The murder-suicide of professional wrestler Chris Benoit and his wife and child rightly provoked an outpouring of sympathy for the surviving members of Benoit’s family. A few days after Benoit strangled his wife, smothered his 7-year-old son, and hung himself, the World Wrestling Entertainment described the crime as “a terrible tragedy and an unbearable loss.”
But the tragedy is not limited to Benoit’s relatives. The best-case scenario would have been that the murder-suicide was an isolated incident, shielded from the public eye. Unfortunately, as a professional wrestler, Benoit had an audience of millions – many of them young men who watch WWE for a warped lesson in masculinity.
One can hardly blame this audience for believing Benoit was an example of a real man – right up until the moment he killed his wife and child in a steroid-fueled rampage. They don’t have many other examples to compare him to.
Twenty million American children live in a home with only one parent, the vast majority of them mothers. Since one-third of all children are born out of wedlock, many boys will never live under the same roof as an adult male, let alone their own fathers. They aren’t likely to find masculine role models in school, either: the number of male public school teachers is down to 20 percent overall and fewer than 10 percent at the elementary level. Boys eventually learn about manhood from someone – but if not from male relatives and teachers, then who?
With few positive role models to emulate, it should surprise no one that many boys adopt the hyper-masculinity of athletes and rap stars, who demonstrate that misogyny, drug use, violence and reckless sex are the marks of a real man.
The world of professional sports might occasionally offer an athlete who is a positive role model for boys, but a host of others are studies in violence and criminality. Pro athletes have been caught beating up their wives and girlfriends (Phillies pitcher Brett Myers, Nets star Jason Kidd), raping women (the NBA’s Ruben Patterson and boxer Mike Tyson), and committing multiple murders (Benoit as well as infamous wife-killer OJ Simpson). Unfortunately, many boys who watch sports don’t have a man around to teach them that they can become successful athletes without the off-the-court violence.
Perhaps even worse role models for boys are hip-hop stars, who demonstrate all the manly virtues of drug dealers and prison inmates. In the rap industry, it’s a badge of honor to have served time in jail. Rapper Akon opens every song by declaring himself a “convict,” followed by the sound of a cell door slamming shut. (He was also recently investigated for performing lewd acts on a 15-year-old girl onstage.) Rappers “Snoop Dogg” and the aptly named “C-Murder” have both been charged with murder. Rap lyrics normalize violence, including the abuse of women (or, in ghetto patois, “bitches”) as the privilege of successful men. Needless to say, rampant drug use is practically a requirement for hip-hop stardom.
By far the biggest consumers of both industries are young men, many of whom take cues about success from their stars. Boys without fathers are especially susceptible to pernicious influences, in the entertainment industry and elsewhere: they are two and a half times more likely to wind up in jail than boys from intact homes. Unfortunately, the lawless lifestyle of celebrities doesn’t much benefit boys who emulate it.
To be sure, these stars lead glamorous lives. They have the things a lot of normal men want: beautiful women, big houses, fancy cars, talent, and fame. But some of them are monsters behind closed doors, strung out on cocaine or steroids, and violent toward women, children, and other men. And they’re the only examples of masculinity some boys can find.
The real disaster is that many boys don’t have fathers around to teach them that manhood could entail anything positive, such as providing for a family. It’s tragic that Chris Benoit was able to murder his wife and child. It’s also tragic that many American boys considered him a real man.