July 19, 2018

How Did Tony Montana Get On Your Kid’s T-Shirt?

Scarface_Portrait-T.jpgHow could Tony Montana be your hero?

You don’t know Tony Montana? Where have you been? Tony Montana is the protagonist of the 1983 Al Pacino film, Scarface.

As films go, Scarface is memorable for an excess of bad accents, bad script-writing and bad ideas of how to remake a gangster movie. I’m very much a Pacino fan, but note to the film community: Pacino isn’t the man to play mumbling, overdone, insane Cuban refugee drug lord gangsters. Not that Pacino can’t act the part of a man snorting coke like I might eat free pizza. He does. No, it’s that accent. Once you’ve had to sit through 2 hours of Pacino’s over-the-top version of Tony Montana, you’ll wonder how his career ever recovered.

You’ll also wonder, when you see his face on a $75 t-shirt, how Tony Montana has emerged as a pop-culture icon and hero in 21st century America.

It was sometime last year that I first spotted Montana’s face on the oversized t-shirts our students like to wear. I’m used to seeing rappers, athletes, even the occasional significant historic figure like Frederick Douglas. I’ve seen a hundred Bob Marley shirts, and at least that many Biggee Smalls. Frankly, none of them gave me particular pause. Youth culture rarely surprises me. I’ve had a few t-shirts that needed explanation along the way myself.

But Tony Montana? In addition to being a cartoonishly poor performance, Montana is a character without redeeming qualities. In the annals of movie-making, Montana may be one of the two or three most morally corrupt characters ever imagined.

Here’s the short version: Tony Montana and friends are booted out of Cuba during the Marielle boatlift. He comes to Miami by way of escaping a Federal detention center for refugees. He quickly falls into the drug trade, and before long is making moves to be a major player in organized crime.

Tony is ambitious and dangerous, but he’s also stupid. His own increasing drug use mars what little intelligence he has and increases his violent determination. Like a vicious animal, Tony is never far from biting the hand that feeds him. He’s useful to the drug lords because of his consciousless violence, but it’s inevitable that he’s going to eventually kill his mentors or anyone else who challenges, irritates or annoys him.

Before long, Tony is the king of Miami drug dealers, awash in a sea of cocaine and opulence. There’s no subtlety or mystery to Tony. He’s crude, stupid, violent, paranoid, insane, addicted, cruel and doomed. One can see the end of the movie coming from a very long way off. The closest Tony Montana comes to being a truly human character is his regret over the grief he causes his mother and sister, but that doesn’t last long, passing in an inevitable hail of gunfire and clouds of cocaine.

Tony Montana is captivating because of the sheer capacity for evil and violence presented in one person. The film-makers made Montana into a demi-god of a villain, one where the complete and total abasement of the human personality is constantly on display. In contrast to an interesting monster like Hannibal Lector, Tony Montana is one-dimensional, predictable and ultimately, clownish.

He’s also on t-shirts, a symbol of something heroic, manly and desirable to thousands of young men.

Why?

Gangster culture is a constant fact with the students I teach and minister to. In the absence of legitimate heroes, I am not surprised to see unreal, imaginary, exaggerated characters becoming more and more commonly embraced as statements within youth culture. What is it about Tony Montana that these young men find appealing?

Tony Montana has declared himself morally without accountability and boundaries. Like many criminals, he has a totally self-consumed notion of right and wrong. He is willing to kill everyone who offends him in the slightest. His versions of “compassion” and “loyalty” are all simply veiled threats of future violence.

Tony lives in decadent wealth. His home is palatial, and his lifestyle worthy of the most corrupt of the Roman emperors. This is the “American Dream,” gangster style, a twisted, sick version of freedom and the pursuit of happiness. It is drugs, money and toys without limit or question. The mountain of cocaine that he feeds off of symbolizes his manipulation and dominance of his world, but also his destruction by the same forces that empower him.

Tony is a version of masculinity that fits into a morally evacuated landscape of dysfunctional families and absentee fathers. He “cares” about his family as millions of young men conceive of “caring”: being a “godfather” figure, immature, but feared and generous. He creates “family” by access to drugs, money and power. He is raw lust and raw ambition. He “succeeds” where others fail by destroying everyone in his path. He is strong and powerful, though he is doomed and ultimately dead.

Why is Tony Montana on a t-shirt in America? Whose idea was it to make Tony Montana a statement of maturity, maleness and success? How is a slave to violence, an addict, a moral monster and destroyer of others a symbol for a young person in America today?

Who is marketing this, and why? What parents buy this, and do they have any idea what Tony Montana represents? (You can ask what schools allow this shirt to be worn, and I’ll happily tell you I quickly made sure the shirt was banned in the dress code. But that’s a convenience for our school. It does nothing to change minds or hearts.)

I think of John Piper’s provocative book title, Don’t Waste Your Life. Tony Montana is like a coke-charged, explosive version of the book of Ecclesiastes. He has it all, but he’s destroying everything at the same time. Tony Montana doesn’t live life to the full. He destroys life, destroys his capacity to enjoy life and wastes his life. He is an icon of waste and destruction, a suicidal thrill-ride of a life destined for the abyss and leaving nothing of worth behind.

A Tony Montana shirt is a statement that it’s cool to imagine wasting your life as a criminal of the worst sort. It’s romantic, masculine, and enough women respond positively to it to keep the symbol in fashion. (Tony’s treatment of women ought to be enough to convince a rational woman that a man wearing such a shirt is a dangerous psychopath.). It’s a self-destructive Kurt Cobain without the nod to creativity and poetic angst. Montana is a symbol of pure, cancerous, vicious, violent evil. And young people identify.

I am forced to conclude that a young person wearing a Tony Montana t-shirt is part of a culture that is turning in upon itself; devouring its own virtues and replacing them with the glorification of vices. Tony Montana isn’t a rogue who stands up for the little guy, or a Robin Hood providing for his people. He’s a pure force of waste and wanton destruction.

In what way is this cool, validating or empowering? What is there to imitate? What does this kind of symbol give back to those who wear it?

I’m imagining the parent who decides to tell their middle-schooler that the Tony Montana they bought with that birthday money isn’t going to be worn any more. I’m imagining the protest that “I’m not going to be a criminal,” and “You’re taking all this far too seriously. It’s just a movie. It’s like wearing Bugs Bunny or Jack Sparrow.” I’m imagining that most parents will say to themselves that it’s just a phase, that it’s harmless and means nothing.

Sometimes I agree with that reasoning. I generally stand for our students’ ability to express themselves in what they wear. But this is different. This isn’t Elvis or Malcolm X or Tupac. This is an inversion of every moral standard. This is inexplicable other than the simplest explanation: we are admiring terrible people who do terrible things.

Why?

Because we are so morally and culturally dead that we can’t innately sense the wrongness of what we’re doing? Because we are so afraid of being judgmental that even the most basic moral judgments intimidate us? Because youth culture itself intimidates us, bullying us into submission in the name of letting kids express themselves?

I don’t entirely trust myself on my reactions to these sorts of things. I’ve gone overboard with some long black trenchcoats that reminded me of Columbine, and I made a fool of myself. Occasionally, I’ve gotten too interested in particular examples of youthful self-expression. It’s not easy moving in youth culture when you are surrounded by the constant claims and chaos of the Kingdom of darkness.

But I don’t distrust myself on Tony Montana. It’s very little difference from a Hitler shirt. It’s the worst possible choice made for reasons that are not imaginary, but all to real. It’s evil on about as many levels as I can count.

Living in such a culture is painful and disorienting. The “Amish option” seems completely reasonable at times. Yet, at other times I relish the opportunity to engage in discussion of such cultural symbols. They open the door for questions of good and evil, morality, God and matters of the soul. Jesus was a victim of violence, but his violent death was redemption for the world. Such redemption makes meaning possible, and is victorious over the one who comes to steal, kill and destroy real lives in the real world.

How can Jesus become the hero, the icon, the symbol for the truth of the Gospel? The battle isn’t fought on t-shirts or over dress codes. The battle is fought in the real world as the Kingdom of Jesus presents an alternative to the illusions and pretensions of godless culture. To present a witness is impossible if we are not in the place where the contrast with what is false is not apparent. If I want to shield myself from the fact that Tony Montana is a hero to millions of young people, I will have little comprehensible or relevant to say about Jesus to this generation.

In many ways, Tony Montana represents something more authentic than what many young people see in the church or among Christians. That is painful, humiliating and twisted. It’s also too often true. Our cartoonish version of Christianity offers a Christ that many young men, particularly African-American young men such as the ones wearing Montana, cannot see as worthy of worship, obedience or following.

The challenge of a missional, post-evangelical Christian is to go into the world and do battle with the idols and “gates” of culture that take minds and hearts captive. Our goal, however, is not moral reformation alone, as compelling as that seems in these confused times. Our goal is the exaltation of Christ, a communication of Christ that topples all competition, and a community of authentic Christian living that shows true heroism, true ambition, and the beauty of holiness.

That means we just might need to watch Scarface with a group of young men, listen, ask questions, and tell them the story of another one, scarred, but with an entirely different heart and something much more dangerous to offer. There is perverse worldly glory in distorted face of Tony Montana, but the glory of God comes to us in the face of Jesus Christ.

Comments

  1. joel hunter says:

    I look at Scarface as the twin of Wall Street, which both bear the imprints of Oliver Stone. In fact, I’d go so far to say that on the spectrum of “most morally corrupt characters ever imagined,” Gordon Gekko outpaces Tony Montana. I realize it’s almost ridiculous to split hairs over this, but in one character-defining scene, Montana refuses to allow Sosa’s assassin to blow up the journalist’s car because it also has the man’s wife and small children. Killing Alberto instead of allowing Alberto to kill innocents was the act that sealed Montana’s fate.

    But back to your post. I don’t think these small laudable moments are what kids who wear a Montana shirt have in mind. At the same time, Michael, although I agree with you that Montana is an icon for waste and destruction, I remember well the enthusiasm for the movie when it came out was for its cartoonish character and memorable lines: hamming up “Say hello to my little friend” with Pacino-esque mugging is a staple of American cultural cliches. I suspect that the kids who are wearing this icon are at best unknowingly parodying this culturally iconic status rather than Montana’s values, and are motivated by nothing more interesting than the same commodification of “freedom fighter” chic: e.g., Che Guevera t-shirts brought to you by Abercrombie & Fitch. I don’t know if the kids are really buying into this parody of the rags-to-riches story by violent conquest. There is irony, no doubt, but it could just as well be a way to express their anticipated disillusionment in that predictable cliche of all valedictorian speeches: “The World is Yours.” In other words, I’m not sure whether the kids who wear Tony Montana t-shirts are sending their warning to the world to watch out, here they come, or whether they are putting a face to their hopelessness by mocking individualism, or whether they just find him a cartoonish character and therefore funny. I tend to think the latter, that kids see Tony Montana as sort of a slightly more hot-headed Austin Powers. Even so, I don’t think this invalidates your interpretation at all.

    Which is why I would go back to Wall Street to understand where the real challenges are to the icons and images young people seize upon to shape their identity. The market is god. The market tells you and sells you what you must own to be cool, to belong. Sometimes the market says thou shalt be a non-conformist or an anarchist. Here’s your logo gear; go in peace. The market is such a powerful god that it can take Che, a figure who espoused the overthrow of capitalism by revolution, and turn a profit on him by splashing his visage on clothes and accessories.

  2. Like Joel said: The kids don’t think of Tony Montana as pure selfish evil. They think of him as a caricature of movie bad guys.

    When I taught junior high, I sent a girl to the office because she wore an Eminem T-shirt for pajama day. (Why we had pajama day in Junior High is something I still don’t understand; half the kids had to be sent to the office for violating the dress code.) It would have been one thing if it had only been Eminem’s slack-jawed face, but it was Eminem wearing a hockey mask and holding a chainsaw. Why does such a T-shirt exist? Because Eminem found it amusing, maybe ironic, to pose in that way. But he little considers what sort of message this puts out. And if anyone were to complain to him about that message, he’d respond, “It’s a joke. Can’t you take a joke?” (Or maybe he wouldn’t, considering the subjects he raps about.)

  3. dfault312 says:

    did you know there is a new “Scarface” video game out? that’s probably the catalyst for the tshirts.

  4. Brian Pendell says:

    I’m afraid I can’t agree with the other commenters. Witness the success of the “Grand Theft Auto” video game and it’s numerous successors. To a certain extent, having lots of material wealth and the ability to punish those who disrespect you with death IS “success” to a large part of our culture.

    The reason, I think, can be seen in this article.

    http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/news/article-23372392-details/Backlash%20against%20playgrounds%20that%20stop%20children%20taking%20risks/article.do

    There was a time not so long ago in the UK when there was a concerted effort to make playgrounds as safe as possible.

    The result? Denied any legitimate outlet for risk-taking or adventure, kids forsook the playgrounds for construction sites and other similar places, which were VERY dangerous.

    Kids are kids. And boys, especially, are boys. Being denied any legitimate outlets for their natural aggression, they found illegitimate ones.

    I believe our modern society too much tries to make humans into something they are not … and the result is that our denied urges manifest destructively. The correct answer is to CHANNEL our natural impulses and tendancies into productive venues, rather than pretending they don’t exist at all.

    You can either have slightly risky playgrounds or construction sites. Which do you prefer?

    Respectfully,

    Brian P.

  5. Histrion (Jay H) says:

    I agree, to an extent, with those other people who’ve stated that they doubt a lot of the kids wearing those t-shirts have ever seen Scarface. Mind you, I might be projecting — having never seen the film myself, I thought Scarface was a nickname for (and Pacino was therefore playing) Al Capone. But if most of the kids who wear these shirts are like me and haven’t seen the film, then they probably see the artwork of Montana sitting in the tub with his cigar and say, “Hey, that’s the life I want.”

    Mind you, the comparison to games like Grand Theft Auto is valid. There’s a certain amount of fantasy going on; while I haven’t played Grand Theft Auto and wouldn’t want to, I’ve certainly spent a few hours blowing people to bits in Unreal Tournament and Quake, and I’d never even consider owning a gun.

    More to the point, though, how many of those kids *have* seen the film, and take comfort in a hero like Montana because they don’t believe their own lives have any hope of success? You’ve expressed before how the students of Appalachia (sp?) are highly unlikely to go to college, or to finish if they enter. People born into generational poverty have little chance of ever breaking into the middle class and they often believe, consciously or sub-, that their existence is their fate, not their decision. (The gangsta market isn’t African Americans, it’s the disenfranchised young poor of all races.)

    Given that mindset, wearing Montana on a t-shirt is like any disaffected college student wearing Che on a t-shirt: he suspects that his life will eventually be one of conformity and trying to win the rat race, just like everyone, so he evokes a spirit of anti-capitalist anarchy as a way to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”