Is This Where Toxic Masculinity Began?: “Deliverance” at 50

The film “Deliverance” was released on July 30, 1972, and was both a critical and commercial success, earning US$46 million at the box office (US$326 million in 2022 dollars).  There are many news items talking about the film’s anniversary.

Pop Culturista: A Look Back at Deliverance on Its 50th Anniversary

ABC: 50th anniversary: Infamous ‘Deliverance’ actor and NC native reflects on 1972 classic

The Guardian: Deliverance at 50: a violent battle between urban and rural America

But along with being a success both there and in award nominations, it also became infamous, a “meme” filled movie decades before memes existed.  And an example of how toxic and violent masculinity has become.  The four lead actors were the targets of violence in the movie, but in today’s society, they would as likely have been the set up as the perpetrators.  The support and emotions shown by the other characters to Ned Beatty’s character Bobby Trippe would today likely be mockery for his “weakness”, for “allowing himself to be bottomed”.

Ultimate Classic Rock (not a site where one thinks first about movies) has a very astute dissection of the film’s tropes, its characters and what it says about society then and now.  Even today, there are those who will laugh or smirk upon hearing “squeal like a pig”.  They may not know nor have ever seen the film, but they laugh at the thought that “being the rapist is better than being raped”.

No.  What’s better is that rape doesn’t happen, something toxic male “culture” seem unwilling to grasp.  Because it wants to be the perpetrator, to demonstrate dominance.

UCR: 50 Years Ago: ‘Deliverance’ Puts Masculinity Through a Trial by Terror

In 1989, actor Ned Beatty penned a brief, pithy opinion piece for The New York Times titled “Suppose Men Feared Rape.” In it, Beatty referenced the decades of catcalls he’d received since filming his infamous rape scene in 1972’s Deliverance, explaining that all those (invariably male) yahoos shouting, “Squeal like a pig!” are telling on themselves. Said Beatty (who proclaimed a penchant for brutal honesty in such situations): “Somewhere between their shouts and my threats lies a kernel of truth about how men feel about rape. My guess is we want to be distanced from it. Our last choice would be to identify with the victim.”

Deliverance was Beatty’s first film; both he and costar Ronny Cox were plucked off of the theatrical stage to support established actors Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds in Boorman’s adaptation of James Dickey’s 1970 novel. In it, four middle-class Atlanta suburbanites follow Reynolds’ survivalist-minded Lewis on a white-water canoeing trip down a rural Georgia river destined to be swamped under by the construction of a hydroelectric dam.

Things go wrong once Voight’s pipe-smoking Ed and Beatty’s portly insurance agent Bobby find themselves at the mercy of two backwoods types (character actor Bill McKinney and nonprofessional former stunt-show performer Herbert “Cowboy” Coward) who, in a legendarily visceral scene, rape Bobby before the late-arriving Lewis kills one with a ready bow and arrow. (Ed, strapped by the neck to a tree with his belt, is forced to watch helplessly, just as viewers are.) A drawn-out and terrifying scene on its own, Bobby’s rape kicks off the second half of the film, where Dickey’s overheated debate on the nature of masculine virtue versus emasculating society sees Lewis convince his companions to hide the attacker’s body rather than submit themselves to the scrutiny of the legal system. Trying to sway the uncertain Ed and Cox’s rigidly objecting Drew, Lewis explicitly dangles the public shame Bobby would endure in any investigation, with the shell-shocked Bobby eventually relenting. “I don’t want this getting around,” Bobby mumbles.

[. . .]

Deliverance’s legacy, despite Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, rests firmly on its central scene of sexual violence. As Beatty suggested, the resulting flood of jeering and catchphrases (the second rapist’s taunt that Voight has “a real purty mouth” as ubiquitous as McKinnon’s pig line) says a lot more about masculinity than either Dickey or Boorman’s adventure cliches or speechifying. (For those claiming that homosexuality is at the film’s heart of darkness, one can only shudder at the thought of four women canoers being confronted in those woods.) As the film terrifyingly demonstrates (and Beatty’s later piece repeats), rape is about toxic, predatory maleness. It’s telling that only Drew, the one member of the party staunchly against Lewis’ plan to hide the body, can bring himself to comfort the shattered and still-naked Bobby, even putting his arm around him where he lies, streaked with mud and tears. “He was the best of us,” Ed intones as he and Bobby reluctantly tie stones to Drew’s body and continue their agreed-upon coverup.



Another film that recently passed its 35th anniversary is RoboCop, which was released on July 17, 1987.  It portrayed a distopian world of neoliberalism where corporations controlled cities and governments, where “news” was vapid infotainment, cities full of people more concerned about survival than solving underlying problems where oversized gas guzzling cars were “desirable” (compare the SUX 2000 with any SUV today).  What was displayed as cartoon mockery and excess ended up being a perfect mirror to the rightwing nightmare of today.

Yes, it’s another link to Ultimate Classic Rock.  Sue me.

35 Years Ago: Dead or Alive, You’re Coming With RoboCop

Set in a near-future dystopia where the Omni Consumer Products corporation owns the entire city of Detroit, it’s the story of street cop Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), brutally murdered in the course of his duty, who’s resuscitated by the corporation and rebuilt as a cyborg officer, described as “the future of law enforcement.” Thus the name “RoboCop,” created by a marketing exec to be consumer-friendly.

But of course it’s not that simple. OCP owns the police department but also the criminal gang which runs the underworld, led by Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), who’d killed Murphy. As parts of his memory filter through his three-directive programming, RoboCop discovers how corrupt the city is, and also that OCP installed a fourth, secret directive, which prevents him from acting against the corporation.

[. . .]

The context was everything. If the violent scenes were so extreme as to be funny, so too was the social commentary in the script by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner. The dangers of neoliberalism running wild are illustrated in OCP’s ability to take over en entire city, including its police, while a hapless mayor tries to persuade an uncaring electorate to think about what’s right for the future rather than embracing tax breaks and consumer benefits. Newsreaders making free political commentary during reports, fudging the space between facts and truth for political ends, is now a world standard. While laughing, the audience are invited to consider that, if the worst of humanity is the worst of us all, how bad are we allowing ourselves to become?



  1. Silentbob says

    Forgive the off-topic and trite comment, but toxic masculinity was all over the Illiad from 700 BCE or thereabouts. So Betteridge’s Law of headlines still applies.