I place the blame for our current iteration of the cultural anti-hero squarely on the 1993 Joel Schumacher film Falling Down. We no longer cheer for bikers, hippies, and cowboys. Now we cheer for men who have neither the courage of mind nor the character to live on the margins of society, but shuffle along within corporate culture with a burning sense of resentment and entitlement until, one day, they snap. People (men) saw Michael Douglas’s middle manager yelling at some minimum-wage employee of a fast food franchise because of arbitrary rules demarcating breakfast from lunch and they thought, Finally! We have been oppressed for too long! People (men) saw Michael Douglas’s abusive husband and father’s journey to see his ex-wife with a gun in his pocket and bad intentions in his heart and they thought, Yeah, how dare she try to leave! People (men) saw Michael Douglas’s ranting, racist refusal to obey societal suggestions to be civil or, better, treat people with decency and kindness and they thought, If only I, too, had the courage to live with such honesty and intention!
And hence were unleashed a million television shows about doctors too brilliant to follow hospital rules, lawyers too brilliant to follow the recommendations of the bar association, suited-up men in conference rooms too brilliant to follow the orders of the board of trustees. Don’t pen me in, man, you don’t know what I’m capable of.
The problem with the term “toxic masculinity” is that it wants to pathologize a gender rather than acknowledge that it’s not testosterone at the root of this, but rather an expectation that you are entitled to as much money and power as you can gather in your natural life. It’s not like women heads of state and executives are not increasingly displaying such narcissistic behavior under the guise of “self-empowerment.” But the term is still useful because it gives a framework for understanding how power operates, and it also gives us a mental image of the embodiment of that behavior, and that embodiment looks like a lot like Michael Douglas.
“Peak Michael Douglas,” as we might call it, is the pathology director David Fincher has made his career exploring and criticizing. He even made The Game, a movie about what it would take to break down someone infected with peak Michael Douglas and restore his sense of humanity, and he got Michael Douglas to play the peak-Michael-Douglas character. (To wit: take away all of his money, his expectation of safety, his sense of comfort, his power, and his sense of control over his own life, then get him to think he accidentally killed his brother until he attempts suicide.) From Fight Club to Se7en to Gone Girl to The Social Network to House of Cards and now the Netflix show Mindhunter, Fincher has presented and dissected many varieties of the inhumane, antisocial, arrogant, and yes, toxic behavior that so much of our culture celebrates.
Now, with Mindhunter, he shows us how entitlement and toxic masculinity can work as a contagion. Based on John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker’s book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Killer Unit, it follows the development of law enforcement’s realization that a new kind of killer was emerging out of a quickly changing society: the hyperviolent, methodical murderer of strangers, particularly of women. The protagonist here is Holden Ford, an FBI agent struggling against the macho culture of law enforcement. He is a negotiator and an instructor, and when he teaches his students to talk to and listen to hostage-takers and criminals rather than trying to dominate them, and to attempt to de-escalate violent situations rather than respond with guns drawn, he is met with bewilderment. As he finds his niche in collaborating to construct new theories of criminality and profiling with other agents, professors, and even his girlfriend who is finishing up her PhD in sociology, he also finds himself taken ill with this contagious form of machismo.
It would be easy to see the show as Fincher doing Fincher pastiche.
His machismo comes not from the officers around him or the superiors who distrust his new ideas, it comes from the serial killers he interviews in an effort to understand them. Holden, it has to be said, starts off the series with a demeanor that is best described as feminine. Not effeminate; it is an important distinction. He is open-hearted and sincere. He believes a non-hierarchical approach to offenders and an empathetic understanding of their past is the key to solving the mystery of their behavior. When his girlfriend criticizes him for not knowing sociological theory on criminal behavior, he asks her for a reading list and audits college courses. His body language is remarkably responsive. Across the table from a conversant, he leans forward expectantly, leaving his arms uncrossed and open. In a car or a plane seat, he turns his whole body to engage the other in conversation.
But then, in his conversations with the serial killers, he starts to change. It begins as performance. He wants the serial killer Ed Kemper, who decapitated his own mother and had sex with her head, to open up and reveal his darkest thoughts about women as a way of understanding where the hatred and targeting of women came from. And for the first time on the show, he “tries on” masculinity. He takes a traditional masculine conversational pose, leaning far back in his chair, addressing the space around Kemper rather than him directly. The only gesture he makes is to point aggressively or saw the air as he brags about his girlfriend’s sexual prowess. The braggadocio act works, and suddenly, by showing the serial killers he, too, thinks of women as just meat, just pieces of ass, they will let down their guards and reveal all to him.
But the contagion spreads. What starts as a routine starts to become Holden’s character. His curiosity about the serial killers becomes something akin to a fandom, at one point he asks his partner if it’s too much to get the murderer’s autograph. His body language mimics that of the killers, physically sprawling where it used to be compact, emotionally closed off where it used to be open. And after hearing stories of victimhood, all of these killers justifying their actions because of abusive mothers and rejecting women, Holden starts to respond to the women in his life differently. He sees his girlfriend’s work as distracting her from his needs, he shows up unannounced and disrespects her boundaries, he becomes increasingly frustrated with her independence, and when she disagrees with him he accuses her of being a bad girlfriend. Soon he is falsifying evidence and manipulating suspects because it works, no matter the consequences. When an internal investigation into his methods begins, he walks out of an interview saying, “The only mistake I made was ever doubting myself,” a line that could come out of any Michael Douglas character ever created.
It is a moment recognizable as audience bait. Yes, we are supposed to cheer for this renegade, this rule-breaker who gets results. We are supposed to get a thrill at his standing up to authority, forgetting for a moment that he essentially is the authority. And a lesser show, a show less sure of what it was doing, perhaps a show like Breaking Bad, would have left it at that, with the character maybe out of a job and a girlfriend, but still redeemed as a real man in our eyes.
Instead, the season ends with Holden making a visit to Ed Kemper, that killer of women and original source of infection. They are left face to face, without the protection of a guard or a restraint, one dark heart reflecting another. Kemper seems to recognize something in Holden and so rather than attacking him, goes in for an embrace. Holden, perhaps seeing this abyss for what it is for the first time, dissolves into a state of full collapse, sobbing and unable to stand or breathe. And that is where the show leaves him.
Mindhunter is about the movement of the serial killer from our culture to our imaginations.
It would be easy to see the show as Fincher doing Fincher pastiche. We take the mustaches and the outfits from Zodiac, the serial killer from Se7en, the arrogant rule-breaker from House of Cards, the path toward destructive masculinity in Fight Club, the fast-talking, brainy brunette from Social Network—and we raise the stakes. But there is something distinctly interesting about Holden and his journey toward toxic masculinity that feels entirely new and, not to overstate things, kind of important. And while the reception to the show thus far has been mostly positive, much of the focus has been on the serial killers profiled, still treating them as if they were glamorous or interesting, with multiple blog posts on Vulture, Vanity Fair, and others filling out the histories of the men slenderly portrayed on screen, rather than the complex gender dynamics going on throughout. Which is why there are now Ed Kemper explainers all over the internet. The number of serial killers in America has been rapidly dropping since 2000, but the number of serial killers in our TV shows, movies, and especially podcasts is constantly growing.
Fincher has never been much interested in violence for its own sake. Se7en is remarkable mostly for its restraint. Murders happen off screen, corpses are shown only in brief glimpses, and for the “lust” murder he refuses to show the female victim’s body at all—cheaper directors would have loved to splay out a dead woman in lingerie and heels, and artfully paint a pool of blood coming from between her legs. Still, Fincher’s rare violent set pieces—the stabbing murder in Zodiac and the rape in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—are not thrilling or exciting, they are genuinely horrifying and disturbing. Fincher has always been more interested in the aftereffects than the violence, in those drawn in by the charisma of the serial killer than the serial killer himself. He’s interested in how contagion spreads rather than in the source of the virus, how a group of marginalized men living in a meaningless consumerist culture become a fascist gang in Fight Club, how cops and journalists can become obsessed with an unsolved crime until their lives disintegrate into shambles in Zodiac.
And most of his audience will probably miss the point again, thinking this is a television show about the emergence of the serial killer into our culture rather than about the movement of the serial killer from our culture to our imaginations. Like Holden in front of Kemper, many might be so dazzled that they start rehearsing a part that they then can’t shake off. We still get regular “How to get a body like Brad Pitt in Fight Club” articles, and many who saw that film left the theater thinking, Let’s start a fight club of our very own. It might simply be that masculinity is so rarely critiqued intelligently and thoroughly that we don’t recognize it when we see it. Or maybe the contagion is so virulent that even the treatment causes it to spread.