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Popular Culture: What It Means to Be a Badass

What does it take to be a badass today?

Disclaimer: I apologize in advance for using the word badass. I realize that it might offend some people. But, right or wrong, it is now a mostly accepted part of our vocabulary, even listed in traditional on-line dictionaries. If you find the word objectionable, please focus on the message rather than on the (for some) inappropriateness of the word.

I was recently contacted by a website based in Sweden that was exploring the meaning of being a badass in modern culture. Not surprisingly, the editor, who described himself as a "fresh-faced, early-20-something,quasi-curmudgeon," had images on the site of heavily muscled men slaying gigantic and terrifying beasts — you know, your usual iconic badasses these days.

Because of my Ph.D. in psychology and my work with elite athletes (many of whom would be classified as badasses by most people), he asked me if I would like to write a post about what being a badass means to me and, intrigued, I accepted.

I thought a good place to start was to see how a badass is typically defined. Not surprisingly, mainstream and pop-cultural online dictionaries viewed the term quite differently. defined badass as a "mean-tempered or belligerent person." In contrast, defined it as "a person whose extreme attitudes, behavior or appearance are admirable." I will be relying on the "urban" use of the word for the purpose of this post.

I began my musings by considering how a badass is viewed most commonly in our popular culture and some typical exemplars of badasses these days. A badass seems to be a guy with 'tude, disdain for others, who sees himself as cooler than cool and tougher than tough. He typically spends a lot of time in the gym, often has tattoos, and is likely a big fan of MMA and WWE (because these fighters and wrestlers spend a lot of time in the gym, have tats, and are what aspiring badasses wish to be).

Yes, girls can be badasses too (I use the word "girls" deliberately because I don't think women want to be this sort of badass). A badass girl these days is beautiful (or thinks she is), has big breasts (likely augmented), is tanned (even in winter), wears stilettos (hurt me!), and is the grown-up version of the mean girls from high school.

When I think about badasses held up for adoration by pop culture, words that come to mind include narcissistic, arrogant, selfish, shallow, and entitled.

The guys and gals on Jersey Shore, particularly The Situation and JWoww, appear to embody badassness by today's standards. Other widely proclaimed badasses these days include any MMA fighter, 50 Cent (it is naturally what just about every rapper aspires to be), many characters portrayed by Angelina Jolie (e.g., Laura Croft: Tomb Raider, Wanted, Mr. & Mrs. Smith; ironically, in real life, AJ seems to fit my criteria for being a real badass; see below), TO, and Ocho Cinco, and Barry Bonds (when he was still playing). What so-called badasses can you come up with?

Like most American males wrapped in the usual masculine insecurities and exposed to role models of badassedness, such as Rambo, the Terminator, and John McClane, I, too, was inspired to badasshood. As a youth, I competed internationally as an alpine ski racer, hurtling down mountains at high speeds. Later in life, I became a second-degree black belt and tournament fighter in karate. Still later in life, perhaps realizing that I couldn't fight my way out of everything, I became a marathon runner and Ironman triathlete, which allowed me to wear the imprimatur of badass with some pride (it also gave me options to exercise my instinctive fight-or-flight response when needed).

But none of these accomplishments made me feel like a real badass because, I later figured out, how most Americans seem to think about badasses isn't even close to what defines a real badass. It wasn't until I became a father that I finally realized that everything we are told about what it means to be a badass is completely misguided and wrong and I finally understood what it means to be a true badass.

Badassness isn't about all of the macho and macha things that are commonly associated with being a badass. It isn't about anything that pop culture says it is because following that crowd, which is what popular culture is all about, goes against everything that real badassness stands for.

A real badass is driven by values such as responsibility, justice, honor, courage, compassion, humility, integrity, and selflessness, which pretty much disqualifies most every self-proclaimed badass out there.

A badass is someone who does the dirty jobs; the jobs that other people don't want to do — for example, our troops and inner-city teachers. A badass does what needs to be done, no matter how difficult it is, without complaint or need for fanfare. A badass doesn't take the path of least resistance.

A badass is someone who stands up for the weak and oppressed, speaks the truth, and calls out those who lie, cheat, and steal. A badass is someone who takes a "hit for the team," meaning puts others' needs ahead of their own, whether a soldier in his platoon, a parent working two jobs to give her children a better life, or a CEO who cares more about his employees than his P&L statement during an economic crisis.

Batman is a badass, not because he is rich, suave, handsome, and has a lot of cool gear (and is portrayed by Christian Bale), but because he suffered in his life and devoted his life to justice.

Iron Man is not a badass because, though he has really cool stuff just like Batman (and is portrayed by Robert Downey Jr.), he grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth (though he did have father issues) and is a narcissistic showboater who does what he does for his own self-aggrandizement (because he had father issues).

As noted above, the real Angelina Jolie appears to be a badass because of her international philanthropic work.

Matt Damon? Badass! Ben Affleck? Becoming a badass. Oh, and Clint Eastwood? Total badass on screen and behind the camera.

Real badasses are, more often, not people you would likely think are badasses. The guy standing in front of the tanks at Tiananmen Square in 1989 was a badass. Whistleblowers are badasses. My mother who, while dying of cancer, kept herself alive long enough to attend my wedding and died shortly after, was a badass. Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller, the most recent recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, was a badass.

Now that we really understand what a badass is, who are some authentic badasses that you can think of?

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