The Bribe of Masculinity, or Why We Will Need to Hold Kerry's Feet to the Fire
Published on Tuesday, October 26, 2004 by
The Bribe of Masculinity, or Why We Will Need to Hold Kerry's Feet to the Fire
by Greg Forter

Like a lot of my friends and colleagues, I’ll be voting for John Kerry in November, despite a sense of dismay at what he has turned out to stand for. My disappointment is especially deep with respect to the war in Iraq. It’s hard to believe in a candidate who says he would have voted to give Bush authority for the invasion even if he had known that Saddam had neither links to al Qaeda nor weapons of mass destruction. It’s equally hard to vote for a man who gave the acceptance speech Kerry gave. That speech left little doubt that, far from being an anti-war candidate, he is the candidate of belligerent “strength.” He said he would wage a better war than Bush, fund the military more extravagantly than Bush has, increase the troop level exponentially, and kill “the terrorists” with a thoroughness that the President has only dreamt of.

All of this is bad enough for anyone who opposes the Iraq war on principle. But there is a further reason to resist the image that Kerry promotes of himself. In striving to be a better Bush, he’s assumed not just a bellicose mentality that accepts the division of the world into irrational terrorists and the rest of us. He’s also embraced the style of masculinity appropriate to such posturing. He has in effect agreed with Dick Cheney that one cannot lead the “war on terror” by showing the terrorists one’s “sensitive side.” (If this means trying to understand the causes of terrorist attacks and the role US foreign policy has played in those causes, then surely we do need greater sensitivity.) Or, to put the case more bluntly, Kerry’s embrace of the warrior image serves as a tacit acknowledgment that he thinks the election will be won and lost at the level of image rather than substance. And at this level, gender matters: one must not be seen as a “girlie man” if one is to stand a fighting chance.

Kerry’s carefully cultivated militarism in this sense relies on a covert masculinism. The inclination to “resolve” conflict through violence is, in our culture, a masculine inclination, one based in a dark and infantile imperiousness that men are encouraged to retain as adults. Indeed, theorists of human development have argued that our culture turns boys into men by encouraging them to build and fortify invulnerable borders between “me” and “not-me”—and, in moments of crisis, to lash out at and seek domination over the domain of the “not-me.” The call to war collectivizes this process: it transforms the psychological division between me and not-me into a social one between “us” and “them,” and it authorizes, indeed rewards, the wreaking of violence upon the chosen other.

At an individual level, this kind of aggression may have unambiguous rewards: the male self protects its psychological turf, asserts its dominion over others, and receives the socially sanctioned benefits of money, prestige, respect, and so on. But at a social level, the rewards are much murkier. We’re entitled to ask, for example, in the case of war, what exactly those benefits are and who exactly reaps them. Class, gendered, and racial divisions, papered over during times of peace, then threaten to fracture the fantasized unity of an American “us” at war with “them.”

This is most obviously true when the question turns on who does the war’s actual fighting—a question explored with unusual incisiveness in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911. Moore’s film makes clear not just that the economically disenfranchised and socially marginalized bear a disproportionate burden in the current conflict; it also shows us, in the figure of Lila Lipscombe, that insofar as women remain the repositories of familial feeling in our society, they, too, bear a disproportionate burden—as mothers, daughters, girlfriends, and wives to whom we delegate the expressions of grief that the conventions of male pride prevent men from voicing.

And yet it’s clear that much of the current administration’s support comes from those it burdens in this way. With the exception of racial minorities, who are more likely to vote Democratic, the groups in question—the working poor, the military rank-and-file, and even women—have expressed strong support for President Bush in the current election cycle. They’ve given him especially high marks with respect to “national security.” The reasons for this support are crucial to understanding why the Left should resist John Kerry’s symbolic embrace of the accoutrements of tough-guy masculinity.

Those reasons were legible between the lines at the Republican National Convention in August. Watching that event, it was hard not to be struck by the popularity of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the California governor, who wears his misogyny and homophobia on his sleeve as if they were badges of honor. Especially notable was the glee that greeted his scornful reference to Democratic legislators as “girlie men.” This wasn’t the first time he had made the charge; the various contexts in which he has done so might, however, seem surprising. On each of the first three occasions, he had in mind an economic girlieness, a soft-headed- and soft-heartedness by which his opponents declined adequately to stiff the poor and the working classes. He called his opponents “girls” when they resisted cutting taxes for the rich, prevented him from privatizing aspects of the California public school system, and supported unions’ efforts to preserve the meager gains of workers.

The “girlie men” charge can in this sense be seen as a cynical part of Arnold’s faux-populist weaponry. It’s one of the barbs he uses to build support for his fight against what he claims is a corrupt (Democratic/liberal) political establishment. That establishment’s squeamishness, his rhetoric suggests, prevents him from enacting the tough policies that no man likes to enact, but that any fiscally responsible Leader must enact if those he leads are to show the proper discipline and restraint. Arnold casts himself through this discourse as just a regular guy (who happens to be rich, buff, and famous) doing what any self-respecting man would do. Real men are those who do the hard thing even and especially when it is hard—without acknowledging that the course they propose is, for the most part, exceedingly hard on others but comparatively easy on themselves.

It’s this conflation of faux-populist rhetoric with appeals to Americans’ manliness that explains why those materially harmed by Bush’s policies often vote for those policies. “Real” masculinity is the psychic bribe that lures people into opposing their own interests. The impoverishments in our material lives—the lost jobs, the deteriorating schools, the uncovered health costs, and the wholesale transfer of wealth to the wealthy—all of this is compensated for by a psychic engorgement at the level of gender. Our nation is kicking ass, and doing so in our name; our President is hard as a rock with the certainty that we are upstanding and right and pure, while the terrorists are nasty, inscrutable evil-doers. However much his policies hurt, then, they also make us feel big and strong by enabling us to identify with the rugged resolve of his cowboy swagger.

I suspect that this bribe works alike for women and for men (though unevenly so); in a world still ruled by masculine values, an intoxicating sense of “hardness” can feel empowering for either gender. The bribe must also work unconsciously: it’s not that people consciously think, “Gee, I’ve lost my job to outsourcing and my daughter to Iraq—but at least my President makes me feel manly!” Rather, the Bush administration’s mobilization of images connoting virility, independence, and power appeals to people’s deep-seated longings to be independent and powerful—even toxically or belligerently so.

The danger Kerry courts by agreeing to these terms is considerable. His proposed policies are in many ways more humane than Bush’s. They will, in this sense, be better for working people and the poor than are the current policies. It would be appropriate for those people vote for him, and we should encourage them to do so.

But if I am right, for Kerry to lure voters by promising covertly to endow them with manliness poses serious problems. Morally, this strategy lacks integrity. It propagates a version of manhood that’s toxic in the extreme, that bases itself in the violent effort to subjugate anything “other” than itself. There is, indeed, a fairly straight line from this imperious and righteous manliness to the sexual humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib; the wrapping of women’s underwear around prisoners’ heads and the degradation entailed in turning people into sexual spectacles are assertions of male conquest over an other so hated that he can be both “feminized” and dehumanized. Pragmatically speaking, the strategy also risks backfiring in a number of ways. If Kerry’s policies don’t match the macho rhetoric, he’ll have a disgruntled electorate on his hands (if he’s elected). If, on the other hand, they do match that rhetoric, we will be in deep, deep trouble indeed. He will have proven that Nader is right, that there is little meaningful difference between the President and his Democratic challenger.

The only acceptable option then is for Kerry to make his case on the issues, not through tough-guy posturing. He needs to renounce the equipment the Republicans offer for playing “whose is bigger” (to borrow the title of an essay by Alessandro Camon in He needs not to counter Bush’s macho imagery with his own set of conventional images, but rather to make substantive arguments for why an alternative form of manliness is appropriate to alternative policies. If he can do this, he might be able to craft an appeal untethered from the bribe of toxic masculinity. He may be able to model an identity that’s rooted not in the defensive construction of a good “us” besieged by a bad “them,” but rather repudiates that construction by appealing to the best, most inclusive impulses of our national character.

Greg Forter ( teaches American literature at the University of South Carolina. He is the author of "Murdering Masculinities: Fantasies of Gender and Violence in the American Crime Novel", published in 2000 by New York University Press.