The Wimp Non-Factor

I came across a reference a day or two ago in an American Prospect article (http://www.prospect.org/web/page.ww?section=root&name=ViewPrint&articleId=11538) to a book on masculinity and US politics: Stephen Ducat, The Wimp Factor: Gender Gaps, Holy Wars and the Politics of Anxious Masculinity (Beacon Press, 2005). I haven’t read the book, but having done a bit of Googling and read a couple of interviews with Ducat (http://www.alternet.org/module/printversion/20343, http://www.buzzflash.com/interviews/05/03/int05011.html), I have some sense of what it’s talking about and it’s got me thinking about masculinity and different political cultures.

Ducat’s theme is that current Republican politics in particular is marked by an obsessive focus with masculinity, and a persistent attempt to feminise Democratic politicians and liberal political views. Ducat is a psychologist and starts talking about ‘femiphobia’ as a key component of male personal life (it ‘operates unconsciously in many men as a very powerful determinant of their political behavior’). Hillary Clinton, in this scheme, is rejected as the embracing and smothering mother, while the social service state itself is feminised as the ‘nanny state’.

The immediate problem with such a psychological view is the universalising tendency of it. Because whether or not anxious masculinity is universal, the political culture in Europe and specifically the UK is very different from the US one. (One of the interviews raises this point, but Ducat doesn’t respond). George Bush I may have suffered from the ‘wimp factor’, being seen as not manly enough. But I can’t think of a British politician who has, or who has tried in a sustained way to get political advantage from e.g. associating with the military. (I know there was Thatcher in a tank, but that was a one-off). The only recent politicians who have made much of their military past are the Liberal leader Paddy Ashdown and the Conservative leadership candidate David Davis, and neither of them have been conspicuous political successes. (The last British politician who became PM on the strength of his military career was probably Wellington; there was a President Eisenhower, but no Prime Minister Montgomery). Indeed the Conservatives have just chosen David Cameron as a leader, a man who seems to be moving towards the ‘feminisation’ of his party, at least in theory. (Where British political culture may implicitly applaud masculine behaviour is in the recent emphasis on politicians fathering (legitimate) children – Blair, Cameron, Gordon Brown, Charles Kennedy have all benefited from this). Britain has complaints about the ‘nanny state’ too, but its pejorative tone is about infantilisation, more than about femaleness as a whole.

One reason for this difference may be the impact of Vietnam. Ducat sees the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ as being about wounded masculinity – a great power was humiliated by ‘little guys in black pajamas’. The US draft also created a gulf in military experience between the majority of middle and upper class Americans who evaded combat and a substantial minority of these groups who did fight. As has often been pointed out, there is a substantial group of chicken-hawks now in power, men who didn’t fight in Vietnam, but are keen on other people fighting their wars.

But Vietnam doesn’t explain everything. Ducat and some of the commentators on him mention the same tendency far earlier, particularly around Theodore Roosevelt in the 1890s and in the promotion of the Spanish-American war. Ducat talks about how ‘working class hyper-masculinity’ (expressed in physical acts such as drinking, gambling, fighting) has been appropriated by the upper classes, seen as a more authentic form of masculinity. This working class hyper-masculinity certainly exists in Britain as well, but it hasn’t been appropriated by British politicians. This is despite the fact that (until New Labour), the UK had a party which was more working class in its outlook than any substantial US one.

I don’t know the answer to the differences. To some extent it may reflect a heritage of colonising discourse (there is the same tendency in Australian politics, I believe, although not in Canadian politics, from my limited knowledge of these both). What interests me more is the reminder that two such seemingly similar cultures as the US (particularly given the cultural influence of the US on Britain) can still have very different political discourses and (implicitly) very different concepts of masculinity. The universal masculine once again proves to be a fantasy.

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2 thoughts on “The Wimp Non-Factor

  1. I often feel America does have this need to be “blokey”.

    You know the first thing that sprang to mind when I read that? The fact that their decision… actually make that desire to carry guns is another masculine trait, the testosterone fuelled “look at the size of my weapon” argument.

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    • I’m not sure exactly how gun culture relates to masculinity. Canada also has a fairly strong gun culture, but not nearly such macho politics. In fact Canada offers the bizarre spectacle of a ‘politically correct’ gun culture. When we were on holiday there a few years ago, I picked up a leaflet about hunting licenses for the Algonquin National Park. There was a complex system of getting hunting licenses, but it included special concessions for First Nations people (i.e. Canadian ‘Indians’) and also disabled hunters. There were also rules about how someone’s hunting license could be passed on to other members of a family. This included being able to pass it on to one’s spouse or one’s gay partner. Canada – where gays can go on honeymoon to shoot bears together.

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