When I was 16 years old, I didn’t have many friends except for the ones on my TV screen who wore baby oil and killed people. High school was a total shit show my first couple of years. I spent much of my time in self-indulgent isolation watching action movies. Typical nobody understands me fare, but I’m grateful for it now. A particular hero of mine was the incredible Jean-Claude Van Damme; his appeal seemed so obvious. When watching his movies, particularly the action masterpiece Bloodsport, I assumed the intent of these films would be apparent to anyone viewing them. The aura of homo-eroticism, a result of overly macho characters; the horribly comedic lines delivered so poorly; and most of all, the corny dialogue. This is a genre of film with no subtlety, in which the parody of masculinity is on full display, a fantasy hilarious in its impossibility. Everyone should be able to see that, right? Well, not really. I can imagine other fans who don’t. For example, one fan who is also the 45th President of the United States of America.
Donald Trump is a “man’s man.” Look at the way he talks about women, his eagerness to frequent The Howard Stern Show, and his newly rabid desire to appease the archaic conservative platform. Myself, on the other hand, I like to dance to Prince, the idea of a real life fight scares me, and I think it’s all right to cry. But Trump and I seem to agree on one reality: We think Bloodsport is great entertainment. In 1997, The New Yorker published a solo profile on Trump, describing the way he enjoys the film in his most ideal form.
“A Jean Claude Van Damme slugfest called ‘Bloodsport,’ which he pronounced ‘an incredible, fantastic movie.’ By assigning to his son the task of fast-forwarding through all the plot exposition…When a beefy bad guy who was about to squish a normal-sized good guy received a crippling blow to the scrotum, I laughed. ‘Admit it, you’re laughing!’ Trump shouted. ‘You want to write that Donald Trump was loving this ridiculous Jean Claude Van Damme movie, but are you willing to put in there that you were loving it, too?’”
Here I encounter a dilemma: Is my interpretation of my specific love for this film at all relevant or honest? Although I could argue the truth that Trump missed some of the best parts, as some of the clunkiest yet somehow most endearing lines in cinematic history exist in the exposition of the film, I am deeply uncomfortable with the similarity of our reactions. I laughed at the famous crotch shot because the glorification of violence in the film is hilariously over the top. Or am I lying to myself? Yes, it does look like JCVD’s eyes are about to pop out of his head, but I must look closer. If I am able to find violence funny, even if it’s cartoonish, am I closer to being a man like Trump? I fear the answer is “probably.”
Back in the ‘90s there was a great congressional crusade against comic books, a more recent crusade was against video games like Grand Theft Auto. These congressional events were in response to the growing concern that media has an impact on how we think, how we act, and how we feel. Whether a comic or video game will be the actual reason someone shoots up a school or radically boost the military’s budget is immaterial. The “fake news” era has further cemented that what we consume, and our reaction to it, has enough of an impact to warrant thought and discussion. It’s easy to claim Trump came out of nowhere. This permits us to sit back, scratch our heads, and wear the comfortable cloak of ignorance that lets all of us believe Trump’s presidency was unforeseeable. Bloodsport and movies like it are proof he didn’t emerge from a vacuum. These movies prove “Trump’s America” is far more all-encompassing than many might recognize.
These movies venerate the most ridiculous, harmful, and aggressive form of toxic masculinity. The definition of masculinity that a total fuckwad, like Dan Bilzerian, embodies: The man who is solely defined by bullets, bruises, bacon, and beer. For decades, pop culture has continued to traffic in stoic male protagonists who use physical confrontation as their primary means of problem-solving and create narrative situations inspiring us to cheer the deaths of others. Although Bloodsport falls into a genre I love, discovering Trump’s affinity for the theater of it makes me question if I can. I don’t understand how anyone could see these movies as anything but unintentional satire, but I should. For far too many men, as ridiculous as the protagonist of Bloodsport is, he’s still a representation of a fictitious ideal many inevitably want to emulate.
I am one of those people, even though I wish I wasn’t. I, and a great many men like me, enjoy Bloodsport because we all wish to some degree that real life would be as easy as life in an action movie. Like Trump, I possess a thin skin. Criticism can cripple me, and if Trump’s tweets are any indication, he shares this character flaw. Action films are ego-porn, where protagonists wielding a no-fucks-to-give mentality reign supreme. Sex is laid at their feet and only a couple of clever lines away. Friendships are so busy being forged by fire and brimstone there is no room for subtlety, or the difficult delicacy of emotional responsibility. They live in a world where evil is comically obvious, and the opportunity to kick its ass is ever-present. Subliminally, this speaks to the deep desires of every man. It also means that even though I want to be Mr. Rogers, there is an uglier part of me who wishes to be Dirty Harry. President Trump probably wishes he could be Ronald Reagan, but he’s too busy thinking about how to be Clint Eastwood.
Ultimately, what Bloodsport has taught me about myself, and about Trump, is that our veneration of violence is silly – because it is so weak. The real world has complexity, layers, diplomacy, compromise, and plenty of personal failure. Every punch isn’t going to land, and sometimes you yourself are the sole purveyor of the evil you wish you could blame on everybody else. There are times in my life when I thought I was the action hero, but in reality, I had been the villain. The fact that Bloodsport is beloved by a man I loathe has shown me we might have far more in common than I would have ever cared to disclose. I wish we had enough in common so Trump could realize he might be a monster, too. But I do have to thank him, and Bloodsport, for helping me better see the monsters within myself.