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The male body positivity of Jackass
How is this series so wholesome?
Despite being the right age during its reign on MTV, I didn’t get into Jackass until just last year. Like a lot of people, I thought it was just garbage, dudes hurting each other and pulling mean pranks to get laughs from the lowest common denominator. But my wife is a fan, a fact which puzzled me since we met over a decade ago. When Jackass Forever landed on Paramount+, she coaxed me into watching it, telling me to sit through the opening at least. I relented and sat down, prepared to be annoyed.
The opening hooked me immediately: a penis, painted to resemble Godzilla and with strings attached to puppeteer it, rampaging through a miniature city is one of those things you just have to see to believe. I laughed until I couldn’t breathe, popped some popcorn for us, and happily watched the rest of the movie. Within the next few days we watched the other three movies and started making our way through the show, various specials, and whatever interviews and bits we could find on YouTube. I started listening to Steve-O’s podcast, or at least the episodes where he talks to other cast members. I am not kidding when I say I’m pretty sure Jackass altered my brain chemistry in a permanent way.
I realized I was wrong all this time. I mean, yes, you’re still watching this to see some of the most resilient idiots of our time do some incredibly stupid, gross, and painful stuff, that’s what cinema was made for. But they do it all with a smile on their face, the camaraderie amongst them is palpable and infectious, the homoeroticism is off the charts, and even with the public pranks they never do anything to hurt other people, the joke is always on the cast themselves. What really hooked me though, is how over the course of more than 20 years, these guys just keep putting their bodies on display in a way you really just don’t see anywhere else. Go back and look at the header image: none of these dudes are bodybuilders, none of them will ever get the leading role in a Marvel superhero film. They are a perfect example of male body positivity!
It’s not just Steve-O in the leopard print speedo or Chris Pontius doing his party boy dance, although those two definitely get undressed more than anyone else. So many of Preston Lacy’s bits do revolve around his size, but him being fat is never the punchline, even when he’s teamed up with Wee Man. Nobody ever makes fun of him for how he looks, and the same goes for the other cast members. They tease (and tase) each other a lot, but there is no body shaming to be found here, and seeing such a variety of male bodies without any sense of shame is so refreshing. And again, the fact that they’ve been doing this for over 20 years now is impressive! One of the wilder things about watching the show and movies so close together was seeing just how much these guys have aged over time, and no matter how much their bodies have changed, they’re still undressing without a second thought to get their genitals covered in bees, or to use their penises as ping pong paddles, or…look, it turns out that our most sensitive parts are still pretty resilient, and importantly, this is all consensual too.
In Jackass 4.5, series co-creator and director Jeff Tremaine comments that Jackass Forever has more male nudity than any other R-rated film. Quite an accomplishment, which they also hilariously outdo in 4.5. Penises are just penises, they can be funny looking, but it’s also just no big deal to these guys. What’s refreshing and surprising too is how there’s virtually no female nudity at all across the series. As I recall, the only time you see a nude woman in Jackass is in the second movie, in which John Waters performs a magic trick to make Wee Man disappear. You’d think that something that lived and thrived on MTV, with its teen boy audience, would make the effort to throw some topless girls in wherever it could to get that demographic, but nope, that’s one low hanging fruit they never went for. Rachel Wolfson joined Jackass Forever as the first woman in the cast, but it’s clear no one was interested in getting her to undress at any point. They never needed that same, cheap sex appeal that pop culture drowns in.
Adding the aforementioned homoeroticism, a deliberate choice from the beginning to stand out in a homophobic climate, Jackass really has been consistently subversive in so many ways for such a pop culture juggernaut, and they’ve never tried to hide that. There are for sure cringey and unpleasant things in the TV show and early movies, an unfortunate product of their time, but seeing them change (learning about the ways Johnny Knoxville and the gang supported Steve-O’s sobriety is delightful) and discard the more problematic elements with each successive entry is also something incredible.
All of these elements together make Jackass a surprisingly prominent example of wholesome masculinity, which is something I personally needed as somebody who came out as nonbinary in their thirties, struggling with a lifetime of never feeling like a real man and thinking that every masculine aspect of myself was toxic. Our culture thrives on insecurity; we’re constantly being told how inadequate we are. Despite all of that, these guys expose themselves with such casual confidence, cheer each other on as they throw themselves into danger, and hold each other up laughing and hugging as they devise new ways to hurt themselves. There’s a real heart to what they do. It’s boys will be boys, but without the cruelty, and we need more like it…with fewer genital injuries if possible. 🪐