The Wimp Factor

The author of a new and timely book reveals how American politics is shaped by a cultural definition of masculinity that is based on disavowing all things feminine.
Swaggering machismo got a new lease on life after the post-9/11 attacks, as Republicans tried to appropriate not just patriotism but also masculinity as a GOP virtue. Attacking the manhood of the opposition has become a signature tactic of any GOP election strategy. So it isn't surprising that the 2004 presidential election campaign has been played out over the past six months as a battle over John Kerry's masculinity. Be it his "sensitivity" on the war on terror or "girlie-man" preoccupation with the lack of jobs or health care, Kerry has been forced to defend himself from a barrage of rhetoric carefully designed to cast not just him but the entire Democratic plank as the epitome of feminine weakness.

As Stephen Ducat points out in his new book, "The Wimp Factor: Gender Gaps, Holy Wars, and the Politics of Anxious Masculinity," this obsessive focus with masculinity is hardly new. The penis was a major player even in ancient Greek politics. In the United States, politicians have long adopted a working class machismo to win popular support. Wonder where Dubya got his inspiration? You need look no further than Teddy Roosevelt, who was as much a faux cowboy as our current president.

A professor of psychology in the School of Humanities at New College of California, Ducat is a licensed clinical psychologist. "The Wimp Factor" draws connections between Mohamed Atta's last wishes, the electoral gender gap and environmentalism to paint a picture of a national psyche defined by a deeply flawed definition of manhood.

Ducat spoke to AlterNet from his home in San Francisco.

What is the central thesis of your book?

First let me throw out the term "femiphobia" as a way of naming this anxiety. Femiphobia is the male fear of being feminine. The underlying premise of my book is that the most important thing about being a man is not being a woman. This imperative to be repudiate everything feminine – whether it's external or internal – is played out as much in politics as in personal life.

In politics – where there is an enormous potential for personal gain or ruin – what this leads to is a concerted effort on the part of candidates to disavow the feminine in themselves, and to project it on to their opponents.

That was the central function of the Republican National Convention. Once you got past the moderate sweet talk, the purpose was essentially to make John Kerry their woman. There were a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle code words in this attempt to feminize him. This is a strategy that Republicans have long employed. They've just been more brazen about it lately.

In the book, you argue that this anxiety about the feminine defines not just American politics but has been a part of the history of Western culture.

The problem with our current notion of masculinity is that it’s a definition of manhood based on domination. The problem with definition of manhood based on domination is that domination can never be a permanent condition. It’s a relational state – it is dependent on having somebody in the subordinate position, which means that you may be manly today, but you’re not going to be manly tomorrow, unless you’ve got somebody to push around and control. This definition goes back to the ancient Greeks, and it makes masculinity a precarious and brittle achievement – which has to be constantly asserted. It has to be proven over and over again. It is the ultimate Sisyphean pursuit.

It has characterized politics going all the way back to the ancient Greeks. They had their own version of the "wimp factor." The worst thing an ancient Greek politician could be accused of is being a binoumenos, which loosely translated means "fucked male." Manhood for the ancient Greeks – just as it is for us – was a difficult and transient achievement. It wasn't the gender that you had sex with that determined your masculinity, but what position you occupied in a relationship of domination. If you were penetrated, you were rendered essentially a woman. If you were the penetrator, then you were the man. In a way, we still hold that definition.

So is there anything unique in the way this "anxious masculinity" has taken root and developed in American political life?

In the United States, from the very beginning, if a politician wanted to attack the masculinity of a candidate, he would often accuse him of being aristocratic. The affectations of aristocracy were seen as markers of effeminacy. In a way that has very much informed what I describe in the book as the "wimp factor."

The term "wimp factor" is traceable to the representation of George Herbert Walker Bush in 1989 on the cover of Newsweek. Bush was a pampered patrician from an Eastern establishment family who was raised in the lap of luxury – which framed him as aristocratic. This was understood to be his primary political vulnerability, which was expressed in terms that are very similar to the concerns expressed in the 19th century.

Of course, in American culture, class is judged more in terms of style rather than anything empirical. So Bush [Senior] had a certain kind of artistocratic manner about him – he went to a truck stop and asked for "a splash" of more coffee. The incident made the news because it was judged to be an effeminate gesture.

So what I talk about in the book about the 19th century is the makeover that Theodore Roosevelt embarked on of himself – from somebody who is seen as an aristocratic dandy to becoming the "Cowboy of the Dakotas," as he liked to refer to himself.

He spent $40,000 dollars and bought property in the Badlands of South Dakota …

Just like Bush buying the ranch in Crawford.

Exactly. Like Roosevelt, both George Bush Sr. and George Bush Jr. tried to affect a geographic cure for their aristocratic origins. George W. was more successful. He was able to cultivate the accent and so on. He's been able to pull it off.

In American politics – both in the 19th century and in the present – it is a short step from seeming gilded to looking gelded. So there is an effort to adopt a persona of primitive masculinity. And the important thing to remember is that this is a makeover of style and not of substance. These are still wealthy members of the ruling elite, but their class is now camouflaged by virtue of this re-masculinization.

And so that's the big difference between American and, say, European politics, where being aristocratic is not necessarily seen as being feminine. Why is the working-class male seen as the epitome of machismo in a culture that's all about upward mobility?

In working-class culture, hyper-masculinity is understood more in terms with physicality, and it might be expressed in drinking, gambling, fighting, and so on. Over the years, this kind of working-class hyper-masculinity has been appropriated by those in the upper classes. It's seen as being more authentic because it's a more primitive expression of manhood.

Have you seen that movie "Fight Club"? That’s a movie about white-collar men who are unable to affirm their masculinity, [men] who live in a corporate hierarchy, and need to appropriate brutal pugilism that is their fantasy of working class masculinity. I think it relates, in part, to the inchoate sense that working as a paper shuffler, or as a bureaucrat, or in a cubicle, that there’s something unmanly about that. The popularity of boxing in the 19th century is actually about middle-class men who were drawn to the sport.

And so you see the kind of swaggering, cowboy pugilism among members of the elite like W. because that almost makes him seem like a regular guy.

Which in political life is very valuable.

Absolutely. It helps to disguise his class privilege as well, allowing him to seem like an ordinary guy – something his father was unable to do.

This is where his inarticulateness actually becomes an advantage – because in American culture, there is a disdain for intellectuality. And that disdain is a gendered disdain – men who are intellectual are seen as somehow less manly. And so if somebody speaks too well, or too articulate, his masculinity is called into question. That is why Kerry’s demeanor and facility with language has been problematic for him, while Bush’s dyslexia and inarticulateness and graceless use of language has actually been an advantage.

Let’s talk about the feminist revolution in this country in the 1970s. What impact does that have on the way gender plays out in politics?

We have the emergence in 1980s for the first time of the gender gap in political attitudes – men and women taking different political positions, voting for different candidates. Or, put another way, it’s when you begin to see the gendering of political issues where environmentalism is somehow female, or that being anti-regulatory is somehow male. The gender gap is the gendering of these political issues as masculine or feminine, which leads to men taking certain positions and women taking other positions.

This happens right after the decade which saw the big push for women’s rights.

It's right after the decade of the push for women’s rights, right after the decade of the only significant, military defeat in American history.

The fact that this defeat is understood by many in the culture as a psychological problem is evident in the fact that we actually have a pseudo-media name for it: “the Vietnam Syndrome.” We can understand the Vietnam Syndrome as a kind of wounded male self-esteem suffered by those who identify with a militarized nation-state and thereby feel humiliated vicariously in the defeat of the military in Vietnam.

Of course, in Vietnam, we weren’t just defeated by any enemy. We were defeated by an enemy that was largely viewed as somehow effeminate – you know, these little unmanly guys in black pajamas. They were constantly being derided in those terms, and yet they kicked America’s ass. And that was experienced as a profound humiliation.

So part of what we see in the 1980s is not only the emergence of the gender gap in politics, but also a whole new genre of war movies. These are movies in which hyper-masculine heroes win battles against the enemy once they throw off the shackles of the pussy-whipped bureaucrats in Washington that won’t really let us kick the enemy's butt the way we want to.

Like Rambo?

Like Rambo, Chuck Norris, Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis – all these action figures. It all involves the same thing: rewriting the history of the Vietnam war, in so far that these movies focus on battles and ignore the actual loss of the war.

In the book you show how the gender gap emerges because of a shift in male attitudes in politics, not so much because of the women change their views.

Yes, exactly – and that is a major argument of my book. The gender gap is about men becoming more conservative. It isn’t about women becoming more liberal. Now, the feminist movement, in a way, did effect a kind of liberalization, especially when it came to issues of gender. But I think, in many ways, presented as another kind of threat to men. What you see is that men become significantly more conservative. A Washington Post poll after the debate showed that 54 percent of men were supportive of Bush, where as only 49 percent of women [were]; Now that’s a 6 percent gap between men and women. But the more interesting gap is between groups of men. There was an 11 percent gap between the men that support Kerry and the men that support Bush. In other words, men are much more divided, if you will, than are women.

What was the difference between women?

Forty nine percent supported Bush and 47 percent supported Kerry. This is not that unusual. And again, women are pretty evenly divided, but men are not evenly divided. In other words, men are much more conservative than women are liberal.

What happened after 9/11? Did we regress or did hyper-masculinity in politics just become more obvious?

I think 9/11 was, in a way, Vietnam on steroids. I mean, 9/11 was a devastating horror, but it was also a humiliating atrocity, in addition to being a horrifying and disturbing one.

Part of what the attacks shattered was America’s phallic sense of invulnerability. You know, the sense that we don’t have to really think about anybody else. We are entitled to walk as giants across the globe and as one bumper sticker says in tongue in cheek, “What is our oil still doing in Iraq?” There’s this sense of a kind of omnipotence, of entitlement, of deserving privilege.

So for a brief period of time, there’s this kind of humility that comes over the country, but it quickly produces a kind of hyper-masculine backlash. It’s the revivication of a kind of primitive masculinity – the numerous kind of Chippendale-style calendars of firemen and policemen, the kind of conventional male heroes, which of course politicians wanted to appropriate.

All that rhetoric about how the "real men" are back?

You had all kinds of over-the-top, gushing encomia to this sort of post-9/11 revivified manhood. There was this special issue of the American Enterprise titled, “Real Men, They’re Back.” There was this article titled, “Return of Manly Leaders and the Americans Who Love Them.” There was even this contest where they had a chart of how Republicans and Democrats measured up and their conclusion was that to be a man you had to be a Republican. This is just one among numerous examples of the things that appeared post-9/11 period and prior to the invasion of Iraq.

If we understand the Iraq war as trying to assert masculinity after the trauma of 9/11, does that explain why the American public has been slow to accept that, perhaps, the war was a mistake?

One of the central features of what I call a phallic stance is the denial of weakness – the repudiation of dependency and the need for collaboration in all its forms. This is what we’re seeing. We have an administration that is, almost, congenitally incapable of acknowledging any mistake because to acknowledge a mistake is to really risk their manhood. To acknowledge a mistake, especially a mistake that involves failure to listen to advice – the proverbial refusal to ask for directions – imperils their manhood. And so, instead of this kind of behavior being pigheaded arrogance, it’s framed as manly resoluteness.

The Bush administration’s approach of swaggering masculinity appeals to this post-9/11 anxiety that you describe. But now we are in a war that is clearly a mistake. But during the campaign, it was far too risky for even John Kerry to admit that fact. So if he wins the election, do you think that the American public would be receptive to a Kerry administration saying after the elections, “This is a mistake, let’s find a way to get out”?

Yes, I think that it depends how it’s framed. He would have to frame it as a way of preserving American honor and that part of being honorable, and part of being effective in the world, is being able to learn from experience and being able to acknowledge one’s mistakes. I’m speaking of the American people as if they are a kind of a monolith, and different people would react differently. But I think there’s a majority – or plurality, at least – of people who would be able to accept it.

Right now, people are being lied to and they know they’re being lied to. But you have to reframe strength as truth-telling, as collaboration. So it would have to be framed in terms of strength, as opposed to acknowledging some shameful weakness.

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

Lakshmi Chaudhry is senior editor of AlterNet.