In the village known as Manhood, there are many breeds of male: the masculine, the metrosexual, the Scooter Libby. But if there's a mayor of Manhood, one guy who represents modern man in all his incongruities — tough yet sensitive, brainy yet caddish — it's Bill Clinton.
Or so goes the thesis of the new book American Masculinity Under Clinton: Popular Media and the Nineties “Crisis of Masculinity.” Author Brenton J. Malin, a San Francisco State professor, traces changes in pop-culture perceptions of manliness in the '90s, as pressure mounted on the lesser sex to channel his inner chick.
Malin explores how the he-man archetype of the '80s — think Rambo, The Terminator, Cheers bar slut Sam Malone — gave way to the she-boys of Friends and Leo DiCaprio's squalling, squealing valor in Titanic. “Men are having an identity crisis,” Malin says in a recent phone conversation, trapped as they are between traditional ideals of masculinity and the touchy-feely beta dude who now prevails on TV and in the movies.
The ambivalent male achieved his apotheosis in Clinton, whose public persona, Malin writes, suggested “a bundle of conflicts.” Here was the working-class Arkansas boy who made it all the way to the White House, a president who felt our pain even as he felt up Monica Lewinksy. Unashamed to shed a tear before an audience — a decidedly feminine trait — he shamelessly cheated on his spouse, an all too typical male attribute.
“He's just the embodiment of all these contradictions,” Malin says.
On the spectrum of manliness, Malin likens Clinton to DiCaprio's emotive Titanic hero Jack Dawson while comparing George W. Bush to Tony Soprano. Malin recalls how, as governor of Texas, Bush executed more death-row inmates than any governor in U.S. history, yet labeled himself a “compassionate conservative” in his first bid for president.
Malin considers Arnold Schwarzenegger a Bush/Soprano kind of man. Gavin Newsom, meanwhile, hews closer to the Clinton/Dawson model, Malin says, with the mayor's shellacked hair implying “a touch of the metrosexual.”