Saturday, February 24, 2018

Dolph Lundgren and Matters of Masculinity

Published in the Fiji Times - Off the Wall with Padre James Bhagwan
Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The name Dolph Lundgren is associated with the big macho action films of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Lundgren became famous around the world when he played the role of steroid-enhanced Soviet Union star boxer, Ivan Drago, who killed Apollo Creed (played by Carl Weathers) in the boxing ring and then lost to Rocky Balboa (reprised by Sylvester Stallone) in the climactic fight of the film “Rocky IV”. He went on to star in other action “flicks” such as “Red Scorpion”, “Universal Soldier”, “The Punisher”, and “Masters of the Universe” (meaning he’s already played to comic/cartoon characters: “The Punisher” and “He-Man”).  The younger generation may know Lundgren from his role as Gunner Jensen in the “Expendables” movie franchise.

Lundgren was a star in the era of hyper masculinity and violent, testosterone-fuelled action films.

“The man who asserts his identity through violence is a very old fashioned idea,” says Dr Mike Chopra-Gant, lecturer in media, culture, and communications at London Metropolitan University.  

“You can take that back to John Wayne in the 1950s. It’s a version of that. It seems quite anachronistic.”

“If we’re constantly presented with an image of masculinity, that becomes ingrained in the culture as a norm,” says Dr Chopra-Gant. “It doesn’t have a direct effect in a simple way, but it does have some kind of influence on our ideas of what it means to be a man, and what a real man is.”

Yet Lundgren’s action film work is not the focus of today’s reflection, nor his celebrity, nor even his academic achievements – he has a masters in chemical engineering from the University of Sydney, was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and speaks five languages (Swedish, English, German, French and Japanese).  Rather, it is his childhood that calls our attention.

As a little boy, Dolph Lundgren was physically abused by his father. His father said he was useless and incompetent and beat him up.

“My dad was a smart man, very successful engineer, but he was physically abusive. So I was really traumatized as a kid. I never got to express it, really, apart from a little bit in karate and as a fighter. Like a lot of boys who become football players or boxers I had a [bad] situation with my dad.”

As a teenager, Ludgren took up karate to learn a defensive skill because of the violence at home, resulting in injuries and torn out hair.

“It was a way to feel safe. No one was going to hurt me ever again. And that was because of my dad. It could get bad. I’d go to school with bruises and be embarrassed by them. I was always trying to hide the scars from my friends.”

The trauma from childhood had a long-term effect on Lungdren.

“What happens is when you’re a kid, if your dad gives you beatings, beats you up, which happened in my case, that’s his frustration. When you’re a kid, humans have a fight-or-flight syndrome. If an animal attacks, you either run, or if the animal is weak enough, and if you have a spear, you can try to kill them. But if it’s your parents, you freeze up. You can’t run because you’re at home, and you can’t fight back because it’s your dad. So that gets locked inside. It becomes like a piece of ice or something, inside you. Then, in order to escape that feeling, you have all these escape patterns. You can drink, you can hurt yourself, you can do violent things like get in the ring and get beat up, and that makes you feel good. Or you can have an extramarital affair and mess around if you’re married, that kind of thing, because it’s a way to escape that feeling inside. I had a combination of all of those things. I always stayed in shape, I always worked out, but that’s why I ended up breaking up with my wife.”

It took Lundgren a long time to finally process the trauma of child abuse. While his acting and action roles may have helped him not get caught in the cycle of remaining a victim in the home or society or shifting from victim to perpetrator, it was not until he sought counselling that he was able to deal with the trauma.

“I always thought that acting is like therapy. When you’re acting, you don’t need therapy. It’s not true. When you’re acting you’re hijacking your emotions for your job, but you don’t really resolve anything. Three years ago I started therapy here in L.A. and I’ve overcome a lot of those physical sensations from abuse. They’re like knots in your stomach that you have to break to be free and feel safe. And because I’ve worked through that bad stuff, [good] things are happening in my career.”

 At his father’s funeral he was able to forgive what had been done to him.

In 2009, Lundgren wrote an open letter, in the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, to children who suffer abuse, titled “It’s Not Your Fault”:

Everything is going to be all right
I know it hurts, both inside and out.
I know you're crying.
I know that you love your Mom and Dad and always will.
They love you.
Sometimes grown-ups have problems too.
Maybe they were abused as children
The most important thing to remember is that it's not your fault.
It's not your fault.
If you need help there is a number you can dial:
0200-230 230 to BRIS (note: this is a childrens' rights foundation in Sweden – in Fiji call 1325)
My father beat me when I was a child and I wish I could have had someone to talk to
I kept on going and didn't give up
Now when I make movies in Hollywood I draw strength from my experiences
I have children of my own now and I don't beat them
I love them more than anything in the world

Things worked out for me
They will work out for you
I promise
A great big bear-hug

In an interview with progressive culture magazine Spook, Lundgren shared, how as the father of two young women, the 61-year old actor, has become increasingly aware of women’s issues as he focuses on what kind of world his girls will become a part of as adults.

“Women have more power and professional opportunities that they didn’t before—which has thankfully changed,” Lundgren notes. “One hundred years ago they couldn’t even vote or own property. But I think the main thing for me that I’m upset about when I read about women’s issues and feminism is the violence against women, whether that’s domestic violence or rape.”

The absolute worst of this, he says, is the millions of nameless and faceless women who are sold into human slavery.

“I’m involved in anti-human trafficking campaigning because most of the victims are women,” he says. “It’s terrible that in this day and age they’re being sold as cattle and into the sex industry as workers—most of them underage girls as well. It has to stop.”

Lundgren is a spokesperson for CAST (Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking) in the US, organising charity events and speaking out about the cause whenever he can.

“They do what they can do to give these girls a better life.”

An significant perspective from someone considered the image of masculinity.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”. 

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