We kick off our annual American Badass feature with a question: Does anyone ever truly achieve badassery?
By Drew Magary
Illustration by Mark Poutenis
There’s no official definition of badass in the Oxford English Dictionary. This is a pity, as badass is one of those universal ways of categorizing the American male species. Everyone employs the term, and its meaning is more or less collectively agreed upon. Like douche bag or asshole, the word badass instantly evokes a recognizable male archetype, one that is impervious to rocket-propelled grenades and enjoys banging waitresses while skydiving.
The closest we have to an official definition for badass comes from UrbanDictionary.com, which is the only dictionary anyone should ever use. Urban Dictionary describes the term thusly: The epitome of the American male. He radiates confidence in everything he does, whether it’s ordering a drink, buying a set of wheels, or dealing with women. He’s slow to anger, brutally efficient when fighting back.
The badass carves his own path. He wears, drives, drinks, watches, and listens to what he chooses, when he chooses, where he chooses, uninfluenced by fads or advertis ing campaigns. Badass style is under stated but instantly recognizable. Like a chop ped Harley or a good pair of sunglasses: simple, direct, and functional.
This is an excellent definition, but it doesn’t go far enough. The deeper truth is that badasses are, by and large, a figment of our collective American male imagination. A badass is the kind of man we all envision ourselves being. It’s an idealized, ongoing, daydream version of our identity. It’s not about whether or not you ride a Harley, or have kick-ass muttonchops, or anything like that. It’s about living up to a standard. It’s something that’s ingrained in all of us, from both our peers and the country’s culture at large.
Think of Doc Holliday as Val Kilmer played him in Tombstone. What made Doc Holliday such an incredible fucking badass? Every single action he took was perfect. When Johnny Ringo tries to intimidate him with fancy pistol twirling, Holliday humiliates Ringo by repeating his routine with a small silver cup. When Wyatt Earp is outmanned at the end, Holliday shows up at the exact right moment, casual as ever, lightning-fast with both a killer line and his pistol.
I want to be that guy so bad. How could you not? He even has his own kick-ass vocabulary, for shit’s sake. Could you create your own personal catchphrases like “I’m your huckleberry” and not come off sounding like a complete idiot? No, you could not.
That’s really what we’re talking about when we use the term badass. We’re talking about an ideal. We’re acknowledging the vast disconnect between who we want to be and who we really are. It’s like the first time you ever heard your own voice on an answering machine. Jarring, wasn’t it? Something that you thought sounded clever when you were saying it now sounds, to you, awkward and maybe kinda gay.
That’s a disconnect that plays out time and again in other areas of life. When you go to a job interview, you always have a fantasy of how the interview will play out. And by fantasy I don’t mean that your interviewer turns out to be an insanely hot chick with tits like Jewel and a sudden urge to blow you. I mean that you have, in your mind, a best-case-scenario dialogue between yourself and your interviewer. You’ll make your interviewer laugh. You’ll dazzle your interviewer with your depth of knowledge. Shit like that. There’s a fantasy there—not a very sexy one, but a fantasy all the same.
But when you actually go to that job interview, it will not follow the script you have in your head. You may fumble an answer. You may forget to mention something you really wanted to point out. You may have a small pee stain on your khakis because you didn’t spend enough time shaking your dick out at the urinal right before the interview (which may or may not have happened to me … twice). Even if you end up getting the job, even if the interview was a success, it still wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t quite badass.
The truth is, we can’t be badasses because we’re human, and humans fuck things up. Sure, there are plenty of real people out there who we consider badasses, and who deserve our unending praise. People such as Sully Sullenberger (see our American Badass List), or many of our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, or President Obama, when he gets off a plane and is wearing those nice sunglasses. Do all those people do badass things? Fuck and yes, they do. But are they perfect? Do they live up to every romanticized notion of what we think a dude should be? No, they don’t. Think about it. Would a badass ever sit at a desk? No. Badasses do not sit at desks. Badasses get up and do shit. Would a badass ever use a BlackBerry, typing away at those tiny fucking keys like a dipshit princess? No. A badass might use a regular cellphone, if only for angrily shouting instructions to people (“Dammit! There isn’t fucking time! The Russians have the package!”). But never a BlackBerry, that’s for sure.
Shit, I’m not even sure a badass could have a childhood—or an adolescence. A real badass would have to be born a fully grown 30-year-old male, riding a goddamn Ducati out of his mom’s vagina. And I don’t think Sully Sullenberger was born in such a fashion.
Yet the badass ideal is something we’re genetically engineered to strive for. This has consequences, both good and bad. A lot of shit has gone down in history just because one guy wanted to prove he was a bigger man than the other guy. And we all know there are countless ballbags out there who think they’re badass, but lack the self-awareness to understand that they’re complete pricks—people like your average highway patrolman. But I’d argue that the badass ideal does far more good than harm. It serves as a foundation for all of our collective ambitions. We may never realize the ideal, but it’s crucial that we’re always trying to. The great achievements in history occurred because we envisioned ourselves doing them, and looking really cool in the process. We envisioned ourselves moving, so we made wheels. We envisioned ourselves flying, so we made planes. We envisioned ourselves fucking, so we made lingerie. Those are all good things. Very good things.
Without the badass ideal, without our constant hunger to achieve that epitome of manliness, we would cease progressing. There are a lot of men out there now who reject the idea of machismo, who embrace their inner metrosexual. These people are useless pussies who do fucking nothing and should have their asses handed to them.
Because wanting to be a badass results in striving to do great things, and as Doc Holliday says, “Isn’t that a daisy?”