Friday, April 27, 2018

We need to talk about Barry...

I want to get this first part out of the way so everyone who loves Bill Hader and loves Barry can read the rest of this blog with an open mind: I love Bill Hader, and I love HBO's new dark comedy, Barry. When I saw the first preview, I knew I was going to love it. Listless hitmen in dark comedies are my jam. Grosse Point Blank remains one of my favorite movies - and Bill Hader? Bill Hader is BILL HADER, he's fucking hilarious.

(spoilers galore -through episode 5)

So why do I feel so conflicted at the end of every episode?

The premise is that Barry is a Marine turned professional killer who has suddenly tired of all the killing and wants to become an actor. Hader explains this in a post show talk as "killing was the only thing he was good at." This trope fucking pisses me off. I'm not going to bother trying to be eloquent about it. Every video game, every movie, every thought someone has about a contract killer has to start with some veteran who discovered that "killing was the one thing I was good at" or "I was really good at killing."

Killing isn't a skill. You can kill yourself by accident. You can kill another person by hitting them with a car. Life is actually fairly fragile. Throughout the episodes that have aired so far, we only see Barry in one situation that looks anything like combat, and both he and the other veteran handle it like shit. He gets knocked out, and his Marine buddy runs in and puts both of them in insane danger. The rest of the time he's killing people in ways that are either fairly easy (with a gun, at close range) or would have nothing to do with combat at all (strangulation). So what they mean, when they repeat that Barry is good at killing, is that he is good at compartmentalizing the emotions that make it emotionally and morally difficult to kill people.

When we accept the trope that hitmen are veterans because veterans are "good" at killing people, we are accepting the idea that veterans are amoral. There's a fantastic scene where the students in Barry's acting class talk about how people who kill on orders from others are damaged and "psycho" and Barry, in a rare moment of real emotion, snaps back at them. He makes a pretty great point about how we view veterans, and the class seems to take something away from it - but the whole thing is undercut by the fact that in this context - the acting students are the rubes. The acting teacher (played by Henry Winkler) makes a joke at the end that reminds us, actually, Barry isn't talking about combat or attitudes toward veterans. He's talking about murder for hire. The point about respecting veterans, or understanding the moral complexities of war is a joke, not a statement.

Of the four Marine vets we spend time with, one has a relatively normal life. One we don't get to know, one is Barry, the hitman, and one is an abrasive, over the top drunk who lives for the opportunity to kill and be put in harm's way. Even the friend with the normal life is supposed to have found this after the military. At times, it feels like the show thinks people join the military, disappear into a black hole where they "lose part of (their) soul" (actual quote from Hader on his character), and have to fight their way back to humanity when they return.

When I was on active duty I lead a relatively normal life for a woman in her early twenties. I worked, I went home, I socialized with friends, dated, went out on weekends, traveled home for holidays. When I was a reservist married to an active duty Marine, we bought a house, got a dog, had a kid. Now, I'm a veteran battling very real PTSD from my time in service (not combat), married to a combat vet who is still active duty, and my life is about as suburban and "normal" as it can get. It is this way for the vast majority of people serving. It's more likely that an active duty service member would get married and start a family at a younger age than the national average.

And maybe right now you're thinking I sound like pedant. Like the gun nuts who write authors to complain about a firing pin being described incorrectly, I'm just mad at what they got wrong on a topic I know a lot about - but that isn't it.

These tropes hurt veterans. A lot of people are okay with that idea because they believe veterans are put on a pedestal in this country, but what pedestal allows for so many vets to live on the streets? Despite the fact that only 34% of adult men are veterans, 40% of homeless men are veterans. And although, only somewhere between 10 and 20% of vets suffer from some sort of mental illness, Americans overwhelmingly believe we are unstable, and mentally ill. Despite the fact that mentally ill people are more likely to be victims of violence, to live on the street, etc. we're viewed as ticking time bombs, or like, in Barry's Taylor character, loud, violent, and ready for a fight at all times.

Despite having less mental health problems than the general public seems to think we do - a lot of us are killing ourselves. Why? We can't get services.  Women veterans are at particular risk, because even when we can get services, they are catered to male veterans (ask me about the horrors women veterans experience in VA psych wards if you feel like you have a strong stomach). Women veterans are TWO TIMES as likely to complete suicide than civilian women. One in three women in the military are raped. That doesn't include other forms of sexual assault or harassment. Of course, women Marines don't actually exist in Barry. Like most popular culture, Barry assumes that all veterans are men, and all veterans served in infantry jobs. None of the characters we meet had a job specialty in the Marine Corps - they're just "Marines."

One benefit of being a woman, is most people assume I'm not a veteran, so I get to hear all the horrible things people believe about veterans first hand. Not that knowing I'm a veteran has stopped people I thought were close friends from expressing incredibly prejudiced and harmful opinions about who "we" are. I have spent years banging the drum that veterans are all different, we are a group of individuals - and popular culture works directly against it. Politicians want you to believe we're a homogeneous mass, even the ones who claim to "love the troops." Popular culture wants a quick shorthand - so we get the same characters over and over again. Barry is a soulless killer. Taylor is a maniac who lives to kill. Servicemembers don't have lives and families. Women don't serve.

It's easy. And when I see it in a show I otherwise love, it fucking sucks. It sucks to work hard to bust stereotypes and then see them employed freely on a show that is otherwise original and inventive. Listening to Hader and Alec Berg talk about writing the show - it's clear they put thought and care into every aspect of Barry's development. But they didn't put any thought or care into the messages they were sending about veterans.

I want shows with veterans who aren't dead-eyed killers or over the top maniacs. I want shows with veterans who have their own stories separate from being broken or damaged by their service. And jesus, I want the scenes about people like me and my husband to play in Barry as beautifully funny as the scene where Hader gives his outrageously upbeat take on the Glenngarry Glen Ross speech.


Danny Gardner said...

Great work here, Renee. I think one of the greatest challenges of creators is to leverage types without falling back on archetypes. Writing and development seems to flow better using stereotypes. There's less to explain. We breeze through to met deadlines on cultural assumptions. Need a villain? Which group is likely to make the least noise? Chinese? No, we need their money. Russians? Too cliché. Whoever won't protest, use them. We deal with people in groups and not as individuals and Hollywood understands this more than anyone.

Truly poignant writing in this post. Thank you.

Renee Asher Pickup said...

I think you hit it on the head with "whoever won't complain" - most people working in activism for vets are just trying to get people off the street and put food in their stomachs, and we don't talk a lot about cultural perceptions. There's just too much shit to do, and I don't think many people (veteran or otherwise) are ready to confront how public perception of us as people, and of how we are treated directly contributes to the issues we're facing as a group.

Thomas Pluck said...

I had the same reservations, I really liked the show but found the origin cliche and lame. I have a ms. with a male vet who sucks at fighting and worked as a stripper, and now tends bar.

Anonymous said...

"? Despite the fact that only 34% of adult men are veterans, 40% of homeless men are veterans"
Incorrect, 7% of people are veterans
"Barry assumes that all veterans are men, and all veterans served in infantry jobs."
Almost all veterans are male (89% of CURRENT active duty are male, so imagine the rates for veterans from years past) additionally, his friend with a family was in logistics, he states that. It's just that for the premise of the show combat veterans are more relevant.
"Barry is a soulless killer."
The entire premise of the show is him grappling with being a passive person who goes along with what he's told and grappling with the moral consequences of such.
"I'm just mad at what they got wrong on a topic I know a lot about - but that isn't it."
Don't worry, nobody would think that :) As a veteran myself I don't think you should consider yourself the fucking spokesperson. You should probably also retire from writing if googling "what percent of Americans are veterans" is too complicated for you to pull off. How the fuck do you type 34% with a straight face? That would be 112 million fucking people you absolute rube