The Wimp Factor: Gender Gaps, Holy Wars, and the Politics of Anxious Masculinity (Book Review)
Author: Ducat, Stephen
Reviewed By: Marilyn Metzl, Vol. XXVII, 1 (Winter 2007), pp. 72-74
The Wimp Factor by Stephen J. Ducat is a timely and fascinating study of the manner in which male anxiety has come to define our political culture. In Ducat’s intuitive and well-researched writing, a strong link is demonstrated between macho strutting, the macho strutting of male politicians, and the fundamentalist’s holy wars. In Ducat’s excellent and thoughtful analysis of the contemporary American political situation, he suggests that our culture, and in particular our leaders, vacillate between their own insecurity as males, their insecure masculinity, and the appeal of the image of the lonely cowboy superimposed upon the image of a decisive, gun-toting, aggressive leader.
Some may love Ducat’s views and his politics (as I did) and some may disagree, but none can fail to appreciate his vignettes and his quotes from the media, as well as his use of language. For many, the book will be an “Aha” experience, solidifying what they have been thinking for a long time. Ducat’s view of the injection of testosterone into American politics is demonstrated by the current administration, with their clever turning of a “cowardly” president into a war hero, and the subsequent turning of his opponent, who truly served in the war, into a “flip flopper,” connoting a feminine or nondecisive person. It is of particular interest to view the factors at play in the media, and how they influence our thinking. I guarantee that no one will ever watch the evening news without thinking of quotes from this opinionated book.
Before writing this review, I looked at Amazon to see what online reviewers thought of the book. Most found it be excellent and appreciated Ducat’s credentials as “a genuine psychologist talking about psychology.” The reviews were interesting, with one dissenter claiming that “Ducat’s positions are stereotyped and full of hackneyed emotions.” To refute this, I ask the reader to turn to Bob Herbert’s (2006) op-ed column “Why aren’t we shocked?” in the New York Times. Herbert hypothesizes that in the recent shootings at an Amish schoolhouse in rural Pennsylvania and at a large public high school in Colorado, the killers went out of their way to separate the girls from the boys, and then deliberately attacked only the girls. Ten girls were shot and five killed at the Amish School, with sexual molestation part of the mixture. One girl was killed and a number of others were molested in the Colorado attack. In the widespread coverage that followed these crimes, very little was made of the fact that only girls were targeted. Herbert asked us to imagine what would have happened if a gunman had gone into a school, separated the kids on the basis of race or religion, and then shot only the black kids, or only the white kids, or only the Jewish kids. There would have been calls for action and reflection, and the attack would have been seen for what it really was: a hate crime. None of that occurred because the victims were “just girls,” and we have become so accustomed to living in a society saturated with misogyny that violence against females is more or less to be expected. According to Herbert, “Stories about the rape, murder and mutilation of women and girls are staples of the news, as familiar to us as weather forecasts. The startling aspect of the Pennsylvania attack was that this terrible thing happened at a school in Amish country, not that it happened to girls.”
The Wimp Factor is divided into seven chapters: I. From Mama’s Boy to He-Man: Developmental and Cultural Paths to Anxious Masculinity; II. The Miss Nancy Man in Nineteenth-century America: Historical Roots of Anxious Male Politics; III. The Wimp Factor: Performing Masculinity in the Presidential Career of George Herbert Walker Bush; IV. Vaginas with Teeth and Castrating First Ladies: Fantasies of Feminine Danger from Eve to Hillary Clinton; V. Permutations of the Presidential Phallus: Representations of Bill Clinton, from Emasculated Househusband to Envied Stud Muffin; VI. Voting Like a Man: The Psychodynamics of the Gender Gap in Political Attitudes; and VII. Gender in a Time of Holy War: Fundamentalist Femiphobia and Post-9/11 Masculinity.
The Preface, “Fear and Phallus,” poses the question of why testosterone is a coveted elixir of political power and proceeds to discuss the anxieties that have made the “Wimp Factor” one of the most important variables in determining the outcome of an election. The author posits that much of the outcome of a presidential campaign involves hiring spin-doctors and handlers to inject “unseemly quantities of Viagra” into the candidate’s rhetoric and to reassure the male electorate that the candidate likes to kill things. The group that determines the outcome of an election—the soccer moms, the office park dads, the security moms, the NASCAR dads, and the religious fundamentalists and all who are concerned about gender, fear the wimp factor.
The book attempts to understand the powerful role that unconscious fears and fantasies play in politics by using psychoanalytic concepts (as well as such diverse sources as the Sambia tribe in the Eastern Highland of New Guinea and Terri Schiavo) to explain the main characters in the morality play of contemporary society. According to the author, Sambian men are raised by their mothers until age 10, forcibly removed and then subjected to violent male oriented rituals for the next 15 years (p. 40). Sex is primarily between men, and men are forbidden to interact with women until they are expected to choose a woman at the end of this time, and to father a child. The author points out that Sambian men echo their western counterparts in the way they respond to the traumatic rupture of the maternal cocoon and ensuing demands by repudiating the feminine in all of its forms. They are fearful of being feminized or re-feminized and thus, endure and celebrate the painful and traumatic rites of male initiation in order to revile all that emanates from women. This behavior is understood by the author to be an indication of an unacknowledged, if not unconscious, identification with, and envy of, a number of female functions, which are subsequently managed by appropriation.
The author proceeds to write about the demonization of powerful women such as Hillary Clinton and discusses her in chapter four, “Vaginas with Teeth and Castrating First Ladies: Fantasies of Feminine Danger from Eve to Hillary Clinton.” Ducat hypothesizes that women who lust too much invoke terror in the male unconscious, and thus the conflict of misogyny is viewed as a conflict, rather than as a simple hatred. According to the author, over the millennia of anxious masculinity, various mythical women have figured prominently in the pantheon of anti-female demonology: Eve, Lilith, Pandora, Diana, Kali. These characters appear to be derivatives of a pervasive and primordial image of feminine monstrosity—the vagina dentata, or vagina with teeth. Derivatives of this fantasy have been a recurring motif in the folklore of an astonishing range of cultures. Today we see the symbolism in many cultures of the vagina and the clitoris being unsafe, and the fantasized destructive impact on men of the woman’s capacity for pleasure. All of these stories involve men being emasculated, eaten, poisoned, infected with disease, rendered impotent, and turned into women; this myth is present in our fairy tales, which frequently involve a male hero making a perilous journey to gain a woman. Male insecurity about their masculinity grounds them in a paralyzing conflict: they desire women as sexual objects, but fear them as sexual subjects, as creatures of desire, and it is the woman’s amorous appetite that men find so threatening.
Christian-right crusaders Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson agree with Osama bin Laden on one key theological point: America had it coming. “The pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and lesbians . . and the ACLU . . . helped make this happen,” explained Mr. Falwell. Moreover, he warned shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, “What we saw on Tuesday, as terrible as it is, could be minuscule if, in fact, God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve.” A further aim of this book is to shed light on the links between anxious masculinity, the external holy wars of fundamentalists, and the internal wars of femiphobic men. Of particular interest is the correlation between the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the war in Iraq, and the continued over-valuation of masculinity in American politics and culture.
We turn then to Hillary Clinton who said, “The idea that I would check my brain at the White House door just does not make any sense to me.” However, Bob Herbert in his editorial “Why aren’t we shocked?”(2006) described the disrespectful, degrading, contemptuous treatment of women as being mainstream, and described a message on an ad for Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts for young women, “Who needs a brain when you have these” as well as an ad for a major long distance telephone carrier showing three apparently naked women holding a billing statement from a competitor. The text asks, “When was the last time you got screwed?” Ducat presents example after example describing the attempt to repackage Hillary, but the inability to find a way to render her self-authorizing intellect acceptable to the femiphobic right has now resulted in male political hysteria. Hillary was referred to in a national review as a smiling barracuda in a series of cartoons, lampooning Hillary and Bill in response to Paula Jones’ sexual harassment suit against Bill Clinton.
Chapter four is an ode to Hillary and celebrates her energy and self-determination in a description of her transgressions of “First Lady” comportment. In spite of a slanderous campaign against her, Mrs. Clinton earned a 62% approval rating, which resulted in a gap in her support between men and women, and Democrats and Republicans. Hillary’s intelligence and her achievements were spun out into public perception by her opponents as a punitive hunger for power in the White House. An anti-Hillary crusade developed that reached across the Atlantic, with British labor candidate Tony Blair having to reassure voters that his own wife would know her proper place. Similar views were presented by Bob Dole. Jokes are reported in this book such as “Why did the Clinton’s have only one child?” Answer: Because Hillary had a vasectomy (p. 141), or “Why does Hillary Clinton not wear mini-skirts?” Answer: So her balls do not show. In attempting to switch Hillary from Lady Macbeth to Betty Crocker (p. 144), she had to undergo an extreme makeover, which was described in the book as a recipe from the “Stepford Wives” playbook. Hillary’s conflict between her ambitious, intelligent, self-authorizing self, and the requirement that she enact the deferential wife of a man to buy political experience has been an area of constant stress for her and has resulted in her continued name-calling by femiphobes in government.
As a conclusion to his book, Ducat discusses the demonization of powerful women and contrasts this with the deification of powerless women. Although Hillary Clinton remains the poster child for feminine danger, Terri Schiavo is described as a great political issue and opportunity for the Republican Party. According to Ducat, the right wing debate for Terri Schiavo’s tragic predicament became a great political issue for the Republicans: an opportunity to shore up their Christian Right base, a precursor to the debate on abortion and a chance for one GOP Representative, Tom Delay, to play a brazen ethical shell game to keep the public eye away from an ongoing investigation into his own sociopathic conduct. Bush’s ratings were falling and the author questions why the same White House that has officially sanctioned the torture of prisoners of war and promoted those whose policy memos gave the green light to the actual perpetrator, as well as their enthusiasm to develop a new generation of nuclear weaponry, would cast a woman in a persistent vegetative state as a main character in this histrionic morality play. To answer this question the author finds that conservative and misogynistic men, especially of this fundamentalist variety, have always had a special affection for women without mind. The history of patriarchal culture is saturated with ambivalence about the talking, thinking, and self-authorizing female head—women who can speak and act for themselves. The author concludes with a discussion of Medusa as an example of cephalic malevolence; he concludes that men fear women who have a head on their shoulder and have not been confined to the mythic world, as we have seen that the most fundamental version of most patriarchal religious traditions mandate that women cover their heads or shave their heads, mute their voices, forsake their autonomy, and trammel their sexuality to gain acceptance by men.
According to the author, Terri Schiavo was the paradigmatic example of a woman who knew her proper place and stayed there, in bed, without agency or any sense of self. She had no will to interfere with the desires and plans that the men in her life made for her, and especially the plans her would-be saviors in Washington had for her. Forever voiceless, she could put up no resistance to those who sought to hitch their ideological and political wagons to her pale star—a star, which had faded into oblivion 15 years previously.
I would like to close with observations from Bob Herbert who pointed out that a girl or woman is sexually assaulted every couple of minutes or so in the United States. The number of seriously battered wives and girlfriends is far beyond the ability of any agency to count. We are all implicated in this carnage because the relentless violence against women and girls is linked, at its core, to the wider society’s casual willingness to dehumanize women and girls, to see them first and foremost as sexual vessels and never, ever as the equals of men. “Once you dehumanize somebody, everything is possible,” said Taina Bien-Aime, executive director of the women’s advocacy group, Equality Now. According to Bob Herbert, pornography has spread like nuclear waste across the mainstream in America and is now a $7 billion mega-industry where one can watch real women being beaten and assaulted. In addition, the video games and gangsta rap attest to the fact that there is a devastating continuum of misogyny at work in our culture and this book is a fascinating exposé of how misogyny affects whom we choose to lead us. This book helps the reader to understand some of the fundamental reasons why this misogyny is rampant in our culture and in our political system.
Marilyn Newman Metzl
Herbert, Bob. (2006,October 16). Why aren’t we shocked? The New York Times.
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