NO COMMENT: How “Central Intelligence” Plays Into Our Toxic Masculinity Problem

The advertisements for the newly-released movie Central Intelligence, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Kevin Hart, don’t say much. But the few words they include speak volumes about our culture. The intellectual rumblings brought about in me by the sight of the poster concretized into one aching question: In what ways do physical size and the societal importance placed on it impact people of every sex, and how on Earth have we not done anything about it yet?

Johnson towers above Hart in the ad, arms outstretched in a “V” shape, firing a gun in each hand. Hart, a full head shorter than Johnson, stands in front of Johnson’s chest, clutching a singular gun to his breast and seemingly cowering with fear. Above both of their heads is the film’s tag line: “SAVING THE WORLD TAKES A LITTLE HART AND A BIG JOHNSON.”


Three years ago, I watched Lily Myers’ incredibly powerful performance of her slam poem “Shrinking Women” at the 2013 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational. That same year, I came across Amy Cuddy’s revolutionary 2012 TED Talk, entitled “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.” The lessons I gleaned from both videos have stuck with me ever since, engrained in my psyche in a subtle yet powerful way. They surface every so often, quietly framing the way I view my interactions with others, myself and my studies—especially in the field of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.

“Shrinking Women” focuses on the haunting ways that women are conditioned, often subconsciously, to confine themselves physically, mentally and emotionally. Myers speaks with sadness and rage about the ways in which women in her family have been “shrinking for decades,” taught to limit space they occupied and “grow inward,” while their male counterparts were taught to expand, to grow large with muscle and flesh and thought and laughter. She focuses on the negative impact that this pressure to grow smaller can have—the way it manifests in disordered eating, lack of confidence, and frustration.

Cuddy’s TED Talk focuses on the flip-side of this concept: the ways in which physical expansion and a willingness to take up space can have significant physiological and mental ramifications that can propel us toward, or away from, success. Amy’s research has revealed that by standing tall and extending our limbs, we can actually raise our bodies’ levels of testosterone, a hormone associated with aggression and dominance, while simultaneously lowering our levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone.” She also points out the gendered divide that exists when it comes to who is willing to occupy space: Overwhelmingly, she has found as a professor at Harvard business school that young men are far more willing to speak up, participate in class and raise their hands with confidence than young women. She attributes this difference to the simple fact that “women feel chronically less powerful than men.”

The poster for Central Intelligence unwittingly adds a third dimension to this issue of size: the way that, just as expectations placed on women to be small can be harmful, expectations placed on men to be large—in several senses of the word—are equally toxic. Jackson Katz, a prominent pro-feminist masculinity theorist, argues that as feminism allows women to attain power in professional, educational and social contexts, young men feel increasing pressure to “[prove] their manhood” by maintaining an advantage over women in the realm of physical size and strength. His work examines the way that expectations for men to grow large and reclaim their physical space in society has manifested in media, from the rippling muscles carved into today’s male superhero action figures to the hypermasculine “tough guy” portrayals of rap artists and action movie stars in music videos and film.

Pressure placed on men to adhere to the standards of hegemonic masculinity—the dominant form of masculinity present in a society at a given time—spans beyond height and muscularity. Indeed, perhaps the most harmful expectation placed on men concerns an entirely different way they are expected to be “big.” It’s no secret that large penis size is often equated with masculinity, but the psychological effects of this fact on men of all ages is more drastic than many people may realize. One study that surveyed over 52,000 men and women found that while 85% of women were satisfied with their partner’s penis size, only 55% of men felt satisfied with their own size. The study also traced the ways that penis pressure is linked specifically to depictions of men in media; researchers found that depictions of men with large penises—as well as women’s reactions to them—present in pornography, television and other forms of media play a large role in shaping a culture where size truly does matter. Though the study is inherently limited in its scope, as it examines penis size solely with regard to heterosexual romantic relationships, it sheds important light on the way that emphasis placed on penis size can have profound effects on men’s perceptions of their overall sexual competence and attractiveness. Given this evidence, what are we to make of a Central Intelligence poster that unabashedly glorifies a “big Johnson?”

Theories concerning “toxic masculinity” link societal expectations placed on men to a spate of troubling issues, from domestic abuse to gun violence. In the wake of the Orlando shooting—our nation’s most deadly mass shooting in its history and one linked to domestic violence—and in a nation plagued unlike any other in the world with a gun violence epidemic, a simple image of Dwayne Johnson double-gunned with brow furrowed and biceps gleaming will undoubtedly impact the minds and bodies of our nation’s young men. One only has to read the chilling manifesto of UCSB shooter Elliot Rodger to see, at its most extreme, the way that pressure to achieve “alpha male” status can drive a young man to truly horrific lengths.

In the tradition of great minds like Myers, Cuddy and Katz, we should acknowledge and take an active stance against the media’s propagations of videos and images that teach women to shrink inward, men to grow outward and all of us to adhere to destructive gender norms—especially when they are as blatant as the advertisement for Central Intelligence that is posted in countless cities across the country.

I, for one, won’t be seeing Central Intelligence—because I don’t believe that you need a “big Johnson” to save the world. (Or a Johnson at all, for that matter.)

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 11.04.13 AMNatalie Geismar is an Editorial Intern at Ms. and a rising sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis, where she double majors in International and Area Studies and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. She is an ardent feminist with a passion for human rights work and advocacy of all varieties and hopes to become some combination of international lawyer/activist/journalist/Amal Clooney in the future.

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  1. You know what though… the actual movie doesn’t feed into toxic masculinity, it takes down racist and homophobic jokes. Johnson’s character sports a fanny pack and unicorn shirt that says being you is awesome. He fights back against bullies and even as a big muscular tough guy has insecurities because he was teased in high school and works to overcome them. His character very much supports and encourages those around him. Hart’s character isn’t seen as weak or made fun of for being smaller or less muscular. It does have a few issues, like most movies, but it’s really unfair to say the movie is part of toxic masculinity when you haven’t even seen it or seemingly read a description of the movie.

    • Natalie Geismar says:

      That’s a good point, and I’m glad to hear it. However, more people will ultimately see the ads than the movie itself (including young children who may not be allowed to see the movie but may internalize the messages conveyed by the ad), and the message of self-confidence and anti-racism/homophobia just doesn’t come across in them. Little things like ads which we see every day, many times a day, collectively combine to shape our views of ourselves and our need to adhere to gender norms. If the movie has such a positive message, I feel that the filmmakers could have designed the ad differently to reflect that.

      • “It’s a good point, but let me just dismiss it here.”
        You already said you won’t see the movie, Natalie. Maybe see the movie, write about how it takes down some tropes, and go after the ads. I mean, you go so far as to quote a non-inclusive study about penis size (that is 10 years old and was done on the internet; also maybe those men feel inadequate for reasons other than your approach), you refuse to see the movie because of one ad (though the ad people and the script writers, the filmmakers, hell, even the people that make the trailers can be totally separate organizations) , and you quote more women about this issue than men. Normally, I’d be okay with that last part, but… this is a male issue, in this specific context.
        That’s cool; you do you. Just don’t “take it out” on a movie, when your problem is with advertisements. The movie apparently doesn’t think you need a big Johnson, just some juvenile ad-writers do. I mean, in the end, obviously, do whatever you want.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Natalie, thank you for writing this. I feel like it’s also important to say that we don’t need to code being loud or aggressive and domineering or taking up space as being powerful. We need different social codes where men are taught to be respectful and courteous. In other words, I too often hear that women need to be louder or more assertive/aggressive, but in fact, I believe respect and courtesy are important for all people. We need to move away from the loud braying bully model of power . . . but with certain people in the presidential race, we may not be doing that anytime soon.

  3. Juliette Faraone says:

    For better or worse, these messages are seen frequently and internalized–we need more writing like this which seeks to explore the ideas behind the ads. Well done!

  4. Cismalescumlord says:

    First, this is a comedy. Humor is subjective. What you or you audience find offensive others may find funny. When you PC comedy it tends to dry up. Also, these are obvious archetypes aggregated in order to make fun of them. I would think that would be right up your alley. But apparently even joking about that is offensive. Anyway, thanks for the review. If it is even a 10th of how funny “Deadpool” was I might get it on blue ray as well.

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