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.