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.
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.
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.
Clinton brought a trickster’s charms to the table, but Gore was running against that type, and he never figured out how to combine probity with vitality. A marathon kiss from Tipper didn’t do the trick, since she was another one of those bitches–a kinder, blonder Hillary–while Laura Bush left no doubt about her proper place, three steps behind her husband. Then came Naomi Wolfe, whose effort to counsel Gore on color schemes was met with the same scorn that greeted Jimmy Carter when he got attacked by a rabbit. Dubya didn’t have to count on a gal to tell him how to dress–he was his own Man! Even his flubs at identifying world leaders made him seem like a dude. After all, no one ever lost macho points for being stupid.
Gore won the popular vote, but as heir to an Administration that had produced peace and prosperity he should have triumphed. It wasn’t just his stiffness that hurt him; it was the backlash. By then it was so embedded in mass consciousness that Bush’s good-old-boy affect seemed natural while Gore’s New Age style seemed politically correct. Too many moderates were lulled by Dubya’s charming macho. The culture had clouded their ability to read its ideological content. Bush didn’t look right wing; he just looked right.
Now that patriarchy is associated with survival, how can the party of feminism prevail? It’s easier to see the problem than the solution, but a good start would be for Democrats to reject the idea that they are weak. This image is a figment of the backlash, meant to demean those who support the empowerment of women. It can’t be dispelled by butching up, since the real issue–sexual equity–will remain. The only option for the Mommy Party is to embrace its identity. That means stripping Republican macho of its mystique. This is a moment for speaking truth to power.
The Democrats should hammer the point that virtually every issue–not just abortion–is a women’s issue. Take Bush’s plan to privatize large swaths of the federal government. Any attempt to cut wages will have an undue effect on women, since so many of them work in the public sector. Then there’s the signal Bush sends when he defunds women’s bureaus in federal agencies and closes the White House Office for Women’s Initiatives and Outreach. There’s a pattern here, but it’s hard to see because gender is the great unmentionable in public life, and women are especially invisible as citizens in a time of crisis.
It’s even harder to address the culture that animates these policies. No progressive wants to be a censor, a puritan or, worse still, a fogy. But attention must be paid, because cultural values are central to social reality. A norm can only be undone if people understand the damage it does, and macho is a stunting force even when it looks fresh and young. Under its thumb, a generation is growing up with attitudes that will warp their lives, not to mention the course of American politics.
Fortunately, this is not another lost liberal cause. The public’s doubts about Bush persist, as his seesawing popularity attests. There’s a lingering uncertainty about the war, and not just among doves. These misgivings reflect a deep ambivalence about the macho code. Yet this primal issue is rarely broached. What will it take for the best and brightest Democrats to address the relationship between male dominance and the current crisis? Don’t count on courage. Politicians usually arrive when the coast is cleared by culture. It remains for artists to challenge the backlash and for critics to criticize it.
It’s time to create a new vocabulary of dissent, one that makes a clear connection between war fever and thug power. There’s no more urgent task. The dawgs of war are about to be unleashed. Thousands will die, billions will be spent and most of us will have to do with less. These are the wages of following a leader who is strong but wrong. He’s the man; we’re his bitches.