Jackass: Meaningless Bravery, by Brendan O’Malley

I have been wanting to share this for some time. If you read me, then you know I posted my brother’s music writing, periodically, over 2019 and 2020. My brother had a blog, years ago, and he’s such a good writer: I wanted to resurrect those old pieces to share with people. First, I posted his 50 Best Albums list, one by one. You can read the full archive of Bren’s music writing here. Bren didn’t just write about music. He wrote about books, too. And then this. His essay on the Jackass franchise, which I maintain is one of the best and most insightful pieces written about Jackass (and that’s a very crowded field. The Jackass shenanigans has a way of encouraging writers to go deep, because you HAVE to in order to explain the cumulative stealth profundity this wacko franchise expresses). So many people judge the surface, so many people judge the films without even seeing them. Example: my friend Mitchell – who is gay, committed to justice, infuriated at the oppression of LGBTQ people, vocal about it, politically active, socially conscious – okay, you got all that? – he adores the Jackass movies, and he once e posted about it on Facebook, and someone commented beneath: “These films are the epitome of toxic masculinity. I’m really dismayed to hear you endorse that.” It took one exchange to reveal this woman had not seen any of them. Mitchell said, “These films are the OPPOSITE of toxic masculinity.” Literally the exact opposite. There’s an inherent almost brain-washed distrust of straight goofball jock men, and … straight goofball men are my particular milieu. They are my family members. They are, historically, my boyfriends. I know guys like this. They are kind, and generous, and crazy-funny. They will do anything for their friends and family. They are self-deprecating. They aren’t misogynistic. (I’ve said it before 100s of times: I have experienced more blatant misogyny and condescension from beta-nerd-boys than swaggering goofball alphas. At least the swaggering goofball alphas LIKE women. Beta-nerds need to check themselves and clean up their own particular house before sniffing dismissively at “jocks”. Making generalizations about guys like this is just as lazy as making generalizations about any other group. So you had a bad experience with a jock football player in high school. Get over it. They’re not all like that. People are specific. Bullies exist in every group of people. Bullying is a human thing. No one group owns it. Stop generalizing. Jackass is, for sure, not for everyone. But if you judge without having seen, then you need to ask yourself why. I am not perfect and I often pre-judge things before I’ve even seen them. This is something I have to keep an eye on, and course-correct if I go down that path. It’s a constant thing. It requires vigilance, particularly in my line of work. You have to be open, you have to admit when you were wrong, you have to be available to be swayed. You have to be susceptible. Not blindly loyal. No. That’s its own kind of trap. If I already know what you will like and not like and why – and you fulfill those expectations with every single piece you write – I probably won’t be reading you for long. (Unless you are a world-class writer, and very few people are.) I prefer reading people who are capable of being surprised. I prefer reading people where I have NO IDEA going in what they will like and not like – because they aren’t trying to prop up some ideological point with every piece they write. One of my favorite experiences as a reader is going into a piece by a writer I like, assuming I know what they’re going to say, only to find I’ve been totally wrong. Another favorite experience is discovering something new, because I’ve followed the advice of a writer I admire. Avoid buzzwords like “toxic masculinity”. Toxic masculinity is toxic … if it’s toxic. Travis Bickle is toxic. Okay? A bunch of goofballs skateboarding on ramps held up by human bodies, and cheering when the stunt is accomplished, or giving each other wedgies or roaring with laughter when someone falls on their face, is not toxic. It’s so good-hearted, it’s not mean-spirited, there’s ZERO bullying. They’re all consenting. No one is coerced. Everyone is the butt of every joke. Nobody’s singled out. No one is mean. I repeat: No one is mean. They may be reckless and unhinged, but they are not mean.

This is why I say Jackass is a Utopia. We all generalize, and it is something to be aware of and do our best to combat. This combat is FUN, because it means you are OPEN to the fact that you might be missing something. At this point, I don’t think Jackass needs defending. It’s not some NICHE taste. These movies regularly show up on Top 10 lists written by critics. And maybe, instead of scoffing before seeing, you should experience these films for yourself. They’re probably not what you think.

My brother is very honest about how he pre-judged before seeing. He was turned off by the commercials. And then … he watched. I love this essay so much so I am happy to share it.

Jackass 3: Meaningless Bravery, by Brendan O’Malley

I once saw a portion of a documentary about a South American tribe. Part of their ritual passage to adulthood involved elaborate stunts designed to bring the youth face to face with fear. They stood on top of tree trunks that had been shorn of all branches. The trunks were held in place by guide wire. Which were then removed. The teen had to scramble to hold onto the falling trunk. The philosophy behind it was to prepare the teen for the perils of adulthood and hunting.

I studiously avoided “Jackass” while it was on television and by the time they’d transitioned into movie theaters I was full-on into parenting and was only seeing Pixar films.

Oh, I’d seen snippets here and there and knew who all the reprobates were but I’d not been IMMERSED.

My outlook on them, I’ll admit, was shaped in large part by the traditional media response. They were degenerates, this was everything that was wrong with America, these no-talent attention-whores needed to be stopped.

I was reminded of how much heat skateboarders took when that craze started hitting the streets. Apparently it was okay to join a group of kids and pursue an activity but going out and doing it ON YOUR OWN IN PUBLIC was beyond the pale.

So I am a bit ashamed of the knee-jerk conservatism that I was espousing.

Imagine my surprise when I finally watched the movie “Jackass”. Melody was bartending and I was in NYC for a few days visiting. The bar had a downstairs private room with a TV and VCR. Yes, vcr. The only tape? “Jackass”.

I figured I should watch this piece of trash. An hour and a half later I was exhausted from crying and laughing and recoiling in horror. They changed my mind entirely that night.

Human beings love to witness acts of bravery. We re-tell them, we fictionalize them, we invent them in order to shine a spotlight on the best facet of human behavior. Our willingness to ignore peril if need be.

The image of the firefighter rushing into a burning building is the perfect example. An act like that reassures us that we are NOT simply beasts, that we have a higher level of morality, that we can operate heroically INSIDE of fear. In fact, this might be one of our defining characteristics. Animals do amazing things in response to danger but they don’t have the same knowledge of mortality that we do.

I find there to be a deep beautiful philosophy at work in the “Jackass” catalog. And I am one-hundred-percent serious.

They isolate that characteristic – the human ability to face grave danger with aplomb and they REMOVE THE CONTEXT FROM IT. I find this to be endlessly fascinating.

In “Jackass 3”, Johnny Knoxville does a stunt called “Invisible Man” in which he is painted to fit perfectly into a mural of a rainbow spread across a field with a tree in it. Knoxville stands in front of the mural and the camera is lined up so that he essentially disappears.

A bull is then let loose into the corral. The hope is that he will be “invisible”. But of course, the bull isn’t perfectly lined up like the camera. Bulls can’t see color. Knoxville is a sitting duck. He successfully evades a goring but then the bull sneaks around the back of the mural and roars out at Knoxville. He leaps to avoid the bull but the bull rams his legs, sending Knoxville head over heels into the mud, receiving a nice kick in the head for his trouble.

As Knoxville is standing there and hoping against hope that the bull will not see him, his fear is palpable. The charming thing about all of the “Jackass” crew is that they allow us to see their fear. They don’t hide it with false bravado like so many of the youtube pretenders who intentionally hurt themselves for attention.

And that is why I can occasionally find myself very moved while watching instead of just horrified or grossed-out. It is as if they are showing us that we don’t have to be so afraid of pain, that we are stronger than we think.

If you transplant these staged stunts into real life, a whole layer of respect and admiration would come into play. A man was inadvertently left in a corral and withstood a brutal bull charge! The strength! Two members of a marching band were attacked by a ram! The trumpet player distracted the ram from the tuba player who was almost unconscious on the ground!

Meaningless bravery.

And total acceptance of your friends. There is a running gag in “Jackass 3” called “Rocky” in which Bam Margera sneaks up on someone from behind. He throws water at one side of their face to distract them and punches them from the other with a boxing glove.

Do fights ensue? No! The person rolls around on the ground in pain for a while and then they laugh and hug.

I know it sounds stupid but for me, it accentuates how capable we are of forgiveness, how willing we are as human beings to incorporate flaws into our relationships. The acceptance of these ambushes is very telling.

My favorite portion of “Jackass 3” comes when we see Ryan Dunn sitting in a comfy leather chair in a re-enactment of the famous speaker ad. He seems to be in a comfortable living room. The air from the speaker becomes so intense that he is actually blown from the chair. We then see that the “speaker noise” is being generated by the tail end of a jet airplane which is about 30 feet from Dunn.

He is blown across the airfield. He attempts to get up. He is blown further back. He is blown along the ground for several yards. He struggles to position himself so that he can even attempt to stand up. After a few agonizing moments he achieves upright status. But it is clearly taking every ounce of his will to do so.

After that massive effort to stand up, what does he do?

He jumps into the air so that he will be hurled backwards again. Because he knows it will make his friends laugh. What I was left with was the image of a small creature buffeted about by a force impossibly greater than its own. And that creature didn’t crawl away in disgrace. He got up time and again to continue to face it. And tried to get a laugh doing it.

Consider me a jackass.

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