The Soft Underbelly of the American Right's Hard Abs
American conservatives – immune to camp – worship a cartoonish hyper-masculinity. It all seems a bit hysterical
At first, the June cover of Men's Health seems par for the course for a magazine that aims to stoke male anxieties about physical perfection to sell products to men the same way that the beauty industry has done to women for decades: a half-naked man in ridiculously good shape, staring at the camera with eyes that dare you to look with awe, envy, and not just a little sexual interest. But if you look at the headline, the image becomes shocking. The man with the sort of abs that The Situation would kill for isn't just some male model or athlete, but a Republican congressman from Illinois, Aaron Schock.
It's a choice that suggests that the congressman intends to live up to his name. It seems incongruous for him to pose half-naked – not just because of his office, but because of his track record as an outspoken opponent of gay rights and an enemy of sexual liberation who voted to defund Planned Parenthood. Schock is constantly beating back Beltway rumours that he's gay that spring up every time he shows up half-naked in public or wears turquoise belts with white jeans, a situation that would cause most people to rethink behaving in ways commonly associated with homoeroticism in public spaces.
But that's because we don't hail from rightwing America. For most Americans, there's a tipping point where preening displays of masculinity get so overt and stereotypical that they stop being intimidating and/or boorish and move into the territory of erotically charged camp. In 2011, most Americans get that the members of the Village People were not actually policemen and construction workers. Unfortunately, though, since that announcement wasn't made on "The 700 Club" with Pat Robertson, this kind of basic knowledge hasn't filtered into many corners of conservative America. The results have been embarrassing, such as when early Tea Party activists started calling themselves "teabaggers" – completely unaware that the word was slang for men who enjoy sucking on other men's testicles.
In many irony-devoid rightwing circles, there is no such thing as too outlandish a display of masculinity, and the very idea that such a thing might invite a gaze that sexualises – and therefore feminises – the peacocking man seems to have passed notice. There's an almost touching earnestness to rightwing enthusiasms for big trucks, uniforms and hot, muscular naked men showing off their manly powers.
Or it would be touching if this unquestioned enthusiasm for virility didn't have a darkness to it.
Unfortunately, the right's obsession with masculinity, and the fear that if they aren't constantly shoring it up and attacking the feminine, they might grow soft, has very real effects. Many, maybe most of America's problems go back to this manlier-than-thou attitude on the right. Wars are started. Women's basic human rights are denied. Gays are bashed. The main slurs against Democrats are about how they're feminine, childish or weak for doing things like thinking through important decisions before making them or caring about the environment. Even fights over the budget become masculinity displays, with Paul Ryan casting people who use the social safety net living "lives of complacency and dependency" – all the while, portraying himself as a tough guy with his own hefty workout routine.
Take one of the more amusing-but-horrifying examples of unironic, unself-aware masculinity worship on the right, captured by Right Wing Watch. Christian right ministers and activists Tony Perkins, Rick Joyner, Jerry Boykin, and Frank Turek put out a video where they likened themselves to the ancient Spartans beating off the Persians (in the military sense, not in the probably-going-to-be-double-entrendre-in-Lady-Gaga-lyrics-soon sense). They then announced a coalition of Christian activists called "300", after the recent comic book film that took heavy liberties with actual history, but had enough muscular man-flesh to fill the fantasy life for years of a thoroughly Christian, totally heterosexual rightwing activist. In our eyes, they may be sweater-wearing, soft-handed men who spend most of the day in leather chairs, but under that exterior beats the heart of ancient Greek men who favour hard grounds and camaraderie with other half-dressed naked warriors.
Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest enemies these Christian warriors are mentally undressing and oiling up to fight is the gay rights movement. Perkins even testified in Congress against Elena Kagan's appointment to the US supreme court, invoking her supposed desire to foist "the sexual counter culture" on the military by repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell.
For all the posturing about toughness, the most salient aspect of this rightwing, over-the-top masculinity is how fragile it really is. The list of subversive threats that will topple redblooded American masculinity is mind-bogglingly long – and grows longer every day. A small sample: gay rights, women's rights, reedy college professors teaching your kids non-propagandistic history, religious diversity, Democrats (especially of the non-white male variety) holding high office, responding to international tension with any tool other than invading a Muslim country, a social safety net that's perceived as making it easier for women to avoid dependence on men … the list goes on.
Some days, you get the feeling that the American masculinity worshipped by those on the right could disappear if you blow on it too hard. And frankly, that would probably be for the best. Maybe then, we could move into a future where we look at each other as human beings, instead of gender caricatures.
© 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited