That voice, softened by the erosion of age but still the sensate rasp that Joyce Carol Oates once compared to sandpaper singing. Even when it's prattling on, that voice reaches into the synapses of my youth. I'm a Dylan baby; I trekked down from the Bronx to hear him in his Greenwich Village hootenanny days, and I still have the program from his 1961 Carnegie Hall debut. E-bay beckons, but I won't sell it, or forget the moment when I first heard "Blowin' in the Wind" on Top 40 radio and realized that the times were... need I finish the line?
Now it's trickier. There's Dylan the artist in cap and gown, and Dylan the brand, hyping the new line at Victoria's Secret; Dylan the Nobel Prize nominee, and Dylan the franchise whose product is being diversified into a tribute musical by Twyla Tharp. And now there's DJ coming to the XM pay-radio network. Starting May 3 he'll go head to cred with Howard Stern, chatting up guests, answering e-mails and spinning platters of his eccentric choosing around selected themes (e.g., weather, dancing, whiskey). Those who knew him as the most inspirational voice of the 1960s can tune in to reconnect with their memories through this show. Those who fell away when he found God can hear what's most admirable about Dylan now: his musical erudition and his bond with what critic Greil Marcus calls "the old, weird America," the land of dusty 78s and desperate dreams. XM is betting that Theme Time Radio Hour With Your Host Bob Dylan will draw a very desirable demographic: haute boomers who are used to paying for premium channels and premium everything.
You could do worse than pass the drive time with one of America's most important pop artists. But to describe Dylan as merely important may seem paltry, even philistine. To his most fervent admirers he's not just another artist, certainly not a song-and-dance man, as he's often called himself. He's the emblem of his generation's splendor. Beatified in his youth, he's cruising toward sainthood today.
Like any holy man, Dylan is surrounded by a cultural guard that sings his praises and keeps his secrets. His recent autobiography, Chronicles, Volume One, doesn't deal with drugs (though they were abundant in his entourage), and neither does Martin Scorsese's definitive Dylan doc, No Direction Home (2005). That's the kind of tell-some treatment Dylan expects, and he's always gotten it from artists who hone and honor his myth. Todd Haynes is making a film with four actors playing avatars of Dylan. This is a sign that something other than appreciation is at work. We're witnessing a consecration.
As Dylan's original fans age, some feel a need to make the icon of their youth into an eternal object of worship. Things that last forever aren't subject to ups and downs, so the former consensus about Dylan -- that his later work is quite uneven -- has given way to a conviction that his oeuvre is one unbroken flow of genius, a gospel. Prophets don't have flops, and neither should Dylan. His woeful ode to assassinated mobster Joey Gallo ("What made them want to come and blow you away?") has to be of a piece with his master song "Like a Rolling Stone." His endless and tedious 1978 film Renaldo and Clara must be seen as an underrated masterpiece. This failure to distinguish between awesome and awful Dylan is evidence that his reputation rests less on his recent music than on his enduring status as a fetish.
Dylan has always inspired an awe that obtruded on and ultimately betrayed his songs. Back in the tie-dye days, those lyrics were read like the entrails of a certain sacred bird. No one searches his garbage anymore, but the frenzy of interpretation remains. The result is Saint Dylan, the patron of bitter boomers. He sings of their retreat from utopian dreams, of their disdain for politics, fixation on domesticity, resentment toward demands that intrude on their prerogatives; he speaks to their longing for order, their love-hate relationship with their fathers and with God the Father; and he does this with a mastery of ambiguity that can dazzle when it doesn't dismay. Those who once soared with Dylan and now face a sour senescence may be looking to leave something other than real estate for posterity. What better monument than the man who traced their changes?
No one who ever set finger to fret has inspired the scholarly fixation that Dylan now does. Amazon lists 398 books by or about him--not just the usual photo relics, back stories, bios and ex-girlfriend memoirs but competing encyclopedias, philosophical treatises, bar-by-bar deconstructions and syntactical Baedekers galore. Welcome to the Rolling Tenure Review.
Can Dylan's work sustain high scrutiny? Yes, if it's placed in a particular cultural context. Dylan's is a hybrid art, as Robert Christgau has observed. Synthesis is the key to its vitality. High and low are one; fishermen hold flowers. The best Dylan critics -- e.g., Christgau, Marcus, Tim Riley -- situate him in a musical/social tradition that includes, most notably, the blues. But there have always been intellectuals who insisted on yoking Dylan to the fine-art cart.
Consider Aidan Day's analysis of the song "Visions of Johanna": "a reduction of form to primal elements--as in an image that itself displaces Marcel Duchamp's rendering of the Mona Lisa in the painting LHOOQ." The music critic Alex Ross cites this groaner as an example of the wretched excess Dylan can inspire in inquiring minds. He always did. But lately this adoration has spawned a whole new school of Dylan crit, all the more powerful because it's based in the academy. Young Bob should have wailed: Twenty years of schoolin' and they put you in a syllabus!
The dean of this veneration scholarship is Christopher Ricks, an important critic of (mainly British) poetry. Like many acolytes, Ricks admits that Dylan is an obsession. But unlike the garbologists of yore, he has the intellectual means to venture a close textual analysis of the work itself. The result is Dylan's Visions of Sin, a formidable study whose flaws epitomize the problems with the discipline I'll call Ph.Dylanology.
It's a formalist school, and as such it privileges the syntax of the songs over their context. Taking this approach, Ricks finds not just hidden intricacies but significant connections between Dylan and the great poets, especially the Symbolists and Romantics. There are such connections, as there are for a number of rock artists from the 1960s. Consider John Lennon's link to Surrealism or Jim Morrison's debt to the Beats. Certainly Dylan is the most literary of songwriters, and he synthesizes the metaphorics of blues with the Western literary tradition in a remarkable way. It's one thing to acknowledge this achievement, quite another to maintain that it makes him the singular genius of his generation. But the point of Ph.Dylanology is to render him as an exceptional artist who communes with the immortals and stands apart from the creative processes of the crowd. Elitism is a dirty word in formalist circles, but that's what this is. And it doesn't get at Dylan's greatness.
He hasn't had much influence on literature. Few contemporary poets write like him. Dylan's major impact is on pop music, and his innovations -- expanding the lyric line and infusing it with expressive, ambiguous imagery -- are a mainstay of modern song. In pop, the sensual surface is every bit as important as the subtext, maybe more so. If you're going to tackle the Book of Revelation, you'd better make it rock. These values set a standard for pop-culture criticism: erotics over hermeneutics, to channel Susan Sontag. But most Ph.Dylanologists are oblivious to the ways of pop--and they ignore the "old, weird America," where Dylan's imagination resides. Overlooking this tradition does a grave disservice to the collective genius of American music. And it removes Dylan from the company of 1960s song-poets like Lennon (whose late style is every bit as primal and more radical), Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon (all of them wiser about the vicissitudes of intimacy). Because these artists are less literary than Dylan, they are presumed to be less worthy, and a whole aesthetic movement is dismissed.
I once saw Ricks lecture on the poetics of unstressed (or "feminine") endings in an early Dylan song called "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." He never acknowledged that such upbeat endings are common in American song, or that the "axial moments" in a Dylan lyric--when an image encompasses its opposite--appear often in rock. Indeed, ambiguity is central to the sixties sensibility, and not just because of Dylan's sway. Ricks is hardly the first critic to be stuck inside of Mobile with the William Empson blues again, and I wouldn't be so hard on him if his pop illiteracy weren't the sign of a larger problem.
There's a reason why formalism flourishes in conservative times. It stops the discussion of ideology. The appeal of this approach to Dylan--and the reason it's taken hold, I'm convinced--is that it exempts his devotees from dealing with the troubling politics of his later songs: those reactionary attitudes and that unctuous, unforgiving theodicy. Formalism tells us that these values are not the source of Dylan's power, that it's all in the tropes. But there's more to his lyrics than subtext. There's a plain meaning, and it matters.
I'm not suggesting that a reactionary artist can't be a great one--remember Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain's tower. I am saying that failing to confront the plain meaning of Dylan's music as well as its morality is a sin of its own.
Is there any great artist who appeals to only one sex? This question shouldn't be incidental to the Dylan discussion, but it is. Though most critics acknowledge his sexism--as in, So what else is new? -- there's been no real examination of his sexual politics and its relevance to the rest of his politics. Hostility to women is a recurring motif in Dylan's songs, from "Like a Rolling Stone" to "Idiot Wind." His love songs, and there are many, bask in feminine submission, as in the ballad on Infidels (1983) that asks, "What's a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?" and answers "You know a woman like you should be at home/That's where you belong/Watching out for someone who loves you true/Who would never do you wrong."
What do women think of this shit? We don't really know, since rock crit (like lit crit) is such a male preserve. But it's safe to say that Dylan's current public is skewed toward the (straight) male end of the sexual spectrum. His heroic persona is a big reason why.
Take Dylan's trademark elusiveness: The self is masked; nothing is revealed. This stance is a major signifier of machismo in American culture, always has been. Think of all those masked superheroes, or the hard-boiled guys in film noir whose eyes are shown in shadow. Think of Noah's son, cursed because he saw his father naked. Dylan is steeped in that saga. He's a keeper of the patriarchal flame.
Consider this roster of Dylan themes: suspicion of worldly women -- and therefore the world; rejection of modernism, especially when it threatens old values; rigid, sin-burned religiosity; the falsity of social life; the corruption of love; and, lately, the perversion of divine order. These values resonate with the paranoid tendency in machismo. When Dylan was younger, they were tempered by his rebellion against oppressive (white male) power, but now it's the disruption of godly rules and hallowed hierarchies that he rebels against, "infamy on the landscape," as Dylan writes in the liner notes for World Gone Wrong (1993). He doesn't work on Maggie's farm; he lives there.
I don't claim that Dylan is determined by machismo -- there's much more to him than that. But I will say that he reaches many men of a certain age and status on precisely these grounds. He digs beneath their ambivalent embrace of sexual equality, the insistence that they acknowledge their interests as a sex, and he proposes that these demands insult the fundamentals. Liberals won't accept that regressive message when it's wrapped in conservative politics, as it often is in country music. But because Dylan is as critical of injustice as he is of liberation, he overrides such reservations. And if you take a purely textual approach, it's possible to forget that his mystique rests substantially on his sexual politics. Dylan is a liberal man's man.
Nostalgia for the patriarchy becomes acute for many men when they age, as their fathers diminish and die. For Dylan this yearning is a kind of prayer. "The iron hand it ain't no match for the iron rod," he sings in "When He Returns." The rod of ages he clings to -- and his worshipers cling to -- is a phallus. I'd say that's the key to the cult of Dylan. He's the holy writ in a phallic rite. It's why he's always inspired obsessive codifying and deciphering missions and why his songs are treated as sacred texts. They aren't just poems; they're parables from the mouth of... the prophet.
Faced with the nasty aspects of this artist, Ricks urges "faith in Dylan," adding, "this needs to encompass his faith and our having faith in him." That's not criticism; it's hagiography--and it violates the best of Dylan's subterranean homesick injunctions, the one I think of whenever I sit down to write a piece:
Don't follow leaders
Watch the parking meters.
The most honest way to look at Dylan is the way his young fans do. They admire him, but they don't adore him. And they understand that his career over four decades has had dramatic ebbs and flows. Between 1975 and 1987 he produced some memorable songs along with many otiose ballads and those hymns aptly described by Alex Ross as "snarling gospel." The best you can say about these experiments is that they were sincere. But they suffered from the enervation that comes of disengagement.
As a young man, Dylan withdrew in rage from the burdens of progressive politics, and that rebellion galvanized his most important work. But as he aged, he withdrew from the social world itself, and his gift was lost in the ether of salvation. Then, somehow, Dylan found the world again, and in 1997 he created a wonderful album of spare, melancholy songs, Time Out of Mind. He was back, though as he's said, you can't come back in the same way again.
Now a new generation has discovered Dylan, but not for his late style. They flock to his concerts to hear the early songs, those still-gripping sagas of alienation and outrage written when Dylan was lost in the wilderness, and they come to hear how Dylan will sing those songs today, since he always performs them differently. They know Dylan as he should be known -- as a striving, fallible artist, not a saint.
I've learned not to overestimate the dude. That sandpaper voice still stirs the passions of my past, even when it's singing of a present that would stifle me. But I don't believe in Dylan. His words are not the Word. And I come not to worship him but to complicate him.
The moment Donald Rumsfeld had been warning about -- the worse-to-come moment -- arrived last Wednesday (May 12), when new images of atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison were released. The Pentagon brought this closely guarded evidence to safe rooms in the Capitol for viewing by a very select audience: members of Congress. The legislators trooped out looking undertaker grim. "Disgusting" was their most common reaction. They were more forthcoming with another select group: well-sourced journalists. And so we learned that the hidden booty included images of a man banging his head (apparently involuntarily) into a wall over and over, until he collapsed. And that another picture reportedly showed an Iraqi boy being raped by a private contractor hired by the U.S. military.
We got this news thirdhand. It was fit to print but not to see.
Why the discretion? The line was that these images would inflame the Arab world even more, and put our troops in greater danger. If that's the case, why not accuse the press of committing treason by publishing photos from Abu Ghraib in the first place? To my knowledge, no reporter pointed out this contradiction to any lawmaker. Too close -- on all sides -- for comfort, I suppose.
In this week's New Yorker, Sy Hersh moved the story with a piece on the Pentagon's attempt to stop Iraqi insurgents by unleashing a special force under the rubric "Grab whom you must. Do what you want." The response chez Rumsfeld was vehement. A spokesman called Hersh's findings "outlandish" and "conspiratorial." (A journalist can stake his claim to a Pulitzer on that sort of official rhetoric.) Meanwhile, other publications noted growing evidence that brutality was common in American detention centers. Then came reports that a high-ranking suspect had been subjected to "water boarding," a practice that has little to do with what goes on at Zuma Beach. Finally, we learned that no records were kept on the whereabouts of certain "enemy combatants." They had simply disappeared.
This terrifying revelation resonated with memories of the Argentinean and Chilean military's victims, the so-called desaparecidos, and raised dire fears of what our government might be capable of after another terrorist attack. But all these frightening intimations were confined to the spoken and printed word, and they appeared in so many different venues that it was hard to piece them together. A picture is different. Whenever you show it, the image remains the same, and its meaning can usually be understood without much mental mediation. Hide the photos and it's much easier for right-wing pundits to pound home the government's claim that this was just the work of a few pervs in khaki. That's why the images of life at Abu Ghraib were so stunning -- and no doubt why the new evidence was quarantined.
Recall the pictures of people falling from the stricken Twin Towers. They were broadcast live and printed with some day-one stories, but then they pretty much vanished. A year later, an Eric Fischl sculpture of a tumbling woman was deemed offensive and removed from Rockefeller Center. This reticence is not unlike the belief that people must be protected from obscene images -- though there's always a certain group that can be trusted to see the awful stuff. During the National Endowment for the Arts debate in 1989, Jesse Helms asked that women (and pages) be escorted from the Senate chamber when certain Robert Mapplethorpe photos were displayed. Only grown men could take such a sight in stride. Back in the Victorian era, it was believed that only wealthy gents could be trusted to possess pornography. Things have changed, sorta.
Now that violence and porn march dick in hand, every editor must wrestle with the issue of how much gore-cake readers or viewers can tolerate. But even when the image is the story, it's not always left up to us to look or look away.
Of course, the Internet is changing the rules of discretion, as The New York Times pointed out in a Week in Review piece on Sunday. Armed with the secrets of Googling, you, too, can join the illuminati. I did just that, courtesy of Al Qaeda, which had posted footage of Nicholas Berg being beheaded. The cable news networks announced that this video was too graphic to show in its entirety. But it was obvious that many commentators had seen it. Greta Van Susteren and Aaron Brown said so, and both described it as hideous. If only to prove that I'm a member of this charmed circle, I decided to take a look.
I found the footage at annoy.com, and this was my reaction. As the victim's screams turned to gurgling, I felt nauseated and started shaking. When his severed head was held up, I fled from the room. Within 10 minutes, I had only an intellectual memory of what I'd witnessed. I couldn't recall the sounds, except for the killers' repeated cries of "Allahu Akbar." This mantra was their way of distancing themselves from the evil deed; my way was repression. Over the next 10 hours, my memory gradually returned -- along with feelings of intense guilt. I had come to understand that reportorial duty was my excuse for voyeurism.
I wonder whether those cable anchors really needed to see the Berg footage in order to comment on it. I suspect they were drawn by the same curiosity that had motivated me. Like most people, journos want to see something transgressive, no matter how horrible. Then they edit the awful images so that other people who want to see them are spared. I believe that's called sensitivity.
Susan Sontag holds that photos of death before our eyes numb us to the suffering of others. I get what she means. I can look with considerable aplomb at such extreme images, but not when they move and scream. I suppose even that acuity could erode with repeated exposure, but not as long as the pictures show me something I don't already know.
That's why the beheading footage didn't enrage me. I expect that sort of thing from a ruthless enemy like Al Qaeda. As a gay American Jew, I know exactly what they have in mind for me. But the images from Abu Ghraib revealed something I hadn't wanted to confront. It was the real-world manifestation of the snarl-behind-the-smile that Rummy wears so well. Thanks to those leaked photos, we're closer to understanding why most of the world reads this leer as the look on America's face.
Pictures of the unfathomable force us to see. That's why all the evidence of prisoner torture must be released.
Richard Goldstein is the Executive Editor of the Village Voice.
There Donald Rumsfeld was, fielding unfriendly fire on Tuesday over the military's torture of Iraqi prisoners. This time, his usual pose of barely concealed contempt seemed more like scarcely repressed rage. Every muscle in his body was tensed, and his shoulders looked like wire hangers were holding them up. It was Rummy's Strangelove-ian attempt to keep from shrugging.
Hey, the voice within him longed to say, those fuckers are lucky to have their fingernails. But Rummy is a master of extenuation. When Baghdad was looted while the U.S. army stood by, he uttered his most famous euphemism: "Stuff happens." Now he was saying something even more elliptical: Torture? Don't call it that.
The military report that describes forced masturbation and anal rape, threats of electrocution, and terror inflicted even unto death? Rummy hasn't finished reading it yet. The failure to inform Congress? He cited a memo issued last January that was as oblique as the fog of war itself. The probe of similar conduct at some 20 U.S.-run detention centers in Iraq and Afghanistan? The guilty will be punished, Rummy vowed -- but surely not the intelligence officers who devised this "softening-up" process or the two private companies contracted to perform interrogations (because they are exempt from military law). Or the secretary of defense.
Two immigrants held in New York after 9/11 have filed a suit charging guards -- supervised by intelligence officers -- with subjecting them to casual violence and repeated body-cavity searches. (As in Iraq, large objects were allegedly inserted in the rectum.) But don't call it torture; why, that would be against U.S. law. The events at Abu Ghraib prison are an aberration, Rummy insisted, even though there are dark accusations of prisoner abuse by our British allies. For that matter, many of the 3,000 men detained since 9-11 were shipped to countries whose governments are known to practice interrogation methods anyone but Rummy would consider a bit much.
What if the military had stuck to the "rule book" of prolonged sleep deprivation, protracted isolation in a small space, and a severely limited diet that John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban, says he was subjected to? What if we contented ourselves with variations on the old rubber hose? These techniques are so acceptable that you can see them in many cop movies, even though they're against the law. The truth is that most Americans are willing to tolerate such acts, and far worse, in the name of safety -- especially today. We just don't want to have the evidence shoved in our faces. And we sure don't want to see pictures of our heroic troops acting like pervs.
Or do we?
One reason why these photos are such a sensation is that they are stimulating. Especially the image of that woman grinning over a pyramid of naked men. She's the Phallic Female, watching guys parade around naked and jerk off before her. This really gets the kitten-with-a-whip crowd drooling. And when it comes to sadistic pleasure, there's nothing like forcing a man to give a simulated blowjob or take a peg-leg-sized anal probe. Shit, you won't even see that on Oz.
But that's the great perk of war. You can unleash the darkest reaches of your libido. Murdering, mutilating, and raping are all part of the adrenaline rush -- and nothing feels better than that forbidden thrill in the name of God and country.
The most distressing thing in those photos from Abu Ghraib was also the least remarked upon. That soldier standing over his prostrate prisoners, holding his thumb up, was wearing surgical gloves. Was he afraid of being contaminated by his victims' blood, feces, semen -- or just their humanity? We'll never know. But it's an astonishing symbol of what America is becoming: a nation where suffering is tolerable -- even pleasurable -- as long as the shit doesn't get on our hands.
Sure it was a publicity stunt. When Courtney Love gave David Letterman a peek, and later did the same and more for some guy outside Wendy's, she certainly had the sales of her latest album in mind. But I'm willing to cut Courtney a lot of slack. No woman in music today gets closer to Janis Joplin when it comes to channeling the primal.
Though she was much too shy to show her breasts, Janis definitely let it all hang out. She was one of the great hunger artists of the '60s. In performance, she tore her insides out and offered them up to her audience in the (usually vain) hope of pleasing and attracting men. I don't surmise this from a rockumentary. I got about as close to Janis as a rock writer could, and in those days you could get pretty close. I saw her neediness and confusion, and I watched as she was allowed to slip away. Her death from an overdose was a major reason why I stopped writing about music in the early '70s -- but that's another piece.
When I watch Courtney, I see the same failure to distinguish between persona and self, the same refusal to draw a boundary between expressiveness and excess, the same insistence on showing pain that made rock music in the '60s so intense.
Of course, Janis wasn't gratuitously violent, if only because she didn't have the ego strength to project her anguish onto anyone but herself. Nor was she capable of the sleazy stylizations that Courtney can't resist. Janis was too badly damaged to be a narcissist -- and the industrial tropes of rock were nowhere near as binding as they are today. Janis grew up in an era when there were young ladies and sluts like her, but by the time Courtney came along, bad girls were invited to kick out the jams. Watching her flail about, I can see the world my generation created, for better or worse.
I'll leave it for dude nation to rate Courtney's rack. Instead, I want to focus on breast baring as an act of power. It has a rich history in Western culture, one that merits mentioning at a time when female flashing has become a line of demarcation in the culture wars.
I'm not thinking of those naked majas and nurturing Madonnas that grace the realm of art. When you enter a museum, bare boobs are all around you. This hallowed setting sanctions the root reverie of heterosexuality that involves possession, domestication, and control of the female body. That's why the male nude is usually standing while the female nude is passively posed. But there's another, more active role for women in art. By the time Eugène Delacroix got around to painting Liberty Leading the People in 1830, the bare-breasted woman warrior was a signature of civic strength. Blame it on the Romans and their goddess Justicia (a/k/a Dike, if you want to get Greek about it). Her nude figure stands in the lobby of the Justice Department. When John Ashcroft had it draped so he could hold his press conferences in decency, he attested to the enduring power of women who expose themselves -- and the anxiety they provoke in the religious right.
You don't have to tell that to Karen Finley, the performance artist who poured chocolate over her naked body and stuffed food up her butt while incanting a poetry of pain and rage. Perhaps you remember how the pussy-chasing gents of Congress reacted to this gesture in the '80s. I still vividly recall the first time I saw Finley perform, and the reaction of men in the audience. This was a club crowd, and they threw lit matches at her. It was a supreme gesture of male terror and revulsion. So it isn't just the right that fears a naked woman what won't lie still.
Because female exhibitionism carries this aura of violation, it unleashes all the demons of gender. That's why breast baring has been utilized by generations of rebellious American women. Isadora Duncan, the mother of modern dance, was the Karen Finley of her time, never more so than when she let her drape drop before a stunned audience. So, in a sense, was Sojourner Truth, the freed slave who became a powerful preacher -- and one of the first activists to link the oppression of slaves and women. She was so imposing that she was often accused of being a man. In order to stop such slander, she exposed her breasts before a crowd in Indiana. It was one of the most important moments in American history, though you'll never see it on a commemorative stamp.
Flash forward to the Super Bowl, when Janet Jackson stepped into the sexual maelstrom by allowing Justin Timberlake to rip her possibly pre-torn top. Consider the penalty the partners in this faux apache dance incurred and you'll see the meaning of breast baring in a conservative time. Janet is cast in the slut role and punished accordingly, while Justin sails along on the unspoken assumption that boys will be boys where the bodice is concerned. In this rapine charade, Justin butches up his icon, and a wan apology is all the shame his sin requires. But the bad girl can't say she's sorry. She must suffer the contempt of those who relish watching her disgrace in slo-mo on every channel. I can only wonder why the boom landed on Janet while Britney can flog the scarlet letter.
Thank God, for Courtney's sake, that she is white. She can play the wild woman without frightening the horses. What's more, she chose to grin and bare it at an hour when all good children are asleep, having whacked off in their beds. The mic-stand mayhem that followed was the ideal addendum to this piece of performance art, and the climax came when she emerged from jail to the timeless glare of the cameras. It was a perfect tabloid moment.
If you step back a bit from this vaudeville, it's hard to ignore the evidence that Courtney is a woman in crisis. She faces drug possession charges. Her daughter has been removed from her custody. The 10th anniversary of her husband's suicide is coming up. Sure she markets her madness, but the primal currents that course through her act are real. That's what makes her a hunger artist. And she doesn't just put her personal pain in your face. In the tradition of Joplin and Finley, her art answers Sojourner Truth's fearsome, if rhetorical, question: Ain't I a woman?
But Courtney's 'tude also evokes a much less salutary tradition. Entertainers like her are often rewarded for being out of control, and the reinforcement accelerates their downward spiral. That's what happened to Janis, and for that matter, Judy Garland. Baring the breast can represent a rebellion against this sacrificial rite. It's a gesture of agency. Check out the manual of psychological disorders and you'll see that exhibitionism is regarded as a quintessentially male pathology. When women do it, they lay claim to the phallus.
There's something about a rampageous woman flashing men that resonates with power. You expect guys to rear back in horror, as they did before Sojourner Truth, or to throw lit matches, as they did at Finley. That was then and this is now. David Letterman was anything but fazed by Courtney's desk dance. In his insouciance, you can glimpse the liberal man's defense against the phallic potential of women. Don't try to repress it -- that's for Republicans.Just sit back and enjoy the show.
If I have to choose between The Stepford Wives and MTV Spring Break, I'll definitely opt for the latter. But at least conservatives take sexual transgression seriously. The liberal solution is to tame it by trivializing it. That way, male distance is maintained. The classic gesture of female incursion is neutralized. And ultimately the joke is on desire.
Richard Goldstein is the executive editor of the Village Voice.
When the ballot hits the box in New Hampshire, Howard Dean will be the one to beat. How did the former governor of a sparsely populated state become the Democratic front-runner? The usual explanation is that he sprang from the Internet and took to the skies with a series of propitious political alliances. That may account for Dean's current standing, but it's not why he stood out from the pack almost from the moment he announced. Dean did it, as conservative columnist George Will notes, by "discern[ing] what liberals want: attitude."
It's also what attracted the media to Dean. A database search reveals that in December 836 newspaper pieces about him mentioned the a-word. Look beneath the surface of Dean's plucky, peppery attitude and you'll find the underlying reason for his success. He's butch -- and many Democrats are convinced that's what it takes to beat George Bush.
Dean will have to do a lot more than man up to overcome the President's popularity. But if the polls tighten, gender presentation could make a decisive difference -- as it did in 2000, when Al Gore's less-than-butch image cost him dearly. This is not to say that people vote on the basis of sexual fantasies alone, but the erotic aura that surrounds a candidate is a big part of that intangible quality called charisma. Today it isn't a matter of being tall, not too dark, and handsome; it's all about gender presentation.
Is she a real woman; is he a real man? These may be the most important questions in American politics today, precisely because they are rarely asked. Pollsters don't measure a candidate's butch appeal, but political strategists do. And ever since Ronald Reagan rode roughshod over that wimp in the Mr. Rogers cardigan, the Republicans have played the gender card very effectively against the Democrats. From Bill Clinton's "rhymes with witch" wife to Gore's obsession with earth colors, the party of give-'em-hell Harry has taken blow after blow to the primal parts. It's been a long time since the Democrats had a presidential candidate who could jut out his chest and shoot from the hip with Dean's credibility. Maybe it's natural, maybe it's an act, but as even some Republicans are willing to admit, it seems to be working.
Peggy Noonan, who wrote speeches for Reagan, calls Dean "the it candidate" -- not because of his policy positions but because of "sheer attitude." When Bill Moyers asked Wall Street Journal columnist Dorothy Rabinowitz what she thought of Dean, she launched into a meditation on his body: "He's got this jut-jawed face. He's got sort of the right posture. It's an absurd posture -- that sleeves rolled up. But it works for mysterious reasons. All the mysterious reasons...you can't put your finger on." Women are freer to acknowledge what guys aren't supposed to notice (though they do): Dean has skillfully cast himself as a manly alternative to Bush's ripe macho. That's no mean feat for a dove.
Dean is the only major Democratic candidate to evade the sissifying barbs of the GOP's shock-jock surrogates. First, comely John Edwards was labeled "the Breck girl." (He trimmed his hair, to no avail.) When Edwards flagged and John Kerry emerged, he was dubbed "Mr. Ketchup," implying that his wife's fortune, and by extension Teresa Heinz Kerry herself, wears the pants in their manse. (Kerry hauled out a bomber jacket to signal his war record, but it resonated with the image of Michael Dukakis peering haplessly from the hatch of a tank.) Then came Wesley Clark in mufti barely concealing his stars and bars. After this writer compared Clark favorably to Ashley Wilkes, Rush Limbaugh jumped on the analogy, braying on about Clark's wimpery while the theme from Gone With the Wind played in the background. As for Dick Gephardt, he has long labored under the burden of lacking eyebrows, making it hard for him to perform the requisite Dirty Harry stare. If he should somehow prevail, look for the Republicans to draw comparisons between his currently ample brows and their formerly faint state. If there's one thing wussier than lacking body hair, it's a transplant.
The butch issue explains why Dean's military record is such a hot potato. If it's true that he avoided service by pleading a bad back and then spent the next year skiing, that would be a ruse worthy of a weasel. Of course, Bush managed to overcome a shifty military record. Why are Republicans able to get away with the very flaws they pin on Democrats? The answer speaks to the enormous success GOP strategists have had in reaching voters on a symbolic level. The Republicans have adapted their Southern strategy to the new terms of sexual politics. What they once did with race, they are doing today with gender.
It's no surprise that the Republicans excel at this craft. The corporate class they draw from has had to think long and hard about the primal aspects of identification. Knowing how to manipulate sexual fantasies is crucial to the process of shaping consumer demand. With the same practiced expertise, the Republicans have stoked white male anxiety, positioning themselves as "the Daddy Party" while linking their competition with every attempt to deconstruct the patriarchy that feminism and queer theory devised. The Democrats have been caught in this well-laid trap. The more they reach out to good old boys, the more they risk alienating feminists and blacks; and the more they embrace liberal values, the more they lose straight white men. This is no minor quandary. White guys are 39 percent of the electorate, and by now only 22 percent of them identify as Democrats. To understand why the party of Roosevelt and Kennedy is in such parlous shape, you have only to look at how the dude vote has gravitated to the GOP.
At the neoliberal Democratic Leadership Council, this "white male problem" has become the subject of whole conferences. Dean may lambaste the DLC as "the Republican part of the Democratic Party," but he borrowed page after page from its gender-politics playbook. Dean wasn't just whistling Dixie when he made his infamous remark about reaching out to bubbas bearing Confederate flags. Even when he apologized, he didn't back down from the agenda behind that comment. In cultivating the National Rifle Association, denying that he's a liberal, signaling his flexibility on affirmative action and insisting that he's not really for gay marriage (just civil unions), Dean is playing to pissed-off white guys.
It's far from clear that this flirtation will succeed, since Dean is surrounded by the very people good old boys love to hate, starting with gay couples and antiwar activists. Still, Dean thinks he can win back a bloc of Reagan Democrats by addressing blue-collar issues (gingerly). He's certainly no Dennis Kucinich, in substance or style. As historian Douglas Brinkley told the New York Times, Kucinich echoes a time when heroic men projected "a gender-blend" of sensitivity and aggression. This "1960s version of masculinity" may be why Kucinich's short stature is often mentioned in the media, while Dean seldom gets that treatment, though he's not a lot taller. If Kucinich is a vegan, Dean acts like a man who likes his steak blood-rare and his politics cutthroat. These traits are part of his campaign to achieve symbolically what he can't quite carry off ideologically, by competing with Bush for the most potent compliment in American politics today: You the man!
A specter is haunting the White House. It is the specter of the young Clint Eastwood. Check him out in those Reagan-era bad-cop films and you'll see the origin of Bush's flinty glare. This President owes his mandate, such as it is, to his projection of macho. There's a reason why he's the first President in history to inspire an action-hero doll. (Decked out in a flight suit, he's ready to enchant 8-year-olds of all ages.) From Bush's taunting response to insurgents in Iraq -- "Bring 'em on" -- to the fighter-pilot drag he donned for that famous aircraft-carrier landing, he rarely misses a chance to wave his whopper, and not just figuratively. That flight suit had a distinctly bulbous crotch. It's no reach to think that Bush's handlers, so concerned about lighting and posing him, would pad his panache. That sort of gesture goes straight to the subconscious, an achievement any hidden persuader can be proud of.
Still, something about the President's swagger lends itself to parody. It looks as forced and fragile as it is. Molly Ivins, an acute student of Bush's persona, says it combines three strands of Texas culture: "religiosity, anti-intellectualism, and machismo. The machismo is what I think is fake." If conditions grow grim, the doubts about his masculinity that have haunted Bush throughout his political life will reappear. One reason Dean smells blood in Iraq is that a quagmire there will resonate with what Texans used to say about Dubya: "All hat and no cattle." In the macho imagination, nothing is worse than a belligerent claim that can't be supported. This is why the slogan of Bush's warship visitation -- "Mission Accomplished" -- is a potential liability for him and a gift to Dean.
Can a Democrat be an alpha male? The question hasn't come up on CNN, but it may be the hidden issue of the campaign. After decades of associating Democrats with failed masculinity, the Republicans are faced with an opponent who knows how to put on a butch display. They are trying to get around Dean's fight-back persona by portraying him as a dyspeptic, impetuous fool. Whether this negative spin will stick remains to be seen, but there's another a-word that pops up regularly in pieces about Dean: anger. The Republicans and their allies are trying to undercut his brashness by calling him reckless. Still, fist-waving hasn't exactly hurt Donald Rumsfeld. Ever since 9/11, nothing seems to be over the top when it comes to macho in a pol. Think Arnold Schwarzenegger. His meteoric rise -- despite a record of groping and degrading women -- is ample proof that in American politics today Liberace's motto applies: "Too much is not enough!"
Why do we require macho magic from our leaders? The answer is primal, and therefore complex. But human nature is never the whole story when it comes to political behavior. To decipher the current leadership style, look to the conditions of American life.
In 1965 Richard Hofstadter wrote a landmark book called The Paranoid Style in American Politics . Hofstadter noticed that, in the prosperous 1960s, class interests were giving way to an emphasis on group status. The breakup of the old racial and ethnic order intensified this trend by pitting every group against all the rest -- and then came the demands of women and gays. These days, status conflicts are driven less by economic fears than by threats to the masculine mystique.
Most Americans have felt the pinch of stagnant or declining wages, but white men aren't doing especially badly. Only 18 percent of them earn less than $30,000; a third make $75,000 or more. If white guys lean Republican, material deprivation isn't the main reason. Their feeling of persecution derives from an entirely symbolic insult. The prestige of white macho has definitely taken a hit, and the resulting sense of loss moves many issues. Take gun control. Despite the precipitate drop in crime, white men cling ever more tightly to their guns, and the right to lock and load is a major link between pistol-packing papas and the Republican Party. Assume that most of these guys cherish their weapons for other than practical reasons, and you can see the pull of the phallic on American politics.
Now factor in 9/11, with its gross insult to America's twin stiffies (soon to be replaced by an even taller "Power Tower," as the New York Post has dubbed it). Real as the danger of terrorism is, it has coincided with the so-called crisis of masculinity to produce a powerful perception that we need a strongman -- rather than a strong person -- in order to survive. The result is a politics of cartoon virility. But a symbol that doesn't meet actual needs soon seems like an empty artifice. That's what Dean is betting on. He's out to embody a masculinity that feels substantial rather than ceremonial. In other words, he's trying to be butch but not macho.
What is progressive masculinity? It has something to do with what the linguist George Lakoff calls "nurturant parenting." All the great liberal Presidents of the past century were nurturers (their weakness for war notwithstanding). But conservative leaders follow another model; Lakoff calls it "the strict father." The appeal of this harsh, punitive style is directly related to anxiety. People kept in a state of constant stress will sacrifice their best instincts and even their real interests for the illusion of safety -- and sheer sexiness -- that a bad dad can provide. That's why the Republicans put such energy into arousing anxiety and displacing it onto Democrats. If Dean is to beat the odds, he will have to counter this strategy in every move he makes.
It won't be easy. It doesn't take much to foment fear in white boys. What's more, as Al Sharpton reminds us, black voters aren't impressed by attitude that doesn't come with a progressive program. Then there's the chance that conquest and a patchwork "recovery" will prop up the illusion that things are getting better. This will be the mother of all long shots for the Democrats. Butching up is no guarantee of victory. Still, for better or worse, it's a necessary step.
We may resent the fact that Americans regard the penis and its symbolic projections as synonymous with strength. But psychic reality cannot be denied. At this moment, most voters are looking for a leader who reassures them with a manly presentation. The trick is to be a man women admire, blacks find credible and white guys bond with. It's a hard job, but someone's got to do it or Bush will ride the backlash to the White House -- with a real mandate this time.
Richard Goldstein, an executive editor of the Village Voice, is working on a book about masculinity in the face of feminism.
Who is Walter Benjamin, and why is he haunting HBO?
For those who didn't major in cultural studies, Benjamin was Europe's greatest criticmake that apprehenderof modernity. But he couldn't escape the Nazis, and when he was caught trying to flee them he killed himself. You can regard Benjamin's suicide as proof that politics has the power to crush perception. But the real meaning of his desperate gesture is contained in the figure that was his most audacious creation. Benjamin called it the angel of history, and this is how he described its helpless majesty:
"His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress."
Meeting Tony Kushner at Starbucks is a little like running into Walter Benjamin at Disney World. In his black fedora, schlepping a sack of books, Kushner looks like a refugee among the latte lappers. "Let's get out of here," he hisses over strains of a premature Christmas carol. Something about this place cries out for Benjamin's apparition to come crashing through the ceiling, as it does in Kushner's best-known play. "Angels in America" is the most stunning evocation of Benjamin's concept of change ever to grace the stage, and now it is about to reach the home screen.
On December 7, HBO will begin a two-part, star-studded production of the drama that shattered the rules of Broadway in 1993. The new version, directed by Mike Nichols, is a breakthrough event in television. Even as it shows how much has been lost in the Will & Grace-ing of gay entertainment, it also announces an opening in the mainstream for real queer culture in all its quicksilver complexity.
Tony Kushner is one busy yidl. While jiggering with the screenplay for Angels over 10 months of filming, he co-edited a new anthology of critical writing on Israel ("Wrestling With Zion") and finished the book for a new playa musical, no less. He spends most of these days toiling at the Public Theater, where "Caroline, or Change" opens on Nov. 30, directed by the man who made "Angels" come alive on Broadway, George C. Wolfe.
"It was my first Broadway piece," Wolfe says with no nostalgia in his recollection. "The play was living in all our bodies back then. We had all lost friends to AIDS; we all had the energy of struggle and the muscles of defiance. So this wasn't in any way a memory play." The epidemic may not inspire the visceral horror it once did in gay men of Wolfe and Kushner's class and generation, but Angels still grabs you by the gut and bores into your secret yearnings. The screenplay homes in on the characters without losing the metaphysical street-speak that is Kushner's signature. But it's those characters and their conflicts that carry the major wallop now. The play's sexual politics seem more sexy than political, and the spiral of contradiction that surrounds its every theme seems less terrifying than dramatic.
Maybe it's the iconic cast, under Nichols's fluent direction; maybe it's the play's interaction with a cinematic medium. "Film is about stories, theater is about ideas," says Wolfe with a small smirk. Given Kushner's commitment to radical theater, he must have agonized over balancing both. In the end, he insists, "I'm a playwright, not a politician or a theorist. Like Brecht said, the highest function you can expect from art is that it teaches you to move through the world with pleasure." As with the didactic Bertolt Brecht (who wrote a crowd-pleaser called "The Threepenny Opera"), the pleasure of Kushner's plays depends on your willingness to be entertained by ideas that subvert even themselves.
In "Angels," every character you expect to be good is capable of evil, and everyone who ought to be evil can love. Never have there been so many caring, sexy Mormons in a work by a card-carrying lefty. As for the Angel, she has eight vaginas and the means to use themeven on the dying faggot she transforms into a prophet through an orgasmic act. He ascends to heaven on a golden ladder, and just when you think you're in a Christian potboiler about the rapture, it turns out that God has disappeared and the bureaucrats who run paradise want this prophet to end the human quest for change. But he rejects this temptation and demands "life . . . more life" instead: life as rebellion against celestial stasis; change as ecstatic, unmanageable pain. This is what the pioneer woman in "Angels" says when she pops out of a diorama at the Mormon Visitors Center: People change when God rips out their intestines, stuffs them back in a different way, and "it's up to you to sew yourself up." Benjamin tried to describe that ineffable process, and Kushner admits, "I'm indebted to Benjamin to the point of larceny."
If Angels is a drama about change, change has fucked with the play in unforeseen ways. We've become accustomed to the face of ambiguity; it's the hallmark of upscale entertainment and a specialty of HBO. With its flights of magic realism, "Angels" fits snugly in the pay-cable repertoire alongside "Six Feet Under" and 'Carnivale." In the wake of Showtime's "Queer as Folk," Kushner's bold depiction of homosex feels like something Mike Nichols would otherwise have had to invent to hold an audience that doesn't think it's experiencing modern drama unless the male leads kiss. That once forbidden, now expected homo moment is an emblem of what has changed.
The category of the sodomite is still a social necessity, as the ferocious battle over gay marriage attests. But in liberal America, the status of gays has changed. It's possible to lead a decent life as a friend of Dorothy or a sister of Sappho as long as you're white and well-off, and you act like a regular Dick or Jane. (Everyone else better be entertaining.) This new situation has altered the meaning of the words "gay' and "queer." The former now refers to a sexual orientation; the latter is a social position, a place at the margin as opposed to at the table. Where you sit depends on more than who you shtup.
"Angels" was one of the first popular plays to draw a connection between race, gender, and sexuality. It took the new identity politics incubating in the academy and brought it to Broadway. At the same time, it performed a critique of identity politics by portraying the complexities and multiplicities that come with simply existing. "Angels" anticipated the attitude that would emerge from the shadow of AIDS, as it became clear that deviance from the norm is the true basis of a queer identity. By now, that concept has expanded beyond homosexuality. Any woman whose libido violates the expectations of her gender can consider herself queer. Then there's the increasingly porous boundary of race, a subject Wolfe's productions at the Public often address. "There's a whole new conversation out there," he says, "a new crop of people who don't consider themselves black or white." Are they queer? It depends on what that is.
If this isn't enough to bust your balls, queer is also a verb. To queer something is to mess with its assumptions. Let Kushner elaborate: "Queering is a critique of the homogeneity that works menacingly within the heart of liberalism. The thing that makes liberalism fascism in slow motion is its sense of coherenceand queering is there to say, a lot is being given up in this process and these things must be articulated, explored, recovered. The queer project is about digging and digging and finding those moments that the liberal project can't afford to admit."
But the liberal project is a hungry beast. It gobbles up dissent like Bill Clinton at Mickey D's, and it can easily digest the radical vision of a decade ago. The image of white gay men struggling to survive is a bit overripe these days. It's apparent now that every character in Angels (and probably in the audience) is what the prophet calls them in his final speech: "fabulous." And most people who die of AIDS these days aren't fabulous. The play's power now resides in its astounding theatricality and philosophical reach, but to the extent that it's "a gay fantasia on national themes," as Kushner dubbed the original, "Angels" feels like what it wasn't in 1993: a memory play.
Since his big breakthrough, Kushner has written several dramas that will never be optioned by Rosie O'Donnell. "I love it that fans of Angels in America had to suffer through a three-and-a-half hour play about Afghanistan," he snorts. He's thinking of a wonderful, thorny piece called "Homebody/Kabul" that will be revived at BAM next spring. Kushner's current opus is even more unexpected: a sung-through musical scored by Jeanine Tesori and written almost entirely in verse. It's set in the fall of 1963, when the civil rights movement surged toward powerand when everything orderly exploded along with John F. Kennedy's skull. "It was a tinderbox moment," Kushner says, "an epistemological break. Suddenly there was something new." Hence the title: "Caroline, or Change."
But those words have a double meaning. Change also refers to the petty cash a Jewish family living in Louisiana doles out to its black maid (powerfully played by Tonya Pinkins). In order to teach the young boy of the house not to leave change in his pockets, the family allows Caroline to take whatever she finds there. For her, these throwaway coins mean dental work or clothes for her three children, and the pain of scrounging for white people's leavings leads to a horrifying confrontation, when Caroline turns on the eight-year-old who is deeply attached to herand grieving for his dead mother. Answering his impetuously racist outburst, she tells him that all Jews burn in hell.
Unlike Kushner's other plays, this one is loosely autobiographical. He did grow up Jewish in Louisiana, and though his mother didn't die during his childhood she struggled with breast cancer. Like the boy in "Caroline," Kushner was drawn to the family maid. "She had one remarkable characteristic: She didn't smile a lot and she wasn't nice like other people's maids. I loved her and she loved us, it turns out now." But love is warped by stigma, and in the '60s the racial order positioned Southern Jews and blacks in an uneasy hierarchy: the not-quite-white just above the never-to-be. These two spoiled identities produced a certain solidarity along with a special hostility. The conflict was shaped not just by religion and race but by money. "These are tenuous but affectionate relationships that become almost unworkable when money is introduced," says Kushner. "It's the 'Moby Dick' moment when they nail the doubloon to the mast and everything changes."
In a sense, "Caroline" is Kushner's attempt to queer "Angels" by putting cash back into thinking about race and gender. After all, money is a major signifier of status, and fear of falling even further is what keeps stigmatized people from uniting against the order that oppresses them. It stops white women from identifying with black men, and prevents gay gents from relating to butch dykes and trannies. In challenging sexist assumptions on the left, identity politics has obscured the significance of cash. Now it's time to make the analysis whole, and "Caroline" announces that change. "The '80s and '90s were about an illusion of abundance," says Wolfe. "But more people are like Caroline today. And $30 a week ain't enough."
"Caroline" departs from the domain of Angels in another important respect. All the men in this musical are absent, archaic, or too depressed to communicate. This is a play about women and children, and that creates another layer of complexity, reflected in Tesori's propulsive score, which includes music for the washing machine and radio in the basement that is Caroline's world. In this character, Tesori sees many issues she tackled in women's studies: "slicing off parts of yourself, not wanting to take up much space, living in an emotional basement with four walls around you at all times.
"This story could have been 'Medea,'" Tesori says, "but it's not. It's about a woman who understands that there's nowhere to deposit her talent and intellect. She kills them off so she can advocate for the going-forward of her children." As the daughter of Sicilian immigrantsanother not-quite-white group in AmericaTesori found much to connect with in Caroline's struggle. "The idea of moving beyond the generation before you produced a lot of rancor and misplaced aggression in immigrant households. I understand that legacy."
Two sorta white folks collaborate to create a poor black woman. A black director depicts the ways of Southern Jews. The director and author are gayand if you listen closely you'll find evidence that the eight-year-old protagonist of this play will grow up to be that way. These permutations speak to a new identity politics of "subtlety, sophistication, and complexity that reflects the world we're experiencing now," to quote Kushner. This resonance with the present makes "Caroline," which presumes to be a memory play, seem oddly more contemporary than "Angels." After 9-11, America is closer to the unfathomable feelings that the JFK assassination unleashed. "We're at the same point now," Wolfe maintains, "and war as a tactic of heroics has only intensified the fragility and vulnerability."
What does this have to do with Walter Benjamin? Everything, Kushner insists. "Caroline is a woman who loses her mobility. She can't stop grieving over losses, and, like Benjamin's angel, her face is turned to the past. She wants to go back, but the terrible lesson of history is that she can't." Her brazen teenage daughter who won't take shit from white folks propels the playand the world forward. Violence, struggle, and backlash will follow, but she sees only the world as it is and must not be. She will be fabulous.
All this talk about the angel of history has made me think about my first reaction to the Twin Towers falling down. Unable to process this terrible event, I was exhilarated. I felt weirdly giddy in the face of something so unimaginable and uncontrollable. Before horror set in, there was a primal pleasure at the storm of change. "Ah," Kushner says softly, almost reverently, "the apocalypse."
Richard Goldstein is the Executive Editor of the Village Voice.
At his post-victory press conference, Arnold Schwarzenegger was asked whether he would keep his promise to investigate the charges of sexual harassment made against him. "Old news," the governator replied. It was a dismissal Bill Clinton could envy.
Of course, Clinton was the nemesis of angry white men, while Arnold is hardly that. Sexual solidarity is the main reason why he prevailed. Unlike most California elections, where women are the majority of voters, this one was a white-boy jamboree. Exit polls revealed that female voters were evenly divided on the recall. If they had come out in their usual numbers, it might well have failed. But many women sat this one out, perhaps because they were appalled by every option. On the other hand, white men were fired up, and they voted overwhelmingly for the candidate who made them feel empowered: the Human Hummer.
For this constituency, it's quite possible that the groping allegations made Arnold seem even more like The Man. No exit poll can measure that kind of perception. Nor will we know how many women were turned on by fantasies of Arnold's prowess. But the polls did show that women under 30 were the least likely to buy his apology. Their mothers were more amenable. They had been taught to accept this explanation, or even to collude in the joke.
Take the woman on the 'Total Recall' set who was fondled by Arnold and was told that her breasts needed realignment. "Though she was visibly embarrassed," wrote one reporter who saw the incident, "she ended up laughing along with a dozen or so crew members." That's the typical grin-and-bear-it reaction to unwanted tactile attention from a powerful man. To complain is to risk ridicule or worse. The woman who accused Arnold of pulling up her T-shirt and sucking on her breast (a photo of this magic moment was displayed on the set) was called a prostitute by the Schwarzenegger campaign.
So deep is the reflex to avoid further humiliation that even U.S. Senator Patty Murray kept silent when Strom Thurmond groped her in an elevator. Another senator, Bob Packwood, was forced to resign in 1995 after he was accused of harassing 17 women. But as Steven Sack, author of 'The Working Woman's Legal Survival Guide,' notes, in order for groping to be legally actionable, "it has to be hard enough to leave a mark." If it's done in private and nothing shows, or if the perp isn't in a supervisory role, there may be no recourse. Still, serial groping can be prosecuted, and if all the women who were hit on by Arnold had filed charges, they might have had a case. Instead, they kept their silence for years. That's why it's unlikely that Arnold will be indicted. "You have to come forward when it happens," says Sack. "There's a statute of limitations -- in some states it's six months -- and the only way to stop the clock is to complain."
It wasn't even possible to do that until 1986, when the Supreme Court ruled that sexual harassment is a form of discrimination. We're still working out the definition of that crime -- and groping is right on the boundary between boorish and illegal behavior. As the California election shows, when it comes to guys who grab girls, we're living in the days of 'A Streetcar Named Desire.' Remember the moment when Stanley smacks Stella on the butt because she has annoyed him? "I hate when he does that," Stella tells her sister, with a twinkle. That's how the voters treated Arnold.
Tolerance of male sexual aggression that stops short of rape is the main reason why Schwarzenegger got away with groping for three decades. In liberal Hollywood, he earned the affectionate nickname "The Octopus." In the wake of his victory, we're told that Americans have come to think of a politician's sex life as irrelevant. Clinton gets blamed for that, as well. But this libertarian attitude applies only to men. What if an actress running for office had a history of grabbing men's crotches? Would the voters overlook it? The answer speaks to the politics of groping.
In 'Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder,' Schwarzenegger gave us his credo: "A certain amount of people are meant to be in control." Aside from its authoritarian vibe, this is the perfect groper's code. The right to manhandle women is part of the time-honored system that allows one sex to express its impulses while the other must be constrained. Babes may get to wield the sword in vanguard entertainments, but in life a woman with a weapon is not just dangerous; she's a pervert.
Who knows what effect modulating her sexual impulses -- and putting up with men who don't -- has on a woman's sense of personal power? Women who rebel against this code must struggle against a lifetime of training in restraint and assertion along strictly defined lines. I'm not just talking about sex but about the larger consequences of keeping your energy in check. If men are given greater expressive leeway, they will always have an advantage over women, if only because they don't have to cope with the anxiety of violating a gender role every time they act out.
This is why women's sports are so important (and why cutting funds for those programs has become a cause for conservatives). Physical agency is the best preparation for having an impact on the world. To the extent that women play ball, wear less binding clothing, drive big machines, and enjoy freedom from sexual subordination, they are more likely to wield power -- and to feel good about it. Groping is a remnant of the old order, in which men get to be "playful" and women are expected to enjoy being played.
Maybe some women do dig it, but that doesn't change the fact that groping is a one-way transgression. What if it were otherwise? What if both sexes felt free to reach out and touch someone? At the least, groping would be taken much more seriously if it worked both ways. Women who are tempted in this direction may think grabbing a guy would only add to his pleasure. But that's because when a man imagines being "victimized" this way, the perp is Uma Thurman. They don't think of the female equivalent of Strom Thurmond fondling their nuts in an elevator. Or a middle-aged spinster reaching under men's shorts to pinch their butts. Or a serial groper who is the boss! That's the plot of a male-paranoia movie starring Michael Douglas.
If you want to stop gropinators in their tracks, grab them back. Not as a romantic response, but as a preemptive action when a guy is known for this m.o. Some people may shrink from the thought of mutually assured harassment, but there's another possibility. Women might feel less humiliated by erotic touching if they could respond in kind, and men might not get off on groping if it were no longer a sign of macho. When you change the power relations, an aggressive act takes on new meaning. A predatory male practice can evolve into a tacitly consensual rite. And when it comes to human sexuality, that may be the most you can expect.
Richard Goldstein is executive editor of the Village Voice.
As the first bombs fell on Baghdad, George Bush was getting his hair done. We know this because a rogue technician broke protocol by beaming a candid image from the Oval Office to the BBC. Millions of people around the world saw the president primping and squirming, his eyes darting to and fro, for a minute and a half before his here-comes-the-war address. The White House was up in arms. "This kind of thing has happened more than once," fumed a senior aide, vowing that it would never happen again.
It's evident why Bush's hairspray moment was taken so seriously. The blooper must have played like a clip from "America's Funniest Home Videos" dropped into the middle of Monday Night Football. Not only did the president seem vain and prissy; he looked uncertain--a real blow to the mastery that the White House is determined to project. Not to worry: The American networks never picked up the subversive footage. Nothing was allowed to intrude on the spectacle of bombs falling on Baghdad that unfolded before our eyes last Wednesday night.
This was a fateful twist on the famous exchange between William Randolph Hearst and an artist assigned to portray Spanish atrocities in Cuba a century or so ago. "There is no trouble here. There will be no war," the artist wired the tabloid king, to which Hearst reportedly replied, "You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." This time the Pentagon provided both, and the networks processed these high-tech images into a pageant of unprecedented power.
For most people, newspapers are a souvenir of television. So it's no surprise that even the logo-centric New York Times would publish jumbo four-color photos, as if to freeze-frame last night's prime-time action. In this story, the only scoop the press can provide is nuance, and war is no time for that. Nor does it matter, except to watchdogs of the right and left, which way the media lean. Print doesn't shape public opinion, and on TV the content of coverage is not the key to its meaning. The real spin lies in the flow of imagery and its impact on the imagination.
There's more to the collusion between the networks and the Pentagon than ideology. Both parties have an interest in creating a drama, one that draws viewers into a web of associations, producing thrills, chills, and secret delight. These feelings are heightened by the belief that they convey the real meaning of actual events. The French, those weaselly surrender monkeys, call this confluence of the virtual and the vérité "hyper-reality." It's the grand illusion of our time.
Hyper-reality is a fiction that presents itself as fact. Its power is enhanced by churning Chyrons and rolling ribbons of text. These signifiers of "breaking news" are also a landscape that keeps the eye alert and moving. Meanwhile anchors spin the narrative thread. War wipes the usual smiles from their faces, and they must maintain a tone of reverent gravity however mesmerizing the imagery. But every now and then, a burst from the id lights up the commentary.
"Slam, bam, bye-bye Saddam," a guest colonel blurted on CNN as the first missiles fell on Baghdad. No doubt many a surround-sound jock had those words on his mind if not his lips. But a Quaker might be unable to resist this invitation to exhilaration. The absence of flesh and blood allowed us to marvel at the impact violence. Bombs burst over the Tigris with the splendor of award-winning cinematography. Satellite maps offered detailed aerial views of targets, placing each of us in a virtual cockpit -- every couch potato his own Josh Hartnett.
But we saw all that in Gulf War I. What's truly new, and memorable, about this sequel is its aura of intimacy. Embedding journalists with the troops has produced its desired effect, creating a feeling of thereness that many an action-movie director would envy. But the insignia of this event is its distinctive low-res look. It resembles early generations of video games but with a far more resonant edge. The visual plane is flattened, the voices of reporters crackle, the image breaks up into pixelated squares. It's the cubism of postmodern combat. And like cubism, low-res forces the viewer to fill in the semiotic blanks. Gaze at these images long enough and you enter a semi-rational state. Your mind may find it offensive but your senses say sit back and enjoy The Shock and Awe Show.
Back in the '60s, when TV still seemed like a new medium, Marshall McLuhan wrote that every novel technology draws from familiar forms until it establishes its own aesthetic. The first cars were horseless carriages, the first art photos were modeled on painting, the first TV shows were visualizations of radio. McLuhan would have understood why the look of this war resembles our favorite new genre: reality TV. It has the same voyeuristic kick, the same aura of faintly forbidden intrusion. Now we know what pilots mean when they describe the terrible beauty of bombardment. Now we know what it's like to face enemy fire. Or do we?
Reality TV is an illusion created by artful editing. Everything that seems actual has been distilled into high drama. The jiggle of the handheld camera makes the mirage even more lifelike. The same is true of war in low-res. Tanks race through the desert in a beige haze. Time and space collapse as we move in a flash from aircraft carrier to exploding palace, from the home front to Qatar. This preternatural state relaxes as it arouses. We know we won't be assaulted with sights too shocking to bear. No one will hear our hearts pound in private. Such safe and secret stimulation is the joy of voyeurism. By providing a steady stream of anodyne imagery, the government can go a long way toward turning war into a guilty pleasure. By embedding war in a popular TV genre, the networks do their part to make it bearable.
But combat has a way of violating the rules of the reality game. As high tech gives way to flesh-and-blood fighting, the cameras will have to confront the corpses -- either that or the pageant will look like the fake it is. When the agony becomes unavoidable, who knows how the intimacy of this coverage will play to the open eye? The low-res aesthetic has yet to reveal its true impact. The dreamlike trance it promotes could be a new basis for empathy.
Walking home last Friday after watching Op-Iraq in every store and restaurant, I was caught in a serious rainstorm. As lightning flashed and thunder roared, I felt a jolt of something approaching horror. Before it passed and reason prevailed, I was forced to calculate the distance between New York and Baghdad. It may not always be so great. Someday it could be me fleeing from catastrophe while sat-phones beam my agony to a distant population. I don't think I would have conjured up this fantasy if I hadn't spent the better part of two nights and days in the magic kingdom of shock and awe.
So get ready for your close-up, Mr. President. There are unintended consequences to hyper-reality TV.
Richard Goldstein is executive editor of the Village Voice.
Say what you will about oil and hegemony, but the pending invasion of Iraq is more than just a geopolitical act. It's also the manifestation of a cultural attitude. To understand how this war is being packaged and sold, you have to look at the fantasies Americans consume as they graze through the vast terrain of TV, radio, movies and the Internet. In this charged environment, pop culture and politics swirl around each other like strands of DNA. The product of this interplay is the current crisis.
From Colin Powell dissing the French as cowards to Donald Rumsfeld raising his fists at the podium, the Bush Administration bristles with an almost cartoonish macho. It's a little like watching pro wrestling in a global arena. Why is this smackdown style acceptable to many Americans now? Bill Clinton has an explanation. "When people feel uncertain," he said after the Democratic Party's recent electoral rout, "they'd rather have somebody who's strong and wrong than somebody who's weak and right."
This truism seems to resonate with human nature, but other crises have produced a very different response. Faced with the Great Depression, not to mention Pearl Harbor, Americans chose a President who seemed strong and right. It's a measure of how the nation has changed that when we were attacked this time we closed ranks behind a leader whose program leaves many with a sinking feeling. Polls show a similar ambivalence about the war, yet it hasn't led to a revolt against the Administration. Why are people willing to suspend their disbelief in Bush? Why are we drawn to the strong man who is wrong?
The answer lies not in our stars but in our superstars. To understand how America has changed since 9/11, it's necessary to examine the attitudes that dominated movies and music before 9/11. The mindset of manly belligerence was already in place when the planes struck. In the horror that followed, we struggled for a way to respond--and we found it in the icon of neo-macho man.
Not so long ago, you couldn't say "macho man" without thinking of the Village People. Hypermasculinity was so thoroughly discredited that it seemed fit for camp. Now it's back, in earnest. But this revival was no bolt from the blue. The neo-macho hero has a history.
He sprang from the reaction to feminism that began in the 1980s and advanced in the '90s, even as the empowerment of women became a tenet of Democratic politics. As women rose, so did male anxiety, and in this edgy climate a new archetype appeared in pop culture: the sexual avenger. His rage often focused on personal betrayal, but implicit in his tirades was a sense of the world turned upside down.
By 1990 the revolt against feminism was a hip commodity. Shock-jocks like Howard Stern and Don Imus dominated drive-time radio, misogynistic comics like Sam Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay were late-night TV sensations, rock marauders spat variations on Axl Rose's final solution for bitchy women: "Burn the witch." Meanwhile, at the multiplex the sexually cornered male, embodied by Michael Douglas in a series of films from Fatal Attraction (1987) to Disclosure (1994), was the new Dirty Harry.
At first, these performers combined racial and sexual resentment for a double thrill. Imus and his sidekicks did cottonfield imitations of black celebrities, Axl railed against "immigrants and faggots [who] come into our country and...spread some fucking disease," the Diceman vowed vengeance on immigrants. But racism was an impediment to crossover success. Misogyny, however, was not. In the Clinton era, the backlash reached a fever pitch--and Hillary was hardly its only target. Pop culture invited men of all races and ages to bond over bitch-bashing, and as the 1990s progressed every market niche had its version of the sexual avenger.
The most commercial hip-hop fronted for this backlash. Veering from its radical roots in the black community, gangsta rap became a spectacle of male conquest. Its paragon was the player (pimp) ruling over abject hos and raining violence on resistant bitches. Because these top dawgs trafficked in sadism, they were sexy in a way that angry white males of the 1980s could never be. And because they were for the most part black, their rage could be cast as progressive. Many liberals who would never buy into Rush Limbaugh's "feminazi" rants were drawn to neo-macho rappers who carried the imprimatur of the street. Postmodernists saw this music as an exercise in role-playing or an outlet for fantasies that would never be carried out in life, certainly not in politics. Armed with denial, even a pro-feminist man could enjoy the spectacle--and critics called it art.
The most unexpected boost to backlash culture came from young women who gravitated to its forbidden games. It was hot to play the ho and cool to call yourself a bitch. You could always tell yourself that this was just an erotic pose. But the return of fetishized femininity was about more than sex. Men were not the only ones made anxious by the new female agency. Many women feared the loss of desirability that their power might bring--and teenagers were especially prone to these uncertainties. The new model offered a way out for boys and girls alike.
Without the backlash, other, more progressive tendencies in hip-hop might have prevailed. But the flight from feminism had created a huge market for bitch-bashing anthems. By meeting this demand in a powerful musical form, gangsta rappers tapped into the choice demographic of suburban teens. Sexual violence was only part of the thug package, but it turned millions of white kids on, resonating with the broader culture of misogyny. The male avenger was emerging as the insignia of rebellion for a new generation.
Still, there were alternatives to the backlash in the 1990s. Daytime TV was as wild as talk-radio, but with a far less patriarchal slant on sex and society (to suit its largely female audience). Celebrities like RuPaul offered a potent dissent from the polarities of gender. Female comics and rappers could be as wicked as their male counterparts, andMadonna was a bigger draw than any neo-macho man. Eminem was still a guilty pleasure. Today Madonna gives interviews extolling the virtues of matrimony, and Forbes.com proclaims that Eminem "may be the most popular man in America." What has changed?
The short answer is 9/11. In its wake, the once-mocked figure of the dominant male has become a real-life hero. Saluting the new spirit of patriarchal vitality, People included Rumsfeld in its most recent list of the sexiest men alive. In his feckless swagger we see the timeless union of militarism and macho. Then there's Rudy Giuliani, who emerged from 9/11 as "America's mayor." His authoritarian streak has been repackaged as the mark of leadership. Like any alpha male, Rudy can confer macho on other Republicans, as he did for George Pataki in a campaign ad proclaiming New York's pallid governor "a real man."
That phrase can now be uttered without a trace of irony. It informs the banter of Jay Leno, who reacted to the rescue of trapped miners last summer by remarking, "It's great to see real men back in the news. I'm so sick of weasels." It even colors the prose of style writers in the New York Times, as in this observation from a female reporter shortly after the dust of 9/11 cleared: "A certain kind of woman [is] tired of the dawdlers, melancholics and other variants of genius who would not know what to do with a baseball mitt or a drill press." Eminem put it more succinctly when he called his sensitive rival Moby "a little girl." Such rhetoric no longer reads like an expression of ideology. The real man seems vital--and necessary in a crisis.
We haven't always been so attuned to the need for our leaders to be macho. It wasn't the measure of FDR's strength. But Roosevelt arose from a culture that regarded protecting the weak as an important manly virtue. The pop heroes of his day were loner lawmen, reluctant warriors or world-weary survivors with a secret decent streak. There were bad boys, to be sure. The denizens of Depression-era crime films were as violent and vital in their narcissism as today's gangsta rappers. But something crucial has changed. The bad boy's primary target is no longer the system but strong women and weak men. Power is the ability to turn both into "my bitches," in the parlance of prison and pop. It may be wrong to rule others, but it's strong, and these days dominance is its own reward.
Not that the good guys have disappeared. The firefighters who gave their lives in the Twin Towers are heroes of 9/11, as they should be. But this benign image allows us to forget that the dark side of macho has also been unleashed. Male grievance has found a geopolitical target in Saddam. Sexual revenge has been sublimated into military payback. Underlying this process is a sense of the world as a jungle where friendship is transient, danger is everywhere and one can never have enough power. This is the classic rationale for macho. Feminism teaches us that it's a pretext for preserving the order. Liberalism tells us it's paranoid. But what once seemed like paranoia is regarded as reason, and what was piggy now feels natural.
No one plies the neo-macho trade like Eminem. Talent notwithstanding, what made this blue-eyed rapper a star was his baroque misogyny (as in: "My little sister's birthday, she'll remember me/For a gift I had ten of my boys take her virginity"). Eminem is the hottest recording artist in America, a singular honor for a man who never wrote a love song to a woman. Instead, he struck gold (or rather, platinum) by ruminating about raping his mother and slaughtering every bitch in sight. At first, these attitudes were impossible for critics to ignore. Those who praised Eminem felt compelled to issue a caveat about his hate. There was a line in liberal culture he couldn't cross. But that changed with his first starring role in a film. 8 Mile is a fictionalized biopic set in streets so mean that even the sun stays out of sight. It opened in November to rave reviews, and it's raked in more than $100 million since. A little cleaning up is all it took to transform this monster from the id into a populist hero, a Rocky for our time.
Gone are Eminem's attacks on women and gays (as in: "Hate fags? The answer's yes"). In 8 Mile he never busts a rhyme against a bitch, not even his mom; he adores his little sister and sticks up for a homo. The film firemanizes Eminem by placing him in the tradition of working-class heroes and blunting his sexism with stirring images of racial harmony. This is balm to liberals--and it's allowed mainstream critics (nearly all of whom are men) to overlook the meaning of Eminem's rise.
A similar sublimation occurred when Elvis Presley became a mainstream icon. His first feature film, Love Me Tender, was a historical romance that didn't call for pelvic action. As his public broadened, he didn't need to grind in order to be understood. Of course, Elvis embodied a different morality than Eminem does. His appeal was Dionysian rather than sadistic; his lewdness didn't preclude the possibility of love. These values fueled not just Elvis's ascendance but also a sexual revolution that would change society. A radical new vision, which began as the stuff of pop, evolved into a generational norm. The Eminem experience is producing something similar--with very different consequences.
It's no coincidence that 8 Mile ruled the box office right after Bush's GOP romped at the polls. These two young patriarchs seem utterly opposite, but they have fundamental things in common. Both are social conservatives who stand for a male-dominated order. Both owe their appeal to anxiety over sexual and social change. Both offer the spectacle of an aggrieved man reacting with righteous rage. These qualities, which once seemed dangerous, now read as reassuring. The macho stance that once looked stylized is now a mark of authenticity.
Sexual terror is rarely dealt with as a factor in politics. The intimate nature of this anxiety prevents it from being addressed, and as a result, it operates in powerful, unapparent ways. That's certainly how sex played out in the 2000 campaign, when Al Gore was tarred with the priss brush while Bush butched his way to the White House.
It's easy for Republicans to seem manly, for the same reason pundits call the GOP the Daddy Party. Their tough-love style represents patriarchal values of strength and order. If the Democrats are (often disparagingly) called the Mommy Party, it's because their attitude expresses feminist values of empathy and equity. Democratic men are not less masculine than Republicans, but they tend to be less macho in their manner, reflecting an etiquette that allows both sexes to project power. This is also why Democratic women tend to be less courtly and decorated than the daughters of the GOP. When voters see these qualities in a candidate, they are reminded of the underlying sexual politics. If Democratic men seem weak and Democratic women all too strong, it has much less to do with character than with the angst that the party of feminism generates.
Clinton brought a trickster's charms to the table, but Gore was running against that type, and he never figured out how to combine probity with vitality. A marathon kiss from Tipper didn't do the trick, since she was another one of those bitches--a kinder, blonder Hillary--while Laura Bush left no doubt about her proper place, three steps behind her husband. Then came Naomi Wolfe, whose effort to counsel Gore on color schemes was met with the same scorn that greeted Jimmy Carter when he got attacked by a rabbit. Dubya didn't have to count on a gal to tell him how to dress--he was his own Man! Even his flubs at identifying world leaders made him seem like a dude. After all, no one ever lost macho points for being stupid.
Gore won the popular vote, but as heir to an Administration that had produced peace and prosperity he should have triumphed. It wasn't just his stiffness that hurt him; it was the backlash. By then it was so embedded in mass consciousness that Bush's good-old-boy affect seemed natural while Gore's New Age style seemed politically correct. Too many moderates were lulled by Dubya's charming macho. The culture had clouded their ability to read its ideological content. Bush didn't look right wing; he just looked right.
Now that patriarchy is associated with survival, how can the party of feminism prevail? It's easier to see the problem than the solution, but a good start would be for Democrats to reject the idea that they are weak. This image is a figment of the backlash, meant to demean those who support the empowerment of women. It can't be dispelled by butching up, since the real issue--sexual equity--will remain. The only option for the Mommy Party is to embrace its identity. That means stripping Republican macho of its mystique. This is a moment for speaking truth to power.
The Democrats should hammer the point that virtually every issue--not just abortion--is a women's issue. Take Bush's plan to privatize large swaths of the federal government. Any attempt to cut wages will have an undue effect on women, since so many of them work in the public sector. Then there's the signal Bush sends when he defunds women's bureaus in federal agencies and closes the White House Office for Women's Initiatives and Outreach. There's a pattern here, but it's hard to see because gender is the great unmentionable in public life, and women are especially invisible as citizens in a time of crisis.
It's even harder to address the culture that animates these policies. No progressive wants to be a censor, a puritan or, worse still, a fogy. But attention must be paid, because cultural values are central to social reality. A norm can only be undone if people understand the damage it does, and macho is a stunting force even when it looks fresh and young. Under its thumb, a generation is growing up with attitudes that will warp their lives, not to mention the course of American politics.
Fortunately, this is not another lost liberal cause. The public's doubts about Bush persist, as his seesawing popularity attests. There's a lingering uncertainty about the war, and not just among doves. These misgivings reflect a deep ambivalence about the macho code. Yet this primal issue is rarely broached. What will it take for the best and brightest Democrats to address the relationship between male dominance and the current crisis? Don't count on courage. Politicians usually arrive when the coast is cleared by culture. It remains for artists to challenge the backlash and for critics to criticize it.
It's time to create a new vocabulary of dissent, one that makes a clear connection between war fever and thug power. There's no more urgent task. The dawgs of war are about to be unleashed. Thousands will die, billions will be spent and most of us will have to do with less. These are the wages of following a leader who is strong but wrong. He's the man; we're his bitches.
Richard Goldstein is the executive editor of Village Voice.
Two events of lasting significance occurred last week: the breakdown of the Democratic party and the breakthrough of Eminem. His debut film, "8 Mile", became the highest-grossing movie in America just days after Republicans won control of Congress. These two events may not seem related, but they both reflect the mainstreaming of ideas that seemed extreme just two years ago. Bush's right-wing agenda and Eminem's violent misogyny were once considered over the line. Now they have crossed over and become the line.
Not that Em is a Republican (though he might favor ending the estate tax). But he and George W. Bush do have certain things in common. Both draw their power from the compelling image of the strongman posing as the common man. Both played the populist card to win the nation's heart. And I would argue that both owe their success to the sexual backlash.
When Scott Silver, whose last movie was "The Mod Squad," was asked by Universal to write a screenplay for Eminem, he couldn't resist. "I pitched something that reflected [the] outrageous humor and cartoonish violence of his records," Silver told Entertainment Weekly. "They were like, 'Uh, no.' " Universal wanted to expand the demographic of its hottest music property, so Silver was ordered to create a drama that could reach an audience with reservations about Eminem. Bush faced a similar task in winning over an electorate with doubts about the economy. His solution was to play down the message and play up personality. "8 Mile" does something similar by associating its star with root values like struggle and community. It's a stump speech for Eminem.
Though "8 Mile" is being described as a blue-collar inspirational in the tradition of "Rocky," it's more like a classic war movie with a white alpha male and an interracial unit. In this spectacle of the street, the sun never shines and the nights are tinted lurid blue. It's the perfect setting for a film about male combat and solidarity. All evidence that women play a powerful role in working-class society is repressed. The good bitches help their men; the bad ones betray them -- end of story. Worst of all is our B-boy's dissolute mother. There's no attempt to reckon with the reasons for her haplessness. The social context is reserved for the men. They are full-blown characters; the women are full-bodied foils.
This distortion would have been noticed just a few years ago. But as the backlash advances, it gets harder to argue against the flattening of women without being pounded with the cudgel of p.c. A lot of men -- and women -- like it that way, at least in bed. It sure beats sex-role anxiety. What's truly alarming is the extra-libidinal dimension of this fantasy. There is growing pressure on women to cede their autonomy, and last week's election hinted at the result. The gender gap, which played a major role in recent elections, seems to have narrowed considerably this year. It's not just the reflex to close ranks behind the leader in a time of crisis; it's an impulse to stand by the Man. Bush benefits from this retrenchment, and so does Eminem, as the large female audience for "8 Mile" attests.
Women are not the only swing constituency that voted in great numbers for Eminem. Many liberals are drawn by his populist aura, which "8 Mile" plays to the hilt. Of course, populism is a two-edged sword: It validates the working class, but it can also justify the confinement of women to traditional roles. In most populist epics, men represent the people and women express solidarity. This, too, is a reassuring image, one that can reconcile many liberals to the backlash because it makes the sexual order seem progressive.
Liberals are no less susceptible than conservatives to nostalgia for a world where male power seems righteous, especially when it's allied with the truth-telling vitality of the street. "8 Mile" is a feel-good movie with precisely that scenario. It kindles the old liberal dream about class trumping race while repressing the real reason why black and white men can bond over a rapper like Eminem. He gives them a common enemy: women. In fact, gender trumps both class and race in his music, but populism lets liberals pretend otherwise.
You wouldn't know from "8 Mile" that bitch bashing is what made this angry white male a star. On-screen, our hero gets violent only with nasty dudes, and he's a friend to homos, chastising his posse for taunting a gay member. So much for Em's bad old boast about stabbing "you in the head, whether you're a fag or lez." The willful forgetting of what these words actually mean is a sure sign that the social climate is changing. Eminem is an icon of that shift.
When Elvis Presley was ready for his close-up, he chose a historical romance with the buttery title "Love Me Tender." It was an ideal crossover vehicle because it sublimated his sexuality into devotion. But the image onscreen was still Elvis of the writhing hips and sly regard. The audience could enjoy his transgressive aura while pretending to watch a love story. The same process of turning funk into frisson is now being applied to Eminem, but the times are very different now. El ushered in a sexual politics of Dionysian ecstasy and male display. Em emblematizes an age of sadistic pleasure and male control. In order for liberals to enjoy this show, they must convince themselves that something else is going on. This is where pop critics come in. Their job is not to deconstruct the culture but to preside over guilty pleasures.
Frank Rich, the Times critic at large, certainly knows how to go with the flow. As the Eminem consensus evolved, so did he.
Two years ago, Rich described our hero as "a charismatic white rapper [who] trades in violence, crude sex, and invective roughing up heterosexual women, lesbians, and gay men." A year ago he pondered whether "racial crossover in the cultural market makes up for a multitude of misogynistic and homophobic sins." Now he's slamming "moral scolds" for dissing Em, while confessing, "I've been fascinated by him ever since I first heard his songs at the inception of his notoriety." Now Rich accepts the dubious claim that faggot is just "an all-purpose insult," and he regards the sexual violence as no worse than "typical multiplex Grand Guignol." Imagine the word kike becoming a generic insult -- would that make it less anti-Semitic? Imagine racism as violent as the sexism in Em's oeuvre -- would anyone slough it off as a charade?
You can claim, as Rich no doubt would, that the playa/'ho dichotomy is just a metaphor in the service of arousal. But erotic fantasies are never just about sex. They are subversive precisely because they have the potential to construct a social norm. What does it mean when our most powerful public reveries are dedicated to male dominance and female submission? This is the crucial question posed by the triumph of Eminem--one most critics won't touch. Instead, they ratify the consensus, making it legit. Male dominance, the populism of fools, becomes something to celebrate. And when culture is on the same page as politics, you've got hegemony.