The Esteemables

Let’s be clear right out of the gate: I think The Expendables ten kinds of awesome.

This is mostly because I think it’s a comedy series, but still, I enjoy it. It’s like someone walked up to my dad (or your dad, or literally anyone’s middle-aged dad) and said “We are making an action movie. Tell us what you think would be cool.” And he responds with the names of all of his favorite action movie stars from the eighties and nineties, and says crazy shit like “They should all hang out in a bar/motorcycle shop/tattoo parlor while smoking cigars and talking about missions. And they definitely need to fly a sea-plane. And Dolf Lungren starts off as a good guy and double-crosses them just like in every other movie he has ever been in.”

And then they made that into the first movie.

The Expendables is the most ridiculous example in a recent trend of aging action heroes reprising roles and/or starring in new movies that ask us to suspend disbelief and generally pretend like it’s 1994. There are new Rocky and Rambo movies. Uncle Bruce did another Die Hard (read: he isn’t really my uncle). A new Terminator  movie is in the works. The list goes on, and on, and on.

I freely admit that these movies are mostly about having fun and making millions of dollars, especially when talking about The Expendables. I mean, if someone told me I could hang out with my friends, shoot guns, crash cars and boats, blow shit up, and make a million dollars, I would quit my job right fucking now.

Right. Fucking. Now.

Right. Fucking. Now.

The rest of these movies are harder to explain, though. These actors presumably love to act, but one has to assume that they could continue their acting career without having to simultaneously subdue multiple bad guys with sweet, jumping roundhouse kicks. Their motivation has quite a lot to do with the way they identify themselves, which is more than likely ‘action movie star.’

The way we identify ourselves has tremendous influence on our feelings of self-worth. If a large part of my identity is ‘musician’ but I develop crippling arthritis and can no longer play guitar or piano, I may no longer feel as good about myself since part of my identity had been stripped away.  It’s illustrated in every sad, old, former high school quarterback that has no way of maintaining his identity outside of reminiscing about the glory days. Similarly, if these gentlemen primarily identify as ‘action hero’ then they are not validated by other roles to the same degree.

Continuing to play these roles well into (or past) middle-age is an attempt to remain relevant.  Being the hero validates their identity and maintains their accustomed level of self-worth. The same can be said for bands like Kiss, who are currently on tour, and probably not speaking to each other off stage.  Gene Simmons doesn’t need the money, but he needs to know he’s still a rock star.

My generation was told relentlessly that we were special, intelligent, and unique. Society continues to deliver this message to children today. These things become integral parts of our identity and self-concept. Maintaining this takes validation, which is freely and frequently offered in childhood. Unfortunately, this usually stops abruptly once we reach adulthood. Stallone and company can continue to make action movies to validate themselves. For those of us who are not movie stars, it’s a much more difficult task to reconstruct our identity and self-esteem from the rubble once that external validation stops.

The point is not to tell kids they aren’t special – it’s to help them find out what makes them special, and help them to construct an authentic and stable identity, which is usually accompanied by a healthy level of self-esteem.  Either that, or I guess you can get them into some acting classes.


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