Whose is bigger?

Bush and the GOP are trying to paint Kerry as a Euro-wimp and girlie man. But the Dems have a chance to show America that it's Bush who's the real 97-lb. weakling.

By Alessandro Camon
Published August 7, 2004 7:34PM (EDT)

This year's presidential election is, once again, a contest between personalities as much as ideologies. The key battleground is over masculinity. Who has more? And who gets to define it?

The one aspect of John Kerry's performance at the Democratic Convention that everybody would agree on is that he wanted to come off like a man. The war-buddy reunion, the documentary mini-epic, the talk of lessons learned patrolling the Mekong Delta on a gunboat -- all were part of an ongoing effort to boost Kerry's macho credentials. Whether shooting pheasants or clay pigeons, playing hockey in the winter, or riding a race bike in the summer, Kerry has taken every possible opportunity to paint himself as warrior, hunter, athlete, and overall man's man. This eagerness is a response to the Republican Party's relentless attempt to undermine Kerry's masculinity and score points for Bush on a highly symbolic, highly valuable plane.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's recent "girlie men" remark (he hurled the epithet at Democratic lawmakers) was the most flagrant example of the GOP's classic strategy of sexualizing political discourse, both by pushing sexual issues to the fore and by framing other issues along sexually defined lines. The "war on terrorism" has provided Bush the ideal stage upon which to strut his administration's political machismo and to contrast it with the Democrats' supposed wimpiness. The GOP's painting of John Kerry as indecisive and soft, and John Edwards as an inexperienced pretty boy, is an essential part of this strategy, which culminates in the use of gay marriage as a wedge issue intended to polarize the country, revealing Democrats as at best weak and unmanly, at worst as depraved and deviant.

It's a natural strategy for the Republicans, one that relies on the traditional cultural and moral standards they have claimed as their own. A similar strategy paid off handsomely against President Clinton in the days of Monica Lewinsky. At that time, of course, Republican venom was directed at infidelity and libertine sexual behavior. Now it is directed against "girlie," "French-looking," "flip-flopping" men, as well as gays and lesbians who dare to demand that their mutual commitment be treated the same as straight people's. Either way, Republicans reaffirm patriarchal order and religious values, and claim for themselves the appealing role of manly men, loyal to their wedded wives. Never mind that Schwarzenegger's history of randy behavior makes Clinton look like a choirboy, or that plenty of Republicans cheat and divorce. What matters here are the proclamations and the posturing, however hypocritical, which allow them to stake symbolic territory.

This strategy reflects a keen GOP awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of their candidate. George W. Bush is not an articulate president by any stretch of the imagination. He's not an empathetic president. He's not a visionary president. He is, first and foremost, a posturing president. He is most comfortable and, in fact, most effectively communicative, when wearing jeans, cowboy boots and bomber jacket. He smirks, he squints, he nods, he points and shoots, he displays an easy grasp of male-bonding shorthand.

By contrast, the Bush campaign points at Kerry's suspiciously cultured airs, his more overtly patrician demeanor, his unseemly displays of affection for the youthful and ever-smiling Edwards, as expressions of an overall decadence, the exposure to exotic and possibly un-American influences -- in one word, a "Frenchiness." And whenever Kerry strikes a manly pose, Republicans sneer at his put-on ruggedness, belied by the droopy slope of the shoulders or the dorky bike helmet. They even go so far as to dispute his military record, suggesting Kerry may be guilty of reckless tactical decisions or may have exaggerated his own wounds. While there's more than a hint of desperation in this particular diatribe, as a whole the Republican attempt to paint the contest in terms of good old-fashioned manliness versus the more effete, Euro-influenced, self-doubting kind represented by Kerry, has been as transparent as it has been effective.

Teresa Heinz also provides easy fodder for this ploy. A clearly intelligent, worldly woman with her own wealth and a strong personality, she's likely to bring out the worst in the Republican constituency -- a mixture of misogyny, xenophobia and distrust of the "cultured elites." To the average Republican, she is Hillary with money and an accent (it was telling that Chris Wallace on Fox News, which faithfully echoes the GOP's world view, compared her to Eva Peron after her convention speech), and her powerful aura suggests that Kerry might not be the commander in chief of his own household. The unofficial contest between potential first ladies, as well as the two very different sets of daughters (both scheduled to appear in Vogue magazine features) will be an interesting facet of this election.

The great gay marriage debate is the linchpin of the whole strategy. The very argument against it, when boiled down to its essence, is about protecting traditional definitions of sexual roles.

Most arguments against gay marriage are, in fact, easily countered. It's not what we have been used to? Neither was interracial marriage. It may have unwanted consequences on children? Not when adoption by gay couples is legal anyway. It threatens the "sacredness" of the institution? Not when so many marriages already end in divorce, when popular culture obsesses on fat, obnoxious fiancés and on who wants to marry some cheesy millionaire, when Britney's instantly disposable wedding and Anna Nicole Smith's nuptial countdown to death are so obviously representative of the attitudes of many modern spouses.

The only argument that requires a more complex answer is, I suspect, the truly fundamental one. Gay marriage calls into question established roles; it scrambles the basic coordinates we use to define ourselves. If married couples are to include "husband and husband" and "wife and wife" sets, or "husband and wife" sets from the same gender, what does being a husband or a wife actually mean? And if that becomes open to interpretation, what does being a man or a woman mean? A stand against gay wedding is, at its core, an insistence -- and as we shall see a rather desperate, frightened and "unmanly" one -- on traditional notions of masculinity. A man is he who is married to a woman, and who's the undisputed father figure, provider for the family, maker of important decisions. (A man is also physically strong, adept at sports, comfortable with bikes, horses and other means of locomotion, not too big a talker but good with one-liners -- all important qualities, but clearly subordinate to the ones expressed in the traditional family structure.)

In order to prevent gay marriage from becoming legal, Republicans have gone and will continue to go to far-fetched lengths. The knowingly futile attempt to amend the Constitution is a fascinating example. The Constitution provides no foundation for discriminating against gay couples. The implicit argument that the Founders would have supported the amendment creates a vicious circle, in which Republicans take a present-day issue, go back to the past and decide what the Constitution "must have meant" about it, then try to stop the present from changing using the supreme authority of the past, now adequately retrofitted. It makes no historical sense. But of course it's not about historical sense -- it's about claiming the legacy of masculinity.

For the Republicans, claiming traditional masculinity is a matter of existential urgency, not just a tactical move. With traditional masculinity beleaguered and uncertain of its future, conservatives are clutching with increasing desperation to the John Wayne version. The more anxious they feel about what it means to be a man, the more they tend to enshrine the archetype.

This anxiety, which tries to come off as macho toughness, is something the Democrats ought to exploit. Kerry has tried hard (perhaps too hard) to counter the Republican attack on his masculinity. But Democrats should also expose the anxiety and insecurity that motivates the Republican's macho campaign to begin with.

Schwarzenegger's remark, for instance, deserves to be derided as not only crass and sexist, but also completely dishonest, even ludicrous, coming from a man who made his name as a bodybuilder. Bodybuilders spend all their time, money and energy refining the way they look: The kind of vanity that sustains the endeavor is arguably unmatched by the girliest girl in the world. There is no practical application for a bodybuilder's muscles: They are not to be used to win a fight, or a race, or to prevail in any other match of strength and skill. It's strictly about appearing a certain way. Bodybuilding was born, in fact, as a method to beef up scrawny physiques, and it was originally marketed at insecure young men who felt all too easily dismissed by women and bullied by other men -- most famously in the Charles Atlas ad in which a voluptuous woman scoffs at the cowering "97-lb. weakling" tormented by a beach bully. It was, in other words, a self-help tool for "girlie men," one that replaced insecurity with vanity -- a different kind of "girlie" quality.

Bodybuilding competitions are essentially male beauty contests where bikini-clad competitors strut their stuff in front of jury and audience. Preparing for them, professional bodybuilders combine hard-core training with chemical self-abuse, extreme dieting, tanning, and the shaving of all visible body hair, while spending countless hours posing in front of mirrors to learn the angles, the lights, the twitches that display every part of their bodies to their best advantage. In short, bodybuilders train to preen; the whole pseudo-sport is a gigantic, shameless exercise in preening. Shall we talk about girlie men? (It should also be noted that bodybuilding magazines count on a vast gay readership, and the aesthetics of gay porn owe bodybuilding an obvious debt. I suspect Arnold is sophisticated enough to realize that full well, which makes his remarks all the more callous).

Ultimately, Arnold's ridicule of "girlie men" is not a sign of his great manliness, but of his insecurity as a politician. Lacking a sophisticated grasp of politics, he falls back onto Hollywood mannerism and cheap jokes.

The same goes for Bush and his cowboy affectations: Contrast them with his minutes of surreal stillness in "Fahrenheit 9/11," as he held on to his storybook after learning that the nation was under attack, and you see how thinly Bush the cowboy masks Bush the big baby. A big part of what makes Michael Moore's film so devastatingly effective is how the president comes off it thoroughly emasculated, a frightened child suddenly swimming in his daddy's shoes. Those minutes will remain a defining moment of his legacy; precisely because the moment is in such contrast to the trigger-happy months and years to follow, it reveals how the macho posturing, the "Bring 'em on" and "Mission accomplished" boasts, the top-gun masquerade, are rooted in insecurity.

And yet, the film inadvertently also shows Bush at his most attractive, at least to those Americans who respond to his appeal: a kind of joking good ol' boy, not afraid to look a bit like a buffoon, physically fit, informal, tough-talking when expected to be, and always engagingly simple. A good drinking buddy (before he cleaned up, anyway) you may call "partner" or "dude," depending on where you reside. Which Bush Americans will choose to see -- and which candidate they empower as the next four year's planetarch -- is ultimately a sort of national psychiatric test as much as a political question.

Clearly the Democratic Party has chosen to try to reclaim the flag, patriotism, and "manliness" from Republican hogging. This is a high-stakes bet. The Republicans start out with an advantage, because they get to claim masculinity without having to redefine it: Democrats are fighting on Republican turf. For Democrats, then, the trick is to challenge the GOP's concept of masculinity, even as they reclaim it. This is difficult. But it's doable, and it's worth doing. Just as the flag doesn't need to be used to smother dissent, so manliness doesn't mean opposing intellectual complexity, let alone fearing strong women or demonizing gays. Fear of difference and mistrust of complexity are the real weakness. They need to be exposed as such -- and that's when the game stops being defensive. It may not be politically correct, but the Democrats should come out and say it anyway: Republicans are the real sissies.

Alessandro Camon

Alessandro Camon is a screenwriter and film producer based in Los Angeles.

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