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, and Madonna 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.