getting bullied by his brother in law

There’s a common trope that really irritates me of the put-upon everyman who goes on to reclaim his masculinity through violence. It seems to be especially common at the beginning of movies and TV where the main character is going to do some heinous shit later so the writers want to grab our sympathy up front.

Walter White at the beginning of Breaking Bad is a perfect example: he teaches in a school where the kids don’t respect him, he works at a car wash where the boss doesn’t respect him, his wife is friendly in a perfunctory way and doesn’t make him the center of her life, and his brother-in-law is more successful and doesn’t respect him. Oh and he gets cancer, because the world hates him too.

Lester Nygaard at the beginning of Fargo has a similar thing going on: he is an insurance salesman who cannot convince customers, his younger brother is far more successful, taller, and doesn’t respect him (“I tell people you’re dead”), his high-school bully is more successful in life and still bullies him, and his wife finds him a failure of a man and doesn’t look at him while they have sex so she can imagine more successful men. Ouch.

Anyway, the frustrating part is that some of this really does deserve sympathy! People can suffer from abusive bosses and abusive partners and people want and need to feel valued by others around them. If ideals of masculinity have made these men feel even more like failures then that’s sad too, and it would be so heart-warming to see them react in productive ways to this challenge, for example by seeking to build strong relationships with other men, find meaning in non-work activities, and cultivate a better family life that isn’t just founded on them being a financial provider.

But they don’t of course, they go on to kill a bunch of people and indulge in violent movie heroics ranging from morally questionable to morally abhorrent which their initial suffering is meant to justify or at least partially explain.

It’s okay to tell stories about bad people, or tragic stories about people in difficult situations or people who make the wrong choices, but so many uses of this trope just end up reinforcing the idea that no really if your life sucks you have to react with violence to fix it that is literally the only way and I strongly dislike it.