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“I’m Completely Ashamed of Myself”: Sexuality, Masculinity, and Male Ritual Bonding in MTV’s Jackass

Jackass: Number Two, the most recent big screen Jackass release, begins with the first of only two high quality, expensive scenes in the entire film.  The cast appears from a cloud of smoke and dust, running in slow motion through what looks like a traditional suburban neighborhood, closely followed by a stampeding herd of bulls.  After a few minutes of mayhem, Johnny Knoxville delivers his trademark line “I’m Johnny Knoxville, and welcome to Jackass” and is then thrown through a large plate glass window by a bull.

The scene directly following this flashy introduction shows the cast crowded into a hotel room preparing to shoot a stunt they call “the puppet show.”  Johnny Knoxville is the “puppet master”, and the “puppet” is Chris Pontius’s penis, clothed to look like a cartoon mouse.  Pontius inserts his “mouse” into an opening in the side of a cage containing a live snake, and Knoxville attempts to attract the snake by jiggling a string attached to the “mouse”.  Predictably, the stunt ends poorly for the “mouse”.  These two scenes are emblematic of everything Jackass is about: male bodies, sexuality, dangerous stunts, and alternating regard and disregard of traditional constructions of masculinity.

The themes of Jackass are anything but new.  It’s a combination of Mikhail Bahktin’s carnivalesque and traditional male games and bonding rituals.  There’s an emphasis on extreme body sizes, scatology, genitalia, and alternative sexual practices.  Additionally, the show revolves around competition and mock-fighting.

One main factors of Jackass is the relationship between the cast members.  Every new release of Jackass demonstrates a closer bond throughout the cast, and it has even extended to include members of the camera crew and production staff.  However, the relationship between the guys is not what most people would imagine.  There is a lot of teasing and ribbing directed at one another in the cast, but there is also a lot of hitting, burning, cutting other people’s hair, and a variety of other pranks that many people wouldn’t pull on their worst enemy.  There is also a lot of activity that is sexual in nature between the guys.  So what is so attractive about the camaraderie amongst the cast?  How do the male relationships relate to traditional construction of masculinity?  Who is watching Jackass and why do they watch it?

To help answer some of these questions, I conducted some field research to look at the ways both sexuality and masculinity are represented in Jackass.  I held two viewings of Jackass: Number Two.  The first viewing was nine men between the ages of 18-30, and the second was seven women between the ages of 17-30.  From this research I hoped to gain some perspective on how the intended audiences were receiving the representations of masculinity in the film.

Based on ratings of the film on a scale of one to ten that I collected, the men and women seemed to enjoy the film equally.  The averaged rating from the men was 8.1, and the women’s was 7.5.  Clearly, whether or not men and women are extracting the same meanings from Jackass, those meanings aren’t affecting their opinion of the show.

The viewer’s reactions to the film were generally similar, but there were places where there was a marked difference in response from the two groups.  The best example of this is a scene in which the cast is at a ranch, watching Johnny Knoxville harvest semen from a horse.  Toward the end of the scene cast member Chris Pontius drinks the horse semen.  The women reacted with disgusted laughter and some giggling, but the men were almost silent.  More than seeming un-amused, most of them seemed genuinely uncomfortable.

From a heteronormative perspective, I would venture that this is because a male drinking semen is indicative of homosexual activity.  The guys may have been uncomfortable because they didn’t want to appear overly comfortable with the idea of drinking semen.  As far as I could tell, all the men at this viewing were heterosexual, but whether or not this is true, there is societal pressure to conform to standard concepts of masculinity, and one of those concepts is heterosexuality.

The girls, on the other hand, had less to lose by laughing at this scene because of the preexisting notion that women are supposed to be male sexual receptacles.  Traditionally, men are seen as the penetrater, or active participant in a heterosexual sexual encounter, but in this case, Chris Pontius is assuming the role of the penetrated. In fact, part of the humor of this scene for the girls could be related to the reversal of traditional sexual roles.

It’s also important to note, however, that this particular scene and the viewers reactions to it might be reinforcing the idea that women’s attributes or typical roles are less valued than that of men.  The male viewers are arguably uncomfortable at the idea of a man in a typically feminine role, and the female viewers are arguably finding humor in this scene because they’re seeing a man fulfill the role they are generally expected to fulfill (and he’s really not enjoying it).  This scene is only “funny” because of the role reversal, but the role reversal is “funny” because it’s showing a member of a dominant group participating in an act associated with a subordinate group.  A role reversal of a similar nature would be received very differently if it depicted young women pressuring one another to drink vaginal secretions.

After each viewing I requested that my participants fill out questionnaires about their film viewing experience.  Specifically, the questionnaires began by asking about which characters were the most feminine and which were the most masculine.  The men and women actually picked the same cast members for each category (by majority).  Johnny Knoxville (the “star”) was considered the most masculine, and Bam Margera was considered the most effeminate.  Knoxville is the primary ringleader who is usually seen trying to convince the other guys to participate in stunts that most people would never consider.  Bam Margera is the only cast member to cry in the film, and there is also an lengthy scene revolving around Bam’s fear of snakes.  While the seventeen people I consulted don’t speak for the entire population, the responses to the questions of masculinity and femininity seemed to be based on traditional gender constructs (men don’t cry, men are brave, men have adventures, etc.).

The most interesting information I gathered from this question was that a couple of the women I consulted voted for April Margera (Bam’s mom) as the most effeminate cast member.  None of the guys even seemed to consider April a cast member, and generally were reluctant to answer the question.  In fact, only five of the nine men actually responded.  “James McCovey”, a heterosexual 21 year old Caucasian student from the University of Oregon wrote in response to this question “I wouldn’t label any of the cast members effeminate.  In fact, they went to extreme measures not to seem effeminate”.

The Hypermasculinity Index, developed by Mosher and Sirkin, states that there are three qualities central to the definition of hypermasculinity; “(1) callused sex attitudes, (2) danger as exciting, and (3) violence as manly” (Scharrer 160).  All three of those qualities are also central to Jackass as well, but the “callused sex attitudes” include sexual behavior between men.  Since homosexuality is not traditionally associated with masculinity, Jackass is complicating the idea of hypermasculinity by incorporating homosexuality into the masculine sphere.  Despite some content in the series that could be interpreted as devaluing homosexuality, cast member Steve-O said to http://www.craveonline.com, “We’re not about being homosexual; we’re just really focused on trying to rid the world of homophobia.”

When I asked the field research participants whether or not there should be more women in Jackass, only two of the women interviewed responded “yes”.  19 year old heterosexual Caucasian University of Oregon student, “Gwen”, summed up the general opinion of the women who answered “no” by saying “…it’s funny to watch the boys interact.  A girl in the show would ruin the dynamic.”  The men seemed more open to the idea of women on the Jackass cast.  “Jason”, a heterosexual 21 year old American English instructor who lives in Italy, was the only male who objected to the idea, stating “Women would never do these things.”  The other men, whose responses were split down the middle between “yes” and “maybe”, seemed open to more women in Jackass, but most added a disclaimer to their answer.  James McCovey expressed the general attitude of the guys by saying “It doesn’t seem like something most females would be willing to do…If the Jackass team found a woman as crazy as them, though, I think it could work.”

The responses from the people interviewed are very interesting in light of Sean Brayton assertions in his article “MTV’s Jackass: Transgression, Abjection, and the Economy of White Masculinity”.  According to Brayton, Jackass is an example of “white male backlash”.  That is, the self-injuring behavior that is so common in Jackass is a means of reaffirming self-worth for white men who feel devalued due to changing social and political values.  The role of the white male has been called into question through affirmative action and women’s rights, so that white men now assume a “marginalized” position in society.  According to Brayton, Jackass embraces this position by glorifying self-harming and reckless behavior.

This argument would explain why the women were more opposed to the idea of women on the Jackass cast than the men.  The guys interviewed generally agreed that any women joining the Jackass cast would have to fully embrace the behavior and attitude that the current cast embodies.  If what Brayton suggests is true, adding women to the cast would mean participating in an intentional victimization of oneself.  If Jackass is embracing marginalization, it’s no wonder that most women would not want to participate considering the history of female marginalization.

It also seems likely that the all-male cast of Jackass is a means of protecting the male ritual bonding imbedded in the show.  In “Stand By Your Man: Homosociality, Work Groups, and Men’s Perception of Difference”, Wharton and Bird suggest that because white men benefit the most from the current gender constructions at work in society, they have the most to lose by the deconstruction of gender.  While a lot of Jackass seems childish or pointless, a part of what it does is reinforce the typical role and performance of masculinity.  Allowing women in to this demonstration of male behavior would undermine the gender constructions the shoe reinforces.

The only woman who does continually “participate” in Jackass is Bam’s mother April “Ape” Margera.  April seems to fulfill the role of “house mother” for the guys, who in return all seem to adore her.  However, instead of being an active contributor, her presence in the TV series and films is about her reaction to Bam’s injuries or to pranks being played on her.  Bam in particular goes out of his way to tell or show April the horrific things they have planned for Jackass, just to watch her reaction.  For example, in Jackass 2.5 (a third film comprised of skits and interviews that didn’t make it into the second movie), Bam calls April from another state, just to let her know that he plans on attempting to fly a kite attached to a sex toy in his rectum.

Since Jackass is such a boy’s club, it’s an interesting example of male relationships.  In a film review for Jackass: Number Two on movie website http://www.pajiba.com, Dustin Rowles expresses the idea that the guy’s relationships are really the result of repressed male homosexuality.  According to Rowles, “…this group of men still must play with poisonous snakes in lieu of one another’s sexual members or, worse still, substitute the goring of a bull’s horn for the feel of a man.”  Whether or not Rowles is being completely serious in this statement, he clearly interprets the relationship between the guys as homosexual.  However, when I asked the participants of my field research about the demonstration of male relationships in this film, most responded that it is generally accurate, but greatly exaggerated.

Jay Mechling’s ideas about male bonding rituals in the Boy Scouts seem to reinforce the field research participants’ interpretation of the male relationships more than that of Dustin Rowles.  Mechling states that “…peer culture makes it clear that males are to touch each other only in aggressive and, more commonly, in stylized, mock aggressive ways” (Mechling 80).  He goes on to explain how important “play fighting” is for males to express closeness with other males in a society that is apprehensive about men touching men.

Jackass is a great example of Mechling’s observations.  In the commentary and special features for Jackass: Number Two, several cast members describe the “camaraderie” they experienced during the filming of the first scene in the movie.  The special features also make it clear that the pranks that make it in to the movie are not the only pranks happening on the set.  In fact, many of the pranks played off camera are much more extreme than the pranks in the show and films themselves.  For example, Johnny Knoxville and producer Jeff Tremaine describe a night when Knoxville attempted to ejaculate on Tremaine, and they both discuss the frequency of cast members masturbating in one another’s presence.  The cast is constantly teasing and pranking one another off camera as well, which enforces Mechling’s notion of male bonding through this kind of rough play.

A lot of the “rough play” in Jackass is reminiscent of traditional men’s games, usually with a more dangerous or painful twist.  For example, in season one of Jackass the guys play a game they call “nut ball”, that consists of the guys sitting in circle, taking turns throwing rubber balls at one another’s crotches.  Knoxville introduces the game by describing how he used to play it with his friends growing up (although for Jackass, the game escalates to throwing a large dog bone at one another’s crotches).

The sexual nature of many of the games and stunts may seem as though they are contrary to Mechling’s ideas, but Tok Thompson’s article “Sexual Games of the American Male Child” suggests that sexuality plays a large part of many male games.  Many of the games Thompson describes involve the loser of the game ingesting semen, or being “tricked” into homoerotic behavior.  However, Thompson is careful to point out that while sexual elements of male games may seem like what Dundes calls “ritualized homosexuality”, the competitive nature of the games themselves is more central to the behavior than any actual sexual desire (Thompson 14).  That is, while the games are sexual, they serve to establish male sexual roles in a liminal (and therefore safer) space, rather than to allow an opportunity for male homosexual activity.

It may seem as though this doesn’t apply to Jackass, since the cast members are not children (some of them have children of their own), and have all probably established their own sexual roles.  However, the carnivalesque tradition, as well as Thompson’s article, stresses the role of taboos in this kind of behavior.  Jackass embraces taboos as a part of its ideology, and age-inappropriate behavior is a common theme.

The final scene of Jackass:Number Two is the second of only two expensive productions in the film.  The cast (backed by at least a hundred professional dancers and singers), performs “The Best of Times”, from the first gay-themed musical on Broadway, Le Cage aux Folles by Jerry Herman.  As they perform, each guy also participates in some potentially painful, and definitely dangerous, stunt.  This is Jackass in a nutshell.

Whether or not Jackass is making any progress in reinforcing constructions of masculinity, changing constructions of masculinity, or as Steve-O says, ridding the world of homophobia, it’s attracting an audience.  As the guys get older and the shock value of the show wears off, it will be interesting to see what becomes of Jackass and its cast.  In the words of Jerry Herman—“The best of times is now/ as for tomorrow well, who knows.”

Works Cited

Brayton, Sean.  “MTV’s Jackass:  Transgression, Abjection, and the Economy of White Masculinity.”  OneSearch.  University of Oregon Knight Lib.  Eugene, OR.  28 November 2008.

Childress, Ahmad T.  “Steve-O Talks to CraveOnline.”  CraveOnline.com.  21 September 2006. <http://www.craveonline.com/articles/filmtv/04646819/steveo_talks_to_craveonline.html>      1 December 2008.

Dundes, Alan.  “Into the Endzone for a Touchdown:  A Psychoanalytic Consideration of American Football.”  Interpreting Folklore.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

Mechling, Jay.  On My Honor: Boyscouts and the Making of American Youth.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Scharrer, Erica.  “Men, Muscles, and Machismo:  The Relationship Between Television Violence Exposure and Aggression and Hostility in the Presence of Hypermasculinity.”  OneSearch.  University of Oregon Knight Lib.  Eugene, OR.  28 November 2008.

Thompson, Tok.  “Reports from the Archives:  Sexual Games of the American Male Child.”  Midwestern Folklore.  2000.

Wharton, Amy, Sharon Bird.  “Stand by Your Man: Homosociality, Work Groups, and Men’s Perceptions of Difference.”  Masculinities in Organizations.  Ed.  Cliff Cheng.  California: SAGE Publications, 1996.  97-114

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