Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Masculinity and Temper Tantrums

There's a concept known as sang-froid, the maintenance of composure, level-headedness, and coolness under stressful or difficult circumstances, that is often depicted in movies as the height of masculinity. Think Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now - sure, he may be under live fire in a war zone, but that's not going to stop him from surfing. Think of pretty much any action movie - the hero faces adversity and gets mad, but keeps his cool - there's no point in a tantrum. It doesn't look good on camera and does nothing to even the score. This is anything but a novel or rare interpretation of masculinity.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too; ...

Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man my son!
When most people are responding emotionally to a situation, a commonly invoked idiom is, "Let cooler heads prevail."

President Obama has sang-froid. In spades. His coolness has resulted in any number of right-wing attacks on him for "not showing enough emotion". As if he would seem more Presidential if he were displaying barely-controlled rage. Me? I got enough of play-acting under G.W. Bush, and I'm perfectly content to have a President who both acts like a grown-up and treats the electorate as if it's comprised of adults.

Parker apparently sees herself less as an analyst, taking facts, creating novel arguments and presenting them to the public in her bi-weekly column, and more as part of an echo chamber:
Many people seemed to have a hankering for one particular emotion: Not the Bill Clinton "I feel your pain" kind but the "Take-BP-Behind-the-Woodshed-and-Make-Them-Pay" kind. They wanted an action figure in the hyper-masculine mode, not George W. Bush but the Terminator.

In fits and starts, Obama had given it to them. He wanted to know "whose ass to kick," he told us. He wanted them to "plug the damn hole." Press secretary Robert Gibbs assured us that in discussions with Obama he, indeed, had "seen rage from him."

Then the president gave his Oval Office speech. And the collective reaction was, "That's it?! Where's the outrage?!?!"
Arnold Schwarzenegger was well-cast as The Terminator because he was big, intimidating, and had not yet learned to convey on-screen emotional range. Earth to Kathleen Sullivan - The Terminator is an android. The Terminator has no emotions. In Terminator II, the android was frozen by liquid nitrogen - you don't get much colder than that - and yet he managed to (dare I say) keep his emotional cool (because he didn't have emotions). You could hardly ask for a better illustration of sang-froid as evidence of masculinity, yet Parker's not sufficiently self-aware to recognize the contradiction. Meanwhile, back in the real world where the real Arnold Schwarzenegger is actually in politics, how often does he engage in public blow-ups or tantrums when things aren't going his way?

With due respect to Kathleen Sullivan's yearning for the "boil" of George W. Bush, it seems that President Obama's ability to keep his cool is more consistent with Presidential tradition. Sure, we have stories of past Presidents who would explode into anger at their aides - behind the scenes - but that wasn't the face they put forth to the public. Which presidents in recent history didn't present a calm public face in response to crisis? Bill Clinton? George H.W. Bush? Ronald Reagan? Gerald Ford? Jimmy Carter? I'm not sure that Parker's either presenting the vindication of G.W. or the condemnation of Obama that she imagines when she, in effect, holds G.W. and Richard Nixon out as paragons of the appropriate display of anger.

If we're honest about perceptions of public displays of anger, as a society we tend to recognize a male form - the inner beast escapes and wants to "break something" - and a female form - "hysteria", "histrionics", the "hissy fit" - etymology, L. hystericus "of the womb". It's sexist, and truth be told the biggest difference often appears to be that men are for the most part more capable of outwardly directed violence. But in the context of Presidential behavior it's all spin.

Had Obama been reacting to things more angrily, you can fully expect that the very same voices that have been demanding "more anger" would be denouncing him as excessively emotional, unbalanced, out-of-control. And you can expect that columnists like Kathleen Parker would pick up on those themes to argue that the conduct she presently contends evidences a "testosterone deficit" would in fact make him more masculine than his "inability to control his anger". Sang-froid would once again be a masculine attribute, while the "boil" of G.W. would be pushed into the background as somehow different or irrelevant to similar behavior by Obama - but I would not be surprised by comparisons to Nixon.


  1. Then there was the famous line uttered by the Robert Duvall chacter; "I love the smell of napalm in the morning; it smells like victory." It wasn't so much sang-froid as downright disconected and crazy.

  2. As with genius, there's a fine line between sang-froid and insanity.

    When we're talking politicians and generals, the sang-froid is often vicarious - very calmly sending others into the line of fire.


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