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  • The Masculine Mystique
  • Richard Kaye
Review of: Susan Bordo, The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and in Private. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.

When former Republican senator and one-time presidential aspirant Robert Dole appeared on television last year extolling the benefits of the drug Viagra, a fundamental module in the imagery of American masculinity would seem to have been dislodged. To be sure, Dole never uttered the word “impotence,” preferring, instead, to invoke a clinical demurral, “E.D.”—Erectile Disfunction—but there, nonetheless, was the surreal specter of an icon of American conservatism speaking what had hitherto been unspeakable amongst the golf-and-martini set. The austere setting in which Dole appeared (a senatorial library, perhaps) reminded viewers that this particular E.D. sufferer was speaking from a place in the culture far removed from that of most Americans. Yet in some ways Dole was the ideal poster guy for breaking the silence on E.D. Although the syndrome affects men of all ages, men of Dole’s generation—veterans of World War II, men who had heroically sacrificed their bodies in battle—have been famously reluctant to discuss their physical frailties.

Dole’s hand injury from an explosion during World War II had been powerfully if somewhat quietly deployed throughout his campaign against Bill Clinton. It was, of course, the noncombatant Clinton who would prove the better campaigner, despite a soft body given over to fast food; the generational gulf between silent virility before Fascism and weak child of the Sixties was registered during the presidential race. Clearly, it takes a Republican to achieve what no mere Democrat can accomplish: arguably Dole’s appearance in a television ad for Viagra accomplished on the domestic front what Nixon’s 1972 visit to China did for international diplomacy—helping to end, as it were, another Cold War.

At the moment, the body of the American male is being subjected to more scrutiny than ever before as an ever-wider array of new images of the male physique permeates the culture. Television shows like Ally McBeal and The View depict fictional and real-life women giddily discussing male performance and penis size, magazines devoted to male fitness and health break circulation records, and advertisers become bolder and bolder in purveying hardened übermenschen. Adolescent boys—the newest focus for worried psychologists and social workers, according to The New York Times Magazine—fret over the relative scrawniness of their physiques, worrying over ab definition and penis size much as young women worry over breast size and fat. In a democracy, evidently, everyone gets to be anxiety-ridden about his or her physique.

The utopia of androgynous bodies that the counterculture welcomed in the 1960s has been supplanted by an androgyny of a fierce corporate culture, so that women must now have hard physiques to arm themselves in the jungle of business culture and males are encouraged to eliminate wrinkles and invest in Propecia, lest they be considered too old for the youth-dominated world of computer-era innovation. The writer Susan Faludi has turned from the backlash against feminism to the backlash against the American male. Her latest book, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, excerpted as a cover story in Newsweek, has been greeted as a startling turnaround for a feminist—a laudatory truce in the war between the sexes. It is a key point of Faludi’s book that the average American guy has been forced to develop “womanly” skills such as communication—not by his female mate, but by corporate culture. All of this concern for the fragility of American men has fomented its own backlash. In a recent cover essay in The Times Literary Supplement, the conservative political scientist Harvey Mansfield decried the low repute into which “manliness has fallen in our culture” (14).

Meanwhile, Masculinity Studies is experiencing a boom. In the latest issue of American Quarterly, Bryce Traister writes of “the new phallocriticism in American literary studies” and declares that “judging from the sheer number of titles published, papers solicited, and panels presented in the last ten years,” it would appear that “masculinity studies has emerged as a discipline unto...

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