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.