Thursday, May 3, 2007

Homophobic language and "femiphobia"

In today’s Los Angeles Times, Mark Dery, the editor of Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture has an op-ed titled “Wimps, Wussies and W: How Americans’ Infatuation With Masculinity Has Perilous Consequences.” (You can find a reprint of the piece over at In the last paragraph he self-consciously notes: “OK, so maybe I’m overstepping the bounds of my Learning Annex degree in pop psychology,” presumably to beg some slack from the reader inclined to dismiss what he says as sheer polemic. But what he’s in fact polemicizing about is the typically polemical language of far right-wing pundits like Ann Coulter that gets a largely free pass from cultural critics and other pundits as long as it doesn’t cross certain lines (the way Imus’s recent remark apparently did). Homophobic language, for instance, gets a free pass, and that’s the focus of Dery’s polemic:

Our tradition of demonizing political opponents is founded on homophobic innuendo. Camille Paglia derided Al Gore for his “prissy, lisping Little Lord Fauntleroy persona” that “borders on epicene.” John Kerry was deemed too “French” — meaning too much of a girlie man — to be commander in chief. Now Edwards is too heteroflexible; only Straight Guys with a Queer Eye get $400 haircuts, right?

George W. Bush learned an unforgettable lesson about the anxious nature of American masculinity when Newsweek branded his father a “wimp,” a perception Bush 41 never really overcame. The resolve never to look like a wimp is the key to Dubya’s psychology: the you-talkin’-to-me pugnacity at news conferences; the Top Gun posturing on the aircraft carrier, in a crotch-gripping flight suit that moved G. Gordon Liddy to swoon — on “Hardball,” for Freud’s sake — “what a stud.”

Doesn’t all this machismo and locker-room homophobia protest a little too much? What can we say about a country so anxiously hypermasculine that it produces Godmen, a muscular-Christianity movement that seeks to lure Real Men back to church with services that feature guys bending metal wrenches with their bare hands and leaders exulting, “Thank you, Lord, for our testosterone!”

What particularly interests me is Dery’s citation of a book by clinical psychologist Stephen Ducat, The Wimp Factor: Gender Gaps, Holy Wars, and the Politics of Anxious Masculinity and his assertion that “The trouble with manhood, American-style, is that it’s maintained by frantically repressing every man’s feminine side and demonizing the feminine and the gay wherever we see them.” Ducat, he says, “calls this state of mind ‘femiphobia’—a pathological masculinity founded on the subconscious belief that “the most important thing about being a man is not being a woman.”

Certainly Dery’s conclusions are not at all surprising:
But the hidden costs of our overcompensatory hypermachismo are far worse than a few politicians slimed by pundits. The horror in Iraq has been protracted past the point of lunacy by George W.’s bring-it-on braggadocio, He-Ra unilateralism and damn-the-facts refusal to acknowledge mistakes — all hallmarks of a pathological masculinity that confuses diplomacy with weakness and arrogant rigidity with strength. It is founded not on a self-assured sense of what it is but on a neurotic loathing of what it secretly fears it may be: wussy. And it will go to the grave insisting on battering-ram stiffness (stay the course! don’t pull out!) as the truest mark of manhood.

Here were are, faced again with the politics of narrative. (D'uh.)

“Femiphobia” is apparently different from gynophobia, though the distinction is not inferable from the context in which Dery uses the term, though I suspect it may have more to do with unconscious/subconscious fear of female cooties than with overt hatred for women. In any case, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the notion of “femiphobia” (or gynophobia or any equivalent thereof) used in quite this way to explicate the language of homophobia.

I wonder why it is that I have the lurking suspicion that “femiphobia” in the sense in which Dery uses it might be at play in some of the discussions raging elsewhere in the sf blogsophere latey.

1 comment:

Rachel said...

I've heard the term before, but I hadn't stopped to think about it so deeply.

And yes, I think femiphobia is pervasive and subconscious, perhaps especially in fields where the population feels their masculinity is particularly in question (such as fields dominated by "geeks" who may have been socially outcast as youngsters).