With over $370 million in domestic ticket sales, director Mel Gibson's 2004 film The Passion of the Christ is, as of mid-2014, the highest earning R-rated movie in U.S. history. Its closest competitor is Andy and Lana Wachowski's cyberpunk epic The Matrix Reloaded, almost $100 million behind (Box Office Mojo 2013). A lot of people have seen Gibson's film, but The Passion is outsized in a second way: the mass of commentary, criticism and controversy it engendered. The journalistic responses across a range of media from the New York Times and CNN to Christian Right publications--such as those from James Dobson's Focus on Family--are best measured in gigabytes. The scholarly literature alone easily runs to thousands of pages, a looming bulk daunting to anyone considering jumping into the fray. (1)
Reactions from anthropologists have, however, been relatively sparse. (2) Yet the event at the center of Gibson's Passion--the graphic depiction of a prolonged episode of judicial torture and execution--is best read less as a rite of sacrifice and more as a rite of passage of the particular type that has long fascinated anthropologists. And while the cinematic violence perpetrated in the film certainly contains a sacrificial component, the main ritual work it accomplishes is initiatory: the man Jesus is transformed through the performance of a blood-soaked rite into the Christ. Anthropologist Maurice Bloch (1992, 1998) argues that both types of rite--sacrifice and initiation--are intimately related, both requiring a symbolic or concrete act of killing. However counterintuitive this might seem, in the special logic of sacrifice and initiation such violence is necessary to the efficacy of the rite: the initiate must pass through death, through a great emptying out of the ordinary vitality of life, to be born again in a transformed state of being (Bloch 1998, 176). At the level of ritual initation, the scourging and crucifixion constitute not a punishment, but a privilege.
The initiatory character of the violence depicted in The Passion of the Christ holds true for virtually all Passion narratives, including those presented in the gospels. But in its emphases and stylizations--and perhaps most of all in its extra-canonical artistic license--Gibson's version relies upon the gendered character of the narrative. While not all rites of passage are gender specific--e.g. boys and girls both become Christians through the rite of baptism--an explicit gendering of the initiate is often central to the socio-politics of such rites. More than just transforming one type of person into another, initiation permanently separates those who can be initiated from those who never can be because they are of the wrong gender, race, class or background (Bourdieu 1991, 119).
Looking at The Passion of the Christ with awareness of rites of passage into adult masculinity and privilege, I insist that gender is crucial for understanding this film. My key argument is that the particular Passion narrative selected by Gibson interpolates its audience so as to constellate a militarized, masculinized form of Christianity that presumes, indeed depends upon, the socially authorized suffering of obedient (read "soldierly") sons. While the controversy generated by the film bears witness to the ways in which this constellation of gendered religion, militarization, and public consent is resisted and rejected, the incoherence in much of the criticism speaks to a significant cultural blind spot related to masculine suffering.
The highly stylized suffering of Jesus in the film--which makes use of some 135 digital effects to produce the viscerally "real" affect attested by sympathetic viewers (Magrid 2004, 57; Prince 2006, 13)--depends on a male body at its center for ritual coherence. A powerful form of gender politics is at work in The Passion, grounded in what I have elsewhere called heroic masochism (Gardiner 2013a): the socially desirable suffering inflicted on and accepted by men as a warrant for masculine privilege.
As I lay out the argument for understanding The Passion of the Christ as a masculine rite of passage writ large, I will point up some of the difficulties in naming such suffering. In conclusion, I will sketch out why such an interpretation is important not just in understanding Gibson's film, but in making sense of a wide range of cultural forms and social phenomena in the contemporary United States of which the film is symptomatic.
Rites of Passage and Masculine Fragility
In the anthropological tradition a rite of passage is understood as a series of ritualized acts that, correctly performed, actualize a socially recognizable change in status (Turner 1967; Van Gennep 1960). Through the correct performance of such rites the single person is married, the child enters the communion of a particular faith, the layman becomes a doctor or a judge and the deceased joins the ancestors. Such rites can be as common as name-giving or as rare as coronations; as minimal as a Las Vegas impulse wedding or as prolonged as the highest levels of formal education in the United States.
The emphasis in such rites is on auspicious performance: the rite must be performed in the right way, at the right time, by the right ritual experts upon the appropriate ritual subjects. Absent any of these qualifications the change in status that the rite is meant to accomplish is not certain. There is a risk of nullification or social opprobrium. A groom or bride of the "wrong" gender, as locally construed, might not be recognized; an inaugurated president of the "wrong" race might be challenged to prove the naturalness of his qualifying citizenship; the corpse of a person who died in the "wrong" way might be denied the rite of burial.
Herein the focus is primarily on that subset of rites related to masculine initiation: rituals that transform male-bodied children into men, investing them with masculine status. While Passion narratives in their variety certainly partake of various ritual correlates and antecedents--e.g. judicial ordeal (Asad 1983), curative exit rituals, and more specifically the ancient Hebrew Day of Atonement ritual found in Leviticus 16 (Maclean 2007)--I have chosen to consider Gibson's film version through the narrow lens of man-making rituals within the context of contemporary US culture.
Masculinity is, virtually everywhere, considered to be a rather fragile status that has to be produced through processes of man-making rituals (Gilmore 1990). But if this is everywhere considered true, the degree of militarization in a society--political, economic, and symbolic--greatly influences the particular qualities considered most important to inculcate in men (Gardiner 2004; Goldstein 2001). In heavily militarized societies--and the contemporary United States is certainly one such (Bilmes and Stiglitz 2008; Lutz 2001; Turse 2008)--the "military virtues" of obedience, courage, and above all "toughness" of body and mind are paramount. At the same time the alienation of the civilian world from actual military experience makes the need for such hardened men contestable (Belkin 2012; Gardiner 2013b). In such a context, Gibson's film can--and I argue should--be seen as an intervention in an ongoing debate about masculinity and how men should be made. In an important sense, it is about rites of passage.
Virtually all rites of passage have certain elements in common, following a logically necessary tripartite structural progression of separation-margin-aggregation first described by French folklorist Arnold Van Gennep (1960). Within the ritual horizon of this structure there are three sorts of tasks such rites may accomplish--although the actual emphasis varies a great deal across cultures. In the most general terms rites of passage accomplish the following:
1) They prepare the initiate for assumption of the new status through training, teaching, and emotional priming;
2) They mark the transition symbolically, demarcating the precise moment when the new status, with all of its prerogatives and responsibilities, is assumed, following a "liminal" period during which initiates are "no longer classified" as they were but "are not yet classified" as they will be at the conclusion of the rite (Turner 1967, 96); and
3) They institute a socially relevant distinction between those who can be initiated and those who can never be (Bourdieu 1991, 118).
The first of these three efficacies is, broadly speaking, practical--imparting role-specific skills and associated knowledge to the initiate. The second is primarily psycho-social, easing the transition from status to status by publically differentiating between the initiated and the uninitiated, declaiming the achieved character of the status--particularly important with respect to masculinity rites, as the passage to manhood is widely construed as both fraught and highly contingent (Gilmore 1990, 104). The third efficacy is unabashedly political. It marks out a category of persons as distinct--ostensibly from those who have not yet gone through the ritual, but more permanently from those who never will. In Bourdieu's terms, such rites do not just mark a "before and after" but also cast a shadow of exclusion, adding the patina of investment to what might otherwise be mistaken as a simple matter of "natural" classification. The rite says: "this man is a man--implying that he is a real man, which is not always immediately obvious. It tends to make the smallest, weakest, in short the most effeminate man into a truly manly man, separated by a difference in nature and essence from the most masculine woman, the tallest, strongest woman, etc." (Bourdieu 1991, 119).
It is a matter of no small import that between the latter two ritual efficacies--the symbolic marking of before and after, and the institutionalization of a permanent exclusion--there is an inbuilt tension. The institution of manhood draws a line of exclusion meant to...