Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The Iron Claw of Trauma and Toxic Masculinity and Going Beyond the Family Cult

Still from the movie with wrestling brothers Von Erich on a sports show
It is rather strange that someone who does not like wrestling or fighting should enjoy movies about them. Oddly enough, I am not referring to David Fincher's Fight Club, a classic for many, a masterpiece for others but which failed to impress me, and I thought that, at least in some ways, it contributed to instead of being critical of toxic masculinity. Yet, when it comes to family drama/trauma, two of the best movies out there are Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior and Sean Durkin’s The Iron Claw. Both films tackle fighting and competing in the ring, and both have endings that broke my heart and made me cry.

As usual, there will be spoilers galore and then some, so proceed with caution; it is best to have already watched the movies and trust me they are worth your time. While Warrior focuses on mixed martial arts, a sport that I find violent and abhorrent, The Iron Claw tackles wrestling, and yet interestingly, both are driven by dysfunctional families with flawed fathers at the helm. While in the former, the father is an alcoholic former boxer, played stunningly by Nick Nolte, who fails to hold the family together, in the latter, the father is an imposing figure that demands unconditional loyalty and unwavering obedience and respect from all its members.

While Warrior focuses more on the sibling rivalry between two rather different feuding brothers, the impetuous and rebellious Tommy (Tom Hardy) versus the family man Brendan (Joel Edgerton), in The Iron Claw, it is the unity and the cultlike adoration of the father that is its focal point. What moves us more is the fact that the latter is based on a true story and the various devastating and heartbreaking tragedies are not just a figment of the imagination but are grounded in real-life flesh-and-blood people and experiences. While Warrior moves us, The Iron Claw cuts deep.

Fritz Von Erich is the glue that not only holds the family together, but he is also the existential driving force of every individual within this circle. He projects his own dreams and failures onto his family. Essentially, he wants each of his sons to succeed where he personally failed, namely, to make themselves a name in the field of wrestling. The Iron Claw is his signature move and his legacy, but it is also symbolic of the tight grip he has on all his sons and his wife.

Not only are they to be blindly obedient to his wishes regardless of their own desires and passions, but they must be disciplined and hard-working throughout. There is no room for individuality or finding your own talents or even creating your own life; they are supposed to do as he says without doubts or hesitation. The ideology or reasoning is that the world out there is not a safe nor a fair place; yet there are two ways to protect oneself and to reach success: one, it is important to be physically and mentally strong to thwart opposition and challenges, and two, the family must remain united and support each other to the max.

The Von Erich family is a brand and a cult-like entity. Interestingly, one of filmmaker Sean Durkin’s previous movies Martha Marcy May Marlene dealt with the repercussions of identity and trauma after having been in an abusive religious cult. The gospel in this case are the sayings and proclamations of the father and the ring is the place where salvation can be attained. The tenet is masculinity in its rawest and most muscular form, men who fight and bully themselves to the top with an iron will and with no room for emotions or vulnerability. When in pain, be it physical or emotional, one must man up and suck it up as Kevin (a brilliant Zac Efron) is painfully reminded of throughout the film.

Not all the sons commit to this ideology because they believe in it but all of them accept and embrace it because they want to impress their father and yearn for his love and respect. In the case of Mike, the youngest of the clan, he would much rather be a musician, and yet, he is discouraged from doing so and is thrown into the ring against his will. Each of them suffers the consequences and breaks down from the physical and emotional tolls, and sadly, only one of them manages to eventually stand up against the abusive father and break away from this cycle of trauma.

To rationalize the amount of tremendous suffering they must go through as a family unit, they catch and hold on to the belief that the family is cursed. At first glance, it may look like it but when we look and dig deeper, we see that the curse is trauma itself, a trauma that is propagated by false and unhealthy beliefs and lifestyles. Everything becomes centered on wrestling with the coveted belt as the Holy Grail, the same way others may blindly and unquestionably worship religion, money, or political ideologies to reach their aims and purposes. Neither of them is bad per se, but when it becomes an obsession and a compulsion at the expense of life itself, then it poses a serious problem.

So much so that two of the Von Erich brothers (three in real life!) commit suicide. They are unable to continue living under the tyranny of such an utterly restrictive, bleak, joyless, and pointless world. Slowly, the family unit becomes more and more disentangled and fragmented, and only Kevin is left at the end. He who had dedicated all his life to the support and wellbeing of his brothers whom he loved dearly and whole-heartedly was on his own now with all his brothers having passed away.

Yet, fortunately, he manages to break away from this vicious cycle and from the grip and power of his father. Anyone who has not experienced abusive relationships or a dysfunctional family of that ilk may criticize its members for staying and holding on against rhyme and reason. But it is much easier said than done.

Your family is the starting point of life. Views and values are shaped by its members, and they become embedded and embodied by each person. As you take them at face value and for the God-given truth, it is very hard, but not impossible, to shake it off and look beyond it. Cults tap into that mindset and often claim to be your ersatz family to better control your mind and behavior while they restrict the contact with others who are not likeminded. This is because often a close third-party outsider could serve as a sounding board and can encourage one to move away from the abusive and toxic environment.

In this case, a lot of credit must go to Kevin’s wife Pam (Lily James) as presented in the movie. She is the very opposite of toxic masculinity and unlike Kevin’s subdued and submissive mother Doris (Maura Tierney), she does not go along with it, nor accept or tolerate it. She is a strong, determined, and independent woman who knows from the get-go what she wants. This becomes apparent in the first meeting of the two. Like other fans, she asks Kevin for his autograph, but then, she basically makes him ask her out. Kevin is shy and has had little contact or experience with women (he is a virgin), but none of this poses a problem here as she makes up for all that and rectifies the situation.

But it is not just this determined quality that makes her stand out; it is also and further bolstered by her empathy. She understands and supports him. On their first date, after he talks about the pain of losing his elder brother (yes another one!) at a young age, she hugs him and gives him what his mother is unable or unwilling to provide him with, emotional support.

At the same time, he supports her and her ideas and lifestyle. She bluntly tells him on that first date that she wants to have children but that she also wants to work as a vet, and if he would be all right with all that. He does not hesitate and accepts. We can see that the toxic masculinity is not ingrained in him; it is just used as a means or a tool to please and wring and wrestle love and respect from his father.

When Kevin finally goes against the will of his father by not only giving up on wrestling but also selling the company, he ends up becoming a stay-home Dad. He seems much happier in this role and embodies this lifestyle and in a sense also transmits it to his two boys. The trauma bolstered and fueled by toxic masculinity has come to an end. He can tune into and be himself with a healthy sense of being male albeit with muscles and a bad haircut.

And then, there is the unforgettable and heartbreaking ending as he is watching his kids. They are engaged in playing sports, and he suddenly begins to cry. His sons immediately come to his side. For the first time, Kevin processes his grief and immense pain and tremendous loss. He says that he used to be a brother and that was his raison d’ĂȘtre before having his own family. In an impulsive act and show of beautiful empathy, his sons tell him that they could be his brothers if he wants.

And that makes him (and us!) cry even more. When Kevin apologizes for crying, as it is not a masculine thing to do, the kids, i.e. the new generation, tell him that it is in fact quite a natural thing to express one’s emotions and that there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. And they are right, and with them all, we can cry freely regardless of age and gender, and be free to be ourselves while loosening the iron grip and bolts of toxic masculinity and letting it rest in peace.


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