Stephen J. Ducat Dissects
"Anxious Masculinity," Making Sense of America's Strutting,
in a Psychoanalytic Kind of Way
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
I saw the Republican National Convention as essentially a hyper-masculine
strut-fest. The real point of the convention was to make John Kerry
their woman.... They had already done that with John Edwards by dubbing
him the “Breck girl.” And Arnold Schwarzenegger went on to proclaim
that any men who were anxious about the loss of jobs under the reign
of George W. Bush were, as he put it, “economic girlie-men.” The inference
was that Democratic candidates who were always whining about pink slips
may as well be wearing pink slips.
* * *
Like a jilted lover out to prove his masculinity with a series of new
conquests, our Bush regime today seem always out to prove something.
They will fight any war (with or without allies). They will ram through
legislation (with or without the democrats on board). They will eliminate
supportive social programs (since only wimps need "safety nets").
In other words, their America is a John Wayne/Rambo/Terminator figure.
But why? Recently Stephen J. Ducat, author of The
Wimp Factor, talked with BuzzFlash about where this delusional
and destructive mindset comes from, and how it manifests itself in our
country's domestic and foreign policies. When you think about it, the
right wingers have played our fears and fantasies darned well, exploiting
fear on the one hand and our hopes and dreams on the other. Perhaps "anxious
masculinity" played out on the world stage does help explain the
right wing's virulent attitude towards Hillary Clinton, and their determination
to slur Vietnam war hero John Kerry as "French." As George Lakoff has
commented, "It is crucial to notice and understand the central role of
a certain version of masculinity in American politics. Ducat's book helps
Stephen J. Ducat is a clinical psychologist in private practice and a
professor at the New College of California. He is a candidate at the Psychoanalytic
Institute of Northern California.
* * *
BuzzFlash: In your book, The
Wimp Factor: Gender Gaps, Holy Wars, & the Politics of Anxious Masculinity,
you argue that the current positions and attitudes of the Republican
Party and Bush Administration can best be viewed through a certain lens
that we traditionally associate with the he-man, the virile figure--you
call it the phallus. Briefly, how would you define "anxious masculinity?"
Stephen J. Ducat: In a culture based on male domination
and in which most things feminine tend to be devalued, even if they are
secretly envied, the most important thing about being a man is not being
a woman. This powerful adult male imperative to be unlike females and
to repudiate anything that smacks of maternal caretaking is played out
just as powerfully in politics as it is in personal life. In fact, political
contests among men are in many ways the ultimate battles for masculine
supremacy. This makes disavowing the feminine in oneself and projecting
it onto one’s opponent especially important. This femiphobia--this male
fear of being feminine--operates unconsciously in many men as a very powerful
determinant of their political behavior. It also constitutes a very significant
motive for fundamentalist terrorism.
BuzzFlash: You’re drawing a parallel between the extreme
right wing in the United States and the Islamic fundamentalists, in that
they are both highly fearful of overbearing feminine influence?
Stephen J. Ducat: Absolutely. Femininity, for male fundamentalists,
is seen as a contaminant, and there is an attempt to repudiate those aspects
of one’s self that seem feminine. This is something that fundamentalists
around the world share. As I argue in the last chapter of my book, there
is a surprising affinity between Christian fundamentalists in this country
and the extreme Islamic fundamentalists elsewhere, when it comes to this
kind of devaluation, repudiation and fear of the feminine.
BuzzFlash: You discuss “anxious masculinity” as exhibited
by right wing America, the Bush Administration, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul
Wolfowitz and George Bush. Why "anxious?" Is it that their masculinity
has got to be constantly reproven?
Stephen J. Ducat: Yes. In fact, the kind of hyper-masculine
strutting that we see on display by right wing males is a defense. It’s
a defense against this anxious masculinity, against their fear of the
feminine. In a culture in which it’s so important to deny the feminine
in men, masculinity becomes a really brittle achievement. It’s quite Sisyphean--you
know, you can never quite get there. You’re always having to prove it.
Part of the reason is that this type of masculinity is defined
largely in terms of domination. The problem is that domination--either
in a personal or a global context--can never be a permanent condition.
It’s a relational state. It’s dependent on having somebody in a subordinate
position. That means you could be manly today, but you’re not going to
be manly tomorrow unless you’ve got somebody to push around and control,
whether that is an abused wife or another country. So this kind of masculinity
is really brittle.
BuzzFlash: Then peace is a threat to anxious masculinity?
Stephen J. Ducat: It’s a threat because of its link to
the feminine. In fact, I have a chapter on the 19th Century, when there
was enormous debate about whether the U.S. should embark on the Spanish-American
and Philippine-American wars. In a number of editorial cartoons, peace
itself was personified as female.
BuzzFlash: You cite examples in your book of how your
psychoanalytical approach applies to the political world in a very specific
way. First of all, let’s take the efforts by the Bush Administration to
portray Kerry as "French." Should we assume that this was a
way of saying he’s feminine?
Stephen J. Ducat: Absolutely. It’s a rather transparent
code word for being feminized. I also saw the Republican National Convention
as essentially a hyper-masculine strut-fest. The real point of the convention
was to make John Kerry their woman. That’s what they wanted to do. They
had already done that with John Edwards by dubbing him the “Breck girl.”
And Arnold Schwarzenegger went on to proclaim that any men who were anxious
about the loss of jobs under the reign of George W. Bush were, as he put
it, “economic girlie-men.” The inference was that Democratic candidates
who were always whining about pink slips may as well be wearing pink slips.
Real men, you know, don’t worry about the losers in the new global Darwinian
This theme was echoed by a number of people, including Zell
Miller, who said that not only was Kerry suspiciously French, but he would
even let Paris decide when America needs defending. There was the implication
that, if Kerry were ever to run the White House, he would imperil the
masculinity of all men by turning the U.S. into a kind of submissive bottom
in the global contest for supremacy, the deferential housewife in the
family of nations.
Cheney basically echoed the same themes, referring to Kerry
as sensitive, faint-hearted, weak, wobbly, soft. Since the reign of Bush,
even the notion of negotiation or diplomacy, or international cooperation
became very suspect. For many Republicans, collaboration raises enormous
femiphobic anxieties, even if they’re collaborating--and perhaps especially
if they’re collaborating--with Democrats. GOP strategist Grover Norquist
once said that bipartisanship is another name for date rape. So that tells
you about his anxiety, I think.
BuzzFlash: To cooperate, then, is to give up one’s masculine
prerogative to assert oneself as a male leader?
Stephen J. Ducat: Absolutely. In the world they live
in, you’re either a top or a bottom. Mutuality, democracy, equality--that
makes no sense to them.
BuzzFlash: Well, as Jon Stewart said recently in the
context of the John Gannon/Jeff Guckert scandal in Washington, if you’re
on top, you’re not gay. That may explain the inner circle acceptance of
gays within the Republican Party, in spite of the gay-bashing national
political line they give to their followers.
Stephen J. Ducat: The Republican homosexuals, especially
if closeted, are not only treated as honorary heterosexuals; they become
honorary homophobes, as the most recent scandal illustrated.
BuzzFlash: Well, you know, Matt Drudge is gay and yet
engages in homophobia. Ken Mehlman, who is the head of the RNC, is reportedly
gay and was a leader of the homophobic charge. There are numerous Congressman
who have been outed and Senators who are known as gay, and yet who stick
to the homophobic line. It’s a strange permutation of anxious masculinity,
but maybe, as Jon Stewart said, if you’re on top, you’re not gay.
Stephen J. Ducat: He has intuited something that is actually
pervasive across cultures and across historical time--that in male-dominant
cultures, homosexuality is only taboo when it’s perceived as feminizing.
This has its foundation in ancient Greece, where it didn’t really matter
with whom you had sex. What mattered was what position you occupied in
the relationship of domination. If you were a penetrator, you were an
unambiguous guy. If you were penetrated, you were virtually a woman. That
dynamic operates in American prisons, and you can see it in some Middle
Eastern cultures. It’s really a question of domination.
BuzzFlash: So with Gannon, who said on his web sites,
you know, that he was a military guy, a Marine, and always on top, he’s
acceptable because he’s a man’s man?
Stephen J. Ducat: Yes.
BuzzFlash: He’s not penetrated; he penetrates.
Stephen J. Ducat: That’s right. Militarystud.com.
BuzzFlash: Let's turn to a second real-world example
of your theory, and someone you talk quite a bit about. I'm referring
to Hillary Clinton. In The
Wimp Factor, you include a cover from the infamous American
Spectator. It’s got a rather unflattering drawing of Hillary Clinton,
and it’s titled “Boy Clinton’s Big Mama.”
Stephen J. Ducat: That’s right.
BuzzFlash: You also have a chapter called “Vaginas With
Teeth and Castrating First Ladies -- Fantasies of Feminine Danger From
Eve to Hillary Clinton.” Clearly, she evokes something in the right that
was on an atomic scale in terms of negative reaction. Is it that she represents
the embracing and smothering mother, the woman who overpowers the man,
who is not submissive to the man, but thinks for herself, thinks about
her own future, is self-sufficient to a great degree? Do these characteristics
threaten anxious masculinity to such an extent that she was like the nuclear
bomb to them psychologically?
Stephen J. Ducat: Absolutely. Her being perceived as a powerful
and, most troubling, a self-authorizing woman, was regarded as profoundly
threatening and evoked a kind of misogynist dread and revulsion exceeding
even that generated by Eleanor Roosevelt. What’s interesting about this,
and what makes it an example of political irrationality, is that she’s
not that liberal. I mean, she’s pretty much a centrist, as was her husband.
BuzzFlash: They are considered, both of them, aligned
with the DLC, or the centrist wing of the Democratic Party.
Stephen J. Ducat: Absolutely. But Hillary Clinton has
been seen alternately as a castrating woman, the engulfing mother, or
a phallic, penetrating woman. Some people may feel I'm kind of going over
the top with Freudian metaphors, but I’m not making it up. One of the
covers of Spy Magazine actually put a penis on her.
BuzzFlash: You also have that cover in the book. You
draw a distinction between the terms "penis" and "phallus."
Whereas penis refers to a part of the male anatomy, the phallus is a mythical
concept of maleness, which can never really be attained by a human male,
but nonetheless it is the motivation behind much of the Bush Administration
and the right wing perspective.
Stephen J. Ducat: Absolutely. Of course, a phallus is mythic,
a permanently erect monolith of manly power and omnipotence. It’s a signifier
of untrammeled growth, invulnerability, and freedom from dependency. Someone
basking in the aura of the phallus is then seen as someone who has it
all, who’s lacking nothing, who doesn’t need anyone. The penis, on the
other hand, of course, is a fragile, vulnerable organ and it's only momentarily
This is why political campaigns work so hard at presenting
their male candidates as phallic. But the interesting thing about the
phallus as a symbol is that it moves around, unlike the penis, it isn’t
really attached. This is something I document in the representations of
Bill and Hillary Clinton. For a while, Hillary was literally portrayed
as having the phallus. There were cartoons of her using a men’s urinal,
and cartoons of her dressed as a man. The Monica Lewinsky scandal was
an interesting development precisely because it shifted the phallus from
Hillary to Bill. In fact, the popularity of both Bill and Hillary Clinton
went up dramatically as a result of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which
may seem kind of paradoxical for some.
BuzzFlash: That’s one of the most fascinating analyses
of your book, the theory that, in essence, the Republicans really backfire.
The whole impeachment effort was an impeachment in search of a reason
to impeach. And Whitewater didn’t work. Travelgate didn’t work. So they
finally tried to create perjury and all sorts of major crimes out of a
sex act. In an ironic way, you point out, it really blew back in that
we had wimpy Ken Starr and his staff prosecuting a President who had been
seen by many on the right as very subservient to his wife. But suddenly,
like the Olympic torch, the phallus had been passed to him--he suddenly
was a man’s man.
Stephen J. Ducat: Some of the same right-wing publications
that had portrayed him as castrated, as feminized, later portrayed him
as this lusty philanderer, a ravenous stud muffin, thinking that would
make him look bad. But in spite of all the criticism he got, his popularity
actually went up as a result of it. And of course, Hillary could now be
viewed as the wounded woman standing behind her man.
BuzzFlash: So it almost transformed them into a traditional
Stephen J. Ducat: Right.
BuzzFlash: Suddenly, as you say, Hillary was the forgiving
wife of the husband who had strayed.
Stephen J. Ducat: And Ken Starr, the voyeuristic prig,
looked very much the pervert in this.
BuzzFlash: Now let me ask you to comment on another curious
anomaly--these right-wing women and what you call the Phyllis Schlafly
syndrome. These are highly powerful women who never really are with their
families, but they preach subservience to their husbands and being home
with their families all the time. I recall that in the book, What’s
the Matter with Kansas, Thomas Frank talked to someone who was very
active in the Kansas legislature, who said she totally believed in submission
to the husband and staying at home. But meanwhile, she was off in the
legislature all year. What’s going on with that?
Stephen J. Ducat: Well, you know, there are a lot of different
kinds of right-wing women. There are under and middle class Christian
fundamentalist housewives who seek desperately to be the compliant good
wife, to stay at home, who have embraced their position of subordination
as a virtuous condition. And there are those who I think are more hypocritical,
the highly educated, upper class women like Ann Coulter who advocate a
life of domestic docility for the under class sisters. Meanwhile, they’re
in the public eye and are as powerful and self-authorizing as any male
politician. And by being part of the economic elite, they can buy their
way out of certain difficulties by virtue of their class position, whether
it’s having wealthy husbands or enough money in their own right to get
the health care they need, to get the reproductive care they need and
BuzzFlash: I think you imply at one point that they’re
like the gay men on top. They’re the females with phalluses in a lot of
Stephen J. Ducat: Well, I think in some ways they are.
This is something that is in the cultural imagination. In one of Bill
Maher’s shows, he joked that "this has been a tough week for conservatives
since Ann Coulter admitted she had a penis." And everybody laughed,
it was a joke that made sense to people because they already understood
intuitively there’s something phallic about her, about her repudiation
of weakness and dependency, her disgust for anybody that needs help of
BuzzFlash: How does the logic of your theory extend to the welfare
state? Grover Norquist has publicly stated that he would like to see the
social service state starved and then drowned in a bathtub. The social
service state that provides education, medicine for everybody, care for
seniors, that’s very feminine or very maternal.
Stephen J. Ducat: There’s nothing essentially feminine
about it, but it is perceived and constructed that way in the femiphobic
mind. Republicans call it the nanny state. That’s because care taking
in this kind of universe is regarded as something feminine. Obviously
there’s nothing essentially feminine about care taking, but that’s how
it gets gendered in public discourse. A government that takes care of
people is portrayed as maternal. And men anxious about their masculinity
tend to be aversive of being taken care of by anything maternal. They
repudiate that. In my book, I cite multiple examples of what can only
be called a kind of transference to government--treating the government
as if it were one’s own engulfing mommy. There’s a right-wing men’s movement
book called Surviving the Feminization of America, and the cover
of the book is a picture of the Capitol dome, and a man is looking aghast
at the dome because the top of it is replaced by a giant breast. So, we
see quite concretely and dramatically in this image, the femiphobic terror
of the "mommy state." I think this has a lot to do with the
drive to undo the New Deal -- not only to undo the New Deal, but undo
Theodore Roosevelt’s progressive area.
BuzzFlash: This is almost pre-Enlightenment when you
combine it with fundamentalist faith.
Stephen J. Ducat: Yes.
BuzzFlash: Why is this happening now? We seem to have
the revenge of the barbarians. Rumsfeld, and the neo-cons said in their
Project for a New American Century documents of the late nineties, that
we should take over the world because we can.
Stephen J. Ducat: The only way you could take this stance
is if you feel no connection to others. Other people exist in the world
to be conquered and used and exploited. But I try to not be a psychological
reductionist in my assessment. I think psychological factors are very
important, but they’re not the whole story. It's just that nobody has
talked about them, so I wrote this book. But there are other factors that
I think are really important to take into account. The right wing has
been organizing 24 hours a day since the late seventies. Unlike the left,
unfortunately, they have not leapt from crisis to crisis, or election
to election. They have organized on local levels. They have elected school
boards. They’ve formed enormous alliances. They’ve done fundraising. This
organizing, the multiplicity of think tanks, the placement of pundits
in key positions in the media, is paying off in terms of being able to
seize the language and spin issues their way. That’s something the people
on the left really have to appreciate and replicate in their own way,
creating an ongoing movement. We need to be unrelenting.
BuzzFlash: The Bush Administration has manipulated the
fear factor, on the one hand, and offered images of unfettered masculinity
on the other. Many women in the last election who might have felt more
comfortable with an embracing, supportive national government nonetheless
voted for the perceived masculine leader -- and I emphasize perceived,
because there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors here -- but the perceived national
leader, the top gun, GI Joe which you have on the cover of your book.
Stephen J. Ducat: What you said about their ability to
generate and play on people’s fear is extremely important, and very much
connected to what I talked about in my book. There were psychology experiments
done where they generated fear, in experimental subjects, who then were
actually more likely to support Bush. So, obviously, with the manipulation
of terror alerts and so on they played Americans’ anxieties like a fiddle.
What I talked about in my book is a specific anxiety that is being played,
which is men's terror of the feminine. Republican males have been motivated
by this fear and have successfully exploited it in others.
BuzzFlash: On the back of your book is a graphic of the
Homeland Security threat levels. There's low, then guarded, then elevated,
high, and severe. Finally, the highest level is "feminine,"
with sparks coming out of it.
Stephen J. Ducat: Right.
BuzzFlash: This really reveals so much and connects so many dots
by going a couple levels deeper and trying to figure out what’s going
on beneath the surface. This construct of anxious masculinity triumphing
over threats from feminine forces, from dominant, smothering mothers or
uppity wives, seems to explain so much about what’s going on with the
Republican Party. But then what do you make of someone like Condoleezza
Rice in positions of power?
Stephen J. Ducat: He put a woman in a position of power to implement
his policies and cushion him from information that he doesn't want to
know about. And you have to keep in mind, as highly placed as Condoleezza
Rice is, she is his underling. She does the bidding of the core group
BuzzFlash: If you’re a woman, we’ll let you in the club
as long as you act like the guy on top?
Stephen J. Ducat: As long as you support and act like
the guy on top. Of course, having Condoleezza Rice in her position doesn’t
translate into anything meaningful for other women. I think Condoleezza
Rice’s advancement to her current position is evidence of how failure
is no impediment to promotion in the Bush regime.
BuzzFlash: Loyalty to the hierarchy is what counts.
Stephen J. Ducat: It trumps absolutely everything. Her
loyalty to the men in charge is really what matters.
BuzzFlash: Is this merely a stage we’re going through?
Hasn't anxious masculinity been with us since the beginning of personhood?
Is this due to the thirty or forty year strategy of the right wing?
Stephen J. Ducat: I think a complex combination of factors
determines this. Not all cultures and all historical periods evidence
this kind of femiphobia. But we’re seeing a number of factors, not the
least of which is a kind of backlash against feminism and the ability
of the Republicans to really define the words we use. There is no greater
power than the power to define. If you can determine how people use language,
you really are able to determine how they think. If you can fill the word
liberal with the meaning that you want it to have, which nowadays is weak,
feminine, cowardly, so much so that even liberals want to run away from
it, then you’ve won an enormous battle for control. That sort of framing,
as George Lakoff calls it, the kind of linguistic hegemony achieved by
the right, has accomplished a lot. Femiphobia has always been a feature
of most patriarchal societies, but certain historical events have brought
them into the foreground. I think the defeat of the United States in Vietnam
played a major factor. I’m sure you’re familiar with the term "Vietnam
syndrome." I think one way of reading this malady is as a condition
of wounded masculinity.
BuzzFlash: We should point out Cheney and Rumsfeld were
on watch at the White House at the time that the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam.
Stephen J. Ducat: Yes. And George Bush the first, for
whom the term “the wimp factor” was first coined, declared at the end
of the Persian Gulf war in the nineties that this military adventure was
the final cure for the Vietnam syndrome. What’s interesting is that Republican
regimes keep declaring this, so it obviously continues to haunt them.
At the end of the Vietnam war, you had this giant imperial monster running
away from these little guys in black pajamas. This, I think, constituted
an enormous humiliation for those men in the American society that identified
with a militarized nation-state. In the years thereafter, we saw a whole
spate of revisionist Vietnam war films--you know, the Rambo movies, Chuck
Norris movies, and so on. The plots were all virtually the same. You had
these hyper-masculine, uber-menschen who weren’t going to let the pencil-neck
bureaucrats in Washington keep them from kicking Vietnamese ass. All the
movies ignore the fact that the war itself was lost. This was an attempt
on the part of the culture to try to compensate for the actual defeat.
I think the lingering symptoms of the Vietnam syndrome were not a trivial
factor in getting us into the current war in Iraq.
BuzzFlash: Stephen. Thank you so much for
Stephen J. Ducat: It’s been great talking to you.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
* * *
The Wimp Factor: Gender Gaps, Holy Wars, and the Politics
of Anxious Masculinity by Stephen J. Ducat
Bush: S.F. psychologist argues that hyper-masculinity is undermining the
American political culture (San Francisco Chronicle)