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The Wimp Factor
A year ago we were in the midst of a presidential campaign most memorable for charges by both sides that the opponent was not hard enough, tough enough, masculine enough. That he was, in fact, a sissy. Both sides also admitted this sort of rhetoric was deplorable. But it’s been going on since the beginning of the Republic.
November 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 7
Even Jimmy Carter, among recent Presidents seemingly the least driven by machismo, revealed during the 1988 campaign his susceptibility to its public demands by remarking that Bush seemed rather “effeminate.” Clearly, a major common denominator of recent Presidents, and, indeed, as the sociologist Michael Kimmel believes, of most presidential administrations historically, has been an attraction to “compulsive masculinity, a socially constructed gender identity that is manifest both in individual behavior and in foreign and domestic politics.”
Compulsive masculinity is most immediately dangerous in foreign politics. Theoretically, warfare is a form of controlled violence in the pursuit of foreign policy. The danger, as in the Vietnam era, is that the symbiotic bond between male leaders and followers will deteriorate into an irrational competition to prove one’s manhood or at least to avoid appearing effeminate. Considerable testimony drawn from the memoirs of former Marines—foot soldiers and officers alike—reveals young men determined to be honorable and brave, to prove themselves, to avoid the shame of failing in training or fleeing in battle. They often chose John Wayne as a role model. Their worst fear, also that of their Commander in Chief, Lyndon Johnson, was that they might cut and run like “nervous Nellies.”
The Commander in Chief of Vietnamera soldiers, says David Halberstam, believed “all those John Wayne movies, a cliché in which real life had styled itself on image,” and so Lyndon Johnson demanded a portrait of himself as “a tall tough Texan in the saddle.” Such is the meaning of sexual politics for men. Does a Michigan woman confuse Reagan with John Wayne? Some of us can no longer distinguish between PT 109 (the movie) and reality. Our leaders and soldiers and image makers are indistinguishable. They are daring each other. And they are macho. They are all John Wayne.
As an actor John Wayne personified in dangerously attractive images the romantic myth that masculine style and substance are indivisible; that to express openly and unashamedly one’s emotions of doubt, fear, love, and even (unless goaded unendurably) anger is womanish; that the dominant male must control himself, his environment, and indeed all of life, through action, often violent action in chivalric defense of women, children, and country, action forced upon the good man by evil others; that by will power, strength, skill, superior technology, and firepower he can prevail over circumstance and chance, over enemies, personal and national, in a world of black-and-white moral choices.
The point is not that the “manly” characteristics of the myth—courage, assertiveness in the face of aggression, righteous defense of the weak—are undesirable or dangerous in themselves. The cinematic myth is dangerous because it is labeled “for men only” and because it may be distorted and debased by actors on the public scene.
The consequences of this sort of obsessive masculinity can perhaps best be understood in a historical context. Speaking in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, in 1899, Teddy Roosevelt asserted: “I have scant patience with those who fear to undertake the task of governing the Philippines...who make a pretense of humanitarianism to hide and cover their timidity, and who cant about ‘liberty’ and the ‘consent of the governed,’ in order to excuse themselves for their unwillingness to play the part of men. Their doctrines, if carried out, would make it incumbent upon us to...decline to interfere in a single Indian reservation. Their doctrines condemn your forefathers and mine for ever having settled in these United States.” Almost a century later Philip Caputo’s 1987 novel Indian Country would remind us that the practice among American soldiers of referring to hostile territory in Vietnam as Indian country had historical roots.
If the demands of masculinity have burdened men in American politics, they have pressed with special intensity upon trespassing women, who have automatically been tested by masculine standards. If many men are too wimpy for politics, what are men to think about women, and what are women to think of themselves? Pat Schroeder, for example, shed public tears when she withdrew from the presidential race of 1988. By failing to mask her feelings, Schroeder was widely perceived as having joined the ranks of those—like Ed Muskie—who seemed not manly enough for the rough game of high-stakes politics. After all, would you want a leader with a finger on the nuclear button who was suffering from what the nineteenth century called hysteria or from twentieth-century equivalents, such as PMS? That was substantially the question asked of Geraldine Ferraro in her 1984 debate with George Bush. To all appearances, with steely eye and firm response, Ferraro passed the macho test—so much so, in fact, that the next morning Bush felt compelled to affirm that in the debate he had “kicked a little ass.”
Women in politics like Ferraro and Schroeder are condemned no matter what they do. If gentle, they are womanish; if tough, they are not womanly. By tradition a female cannot be a courageous, charismatic, wise, effective leader as a woman. Thus one-liners about “macho” Jeane Kirkpatrick, about Indira Gandhi’s being the only man in India’s government. Thus “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher plays the manly role but, to allay fears, must make the point that at home she may relax by ironing her husband’s shirts.