Revenge of the Wimp Factor: The Ironies of Proving Manhood in the Democratic Primary

Hi, I'm Hillary Clinton. But tonight, in honor of the WWE, you can call me Hill-Rod. This election is starting to feel a lot like "King of the Ring." The only difference? The last man standing may just be a woman. -- Hillary Rodham Clinton, from her opening monologue prior to a World Wrestling Entertainment "joke" match between Clinton and Obama look-alikes.

What has become disturbingly evident in the last few months of the primary campaign is that Hillary Clinton is not merely carrying the torch of the "old politics." She is also the ironic bearer of the old masculinity, a knuckle-dragging version of manhood that is defined in terms of domination. In this view, "the man" is whoever can stick it to the other. It is the one who can eviscerate his or her enemy most savagely and with the least remorse. It is the one on top in a zero-sum world. In this curious mutation of patriarchy, anatomy is not destiny. But being a dick is.

Much is made of the penis. We talk about how to keep it hard, how to make it bigger, and who envies it. The public secret we keep from ourselves -- but at a deep level understand -- is that it is not the penis that matters most. That modest organ is, after all, vulnerable and easily deflated. The phallus is what most men and even some women in a male dominant culture covet, envy, think they possess, fear losing, or try to get back (usually, each of these at different times). In our still patriarchal world, this symbol, in blatant or subtle forms, shows up in our dreams, editorial cartoons, commercials, and political ads. It is often used to represent absolute domination, insensate hardness, omnipotence, unlimited wealth, invulnerability, untrammeled growth, or freedom from all dependency - and sometimes all of these unattainable qualities.

The problem, of course, is that this ancient archetypal monolith of manhood is an illusion. Nobody has one; it only exists if someone sees it. In spite of being an evanescent hallucination, political consultants spend much of their time trying to paint a phallus on their candidate. A line from the Tom Waits song "Step Right Up" could be read as a concise description of what a successful campaign does: "It gives you an erection. It wins the election."

In most electoral contests, the question is often "who's the man?" And the manner in which political manhood gets displayed is tiresomely predictable: macho chest beating, posing with the fetish objects of anxious masculinity (trucks, big machines, and even bigger weapons), humiliating your opponent with castrating insults, calling into question his or her ability to be tough, ruthless, and merciless with the designated enemy of the moment -- in short, phallic strutting. These are the bread and butter performances that keep the 24-hour cable infotainment channels in business, and frequently eclipse the issues of the day.

There is an astonishing irony in Senator Clinton flashing her "Hill-Rod," and striking poses that, in the admiring words of North Carolina Governor Mike Easley, make "Rocky Balboa look like a pansy." During her career as First Lady, Mrs. Clinton was widely reviled by her conservative detractors as a gender outlaw. Being smart, outspoken, a savvy investor, a policy wonk, and a woman who insisted on an egalitarian relationship with her husband, she was seen as a profound threat, a wife who did not know her proper (i.e., subordinate) place.

These sentiments got represented in numerous editorial cartoons that depicted her in male drag, using a men's urinal, and as a riding-crop-wielding dominatrix. Slick Times, a right wing humor magazine, featured jokes about her preferred method of birth control (vasectomy) and the reason she doesn't wear miniskirts ("so her balls won't show"). The cover of the October 1995 issue of Spy Magazine even retouched a photo of her to depict a discernible penile bulge under her clothing. This image accompanied an investigative article on her "dubious investments" that "performed extremely well." The headline, "Hillary's Big Secret," in equating the penis with money, revealed the phallic meaning her powerful financial dealings had for the authors, as well as for many of her conservative male critics.

During this same period images abounded of Bill Clinton as castrated, cross-dressing, feminized, and physically dominated and abused by his powerful wife. Interestingly, once the Monica Lewinsky scandal unfolded, things reversed. He was portrayed in cartoons and late night TV comedy monologues as studly, powerful, and potent. Hillary, now the wounded women standing by her man, was widely depicted in sympathic and stereotypically feminine terms. What may surprise many is that the approval ratings for both the President and the First Lady soared following the scandal. Many citizens, especially men, seemed relieved to see the gender order restored, and the phallus returned to our male leader. But if, unlike the lowly but attached penis, the phallus has a tendency to move around, this can open up opportunities for female politicians to overcome the still lingering impediments of misogynist bigotry. Gender, our cultural experiences tell us, is really only loosely associated with bodies, not tethered to them.

What could not be tolerated in Hillary the political wife turns out to be a significant advantage for Hillary the politician, or so her campaign managers seem to believe. In fact, Senator Clinton appears to have been positioning herself early on to wield the political phallus. Her vote for the Iraq war resolution seems less a mistake based on inaccurate information -- the data was readily available to her antiwar peers in the Senate, not to mention many national security scholars, as well as millions of ordinary Americans -- than a political calculation. She wanted to show her "testicular fortitude," as a supportive labor leader recently gushed at a campaign rally. It's the same reason "fight" has become her favorite verb. Last week she autographed a pair of red boxing gloves at a rally. Perhaps the most disturbing gesture of macho posturing has been her repeated threat to "obliterate" Iran if that nation's leaders attack Israel. Given that the Iranian people are unable to really make their leaders accountable, her threat is not only a genocidal one, but, were she to act on it, would constitute collective punishment.

Hillary Clinton seems not only willing to annihilate Iranians for political gain. She also appears happy to depopulate the Democratic Party in order to ensure her nomination. As I write this, news outlets are revealing her plans for what Thomas Edsall is calling the "nuclear option." In other words, she intends to use her influence on the members of the party's Rules and Bylaws Committee to force the votes that were gathered in the "outlaw" primaries of Florida and Michigan to be counted.

Some may ask a very reasonable feminist question that could challenge this argument: why must toughness, Machiavellianism, combativeness, or even swaggering bellicosity be viewed as masculine? They certainly needn't. But it is, as we have seen, Hillary Clinton herself, along with her surrogates, who have explicitly gendered those traits in the campaign. As the oleaginous Clinton loyalist, James Carville, has said, if Mrs. Clinton gave Obama one of her testicles, "they'd both have two."

What is so interesting and illuminating is that Hillary Clinton is not just engaging in a performance of martial hypermasculinity as a way of shoring up both her phallic and national security credentials. She is also donning the mantel of working class hero, aping every conceivable stereotype of white blue-collar manhood -- from beer swilling to gun toting to preening pugilism -- and, where possible, doing so from the back of a pickup truck. It must be said, however, unlike the many multimillionaire Republican men in power, such as George W. Bush and John McCain, she plays the good ole boy with convincing if increasingly unhinged gusto. Perhaps this is because men in politics so often make the worst male impersonators.

But beyond that, Hillary Clinton has long revealed an intuitive talent for masquerade, an ability to lose herself in whatever role a situation required. Her instincts as a protean politician enabled her to seamlessly shift from feminist intellectual and powerhouse lawyer deriding stay-at-home cookie bakers, to the betrayed housewife still loyal to her man, and beaming with pride over her cookie recipe. She can play the verklempt victim of male critics one moment, and a macho political predator the next. On a dime Senator Clinton can morph from a well informed authority on the nuances of economic policy to a we-don't-need-no-stinkin'-economists anti-intellectualism in response to the near unanimity of expert opinion criticizing her bogus gas tax "holiday" scheme.

Her double masquerade of gender and class has been so compelling to some working class male voters because it taps into a deep vein in the American collective political unconscious that dates from the founding of our nation, and one that Republicans have understood and effectively exploited for decades. In the 1840 presidential campaign, Martin Van Buren said his opponent, William Henry Harrison, was "a man who wore corsets, put cologne on his whiskers, slept on French beds, rode in a British coach, and ate with golden spoons from silver plates." Here in this example of early negative campaigning we have a clear illustration of the link American men have always made between effeminacy and aristocratic manners and privilege. It was, after all, George H. W. Bush's patrician patois and upper class mannerisms that led Newsweek in 1988 to suggest his greatest political vulnerability was "the wimp factor," and thereby coin a term that would become a permanent part of our political lexicon. Not only did this feminine attribution haunt the public career of Bush 41, Bush 43, as many have observed, has struggled to defend against and compensate for this legacy.

More recently, we have the example of Barack Obama, the black candidate raised by a poor single mother, being called an "elitist" because of his grace, equanimity, intellect, dismal bowling performance, and reluctance to completely inhale his Philly cheese-steak. This, along with his willingness to negotiate with enemies, we are told, should lead us to question whether he's man enough to be commander in chief. The Clinton crew, along with their chief ally, John McCain, have made strenuous efforts to define Obama as a cosseted and effeminate toff, whose pretty words only confirm his deficient manhood, and thereby his unfitness to lead the nation. When you think about it, Clinton's complaint against her opponent -- "you always want to talk" -- sounds oddly like the familiar kvetch that so many emotionally constricted sexist husbands direct at their more relational spouses.

In applying the GOP approach to feminizing male opponents, and directing class resentment away from the real elites, Hillary Clinton has gone beyond her more familiar adoption of the ruthless, sociopathic say-anything, dirty tricks politics of her erstwhile Rovian right wing enemies. She is reinforcing the conservative attempt to equate manhood with belligerence and predation. In addition, she is trotting out the well worn but still effective propaganda technique employed by this country's actual ruling oligarchy of wealth -- reducing class to personal style, taste, or the specific products people consume (brie versus Velveeta). Those who actually own or wield control over our shared resources are rendered invisible in this rhetorical sleight of hand.

Barack Obama stands in stark contrast to the attitude of the Clinton campaign. His guiding political ethos has always been one of bridging but not overlooking divisions, while privileging dialogue, debate, and negotiation over conquest. This is not only a new politics. It is a new masculinity, one that is inclusive of those panhuman qualities previously disowned and projected onto women. It remains to be seen if Hillary Clinton, with her Hobbesian hard-on, will succeed in turning the Denver convention into a war of all against all. If so, the life span of the Democratic Party may be nasty, brutish, and short.

Stephen J. Ducat, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist from the San Francisco Bay Area, and has published widely on the psychology of politics. His most recent book is The Wimp Factor: Gender Gaps, Holy Wars, and the Politics of Anxious Masculinity.