it, let us say. (To start with, “badass” seldom correlates with “good judge of character” or “adept at delegating.”)

    In post-Fall-of-Rome European history, I can think of less than a handful of successful-badass rulers who didn’t fumble their roles as rulers. The same period in Southwest Asia is, if anything, worse (at least in the historical record, as opposed to heavily-retconned semimythological tales).

    So that makes a badass at best a tool. That deserves some other consideration, especially from fiction-writers.

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