Whatever Naomi Wolf’s sins may be—and they are mostly sins of intellectual crudity—you have to feel for her after the mangling she took last week. Hired to help Al Gore project a macho mien, she became the target of stand-up savants from Jay Leno to Maureen Dowd. “The moral equivalent of an Armani T-shirt,” was Dowd’s judgment on this postfeminist pundit whose take on women as “sex goddesses” brings to mind nothing more original than Helen Reddy in a teddy.
For Wolf, female sexuality is a naturally derived source of power—a creatine of the clitoris. This is a perfect corollary to her ideas about the alpha male. Both spring from the current concept of sex as an expression of primate reality. You can’t pick up a paper these days without hearing about the “hard wiring” that makes women and men alike swoon for a Power Dude. He may be as homely as Rudy Giuliani, but when it comes to running for office a dominant demeanor is an aphrodisiac (except when the candidate is a woman). In the coming presidential race, it threatens to become a litmus test.
Why this fixation on alphatude? Precisely because it’s under siege. As macho loses its real-world prestige, it becomes that much more important to preserve it as a political and cultural fantasy. The feverish quest for a natural narrative that can sustain an archaic idea has produced all sorts of experts on what might be called biosexuality, from Lionel Tiger—who invented the term alpha male—to Wolf, for whom women’s “erotic nature” has a “magical potential.”
It’s one thing to turn this mumbo jumbo into a line of rather sophisticated self-help books. (The New Female Power and How to Use It—why didn’t Simone de Beauvoir think of that?) It’s quite another to combine a sex-rad persona with a career as a high-priced political consultant. A male advisor might get away with toe-sucking, as Dick Morris has, but woe to the woman who proposes that girls be taught about masturbation and heavy petting so they won’t rush into intercourse. That kind of thinking is what pushed Joycelyn Elders into early retirement, and it hardly helps a candidate freighted with his predecessor’s transgressions to have a funky female flack.
On the great puritan plains, most people think girls should be seen but not sexed while boys should be fucking, not ducking. These beliefs coexist quite nicely with piety, producing a louche tension that can easily pass for virility. It’s the Jimmy Swaggart contradiction, and it shows in George W. Bush’s face.
He sure looks like he’d approve of teaching girls how to give a good Lewinsky, which is why Bush, like Clinton, pushes abstinence instruction. But unlike Slick Willy, his true mentor, Bush is all fidelity on the stump. He used a prior obligation to his wife as an excuse for his failure to attend a New Hampshire debate last week, allowing the New York Post to boast, NO DEBATING THAT BUSH IS A LOYAL HUBBY. Yet he’s a master of the Clintonian wink, that narcissistic spark so central to the “gusto” of the alpha male. In short, Bush is fuckable. Why isn’t Gore?
No matter how artfully he opens his collar to show a sprig of chest hair, Gore is caught between Tipper and a hard place. His professions of devotion only make him look cowardly, and his impressive record on women’s issues reads like pandering. The closer he snuggles up to the female electorate, the more it recoils, giving Bush an ample lead among women (though the gap is half what it is among men, and growing smaller). No wonder Gore felt compelled to bring a professional carnalist like Wolf on board. And no wonder pundits pounced on the spectacle of a man relying on a babe to give him macho tips. Alphas don’t come crying to a woman; they blow up the world on their own.
In fact, submission is the least of Gore’s problems, as was clear in his 1996 debate with Ross Perot. So why the alpha gap? Leave it to the Post to round up a posse of shrinks—drawn from the Dr. Laura pool, no doubt—to explain it all. “Look at the issues,” says one Manhattan therapist. “The environment. That’s like gardening. That’s what women do. You want someone like Jesse Ventura—into blood sport.” Then there’s the loving-husband-and-father factor: “He’s perfectly decent, and real men aren’t perfectly decent.” By these criteria, the ideal president would be Donald Trump—or maybe O.J.
Fortunately for America, this is not a standard Franklin D. Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln tried to meet. Even George Washington turned down the chance to be king. These were not alpha males as we know them; they were leaders. The difference goes to the heart of authoritarianism. An alpha feeds himself; a leader feeds the people.
— So when did macho become a wedge issue? Most likely during the Carter years, when America was besieged by stagflation and bested by Iran. It was the era of that famous prank headline calling a Carter speech “more mush from the wimp.” But it was also the time when feminism began to make significant inroads on the political process. By now, it’s clear that the rise of women is dramatically changing American life. Gore’s stance on women’s issues—for all the calculation at its core—reflects this new reality, yet the image of a feminized president also raises intense anxieties. So intense, it seems, that we’d rather have an airhead in the oval office than another humane wimp.
That’s why fidelity plays as a liability to Gore, but not Bush, and why his background as a political scion makes Gore seem effete, but not Bush. Even W’s gaffes affirm his masculinity. (After all, no one ever lost butch points for being stupid.) We need an anchor to the old way of being manly, even as we expect it to be oiled with postmodern irony, and Bush projects a knowing wryness—a certain distance from ideas—that trumps Gore’s glaring lack of pomo style. “Women are impressed with swagger and paternalism in presidential candidates, just as men are,” writes the very pomo Dowd. So we are—especially since we live in an age when macho is a cultural artifact, an image that plays well on TV, an empty jock.
But feminism is not responsible for the state of the American presidency, an office with less and less power to actually run things. The real alpha males are the stewards of corporate capital, and they see the U.S. as one market in a global economy. America is entering the new millennium as a superpower in an age of invisible empires. The president has become the symbol of a world that is vanishing before our eyes. And in our rush to find a real man in an ambiguous time, we seem to have forgotten the lesson Europeans learned at such a catastrophic price: The ultimate alpha is a tyrant.
Research: Jason Schwartzberg
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 9, 1999