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Whiny White Guys

“White men are no longer the whole against which we measure all the parts, but one more angry special interest group. Once they were 'mankind,' now they're just another niche in the endless segmentation markers and identities.”

by

Save the Males: The Making of the Butch Backlash

All this whinin’ and cryin’ and pitchin’ a fit
Get over it. — The Eagles

Only in America are there holidays to compensate for what has been lost. Martin Luther King Day signifies the humanist dream deferred. Halloween is an urban celebration of fantasies that cannot be lived. And Super Bowl Sunday is the Day of Male Bonding. It commemorates an institution that has all but lost its authority.

It wasn’t always this way. Once there were holidays devoted to the worship of womankind, while men made the rules of public life. But as women intruded, observances like the Easter Parade lost their luster. Now it’s men who need rituals to affirm their im­portance. The perfect occasion arose in 1967 — four years after Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique — with the first Super Bowl. Were it not for our need to mark the archaic, this climactic football game would not be such a commercial bonanza, nor would it echo the gendered polarities of beauty pageantry and war. For one sacred afternoon, men gather to chug a brewsky with the buds, and the demands of sexual equity are suspended. The Super Bowl is a reverie of the way we were.

But this year, the Day of Male Bonding came early. The nation awoke on November 9 to a new political alignment. Sixty-two per cent of white males had voted for Republican Congressional candidates. They were credited with producing the first GOP majority in 40 years. Not since Ronald Reagan had the right savored such a victory, and the conservative press was quick to capitalize on it. The Wall Street Journal, where Rush Limbaugh is known as a “sensitive fellow,” hyped the term Angry White Males, and before you could whisper, “Hillary is a bitch,” America had a new minority.

OF COURSE, THERE HAVE ALWAYS been angry white men. What’s new is their emergence in this country as a political bloc. These guys are on a well-publicized rampage, howling about their loss of power, casting themselves as victims and everyone else as their oppressors. What’s so wacky about this role reversal is that white men clearly hold  the lion’s share of political and corporate power. They lead the major religions and run the military. But they have lost something less tangible, without which they cannot continue to rule: their legitimacy.

White men are no longer the whole against which we measure all the parts, but one more angry special interest group. Once they were “mankind,” now they’re just another niche in the endless segmentation markets and identities. This new “community” has its own jargon and its own outrageousness. Limbaugh is a specialty much like kente cloth or rainbow flags. “Rush,” wrote one book reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, “is the ultimate guilty pleasure for guys weary of being bound by the cultural straitjacket of political correctness.”

P.C. is the official expletive of the Angry White Male. What began as a wry leftist critique of its own puritanical tendencies has become a term of derision for all things multicultural, feminist, or gay. The emergence of this epithet, at the same time as other, less elegant slurs have made a comeback, affirms the new pecking order of abuse. The only group it’s not hip to dis these days is straight white men.

But even this ritual baring of teeth reflects the tenuous state of male prestige. A major shift in consciousness has made the aphorisms about female pulchritude and male power that dot the Western canon seem archaic. The notion that women are born “to ben under mannes governance,” as Chaucer put it, must now be continually asserted, because it is no longer self-evident. No wonder so much energy is devoted to constructing a fundamentalism of male supremacy. The very fact that he needs to form a political bloc suggests that the white male no longer takes his influence for granted. That’s why he’s angry: He is still the major player, but he is no longer the game.

The conflation of power with truth, justice, the natural, or the divine is called hegemony. It’s what allows a dominant class, race, or gender to maintain its credibility. When that God-given right to rule is undermined, the loss of status can be devastating — especially when it occurs along with a loss of wealth. That’s what created the new Republican majority.

No one bothers to recall that men and women colluded in the last great Republican rout of 1946. Pollsters didn’t even measure women voters as a separate category until 1982, but the gender gap has been a fact of political life ever since. Fewer women voted in the last election than in ’92, and those who did tilted slightly toward the Democrats. This means the Republican majority, so potent in the short run, is built on highly unstable ground. If more women go to the polls in ’96, and some men redirect their anger toward the corporate masters and their congressional servants, the Democrats could be back in power.

But in order to attract the backlash vote, it would have to be a Democratic Party with a David Letterman edge, a par­ty that mocks its own identification with the weak and the powerless. It would have to slough off guilt and stand up to the “unreasonable” demands of women and minorities, singing along with the Eagles anthem for the Angry White Male, “Get Over It”:

Complain about the present
and blame it on the past
I’d like to find your inner child
and kick its little ass

These New Democrats would embrace male power. Perhaps, like Letterman (and Limbaugh), they would smoke cigars.

THE DAY OF MALE BONDING WAS scarcely over when The New York Times announced that cigars had become “a prop for the ’90s.” The remarkable photo on page one showed a young, besuited white male puffing away on what the reporter called “a statement of cool authority and elegance.” Sitting behind him, in shadow, a black man looks uneasy lighting up. Both are patrons of a cigar club, that new Manhattan environment where men gather to bask in what one pro­prietor called “a whole romantic era, the Victorian smoking room.”

He wasn’t talking about a singles bar. For though women are welcome in these clubs — after all, it’s the law — their real place is on the service staff, enhancing the prosthetic effect of a good cigar by handling it, lighting it, and even clipping the tip. Less than 1 per cent of cigar smokers are women, which makes these establishments a perfect setting for the romance of male bonding. But the steep price of a stogie ($22 for a Dominican Montecristo) signals that not just any dude can be part of this coterie. Un­like Super Bowl Sunday, cigar clubs aren’t supposed to be a democratic experience. The idea is to bring together two of the most powerful impulses in human history: camaraderie and class.

Cigars are the ultimate accoutrement of male power, the gentleman’s gat. Which is why it’s significant that, in the past year alone, sales have risen by more than 50 per cent, according to one manufacturer. This boom is largely due to young smokers look­ing for a high-status buzz. As the president of the Cigar Association of America ex­plains, “there is a male backlash” and a hunger for the days when male power was such a given it was rarely remarked upon. Cigars are a traditional instrument of that era, commemorating the moment after din­ner when ladies retired while gents remained at the table to huff and puff. Cigar chic is one more sign that the yearning for symbols of male supremacy is eminently marketable. In an age where culture creates politics, and commerce makes a style of both, the butch backlash is becom­ing chic.

THE NAZIS KNEW ALL about the power of the archaic. They built their reich on racist and sexist traditions that were al­ready in collision with the evolution of lib­eral societies. The allure of the Übermensch was all the more intense because he was passé. Something similar sustains the Angry White Male. This right­-wing version of Encino Man harks back not just to the postwar “golden age” of the one-income, two-parent, male-cen­tered family, but to the primordial days of all­-male hunting parties.

Of course, we no longer hunt for survival or depend on physical agility and muscle mass to hold territory. Warfare is in­creasingly conducted by remote control, and eco­nomic life is bound up with technical expertise. These shifts in the human condition make male su­premacy obsolete. Women are coming to power not just because of their col­lective will but because ob­jective conditions favor gender equity. The femi­nist revolution, as it is sometimes called, more closely resembles an evo­lution of the species. But because this leap forward involves altering patterns of behavior that have been practiced for many millennia, the course of change is uncertain and the anxieties potent enough to create a backlash. The male bond, no longer functional, is even more powerful as an artifact of the old ways.

In contemporary culture, Archie Bunker was the first Angry White Male. But good old “Ah-chie,” as Edith called him, was a bigoted buffoon who got his comeuppance, of­ten at the hands of his longhaired, upwardly mobile son-in-law. Archie’s resentment was rooted in class. He wasn’t meant to stand for men, or even white men, but for the eminently vulnerable white working stiff. In the end, like Ralph Kramden, Archie wanted love more than power.

Times have certainly changed. The sit-­comic ritual of male rage and reconciliation has given way to pure aggression, directed not at the powerful but at subordinates who refuse to take it lying down. Some time dur­ing the Reagan era, the racial animus that drove Dirty Harry was augmented by the gendered fury of Sam (“I don’t support wife beating, but I understand it”) Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay. These were no lov­able loudmouths, but demonic figures of male authority whose crudeness was pre­sented as a higher form of truth telling. Heroically blue collar, they appealed to a middle-class audience eager to hear that women, blacks, and gays were walking all over straight white men. Kinison and Clay accommodated this burgeoning butchoisie by avoiding jokes about class. They confined their rage to race and sex. And under their aegis, the droll misogyny of Henny Young­man (“Take my wife. Please!”) and the coy ressentiment of Rodney Dangerfield (“I don’t get no respect”) were transformed in­to sadism. Stand-up became the home base of the butch backlash.

Soon, the fury appeared in rock music, where sexual and racial epithets became a cur­rency of hip discourse. White fans, who had already been schooled on metal and hardcore, eagerly identified with the rage of rap. In their hands, the hiphop stance was turned on its head, producing white racist epithets. But the bulk of this dissing was directed at women and homosexuals — or,  ever in the vernacular, bitches and fags. These sexual slurs had a double meaning. Not only did they ex­press what white males felt about their loss of authority (including the power to name all people and things in the world), but these words were part of a male language, and their elevation invoked the most primitive device for maintaining dominance: the bond.

The Super Bowl is a one-night stand, but backlash rock and sado stand-up are on­going reminders of a power that has lost its glory. Still, these forms are far too lewd to be of use to a politics that must observe the pieties of Christian fundamentalism. For conservatives to harness the butch backlash, it has to be expressed in a more wholesome way. Enter talk radio, with its populist im­primatur and its decidedly antierotic agen­da. Here was rock without rhythm. But the shock jocks did borrow something from the pop culture they condemned: its epithets. Bitch and fag are male terms of derogation that denote an “unnatural” self-assertion by women or homosexuals. As talk radio became an affiliate of the Republican party, these slurs became part of an overtly polit­ical presentation. It was only necessary for the men at the mikes to clean up their act a bit. A bitch was now a feminazi (c.f. Rush Limbaugh), a fag was a militant homosexu­al (at least on The 700 Club).

This same strategy has taken root in Congress, where the new Republican poohbahs revel in sotto voce slurs. Richard Armey’s use of Barney Fag, murmured to a group of reporters he thought he could count on to share the joke, was one exam­ple of the new respectability of hate speech. Newt Gingrich’s confidential salute to the first lady is another. (What’s the big deal? Mother Gingrich later asked. Aren’t there buttons calling Hillary a bitch?) The cur­rent Congress so resembles a locker room that ABC correspondent Cokie Roberts re­cently observed, “The House these days is no place for a mother.”

Neither is the Connecticut statehouse. When a nominee for commissioner of vet­erans’ affairs was criticized for referring to gay men as “lollipops,” he insisted he hadn’t meant to be offensive. “It’s just the way an old marine talks,” the nominee explained. Precisely: The old barracks jargon of racial and sexual slurs was intended to bond men into a war party; epithets helped to establish the boundary between the in-group and everyone else. That tactic has been adapted by the GOP to cement its bond with the the Angry White Male.

REPUBLICANS COME EASILY TO THIS politics of symbolic solidarity. It was the core of Richard Nixon’s plan to exploit the backlash against civil rights. Now Nixon’s Southern strategy has been applied to women’s lib­eration. Never mind that the tradi­tional blue-collar household has always included many working women, or that today their income is all that stands between many families and poverty. To the extent that feminism presents alternatives to the dominion of the patriarch, it can be blamed for the loss of starus once accorded, as a matter of course, to white men.

What about the angry black man? Why is he not part of the pissed-off fraternity? Doen’t he have a beef with bitches, too? In fact, there’s ample evidence of a butch back­lash in the black community. From Tupac to Tyson, images of vehement masculinity abound. But in white America, black male rage is regarded as a pathology, while white male rage is seen as the basis of a politics. As in Birth of a Nation, black male rage is sex­ualized and repressed while white male rage is idealized and unleashed.

In reality, both are aspects of the same response to the growing influence of women. O. J. Simpson and Clarence Thomas are actors in the same sitdram that produced the Republican victory. And this reaction is part of a global backlash that has ignited fundamentalist explosions in every major faith. How much more can be ac­complished when the enemy within includes not just infidels but feminists. How much easier it is to convince women — enjoined by a lifetime of experiences to “stand by your man” — that their best interests are served by the old order. Not many citizens of the Third World would buy that argument from their former masters. Nor would many African Americans vote for candidates opposed to affirmative action. But, though white women have been major beneficiaries of such programs, in the last election, near­ly half their votes went to the Republicans.

Not that any party has a patent on the butch backlash. Plenty of Democrats are pissed off, too, and the administration is running as fast as it can from feminism (not to mention affirmative action). But Bill Clinton will have to do more than present himself as a kinder, gentler Republican in order to win back the whiners. He will have to toe the conservative line: that white men are the real victims, and minorities the real oppressors. Without this Big Lie, the back­lash could not cohere. Which is why con­servatives have appropriated the left’s vo­cabulary of aggrievement. A right-wing bumper sticker proclaims SAVE THE MALES.

An op-ed piece in the Daily News is a telling example of the new rule about who’s allowed to be a victim and who is not. “No­body gives a damn about me,” one white male student grouses. The author, a female professor at the University of Cincinnati, supports his claim. Undergrads like him, she writes, “enjoy no special admissions consid­erations, support services, and designated scholarships, no departments equivalent to women’s or African American studies.” She doesn’t mention that these beleaguered bach­elors are taught from curricula that stress the achievements of white men, and go on to earn more than other college graduates. They’ve had affirmative action for 5000 years.

JUST HOW OPPRESSED ARE WHITE MEN? It depends. They come in all classes (though the Republicans would like them to forget that fact), and when it comes to economic status, the rich ones are doing better than ever. But for blue-collar workers, the loss of earning power is very real, indeed.

Actual income has fallen sharply over the past two decades, largely because of the shift from well-paying manufacturing jobs to low-paying work in the service industries. The result has been a rude awakening from the American dream, at least for the gener­ation that came of age before the ’70s, when workers could expect to double their standard of living every 25 years. Now it would take 65 years to achieve that same gain.

But the pain hasn’t been shared equal­ly. According to the census bureau, the me­dian income of white women rose by 10 per cent between 1979 and 1993, while the median income of white men dropped by the same rate. (Among blacks, a similar dis­parity exists, but both sexes continue to earn less than whites.) A major reason for this gender gap is the traumatic migration from assembly lines to hamburger grills. For white men these new jobs mean lower wages, but for women and minorities, who have always worked for less, these same jobs represent an improvement. Largely because of this historical inequity, the earning gap has narrowed over the past 20 years. Though women still make only 70 per cent of what men do, that’s up from about 60 per cent in 1979. All this has precious little to do with affirmative action, but if you’re a white male with shrinking fornmes, it’s easy to imagine that women and minorities are getting all the breaks. Especially if that’s what Rush keeps telling you.

The butch backlash enables Republicans to profit from the growing inequalities of American life, while deflecting attention from those who are really responsible: the white men who set wages. Super Bowl Sun­day and other signifiers of the male bond belie the fact that professional men have gotten richer on the backs of their blue-col­lar buds. The salary gap between educated and uneducated workers is now wider in the U.S. than anywhere else in the developed world. And guess what? Though women have made striking inroads into the professions, the higher on the corporate ladder the less visible they are.

Women comprise only 6 per cent of di­rectors at Fortune 500 companies, and their committee assignments nearly always involve public relations, while the real power posts on corporate boards remain in male hands. If anything, it’s these women, in their tailored power suits, who should be pissed. In­stead, as former Times columnist Anna Quindlen reported, they meet in restaurants for discreet grousing sessions, hoping not to be overheard as they mutter the one unacceptable epithet these days, about the “whiteboys” who run their companies.

This term, appropriated from black slang, became part of the Clinton White House when it was used by the likes of Lin­da Bloodworth-Thomason to describe the all-male policy preserve in the West Wing. But since Leon Panetta’s arrival and Hillary Clinton’s retreat, “whiteboys” has all but vanished from the Washington lexicon. It certainly could be applied to the House, where Re­publican leaders are following corporate form by choosing women to present the party line — especially on social issues — while white men hold all but one of 18 committee chairs.

The spectacle of the powerful blam­ing the weak would be comic if it weren’t so effective.

BUT MAN DOES NOT RULE BY BREAD alone. If the butch backlash were merely a re­action to material deprivation, it wouldn’t have such appeal to prosperous professionals. That it does only shows how pervasive this shift in status has been. Even when men and women do not compete for scarce resources, they battle over who makes the rules. The structure of the family, the etiquette of sex, even the proper use of pronouns — all are in contention. And the score adds up to a loss of authority for men. Add to this incursion of women the explosion of gay culture and the proliferation of racial categories and it’s clear that, in the largely symbolic realm of hegemony, straight white males are feeling the pinch. They lack what they didn’t need as long as they stood for the whole: an identity. Now they’ve got one, rage and all.

To be sure, the refusal to admit that white men still hold the largest share of ma­terial power gives their anger an unreal qual­ity. But that has never stopped reactionaries, and this movement has a mission to restore the old order. Women, blacks, and gays have a place in it, but not as au­tonomous beings. They are to resume their traditional roles in ritual deference to mas­culine authority. Women must appeal, blacks must kneel, and gays must heel.

This is the allure of Howard Stern. He reconstructs the order, waving his dick around symbolically before a delighted black woman. Stern recalls a world where white men rule by righteous banter. Every­one else must play along or take the burn. He’s a working-class hero whose audience, like the backlash itself, includes many pro­fessionals. Indeed, a recent book-signing appearance by Stern nearly shut down Wall Street. Even some powerful women are drawn to this action, especially if they are politicians out to reassure their own angry white men. Just to show she’s no bitch, New Jersey governor Christie Todd Whitman named a rest stop after Stern.

Humor is an important weapon in the butch backlash, used to enforce the order by ridiculing those who won’t abide by it. Call-in shows are perfect for this police ac­tion, because they allow the jock to create an imaginary bond and to disconnect anyone who threatens it. This cannot easily be achieved in real life. But not everyone is enchanted by interactive executions or amused by the prairie-like cadences of Rush, even in print. For the upscale backlasher, there’s that self-described “Republican reptile,” P. J. O’Rourke.

Only The Wall Street Journal could regard this Bud Lite version of Oscar Wilde as “the funniest writer in America.” Like Limbaugh, O’Rourke conflates right reason and male supremacy, but in the voice of an ar­chaic aristocrat. He can sound like a parody of William F. Buckley as he affirms “the im­mense fatigue everyone is feeling with equality,” using the collective pronoun everyone the way the very rich do: to mean us. In this order, there are noble white men and the un­grateful new masses. “Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, cripples, women, and guests on The Oprah Winfrey Show are all demanding to be treated as equals,” O’Rourke writes. “Ho­mosexuals are just one more voice of com­plaint in an already too querulous world.”

Fifty years ago, O’Rourke would have had to include the Irish, not to mention the Italians and Jews. But sexism and racism have supplanted ethnic bigotry. Of course, the same old interests are served: The rich get richer while the workers get to vent on their designated inferiors. Imagine the alterna­tive — workers blaming those who actually profit from their loss — and you can under­stand why the Republicans have invested so much in the Angry White Male.

By displacing the old class affinities on­to gender and race, the Southern strategists have created an estate to which any righteous white dude can belong. Even the former professor who crafted the coming California voter initiative that would ban affirmative ac­tion can announce, with disarming pride, “Count me among those angry men.” The appeal of this fantasy goes well beyond the working class. But just as rich Republicans have mastered the idiom of the common man, the Angry White Male wears a blue collar even when he’s a millionaire.

A complex mythography instructs us that the working man is blunt, devout, virile, stoical, and ready to fight when wronged — in short, the embodiment of traditional masculinity. Machismo is his inheritance, passed from father to son like a job in the construction trade. Never mind the brutality of his passage to manhood, the systematic hardening that has numbed him, or the crushing impact of that process on his own children, not to mention his mother and his wife. This is the icon conserva­tives have built their backlash on, and its power transcends class because it speaks to the disquieting sense of male loss. For what is missing from the culture of equity — as it is from the alternative family — is the almighty patriarch: His God, his laws, his sense of what it means to be a man.

Restoring the lost father in his most cul­turally idealized form — as the head of a white working-class family — is what makes the Re­publican agenda so attractive. It’s why the next presidential campaign is shaping up to be a race between Bill Clinton, the fatherless child who reminds us all too much of our pat­rimonial loss, and Bob Dole, the wounded, wizened, wrathful dad.

BUT IT’S NOT ENOUGH TO HONOR thy father by smoking his cigar. Hegemony must be seen to coincide with “natural law” or it can easily be confused with brute force. This is why conservatives are so eager to assert that the social order is a reflection of nature, and not just a set of biases that privilege straight white men.

In this war of restoration, sexual and racial supremacy march arm in arm. Charles Murray’s contentions about the heritability of intelligence have their equivalent in the recent rash of “data” demonstrating that sexual inequality is built into human biology. Though Murray’s ideas have achieved a frightening respectability, they have also met with strong resistance from the intellectual mainstream. But ideas about the impact of gender on ability are harder to dismiss, if only because there are differences between women and men — some of them obvious, others subtle but measurable. No one has been able to demonstrate that these distinctions account for women’s destiny. Yet many men who would never be tempted by Murray’s racial analysis find merit in equally spurious claims about the sexes.

Consider John Stossel, who began his TV career as an award-winning investigator of consumer fraud. Lately, he’s jumped on the backlash bandwagon with a series of prime-time specials that puncture liberal myths. Last month, Stossel took a peck at “eye-opening research” suggesting that “Boys and Girls Are Different” after all. Ah, but are the sexes programmed for inequality? Stossel poses a rhetorical question and answers with a rigged response: “Should gender influence our place in society? Some research says yes. Some people don’t want you to hear about it.” This hint of censor­ship echoes the heady image of feminazis organized into an authoritarian “thought police.” But they can’t stop this heroic reporter from speaking truth to feminist power. Stossel enlists “other voices, quieter voices, perhaps,” drawn from “the world of science,” to counter their views.

You’d never know from this show that researchers strongly disagree about the im­pact of biological differences. You’d think it was a settled issue that “men and women just operate differently.” Or that human nature is timeless and unchanging rather than constantly evolving. “Maybe this is a social problem that needs to be fixed,” Stossel admits. But then he hammers home the Limbaugh line: “If we’re born different, if we think dif­ferently because our brains are different, then trying to fix these differences will be pointless, expensive, maybe even hurtful.”

Stossel’s worldview is common on the op-ed page, home of the angry white pundit. John Leo, who has found his niche as a syndicated critic of the politically correct, was quick to jump on newly published data demonstrating that women and men use their brains differently. Never mind that, as the researchers reported, both sexes appear to arrive at the same level of competence through different neurological routes. For Leo, as for Stossel, this is further proof of what has always been evident to his senses, at least: that women are the weaker, more emotional sex. Now that feminists are no longer in a position to suppress this truth, Leo proposes a new system: “Let girls and boys compete,” but without “sexual quo­tas.” (Read affirmative action.) If the result is a return of male privilege, it must be be­cause that’s what nature decrees.

In fact, there is no science of sexual inferiority. There is only the history of male supremacy, and the pattern it imposes on human identity. The revival of essentialist thinking about both sex and race comes at a politically propitious time: just as the de­bate about affirmative action is getting un­derway. Not only does this new social Dar­winism undercut the rationale for such programs, but it helps to define the unnatural­: women who cherish their autonomy.

It’s no surprise that, in the year of the butch backlash, the old accusation of “man­hating” is back in style. This time it’s com­ing not just from shock jocks but from in­tellectuals like Camille Paglia, the libertine’s Rush Limbaugh. In a recent tangle with feminists (moderated by that old libera­tionist William F. Buckley), Paglia urged “all people who espouse progressive values [to] go back to looking at the ordinary lives of women who love men.” The implication is that feminists don’t love men. That Paglia is a lesbian hasn’t stopped her from invok­ing Betty Friedan’s warning about “the lavender menace.” It’s all part of playing­ — and playing to — the male power game.

Of course, it is entirely possible to love men — and to relish sex with them — without worshiping male power. Two feminists made that point in a recent issue of Mirabella, but the editors played the pieces with a cover line that bows to the backlash. FEMINAZIS? NOUS? they asked wryly. (Never mind that, if you consider Limbaugh’s definition of a femi­nazi — woman who strongly supports abor­tion rights — the only honest answer would be “Oui!“) At Mirabella, which is part of Rupert Murdoch’s stable, the truth must be packaged so it corresponds to the contours of male power.

Women’s magazines in general have been quick to reflect the anxieties aroused by the backlash. Their tone grows accommodat­ing, even as men’s magazines ram home the new orthodoxies. GQ attempts to solve its lingering butch problem in the latest issue by decrying the fate of “Male Victims of Politi­cal Correctness.” An editorial makes a populist case against “The Tyranny of Prescribed Culture.” (Read countercultural elite.)

Meanwhile on Seventh Avenue, the male gaze falls on the spring line. Women “want glamour again,” Versace announces. Clothes that echo Hollywood in the ’40s — the golden age of female passive aggression­ — are being touted for what the L.A. monthly Buzz calls “the year of dangerous curves.” As for the executive suite, Harper’s Bazaar an­nounces the arrival of the “soft power suit.” Wear it with one of those new corsets and you’re dressing for genetic success.

The threat of rejection by men has always been a powerful deterrent to women’s liberation, as have the epithets applied to men who can’t or won’t dominate their wives: henpecked, pussy whipped, and that telling liberal euphemism, wuss. In the past, political assaults on the autonomy of women have been abetted by an all too compliant media, as in the postwar years, when Rosie the Riveter was coerced into retreating from the workforce and admitting that “father knows best.” We can expect to see a postmodern version of this patridoxy, along with numerous scenarios of sexual reconciliation based on women’s sensitivity (and subordination) to men’s needs.

BUT AMERICAN CULTURE EMBRACES contradictions, if only to sell them, niche by niche. The image of women according to Phyllis Shlafly (who once warned that feminism is doomed “be­cause it is based on an attempt to re­peal and restructure human nature”) has never really taken hold outside the parameters of Christian rock. And though the Angry White Male is very much a creature of the dream machine, there are other, more complicated messages on the marquee.

Even as shock jocks continue their dri­ve-time harangue, and stand-up comics keen over their loss of dick privileges, young people flock to see films about triumphant dumb guys. Not that these dudes are sensi­tive. But even when they are antisocial, like Beavis and Butt-head or Wayne and Garth, these “failed men” stand outside the loop of butch authority. They bond, but not to hold power; they love, but not to be in charge. Forrest Gump and Ace Ventura have libidos but not cojones, that is, they lack the will to dominate.

Such floating icons express our ambivalence about male power. We are eager to restore it even as we embrace its over­throw. And despite the allure of an ancient icon, many women — and men — see the butch backlash for what it is: a solidarity of fools. Though it is always tempting to be part of a trend, the awkwardness of this re­crudescence is apparent. As the passage from Willie Loman to Jackie Mason suggests, white male rage can no longer be played as tragedy, only as farce.

So how far will the butch backlash go? Can it take us back to the days when, to use the hip vernacular, white men rooled? Not bloody likely. They can demonize people of color, but they cannot make them disappear. They can expel immigrants from hospitals and schools, but they cannot make Ameri­ca a white nation. They can punish queers, but they cannot make them ashamed again. They can confound women with falsities about their true nature, but they cannot drive them from the workplace. (Indeed, they can’t afford to.) Nor can they restore sexual puritanism and the double standard that went with it. The jack of liberation is out of the box. And the engine of equality churns on, leaving male supremacy further and further behind.

The emergence of the Angry White Male is more like a last stand. The glory is gone, but the power won’t be given up without a fight. And precisely because that birthright is what’s at stake, the butch back­lash is very dangerous, indeed. It has the ca­pacity to inflict enormous pain on the alien, the illicit, and the needy before it runs its awful course. So fasten your seat belts, com­rades, we’re in for a bumpy ride. ❖

Research: Rahul Mehta

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 15, 2020

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