News & Politics

The Hidden Costs of America's Hypermasculine Culture

How America's fear of femininity is driving some of our worst foreign policy mistakes.
This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

So there's a smoking crater where Don Imus used to sit. That's fine with those of us who never understood the appeal of his grizzled-codger shtick, which, to me, always sounded like Rooster Cogburn reading The Turner Diaries.

But if we're going to administer a ritual flaying to every blowhard who channels the ugly American id, how is it that a hate-speech Touretter like Ann Coulter has escaped the skinning knife? She called Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards a "faggot" at the Conservative Political Action Conference; insisted on The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch that Bill Clinton's "promiscuity" is proof positive of "latent homosexuality"; quipped on Hardball Plaza that Al Gore is a "total fag"; and wrote, in her syndicated column, that the odds of Hillary Clinton "coming out of the closet" in 2008 are "about even money."

Obviously, racism -- slavery, lynching, institutionalized discrimination -- has taken a much greater toll, in this country, than homophobia. According to the most recent FBI report on hate crimes (2005), most such attacks (54.7 percent) were racially motivated; only 14.2 percent were inspired by the sexual orientation of the victim.

But there's another reason the media haven't given Coulter a prime-time water-boarding: Her problem is our problem. As a society, we view racial epithets as Class-A felonies, whereas homophobic slurs are parking violations (if that). Coulter laughed off her Edwards crack on Hannity & Colmes, saying, "The word I used ... has nothing to do with gays. It's a schoolyard taunt, meaning wuss." Of course, as noted etymologist Mike Damone observed in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a wuss is "part wimp and part pussy." Not that it means you're a fag or anything. Even if you are a fag. Which is just British slang for "cigarette," anyway. So why are you looking at me like that?

Seriously, though, Coulter's choplogic reminds us that homophobia is so ubiquitous as to be invisible in American society. Only people whose idea of formal attire is a white sheet with eyeholes would dare to use the N-word in public, but homophobic smears reverberate throughout pop culture. Little wonder, too: Asked, in a 2003 Pew study, if homosexuality should be accepted by society, only a razor-thin majority (51 percent) of Americans answered yes, in contrast to 83 percent in Germany, 77 percent in France, and 74 percent in Great Britain.

Our long tradition of demonizing our political and ideological opponents is founded on homophobic innuendo. Camille Paglia derided Al Gore for his "prissy, lisping Little Lord Fauntleroy persona," which "borders on epicene." John Kerry, who spent his childhood summers in France, was too "French" to be presidential timber -- meaning, too much of a girlyman. Now, Jonathan Edwards is too heteroflexible to be commander-in-chief; only Straight Guys with a Queer Eye pay $400 for a haircut, right?

George W. Bush learned an unforgettable lesson about the anxious nature of masculinity in America when Newsweek tarred his father with the "wimp" charge, a perception Bush 41 never really overcame. The resolve never to be branded a wimp is the key to Dubya's psychology: the you-talkin'-to-me? pugnacity and cock-of-the-walk swagger at press conferences; the cowboy bluster about getting Saddam dead or alive; the Top Gun posturing on the aircraft carrier, in a crotch-gripping flight suit that accentuated the Presidential Unit (leading G. Gordon Liddy to swoon -- on Hardball, for Freud's sake -- "what a stud").

Doesn't all this chest-thumping machismo and locker-room homophobia protest a little too much? Paging Dr. Freud, pink courtesy phone: What can we say about a country so anxiously hypermasculine that it can give rise to Godmen, a muscular-Christianity movement that seeks to lure Real Men back to church with services that feature guys bending metal wrenches with their bare hands and leaders exulting, "Thank you, Lord, for our testosterone!"

The trouble with manhood, American-style, is that it is maintained at the expense of every man's feminine side -- the frantically repressed Inner Wussy -- and the demonization of the feminine and the gay wherever we see them. In his book The Wimp Factor: Gender Gaps, Holy Wars, and the Politics of Anxious Masculinity, clinical psychologist Stephen Ducat calls this state of mind "femiphobia" -- a pathological masculinity founded on the subconscious belief that "the most important thing about being a man is not being a woman" (which, for many straight guys, is another way of saying: not gay).

Okay, so maybe I'm overstepping the bounds of my Learning Annex degree in pop psychology. But the hidden costs of our overcompensatory hypermacho are worse, far worse, than a few politicians slimed by reich-wing pundits. The horror in Iraq has been protracted past the point of lunacy by George W.'s bring-it-on braggadocio, He-Ra unilateralism, and damn-the-facts refusal to acknowledge mistakes (even as the body count mounts and billions of dollars go down the drain) -- all hallmarks of a pathological masculinity that misreads diplomacy as weakness and confuses arrogant rigidity with strength. It is a masculinity founded not on a self-assured sense of what it is, but on a neurotic loathing of what it is not (yet secretly fears it may be): wussy. And it will go to the grave insisting on battering-ram stiffness (stay the course! don't pull out!) as the truest mark of manhood.

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

Mark Dery is a cultural critic who teaches in the Department of Journalism at New York University. Dery is at work on Paradise Lust, a book about the culture war, on the Web, between sexual revolutionaries and the morality police.