Spoiler warning: The following article contains spoilers for The Art of Self Defense, which is currently in theaters. We recommend seeing the movie before reading, but as always, the choice is yours.
In Fred Simmons’ dojo, you adhere to the five universal tenets of taekwondo: courtesy, self-control, perseverance, integrity, and an indomitable spirit. Fred Simmons tries to uphold these tenets to the best of his ability, through what he believes are acts of honor, respect, and standing up for oneself.
This includes, but is not limited to: beating up a small child whom he believes is the son of the man his wife cheated on him with (that man is dead); calling a potential new student a “fat retard;” bringing underage kids to the hotel party of a famous martial arts actor, where they beat up his entourage while surrounded by piles of cocaine and alcohol; and taking out his dick and pissing on his adulterous wife.
Fred Simmons believes he’s adhering to his tenets of taekwondo because of the image of masculine success he’s created in his insecure, egotistical mind. Taekwondo is a band-aid for the failings in his personal life. Taekwondo creates an idealistic façade of machismo.
There are quite a few similarities between Fred Simmons (as played by Danny McBride), of Jody Hill’s 2005 martial arts comedy The Foot Fist Way, and Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg) of Riley Stearns’ The Art of Self Defense, which recently premiered at Fantasia Film Festival. Both are men who have been rendered emasculated in their personal lives and seek a way to recreate themselves anew. Casey is a shy, sensitive beta-male who was traumatized by a recent assault, looking to embrace newfound masculinity and a physical defense mechanism through the martial arts. Fred is an outwardly boorish, steadfastly arrogant loser using martial arts to mask his deep-seated insecurities and inability to garner real respect in his personal life.
Both of these characters view masculinity as a cure-all, a panacea to their perceived failure of being “real men.” Instead, their embracing of machismo is perverted, distorted – an abnormal and exaggerated twisting of masculinity that both pokes fun at real-life chauvinism and critiques its true nature. As with The Foot Fist Way, The Art of Self Defense uses martial arts as a way to expose the fragility of the male ego, the performative nature of masculinity and the pressures to be seen as dominant in a world that rewards men’s displays of arrogance as desirable confidence (as opposed to soccer player Megan Rapinoe being called an “arrogant wanker” for her showmanship upon winning the Women’s World Cup).
Fred Simmons is a self-important Taekwondo teacher, whose failing grasp on his own marriage to a wife who doesn’t respect him is partially dealt with through the world he creates in his classes. Despite the fact that he teaches mostly children and teens, it’s a space where Fred can feel in charge, in control, and revered. But one can easily discern that many of his students see right through his shell of hubris to the sad, pathetic man that exists underneath, made even clearer in his sad attempts at seducing a new female student (played by Collette Wolfe).
Fred’s close, martial arts-involved friend Mike (Jody Hill) is similar to Fred in the way he overindulges in displays of proving his own level of masculinity. Mike tries to act cool, unemotional and aloof but comes off as psychotic and antisocial. He’s a member of a band called “Sexual Warriors,” whose name and terrible attempt at heavy metal are signifiers of what Mike views as true examples of manliness. On the way to a martial arts expo with Fred and some of Fred’s students, Mike tells the two students “This trip is for men, not little boys.”
Casey Davies, on the other hand, is a timid accountant who lives alone with his beloved dachshund, only to be attacked within an inch of his life, seemingly unprovoked, one night while walking home from the grocery store. Utterly humiliated and downtrodden, Casey initially considers purchasing a firearm to protect himself but sits in on a karate class he stumbles upon in passing and decides to continue taking lessons there. But it soon becomes clear that self-defense is no longer the self-improvement that he seeks, as he begins to cling to the words and actions of his Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), who uses violence and misogyny to guide him in his teachings.
Through karate, Casey begins draping himself in the costume of toxic masculinity, gaining hubris near-parallel to Fred Simmons, as Sensei emboldens Casey’s mediocre level-up to yellow belt as if Casey is an undiscovered prodigy. Casey is encouraged to only listen to metal, discouraged from continuing to learn French, and told that everything in his life should be “as masculine as possible.” He even begins wearing his yellow belt outside of class, claiming to Sensei that he feels “less-than without it.”
A brief bit of history: while different variations of martial arts have existed across the continents, in Asian cultures where karate and Taekwondo originated, martial arts can be traced back nearly 4,000 years ago, in Chinese culture in particular. Karate, the origins of which are found in Japan, first appeared in the Okinawan Islands as a means of self-defense in the late 17th century, during a time when weaponry was banned by the samurai rulers of Japan – although a more exact evolution of karate is unknown due to a lack of written records.
Taekwondo’s roots began nearly 2,300 years ago in Korea, similarly as a way for warriors at the time to combat opposing threats in battle, while the name “Taekwondo” did not come about until 1955. Although the two forms of martial arts are indeed very similar, Taekwondo puts more of an emphasis on kicking, whereas karate focuses more heavily on hand attacks. Both are, however, linked by spirituality, with religious influences such as Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. There is a uniting sentiment in Western culture that martial arts are not only a means of self-defense but a way to gain confidence, discipline, and to balance the mind and body.
So, there’s irony present in the way these two films use martial arts as a means to expose the imbalance of the aggro, male mindset. Both Fred and Casey are two decidedly emasculated people, seeking this veneer of masculinity to act as a quick fix to their broken spirits. In a way, the martial arts are the perfect means to this elevated type of combative masculinity that the films wish to portray. It’s a way to prove these characters’ real strength as well as believe themselves to be reaching a higher emotional and mental state, much more so than the ones they’re presently in. This “galaxy brain” type of thinking breeds an unfounded arrogance, while the aggression channeled through their focus on physical prowess attempts to add a level of archetypal, patriarchal intimidation.
Author and martial artist Jesse Goldberg reflects that “If we [men] show weakness, if our physical dominance is challenged, it is a direct attack on who we are on an existential level. And because we are taught to outwardly assert our strength and toughness, especially when we perceive it to be challenged, these moments when the core of who we are is attacked result in us lashing out with violence at those around us.” He goes on to explain that “boys and men are socialized into feeling entitled to positions of dominance, and when those positions are threatened we are then licensed to use violence, which is the only tool we ever learn is acceptable (‘boys will be boys’ but ‘real men don’t cry’ and definitely don’t seek mental health care), to ‘reclaim’ that dominance we thought was ours.”
However, martial arts can be seen through a lens of both encouraging toxic masculinity and subverting it. Goldberg also speaks on how martial arts training ultimately helped allow him to tame the ego built up from the way he was socialized growing up male. “Once I got over the idea that every time I got hit, it was a personal attack on me as a ‘man,'” he writes, “I took that with me into life outside the dojo.” Critical Masculinities writes: “In martial arts class, men with (at times) greatly different conceptions of masculinity can interact in a neutral place. Thus, allowing them to broaden their understandings of the diversity of what constitutes masculine identity and form meaningful personal relationships with someone they might usually make a whole host of assumptions about.”
The fact still stands that martial arts is partially hinged on its own spectacle The focus put on one’s etiquette, technique, and the belt color-imposed hierarchies all contribute to this meticulously cultivated display. It’s a means of self-defense, yes, but in a dojo it’s not hard to see that it is less about overpowering a real enemy and more about a performance, running parallel to the performative nature of masculinity itself. In both The Foot Fist Way and The Art of Self Defense, the main character takes the performance inherent within the martial arts to heart, looking up to a more experienced male master of the martial arts who similarly utilizes his respective art to impress an audience, boost his ego, and hide from his truth much more more than anything else.
In The Foot Fist Way, Fred idolizes B-movie action star Chuck “The Truck” Wallace, an admittedly skilled but bombastic Taekwondo practitioner who is mostly a drunken scuzzball and showman. In The Art of Self Defense, Casey looks to his Sensei, a man who uses the pageantry of his karate (at one point, he somehow explains his weekend plans to his class through karate) as a cover for blackmail, extortion, and insecurity over his name being “Leslie” – a fact discovered long after he had chided Casey for the purported inherent femininity of his own name. In both films, displays of masculinity are a cover for true weakness and/or insecurity, and the lead characters act by the example of the men they worship.
While The Foot Fist Way takes place in a reality that feels a bit closer to our own, The Art of Self Defense exists somewhere in the quirky Venn diagram overlap between Wes Anderson, Richard Ayoade, and Yorgos Lanthimos, and the film uses its unique style to put the inherent ridiculousness of machismo at the forefront. It’s all taken to absurd, even surreal extremes, as characters behave in reality-violating ways, talk in uncanny speech patterns, and exist in a time period that seems to meld both past and present (Casey, at one point, photocopies pages out of a hyper-masculine “men’s” magazine). As the absurdity of Casey’s newfound masculine power is taken to one new extreme after the next, the evils of Sensei and of the toxic image he’s imprinting onto Casey become clear, almost too late for Casey to free himself of it. He’s soaked up his new life principles without much questioning because of his desperation to become more closely aligned with what the world wants of him.
Desperation – a taut, uniting thread strung between Fred Simmons and Casey Davies. Desperation to prove themselves worthy to a world that has only ever rewarded that which they seek to embody, but which dangles loosely just out of their reach. The Good Men Project, an initiative intent on challenging public perceptions of modern manhood, describes “toxic masculinity” as being defined by “violence, sex, status, and aggression.” From a young age, we teach boys to “man up,” to not cry, to be physically fit, to intake what our Western, gendered social norms have upheld as pillars of true masculinity. And we see this depicted clearly in The Foot Fist Way and The Art of Self Defense, in two men whose attempts at “manning up” are met with unfounded, undeserved praise (as with Casey), or with a pathetic and undaunted persistence that lacks almost all self-awareness (as with Fred).
But the two films end quite differently from one another. Through Fred’s determination to prove his worth, he fails over and over. He fails to impress his new female student with his unwanted romantic advances, he fails to prove himself a true Taekwondo master to his students, and he fails to win a fistfight against Chuck “The Truck” Wallace after Fred catches him sleeping with his wife. While Fred bests Chuck in a battle of board-breaking, he celebrates by literally pissing on his wife in triumph of what he believes to be proving his manhood. In the end, Fred has only exposed himself as insecure, arrogant, and uncivilized. He has shown us that his desires to conquer his perceptions of masculinity have been finally met, but all he’s done is embarrass himself in this pursuit; to other people in the film, and to the audience.
Conversely, Casey manages to free himself from the spell of machismo. Upon learning of Sensei’s true violence and means of stealing from his students, Casey challenges Sensei to a fistfight to the death. But instead of actually engaging in the unarmed battle, Casey whips a handgun out from his gi and shoots Sensei in the head, knowing one of Sensei’s rules was that guns are for the weak. Casey then happily resigns himself to teaching children’s karate classes, allowing the much more experienced female karate student, Anna (Imogen Poots), to take up the helm as the new and well-deserved Sensei. For Casey, the darker and more twisted his descent into masculinity becomes, the more he understands how it truly hurts other people as well as himself (Sensei even killed his dachshund and replaced it with a “manly” German Shepard).
The Art of Self Defense and The Foot Fist Way are two films intent on showing us what toxic masculinity does and can do to men. In Fred’s case, it has only made him worse as a person; for Casey, it has made him better in that he escaped it. Fred is relegated to a perverse caricature, a joke of a human being more concerned with upholding harmful ideals than with having any true sense of self-respect outward goodness. But for Casey, the cycle of violence, prejudice, and self-hate has been broken by that which was deemed as a weakness. For both films, machismo is made absurd and laughable. It is something which we should look at with scorn and embarrassment, and, in The Art of Self Defense, it is something that can be truly deadly, not just toxic.
Casey tells his Sensei that he wants to be what intimidates him. “I’m afraid,” he says. “I’m afraid of the dark. I’m afraid of other men. They intimidate me. I wanna be what intimidates me.” It’s a statement that embodies part of the foundation that toxic masculinity rests on. Men are intimidating because, one way or another, they were taught to be that way. They are intimidated, they become what intimidates them – wash, rinse, repeat. But it is a thin veneer that, when shattered, reveals what’s really at the heart of machismo. It’s as meaningful as Casey wearing his yellow belt with his work clothes or Chuck “The Truck” Wallace’s gratuitous martial arts demonstration. It’s a costume hiding the truth not far underneath it. It’s a gi draped over the body of a scared, small man.