Thinking about Masculinity

It was always a battle of the sexes – the Republican Party was always the Daddy Party. That meant they were firm and a little brutal about things, but it was for our own good, for the good of the American family. Republicans didn’t explain. They did things, the necessary things, so shut up and stop whining. George Bush tried to play that role, but everyone soon saw he was little more than a dimwitted bully and a bit of a goof. He was just a kid. The real man, the manly-man, was Dick Cheney, and he was more of a father to George Bush than George H. W. Bush had ever been. The younger Bush clearly despised his own father, seeing him as a weakling who wouldn’t take out Saddam Hussein when he had the chance. Dick Cheney would do that. The snarling Dick Cheney, who seemed to resent having to explain anything to anybody, was the scary stern daddy who did what had to be done for all of us, stuff you really didn’t want to know about. Don’t ask. Daddy will take care of things.

That made for an interesting dynamic, and of course that meant the Democrats were the Mommy Party. They were the nurturing ones, making sure everyone got a chance to thrive, and also making sure everyone played fair and played nice. Cooperation and sharing and mutual respect – those were the things everyone should learn, and public policy should flow from that. Republicans just rolled their eyes. In this mean and brutal world Democrats were useless. They told us so. Yes, in the Bush years the Republicans did almost everything wrong, with disastrous results, finally crashing the economy and leaving it in ruins, but that didn’t change the dynamic. Heck, Sarah Palin ran as a more manly man than John McCain and Barack Obama and Joe Biden put together. She wasn’t nurturing in any way at all. She shot moose, and then she made moose stew. She made it clear that no one messed with her. And she also didn’t explain herself. She tried that with Charlie Gibson and then Katie Couric and decided she’d been ambushed. She’d have no more of that. People knew where she stood on things and explaining was stupid, so she stopped explaining. In short, she played Daddy in a way. No wonder each of her kids is a conflicted mess.

Out here in California, when the hyper-masculine Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor for no reason anyone will admit to now, he used to call those who disagreed with him girly-men. That was supposed to end all argument about the issue at hand, and maybe that had worked at Gold’s Gym down in Venice Beach back in the day, when he was the world’s most famous bodybuilder, but after a time it became tiresome and a bit of a lame joke. That’s simply not a definitive answer in any dispute, and Schwarzenegger turned out to be a jerk anyway. Conan the Barbarian isn’t the guy you want shaping public policy. Californians elected Jerry Brown this time – Governor Moonbeam from the eighties, the guy who used to date Linda Ronstadt. Maybe he’s a flake, or once was, but Jerry Brown actually knows how things get done in state government, and he also has no issues with his masculinity. He doesn’t seem to think about that at all. No former hippies from the sixties do. He knows process and budgeting, both of which are gloriously asexual. Californians learned that layering family sex roles on the job of governing ends in nonsense.

Others didn’t learn. In the last national election there was the argument that Romney would win because his children were boys, many boys, and Obama had only managed to father two girls, and everyone knew what that meant. That was the position of the National Review’s Kevin Williamson with this:

The offspring of rich families are statistically biased in favor of sons – the children of the general population are 51 percent male and 49 percent female, but the children of the Forbes billionaire list are 60 percent male. Have a gander at that Romney family picture: five sons, zero daughters. Romney has 18 grandchildren, and they exceed a 2:1 ratio of grandsons to granddaughters (13:5). When they go to church at their summer-vacation home, the Romney clan makes up a third of the congregation. He is basically a tribal chieftain.

Professor Obama? Two daughters. May as well give the guy a cardigan. And fallopian tubes.

Yeah, well, that didn’t keep Obama from being reelected, decisively. Conan the Barbarian was a tribal chieftain too, and Dick Cheney saw himself as one, but perhaps only Republicans are hung up on this hyper-masculine thing. Obama’s two daughters seem like wonderful kids, but perhaps Romney really is the more manly man. In the end no one much cared. Attempts to paint Obama as an effete metrosexual – if anyone uses that term anymore – did excite a few Republicans. Everyone else shrugged, and even Republicans who hate everything Obama has done agree that Obama seems to be a good father. They’d just like him to do that full time and stop screwing up the country.

This matter, then, should be settled. The idea that what we need in any crisis is a Real Man, or Real Men, is about the shallowest argument imaginable. We know better now, or some of us do. It’s just that such arguments are deeply embedded in our culture. Richard Hofstadter in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) and the essays collected in The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964) chronicled our curious distrust of people who know more than we know, a culturally established distrust of experts and expertise. You know the drill. If you’re so smart how come you’re not rich? Maybe there was a time when being well-educated and insightful, and full of ideas, or at least able to discuss the ideas of others intelligently, or least know there were ideas floating around out there somewhere and they mattered, made you cool – or maybe that was France. But now, here, more than ever before, that makes you a fool. You’re inauthentic. You’ve lost touch with the real America. Obama, with his degrees and having taught constitutional law and all the rest, must be out of touch with the real America.

A lot of this is all mixed up with our attitudes about where we learn things, which for most of us is in school, from teachers, most of whom are women. Hofstadter is clear on that too. Historically, teaching in America, uniquely, has been a women’s profession. The few men who taught kids were suspect. They were effeminate losers, except if they taught high school juniors and seniors, or taught in college. Anyone who teaches below that level – where nurturing matters more than cruel challenging – should be a woman. That’s women’s work. After all, those who can’t do, teach. That’s why teachers are paid next to nothing. They’re not doing. Hofstadter traces this thinking back through all the years, back to Colonial times. Real men don’t teach.

Republicans shouldn’t have a problem with that, except now we’ve had that strange young man force his way into that elementary school in Connecticut and kill twenty little children, shooting them multiple times with one of his mother’s perfectly legal high-powered assault rifles. He had shot and killed his mother an hour earlier, at her home, and at the school he also managed to shoot and kill six teachers and administrators that had got in his way. Hofstadter could never have imagined this, and at the exceedingly conservative National Review site, Charlotte Allen argues that this wouldn’t have happened if only there had been some manly men on the premises:

There was not a single adult male on the school premises when the shooting occurred. In this school of 450 students, a sizeable number of whom were undoubtedly 11- and 12-year-old boys (it was a K-6 school), all the personnel – the teachers, the principal, the assistant principal, the school psychologist, the “reading specialist” – were female. There didn’t even seem to be a male janitor to heave his bucket at Adam Lanza’s knees.

Women and small children are sitting ducks for mass-murderers. The principal, Dawn Hochsprung, seemed to have performed bravely. According to reports, she activated the school’s public-address system and also lunged at Lanza, before he shot her to death.

Some of the teachers managed to save all or some of their charges by rushing them into closets or bathrooms. But in general, a feminized setting is a setting in which helpless passivity is the norm. Male aggression can be a good thing, as in protecting the weak – but it has been forced out of the culture of elementary schools and the education schools that train their personnel.

Think of what Sandy Hook might have been like if a couple of male teachers who had played high-school football, or even some of the huskier 12-year-old boys, had converged on Lanza.

It’s helpless passivity versus noble and useful male aggression once again, and Charles Johnson comments:

Ms Allen is not just crazy, she’s also factually wrong. There was, in fact, a male janitor at the school when the shootings happened. But instead of “heaving his bucket at Adam Lanza’s knees,” he was running through the school halls making sure classroom doors were locked and warning students to flee.

I guess Charlotte Allen would consider this a “feminized” response.

These people are simply not right in the head.

Yeah, these are the people who were pleased when Dick Cheney shot his hunting buddy in the face, and even more pleased when the guy apologized to Cheney for getting in the way. The National Review also ran an editorial suggesting that what happened in Newtown was simply the price of the Second Amendment – something we have rightly agreed to pay for our freedom.

There’s another way to look at this. At the site Echidne of the Snakes you’ll find this:

Charlotte Allen hates women. That’s not an overstatement. She was the author of the famous Washington Post column which tells us that we women are dim and we shriek. She wrote a column about women dressing as whores and sluts for Halloween, and she wrote a column summarizing all the most misogynistic ideas about women and sex.

So she hates women. Lots of people do, in fact, but most of them don’t get column space in the National Review.

You can also turn this argument around:

It’s worth noting that there was an adult male on promises and that was the shooter. It’s also worth noting that not only the principal but several of the teachers acted extremely bravely and some sacrificed their lives for the children. And it’s worth noting that if we took seriously her argument that feminized settings have the norm of helpless passivity (what an asshat she is!), then masculinized settings have the norm for random violence. Both stories have about the same truth value, in my view.

Allen admits the bravery of the principal and the teachers but then simply ignores it, in favor of various imaginary scenarios of what husky twelve-year-old-boys might have achieved or how high school football training would have turned a couple of male teacher into a force that could have stopped a shooter with more than one weapon, including a semiautomatic one.

Then there’s the historical tradition that Hofstadter wrote about:

In any case, the teaching of small children has probably always been a female-dominated occupation, not something that anyone has forced on the schools. If anything, elementary schools would love to have more men among the teachers, though not for the reason that they can be sacrificed as battering rams in the case of massacres.

Note that the women teaching small children are performing one of the few legitimate roles extreme anti-feminists allow women to have in the labor markets. But even that doesn’t protect them from the misogynistic knitting needles of one Charlotte Allen.

Ah, there’s no need to get excited. This is an old argument about who’s manly and who should be and when they should be and so on. It’s what they call gender politics, and the folks at Balloon Juice take it to its logical conclusion:

Yes, what Sandy Hook Elementary School needed was some ex-high school football stars for teachers, and husky twelve year olds to step up and heave some goddamn buckets. Women with their lady muscles couldn’t possibly be expected to heave any buckets – or do anything besides stand around clutching their pearls and generally being useless. Never mind that Dawn Hochsprung and Mary Sherlach rushed the shooter before being killed. Forget about Victoria Soto who was shot after she lied and told the shooter that her students were in the gym. Forget about Kaitlin Roig and Abbey Clements who hid their students from the madman.

Husky twelve-year-olds and high school football has-beens are what the situation needed. Also? Male aggression. Lots of male aggression. Elementary school ain’t for pussies, you know. Shit could get real at any moment, and you have to be prepared, son.

Hell, at the beginning of each school day, all kids should ask themselves, “Do you feel lucky, punk?” And if they don’t feel lucky – if they don’t feel masculine rage coursing through their veins, threatening to drown any sense of logic and reason in favor of impromptu ass-beatings – then maybe they should be home-schooled.

Yes, these people are simply not right in the head, or we’ve never figured out how to think about masculinity, or whether we should think of it at all.

James Livingston, professor of history at Rutgers, has thought about such things. See Pragmatism, Feminism, and Democracy: Rethinking the Politics of American History – a rather extraordinary book from a decade ago. Now he has turned to this mass murderer in Connecticut, suggesting this may be about gender too, arguing that this is America’s crisis in masculinity personified:

Let us also ask the obvious question. Why do these young white male people whom we routinely characterize as crazy – as exceptions to the rules of civilized comportment and moral choice – always rehearse and recite the same script? If each killer is so deviant, so inexplicable, so exceptional, why does the apocalyptic ending never vary?

The answer is equally obvious. Because American culture makes this script not just available but plausible, actionable, and pleasurable. Semiautomatic, you might say.

But mainly to young white male people who want to kill many other white people with sophisticated weapons. Their apocalyptic endings make their deeply private states of mental anguish and illness very public. These gunmen don’t understand their mission in these terms, but they do tell us that they represent something beyond their own lives and families when they take innocents with them rather than just killing themselves – when they behave like terrorists without a political cause. They’re mute symptoms in search of a social disease, a cultural diagnosis, and a political cure.

Adam Lanza dressed the part for his first and final shootout as a man without a calling: all black, all military. He wore a Kevlar vest, he taped extra magazines to his weapons, he moved and he killed systematically; he was ready for anything in his theater of war, an elementary school. He knew how he would die that day – he knew the SWAT team would arrive soon after he started shooting – but not exactly when. He was armed against his own fear, and he was desperate to make it known.

In short this was a hyper-masculine act, and the kid even dressed the part. The only odd thing is that this was the natural outcome of historical forces:

William James saw him coming in 1910. In a Protestant culture that had defined manhood and character as the result of real work – a calling – what would happen, he asked, when such work became elusive if not altogether unavailable? Would manhood survive? Or would war then become the principal means of rehabilitating the “masculine virtues”?

James correlated the impending demise of those virtues with “pacific cosmopolitan industrialism” – a stage of development in which an older “pain economy” organized by the emotional austerity of necessary labor was giving way to a “pleasure economy” animated by the emotional surplus of consumer culture. This new economy, according to James, was a world without producers, “a world of clerks and teachers, of co-educators and zoophily, of ‘consumer’s leagues’ and ‘associated charities,’ of industrialism unlimited and feminism unabashed.”

This is what happens when men turn into metrosexuals. Those who don’t want to do that act out, to be manly, but it’s all mixed up in structural economics:

From the standpoint of that correlation, the decline of necessary labor or productive callings, and the consequent confusion of male and female spheres – “feminism unabashed” – became the elements of an identity crisis for every man; for they threatened to dissolve the ego boundaries hitherto determined by the sanctions of scarcity, both economic and emotional.

Here’s how James put it: “The transition to a ‘pleasure economy’ may be fatal to a being wielding no powers of defense against its disintegrative influences. If we speak of the fear of emancipation from the fear regime, we put the whole situation into a single phrase: fear regarding ourselves now taking place of the ancient fear of the enemy.”

He worried that this fear of emancipation from the older “pain economy” would take a regressively masculine form; he knew the manly virtues could be reinstated by the violent means of war, by militarism unabashed, and he designed his moral equivalent – real work with a social purpose – with that possibility in mind.

The idea seems to be that these mass murderers somehow know that they’re superfluous, or maybe they just sense it:

Adam Lanza couldn’t have told us what made him unimportant as a person, or a man. He lived forward without understanding backward, so he needed a template, a blueprint, a script he didn’t author. He found it in the insane militarism of American political culture – that’s why he dressed up like a commando and stormed an elementary school as if it were a fortified bunker. He played his part.

The unabashed hyper-masculine militarism he performed was, as William James suggested, a hysterical reaction formation against the “pleasure economy” we have created but denied – as if we could still locate the source of manhood in the demands of necessary labor, in the rigors of military discipline, in the sacrifice of war.

So this reaction formation is a social disease, and Adam Lanza is both symptom and attempted cure of it.

That is not to excuse his actions, only a warning that more of this is coming. After all, there are fewer and fewer manly hard jobs left – even the manliest of men are now spending their days writing iPhone aps or trading commodities futures in front of three screens, or even teaching school, maybe – and the world is flooded with cheap and widely available quite nice goods and services too. The pleasure economy has arrived, even if the pleasures are often tacky and sad. Being a Real Man in this context is hard. Few go to war now. We use drones, operated by young and hip video game geeks from six thousand miles away. They’re probably metrosexuals too.

Add to this that we have a political party that telling everyone to be manlier, damn it, like Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney. It’s no wonder that people turn murderous. Now if we could just get them to go shoot moose and leave the kids alone.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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3 Responses to Thinking about Masculinity

  1. Dick Bernard says:

    As usual for Alan, a “home run” column.
    My entire career is “teaching”, from growing up in a family of two public school teachers, from teaching myself, from representing teachers, from having a sister, and a daughter as school board members, from another daughter as middle school principal, from nine grandkids in public schools. I do my own blogging, and yesterday did a second post on Newtown, with some observations and advice. Here it is, if you wish:

  2. Rick says:

    So according to that Charlotte Allen, of “the exceedingly conservative National Review site”:

    “There was not a single adult male on the school premises when the shooting occurred. In this school of 450 students, a sizeable number of whom were undoubtedly 11- and 12-year-old boys (it was a K-6 school) … There didn’t even seem to be a male janitor to heave his bucket at Adam Lanza’s knees.”:

    Of course, as others have pointed out, not only was there a janitor, but it’s also worth pointing out (and not that this really matters) that there were not “undoubtedly” a “sizeable number” of “11- and 12-year-old boys (it was a K-6 school)”, since the school, according to, was a K-4 school!!!

    (And also, according to that same site, the school had 626 students, not 450.)

    As I say, not that this detail matters, but still, what is it about conservatives trying to make some stupid point that they seem to have little or no regard for actual facts?


    • Madman says:

      You MUST have noticed by now that today’s Conservatives operate in a Fact-Free bubble. They have no use for Facts — Facts are merely Inconvenient Truths that obstruct their infallible Ideology. Charlotte Allen is just the latest iteration of Christina Hoff Summers, weaving a web of misogyny and confabulation into lame conservative narrative. A pox on her house!

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