Friday, January 05, 2007

It Takes a Man: Rocky, an American Cultural Treasure

January 5, 2007 7:00 AM
By Kathryn Jean Lopez

Before we close the book completely on 2006, we’d be remiss not naming Rocky Balboa “man of the year” (although, I suppose, Time already did, in naming everyone . . .). Thirty years after the original, Sylvester Stallone is doing another generation of men a favor by getting Rocky Balboa on the silver screen one last time. In doing so, he lays a knockout blow to a Three 6 Mafia world.

That’s not to say that there are not any real-life men to give the award to — there certainly are: Perhaps you are such a stud or are lucky enough to have one in your life. But in portraying a larger-than-life man who embraces his masculinity as the blessing it is, Rocky is doing his part to buck up the real real men. And, we can hope, inspiring a few kids who don’t have one in their lives.

Rocky, the 1976 original, begins with an image of Christ that the hero never strays all that far from. Rocky is by no means a perfect guy — he may occasionally threaten to break a thumb, and he does punch dudes out for a living — but there’s little doubt that the Italian Stallion is one of the good guys. Perhaps the character’s greatest virtue is his love for the vulnerable — most notably his beloved shy, scared Adrian whose trust he asked for and earned, and who was his dream come true.

But Balboa always has time — from Rocky I to VI — for the vulnerable, whether it be his turtle, his unconfident son, or an otherwise doomed teenager with no father figure. That’s notable because, as Dr. Meg Meeker writes in her recent book Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters, pop culture isn’t exactly overflowing with messages encouraging men to be manly and to take pride in knowing they have something their families need. In what is a bit of a motivational seminar, Meeker writes to dads: “You were made a man for a reason, and your daughter is looking to you for guidance that she cannot get from her mother.” Meeker, focusing on girls, goes on to contend that girls with a dad in their lives have higher self-esteem, are less likely to get pregnant as a teen (are less likely to lose their virginity before they turn 16), and find themselves with fewer learning and behavioral problems.

And the list goes on. The National Fatherhood Initiative has its own long scary-stat list. Kids without dads are more likely to be poor, to wind up in jail. Absent fathers can affect weight, dropout rates, smoking, and drug and alcohol abuse. at Sweden, where big government (Hillary’s village) steps in to take over where a dad isn’t providing, a 2006 Institute for American Values study finds that “boys reared in single-parent homes were more than 50 percent more likely to die from a range of cause — such as suicide, accidents, or addiction — than were boys reared in two-parent homes.” How’s that for a dire dadless picture? In the new movie, Rocky tells his whiny twenty-something son:

Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It is a very mean and nasty place and it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward. How much you can take, and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done. Now, if you know what you’re worth, then go out and get what you’re worth. But you gotta be willing to take the hit, and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you are because of him, or her, or anybody. Cowards do that and that ain’t you. You’re better than that!

In a culture of TV shows and movies in which a man with any sense of responsibility to his family is frequently portrayed as a doofus married to a perfect, albeit nagging wife (just about any family-centered sitcom), or a hero who can only be a hero to the world outside his family (Jack Bauer on 24), the Rocky movies present an all-around winner. He pushes himself and the ones he loves to be the best they can be. Some in Hollywood get the power they possess in the cultural ring.

At a recent National Fatherhood Initiative event, Kevin Kay, general manager of Spike TV, noted: “When we ask guys who their role model is for being a dad, they say their mother. That’s a wake-up call. And it’s something you have to think about a lot when you’re portraying fathers on TV.”Harvard’s Harvey Mansfield defines “manliness” as “confidence and command in a situation of risk.” Whether it’s taking on some punk fighter named Mason Dixon or getting married and being a dad, that’s something society can’t — and shouldn’t want to — do without.

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