Out and about this weekend, I saw no less than three men who appeared to be heterosexual wearing little buns on the tops of their heads. This must drive the Republican Party crazy. Because in a way, man-buns are the greatest threat to conservative culture and ideology.
On Meet the Press this weekend, David Brooks expressed the panic of older white male conservatives nationwide when he opined, “Obama, whether deservedly or not, does have a—I’ll say it crudely—but a manhood problem in the Middle East. Is he tough enough to stand up to somebody like Assad or somebody like Putin? I think a lot of the rap is unfair but certainly in the Middle East there is an assumption that he’s not tough enough.”
Ignore if you can the laughable irony of the Canadian-born D.C. resident and New York Times columnist not only championing but channeling the sort of red-meat, red-state masculinity that is far more Brooks and Dunn than David Brooks.
But Brooks isn’t the only conservative regurgitating this line of attack. “We have a weak and indecisive president,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). “We have created an image around the world—not just for the Russians—of weakness, of indecisiveness,” said former Vice President Dick Cheney. President Obama “wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates,” said Sarah Palin.
Of course, the short-term goal of these rhetorical attacks from Republicans to self-fulfill their prophecy—to make the President indeed seem weak. But beneath this crass political tactic is desperation to prop up the aggressive masculinity on which not only conservative American culture relies but which provides the rallying point and rationale for Republican politics.
When George W. Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” in 2003, long before any mission was actually accomplished, it was no accident that the president landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln wearing a full military flight suit with his crotch noticeably highlighted. He was not, it should be noted, wearing a man-bun. After all, the evidentiary justification for the Iraq War was bullshit—WMD evidence that was dubious at best until it was shown to be an empty claim. The real justification for launching a war on Iraq came plainly from virile masculinity, repeating “Saddam Hussein” and “9/11” in the same sentences over and over again and frothing up the testosterone of a nation devastated by a tragic attack and searching for revenge. But to be clear, masculine aggression has always typified and justified Republican foreign policy. It’s why our nation’s foreign policy is so heavily influenced by the Pentagon in the first place and is how Republican leaders rationalize the repeated expansion of the military industrial complex in America.
“Today we did what we had to do. They counted on America to be passive. They counted wrong,” said President Ronald Reagan after bombing Libya. The same president who decried the federal deficit and government in general but dramatically expanded American military spending. Macho indeed!
Meanwhile, President Obama already has complex terrain to traverse in the space between race and masculinity not to mention all the other aspects of his personality and biography (professor, father, etc.). From day one, the White House has clearly worried about the President playing into the warped and loaded stereotype of the “angry black male.” Did Republicans anticipate this, as well as Obama’s inherent disposition in the opposite direction, and deliberately exploit the alternative—i.e., ‘We can portray him as weak and they’ll be reluctant to counter?’ Maybe. Are Republicans using Obama’s disposition as a convenient excuse to whip up concerns about testosterone in the White House in advance of the anticipated presidential run of Hillary Clinton? Perhaps. Both seem excruciatingly convenient at the very least.
But the fundamental dynamic coursing through these political misrepresentations and exploitations is the conservatives’ deep fear that the version of masculinity on which their political and cultural power has rested for generations is evaporating. If Cold War-era fear mongering, our-stockpile-has-to-be-bigger-than-their-stockpile machismo and plain “might is right” male insistence as a path to unquestioned power is no longer the accepted in the living rooms and bedrooms and boardrooms and classrooms across America, let alone in the war room, what do Republicans have left? Put another way, through eras of women’s liberation and racial equality movements and calls for peace and justice over war and tyranny, the patriarchy has remained intact increasingly not because of its popularity nor long list of great achievements for society but out of sheer will—its tight grip not yet fully dislodged by the simple passage of time that plainly advantages these forces of change.
But when masculinity itself starts to transform, to acknowledge the problems and even shackles of such strict gender norms and embrace a more open and experimental version of itself, traditional masculinity is defeated from within. When masculinity transforms to become a tall, athletic, African-American liberal who achieves peace and prosperity through words rather than weapons, when the new generation of billionaires are not muscle-y factory men but geeky and somewhat effeminate tech entrepreneurs, and when there are strong and powerful women increasingly comfortably and populously mingled within and sometimes hard to distinguish from the back because both have buns on the tops of their heads … well, who the hell is going to vote for a political party not just predicated on but deeply invested in exactly the opposite, let alone embrace any of their machismo-fueled militaristic ideas?
Late in George W. Bush’s presidency and through the early parts of President Obama’s first term, when Osama bin Laden was tracked and killed, something happened—Republicans lost their historic and huge advantage when it comes to who voters say they trust more on matters of foreign policy. Had polls asked voters, “Which party do you trust to be more manly?” perhaps the Republicans would have maintained that edge. But if American’s hyper-militarized foreign policy has always been both a metaphor and actual playground for conventional, aggressive masculinity—not to mention a metaphor and contested space for the larger issues of masculinity and patriarchy in American culture more broadly—then voters seem to be finally disentangling the two. Just as a modern household no longer needs a strict and threatening father, a modern world no longer needs a violence-prone, patriarchal (and patronizing) America.
Our society in general is very conspicuously debating and transforming gender norms at this very moment and changing our individual and collective expectations from fashion to families to intimate relationships and, yes, to politics. It’s almost painful to watch Republicans plead for a version of masculinity that is fading like the final dregs of a can of Old Spice. No wonder conservatives are so against evolution. The evolution of culture, especially around masculinity, is not on their side.