Sunday, June 04, 2006

The Wimp Factor. A Book Review

Stephen J. Ducat's The Wimp Factor. Gender Gaps, Holy Wars, and the Politics of Anxious Masculinity. A book with an indigestible name as is common these days, but also a book with a name which pretty much tells us the contents of the book.

Anxious masculinity refers to Ducat's main thesis: That some American men feel masculinity is under attack, that masculinity is not something men just have from birth onwards but something that needs to be fought for and regained and protected. That without masculinity men are no better than...women. And that hypermasculinity as played by George Bush is what got him elected in 2000 over Al Gore's more subdued political performances.

Ducat points out the similarity between the Islamic fundamentalists who are always focused on the redomestication of women and our home-baked radical clerics, and he suggests the same reason for the success of these movements among men: anxious masculinity, the feeling that if women gain more powers it must mean that men lose powers and this, in turn, must make men something like women are. Something not desirable.

That George Bush is a born-again Christian is not unimportant from this angle. Fundamentalist religions always tell men that women were created for their pleasure and use, that men are the bosses of women, and that all these goodies are not a sign of the oppression of women but the holy will of a divine creature. That fits very nicely with a psychologically safe way of propping up anxious masculinity, though Ducat the psychologist doesn't really take his book very far in that direction. Neither does he pay a lot of attention on one of the reasons for the anxiety among the working-class men in the U.S.: the disappearance of well-paying blue-collar jobs through outsourcing and the competition from low-wage developing countries. This disappearance has made "man the provider" a difficult myth for these men to live up to.

The Republican party has been able to use all this anxiety and religiosity in a masterful manner. It probably didn't need very much prodding to redirect the blame for the economic losses of many men from their actual causes to a nearby irritant: women who were going to college in greater numbers than ever, women who were suddenly becoming more visible in the public sector, women who were getting the jobs that somehow should have belonged to the men. Hence the bashing of the feminists, the so-called "war against the boys" that the right-wing gals give us and the renewed effort to keep working mothers feeling guilty.

Ducat could have done more on the education debates and the loss of good family-supporting jobs in this country. But what he did analyze is interesting in itself: The way anxious masculinity entered the political debates of the last few years in all sorts of interesting, often hidden, ways and the way it affected both the voting behavior of many American men and the behavior of the politicians. The chapters on vagina dentata and the almost inexplicable deep hatred of Hillary (and Bill) Clinton among the wingnuts are alone worth the price of the book.

The meat of the book for me is in Ducat's attempt to understand why masculinity is anxious and frail. He draws on several psychological theories about childhood development which center on the identification between mother and child and on the often emotionally or physically absent fathers. The idea is that the mother is the goddess in a child's world and that her powers to nurture and love are almost infinite. She is the one who can create life and who can feed the life she has created. She is wonderful, and children want to grow up just like her. But boys can't do that, they realize one horrible morning, and from that day onwards they must cope with what might as well be called womb envy (and Ducat does call it that). He writes (page 34):

There are five common defensive strategies men unconsciously employ to cope with their envy of women's capacities to generate and nurture life: idealization, appropriation, provoking envy in others, devaluation of the object, and transforming love and longing into hate and fear. These defenses are not mutually exclusive, and often operate in concert.

I could write a book on each of those defensive strategies. Ducat doesn't mean, by the way, that all men employ them. He's talking here about those men who suffer from womb envy, who suffer from femiphobia and who might vote for hypermasculine candidates for such reasons. Interestingly, Ducat's solution to femiphobia is to have fathers play a much bigger role in their children's lives, especially in the hands-on caring. That way the child would have both a god and a goddess to look up to, and boys wouldn't have to break the loving ties to their main parent in such painful ways.

Wouldn't it be nice if Ducat's ideas were correct ones? The solution would be such a simple one. Not that I'm arguing against his theories, just wondering how they could ever be tested and how they relate to the generally accepted inferiority that most societies have historically assigned women. If the ability to give birth is such a powerful and enviable gift why is it that we mostly read about penis envy and not womb envy? Mutter, mutter.

But I do agree with Ducat that what makes masculinity "anxious" is in the way masculinity is defined: as the absence of anything even remotely smacking of feminine. This makes the whole definition a zero-sum game, might make some men hate and fear those parts of themselves that are labeled feminine, and also tends to cause a shrinking of the female sphere in patriarchal societies: if masculinity is the superior characteristic, then all sorts of desirable things (courage, honesty, intelligence) must be brought under the masculine label. And any attempt women make to redefine femininity immediately harms the definition of masculinity, which makes feminism really hard on some days.

The Wimp Factor is an interesting read. It would have been even more interesting if Ducat had taken into account all my comments in this post but I guess he is not one of us divines, and I forgive him, mostly. Except for the part where he tries to explain why there is such a thing as the Wingnut Gal, a woman willing to die for her right to be oppressed. Ducat spends about two paragraphs on this question, explaining it away in fairly fuzzy terms of individual rewards being different from group rewards and such. But this is really not enough, given that most married women voted for Bush in 2000.

In a weird way that glancing over the role of wingnut women or Republican women in general is not that different from the way the political right treats women's issues: by ignoring them.