- Littered with references to “hyper-masculinity,” “macho invasion fever,” and “machismo,” Dowd’s article is a bellwether to the corrosive bend discussions around men and masculinity have taken these days. Tweet This
- Lost in these “gender turf wars” is our ability to see the variety of female and male experience; to acknowledge, appreciate, and understand the unique hardships one another face; to go beyond binaries and see complexity. Tweet This
- Unfortunately, the open-mindedness our society requires of so many other topics has yet to be extended to masculinity. Tweet This
As Americans gathered earlier this month to commemorate the tragedy of 9/11, it presented a rare moment of national healing at a time of great polarization. Speaking at the crash site of United Flight 93 in Pennsylvania, George W. Bush asked Americans to transcend division: “On America's day of trial and grief, I saw millions of people instinctively grab their neighbor's hand and rally to the cause of one another. That is the America I know.”
Rather than embrace her fellow American on a day of mourning, Maureen Dowd used the occasion to divide and antagonize. Amidst a moment befitting humility and reflection, Dowd argued in The New York Times that the disaster lies squarely with masculinity and men. “[W]hen I look back at 9/11 and the torrent of tragic, perverse blunders that followed, I think about men seized by a dangerous strain of hyper-masculinity; fake tough-guy stuff; a caricature of strength,” Dowd writes. Throughout her piece “Manning Up, Letting Us Down,” she typecasts men as uniquely war-mongering and ignorant.
Littered with references to “hyper-masculinity,” “macho invasion fever,” and “machismo,” Dowd’s article is a bellwether to the corrosive bend discussions around men and masculinity have taken these days. The failures the Bush Administration “unleashed did not shock the country enough to stamp out the mania of this self-defeat streak of hyper-masculinity,” Dowd writes. Inevitably, Dowd crowbars in an unrelated parting shot at Donald Trump—“Never one to miss a cheesy tableau of machismo”—alongside her backhanded glee for Biden: “[T]his president, blessedly, is not generally a hyper-masculine style of leader.”
For such writers, it is easier to parody men than empathize or humanize them. That explains why Dowd’s scathing critique of masculinity offers not a single reference to the thousands of firefighters, police officers, and countless other first responders—overwhelmingly, although not exclusively, men—who risked their lives to save strangers. Firefighters climbed dozens of stories to clear floors, chaplains performed last rites, paramedics saved lives. After filing his retirement papers that morning, NYPD Officer John Perry rushed into the South Tower to save lives moments before its collapse. Such displays of masculinity warrant no mention in Dowd’s op-ed. Instead, buffoonery, “Rambo,” and “Rocky” are Dowd’s defining takeaways of masculinity on 9/11.
More fittingly, 60 Minutes used the memorial to pay tribute to the anonymous heroes cropped out of Dowd’s crude stereotype. While most New Yorkers were running away from the Twin Towers, the FDNY rushed to the scene and saved tens-of-thousands of lives. “After 20 years of reflection, it’s clear. They climbed to rise. To rise to the cries 1,000 feet above them. To rise to the defense of the firefighter beside them. To rise beyond duty to a place of selfless devotion,” Scott Pelley of 60 Minutes lamented. Such harrowing accounts of bravery sketch a different view of masculinity to the one found in Dowd’s piece. Consequently, three times more men than women perished during the attacks: none of which discounts the heroism female first responders exhibited in answering the call.
We’ve imposed a suffocating straitjacket on gender discussions today.
Rather than perform an honest and fair accounting of national tragedy, Dowd goes low depicting men in Hobbesian fashion. This inability to spot any trace of male kindness or sacrifice squares well with extensive research that shows broad social acceptance towards male disposability. Any room for thoughtfulness to the thousands of men still paying for their bravery with ongoing hsaealth complications and some health care providers callous disregard, remains awkwardly absent.
The trope of men/bad women/good is one that has gained traction in recent years and was even echoed by former President Barack Obama, who said, “If more women were put in charge, there would be less war, kids would be better taken care of and there would be a general improvement in living standards and outcomes.” The airbrushed rosiness of female leaders doesn’t always hold up. Once more, research shows that while women in legislatures “increase peaceful policies,” at the executive level, female leaders are more likely to initiate conflict.
But such findings don’t trouble the likes of Dowd or Obama who can virtue signal to applauding crowds that men are screw ups and saintly women can fix their mistakes. Reflections on the humanizing shortcomings shared by men and women are eschewed for female utopianism alongside male brutishness. Today, social discourse needlessly burnishes women while spurning men. However, such zero-sum discussions are a net negative. Lost in these “gender turf wars” is our ability to see the variety of female and male experience; to acknowledge, appreciate, and understand the unique hardships one another face; to go beyond binaries and see complexity.
Crude binaries abound in the space of gender politics these days. Dowd is right that the Bush Administration exhibited dreadful shortcomings. The late Donald Rumsfeld was overconfident, unremorseful, and unwavering in his self-assurance. President Bush, himself, expressed regret over his language used surrounding the War on Terror. Using phrases like “dead or alive” and “bring ‘em on,” Bush later confessed was tasteless. However, the same can be said of Hillary Clinton as well as Condoleezza Rice’s complicity. Although the former has a well-established hawkish track record from Afghanistan and Iraq to Kosovo and Libya, Dowd’s commentary falls silent.
We’ve imposed a suffocating straitjacket on gender discussions today. Caricatures of rampaging generals blot our view of selfless blue-collar men; angelic women overshadow the frailties that empowered and liberated women are equally vulnerable to as much as “swaggering” men. Portraying masculinity with the broad brush of a single administration is simply one part of a much larger story. Ignoring and overlooking the sacrifices of thousands of men rescuing strangers from collapsing buildings is another. But failing to report and explore both, in proper perspective, is journalistic malpractice—unwarranted partisan points on a solemn time of healing. Unfortunately, the open-mindedness our society requires of so many other topics has yet to be extended to masculinity. Rather than gerrymandering masculinity to fit our narrative, we deserve a thoughtful, expansive, and nuanced discussion of it, a message worthy of remembering on the twentieth anniversary of 9/11.
Ari David Blaff is a freelance journalist based in Toronto. His writings have appeared in Quillette, National Review, Tablet, and City Journal. You can follow him on Twitter @ariblaff.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.