a review of The Wimp Factor
by Stephen J. Ducat
Beacon Press, 2005
OVER THE LAST DECADE the emerging field of study known as “masculinity studies” has begun to generate a great deal of debate and attention. It is not, however, a new area of study; the current theoretical underpinnings of masculinity were developed through the appropriation of a variety of issues raised by feminists from the late ’70s and ’80s that are only now receiving due attention outside of feminist circles.
The concept of masculinity generally refers to the socially and culturally mediated expressions of “maleness” enacted by men and women, particularly as they relate to attaining or holding on to power, status, and control. What a society understands as “masculine” behaviour has changed throughout history and is maintained by complex social and political arrangements which are fortified and legitimized through daily social interaction.
Stephen J. Ducat’s The Wimp Factor: Gender gaps, holy wars, and the politics of anxious masculinity attempts, through the lens of psychology, to bring these specific aspects of masculinity into the mainstream of cultural commentary. Ducat examines the ways that a male fear of the feminine is manufactured and manipulated to shape menï¿½s political consciousness and social behaviour in the United States. It is from within this framework that Ducat begins to deconstruct the ways in which a variety of issues (including welfare, the environment, gay and lesbian civil rights, military intervention, and government regulation of corporate behaviour) are presented in the public discourse as gendered concepts.
For Ducat, masculine political power is predicated on the subjugation and denigration of anything perceived as “feminine”—-or what Ducat aptly terms anxious masculinity. The author notes that in a culture of anxious masculinity, “being biologically male is not sufficient to confer or sustain masculinity.” According to the author, men are constantly called on to “prove” their masculinity, which largely manifests itself as a fear and rejection of the feminine. Indeed, Ducat’s most persuasive argument comes from his diagnosis of the American male’s “femiphobia,” or fear of the feminine, as a constant factor within the social and political realm of American life.
In US political discourse, the masculine ideal is constantly associated with wealth and power, while the feminine is associated with dependency and weakness. From this understanding of the perpetual (anxious) masculine struggle to reject and suppress the feminine, Ducat develops his analysis of anxious masculinity and shows it to be a prominent ingredient of American business, politics and religion.
At times, Ducat’s book reminded me of one of Rick Mercer’s “not-so-edgy” rants. Ducat’s campy reliance on references to political pop culture run the risk of de-legitimizing the entire project by oversimplifying complex issues within the American social and political scene. Examples of this pop culture referencing are the pre-Lewinsky feminisation of Bill Clinton, the subsequent masculinisation of Hillary Clinton by depicting Hillary wearing a suit and Bill wearing a dress within a variety of scenarios, and the rotunda of the White House being replaced with a large breast to represent the “feminisation” of the United States as a “nanny state.” Only in the last few chapters of the book does the author begin to provide a form of analysis in which to interpret current trends in society.
Ducat’s use of psychology to focus on anxious masculinity, of course, only provides part of the larger picture of gender essentialism in a patriarchal society. American culture is deeply devoted to the idea that man and woman, masculine and feminine are distinct and mutually exclusive categories, and significant segments of the population (academia, big business, mass media) expend much time, energy and resources to preserve this dichotomy. For Ducat, what is “masculine” has become rigidly defined as something that unifies and classifies men and what is “feminine” has become everything else. I feel that the author’s project would have been significantly strengthened through a more in-depth examination of the correlation between masculinity and the financial rewards allotted to men and to certain women who subscribe to the masculine ideal within the American capitalist system (Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice, etc.).
We need to move beyond Western society’s static, rigid notion of masculinity in order to understand the larger power struggles in which patriarchy plays an important part. Doing so requires moving beyond Ducat’s narrow, psychology-based focus, and making use of the important perspectives that other disciplines such as Womenï¿½s Studies, Sociology or Political Science have to offer. There are a number of books that approach these questions from these broader perspectives, including R. W. Connell’s Masculinities and Gender and Power, and Stephen Whitehead’s Men and Masculinities. However, if you are looking for a book that provides an entertaining look at some historical and current evidence of the inner workings of the American male psyche, Ducat’s The Wimp Factor could be the book for you.
- Trevor James Gates
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