Narratives of contemporary male crisis: the (Re)production of a national discourse.
Abstract: This article examines contemporary narratives of male crisis, including two recent books on masculinity--Susan Faludi's Stiffed (1999) and Lionel Tiger's The Decline of Males (1999)--as well as two recent films--John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation (1993) and Warren Beatty's Bulworth (1998). I examine these narratives as cultural expressions that implicitly recuperate Euro-American middle-class male authority. Faludi and Tiger's narratives of the crisis of masculinity reinscribe white middle-class men at the center of a national narrative by erasing cultural, economic, and sexual difference and by offering an 19th century narrative of "national manhood" based on the ideal of the producer. Beatty and Guare also reinscribe this ideal of the male producer through their narrative of sublimity. Both use the trope of "the other" as a way of inducing sublimity that results in the reinscription of white male authority.

Key Words: nationalism, male crisis, male authority, Susan Faludi, Lionel Tiger, Six Degrees of Separation, Bulworth
Subject: Men's studies (Analysis)
Men (Social aspects)
Globalization (Social aspects)
Social structure (Analysis)
Author: Walzer, Andrew
Pub Date: 01/01/2002
Publication: Name: The Journal of Men's Studies Publisher: Men's Studies Press Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences; Women's issues/gender studies Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2002 Men's Studies Press ISSN: 1060-8265
Issue: Date: Wntr, 2002 Source Volume: 10 Source Issue: 2
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 83664406
Full Text: What follows is a chronicle of the decline of men and the ascendancy of women.

-- Lionel Tiger (1999)

The more I consider what men have lost--a useful role in public life, a way of earning a decent and reliable living, appreciation in the home, respectful treatment in the culture--the more it seems that men of the late twentieth century are falling into a status oddly similar to that of women at mid-century.

-- Susan Faludi (1999)

Since the early 1970s, Euro-American, middle-class men in the United States have experienced an enormous increase in social anxiety. This anxiety has its roots in the rapid globalization of the past 30 years, which has brought increased economic competition, changes in the nature of work brought about by the shift from a production to a service and information based economy, and the rise of a transnational business elite (Buell, 1994; Connell 2001). More significant, however, globalization has also displaced white men culturally, resulting in a profound crisis of authority. Historically, this group of men has based their cultural authority on their ability to imagine themselves as representative of all virtuous citizens of the nation, a form of imagining--and also a discourse--that excluded women and people of color.

This vision of the nation as a "deep fraternity" of citizens is, as Benedict Anderson (1983/1991) suggests, one of the central elements of modern nationalism (see also Duara, 1996; Parker, Russo, Sommer, & Yaeger, 1992). In the United States, this metaphor of "deep fraternity" was historically constructed literally: Euro-American middle-class men saw themselves as constituting this deep fraternity of the nation. Public life and culture were seen as the exclusive province of Euro-American men. Native Americans, African Americans, and Mexican Americans as well as white women were excluded from this literal fraternity. But in the post World War II period, this "imagined community" of the nation has been under siege by a variety of historically marginalized groups. Thus, Euro-American men have had increasing difficulty imagining themselves as the center of a unified national culture.

In response to the erosion of this discourse of the nation, the narratives that I examine--including two books that deal directly with contemporary masculinity, Lionel Tiger's The Decline of Males and Susan Faludi's (1999) Stiffed (1999), as well as two films, Bulworth (1998) and Six Degrees of Separation (1993)--all employ a rhetorical strategy of the sublime which reinscribes white middle-class men at the center of an imagined synthetic national community.

The discourse of the sublime has its roots in the rise of post-enlightenment bourgeois male subjectivity and gets articulated in such foundational 18th century theorists as Immanuel Kant (1764) and Edmund Burke (1757/1990). Neil Hertz describes how, in the characteristic narrative of sublimity, a drama is evoked in which an individual experiences the threat of disintegration by some event or object of great magnitude. As a result, the individual cannot comprehend it. This results in a "moment of blockage," often characterized as a crisis of imagination or a failure of representation. But because the individual is able to comprehend this experience through narrative, he (the subject was traditionally male) was able to reconstitute himself and his relation to the world (Hertz, 1985). Thus, the sublime reinscribes bourgeois male individuality (Furniss, 1993). In Tiger and Faludi's narratives, the drama that is evoked is that of the "crisis of masculinity." The pathos that results overwhelms the reader, resulting in a failure of imagination. This allows these writers to erase the ethnic, class, and sexual diversity of men's experience and reinscribe a narrative of a unified national men's experience, thus re-imagining what Benedict Anderson refers to as the "deep fraternity" of the nation. In Bulworth and Six Degrees of Separation, the drama that is evoked is the presence of the racial and sexual "other." This drama or crisis in turn evokes an experience of transformation, resulting in a reinscription of cultural authority.


Even though they come from opposite ends of the political spectrum, both Tiger and Faludi's narratives are riddled with metaphors of male dispossession. Ironically, Faludi is best known for her book Backlash (1991), where she argued that the 1980s and early 1990s experienced a backlash against feminism. Tiger, on the other hand, is best known for such books as Men in Groups (1969) and The Imperial Animal (1971), where he locates men's propensity toward aggression and male bonding in age-old biological impulses. Despite these differences, both Tiger and Faludi describe and analyze what they believe is the crisis of masculinity in contemporary society. In slightly different ways, they both suggest that this crisis is rooted in the erosion of men's productive capability, which they believe was the basis for their authority. Both wallow in this loss, and in doing so, they reinscribe white middle-class men at the center of the nation.

Tiger in his early writings seems to have enormous cultural self-confidence as a man, but now, writing in the late 1990s, he is feeling besieged. For example, he speaks repeatedly of a burgeoning gender war. "This book," he writes, "is about an emerging pattern. It is a pattern of growth in the confidence and power of women, and of erosion in the confidence and power of men" (p. 2). For Tiger, men have been displaced not only from both the workplace, but also, and more important, from the family, thus undermining their primary biological function, which is to reproduce. Tiger's anxiety about the loss of male (re)productivity is reflected in his sociobiological analysis. He suggests that men have been excluded from the process of reproduction. Men are, Tiger writes, "profoundly alienated from the means of reproduction--women" (p. 27). Because of the easy availability of birth control, women, according to Tiger, are now in sole control of the reproductive process (see pp. 1920). As a result, men have become alienated from their biological functions and responsibilities, and have thus given up their power (see p. 35). Because women control pregnancy, far more women are having babies without the fathers around (see p. 53). In addition, Tiger complains that because men's real wages have declined 20% over the last 30 years, they are no longer effective providers, further displacing them from the family and the means of reproduction (see p. 5). All this has resulted in a new family pattern that Tiger refers to as "bureaugamy": the trinity of "a woman, a child, and a bureaucrat" (p. 21). Men are no longer, according to Tiger, a biological necessity. As a result, they no longer have a useful function in the world:

Rather than attempting to refute Tiger's argument on biological terms, I want to explore his metaphors of dispossession in order to see the depth of his pathos. I am especially interested in Tiger's comparison between men's alienation from the process of reproduction with men's alienation from the means of production. Both reproduction and production are metaphors for a bourgeois male subjectivity that is associated with activity and creative powers and was historically constructed in a binary opposition to femininity, which was associated with passivity (Bordo, 1994). Thus, men's dispossession from their position as reproducers represents for Tiger a fundamental denial of an essential and foundational masculine narrative.

Faludi also evokes sweeping metaphors of male dispossession. She uses telling, if uncharacteristically phallic, metaphors: "It is as if a generation of men had lined up at Cape Kennedy to witness the countdown to liftoff, only to watch their rocket--containing all their hopes and dreams--burn up on the launchpad" (p. 27). Ironically, Faludi, unlike Tiger, largely represses men's anxiety over the entry of women into previously all male spheres of work and politics over the last 30 years. (1) But, in an argument that is analogous to Tiger's, she identifies the erosion of male authority in the loss of men's productive capability. Faludi's principle analytic framework for understanding men's feeling of loss and displacement is based on the 18th and 19th century framework that associated Euro-American male middle-class authority with productivity and feminine passivity with consumerism and luxury. Faludi suggests that contemporary consumer culture has corrupted masculinity, that it has turned it into an image that can be bought and sold, resulting in the loss of a substantive sense of identity and purpose. Men have, in fact, become objectified by consumer culture, but they lack, according to Faludi, the tools that women have to critique this objectification. As a result, the ideal of masculinity has become devoid of all content; masculinity has become mere image rather than substance. This shift to an ornamental culture has undermined the "struts" that were the foundation for men's cultural authority (p. 225). Instead of being the authors of their destiny, they are now, in Faludi's view, passive receptacles of the consumer culture. She explicitly refers to this as the feminization of men (see pp. 39-40). (2) Thus, like Tiger, Faludi reinscribes this age-old identification of masculinity with the active element and femininity with passivity.

Fundamentally, both Faludi and Tiger construct melodramatic narratives that evoke a feeling of crisis. Their metaphors of dispossession instill a profound feeling of loss in the (faithful) reader. The metaphor of crisis and the resulting pathos overwhelms and replaces all other categories of analysis of masculinity. Implicitly, the narrative of pathos naturalizes the ideological construct of the nation. It is "American men" that are in crisis in these narratives--not men from Latin America, Europe, Canada, or Asia, but rather men as defined by the national boundaries of the United States, although as scholars of nationalism have recently argued, this is an arbitrary category of analysis. In addition, both Faludi and Tiger suggest that there are no real significant differences in terms of class, race, or sexuality. All men, according to Tiger and Faludi, face this feeling of dispossession, even though historically there have been significant differences among men within the United States in terms of cultural authority and economic power. In fact, what occurs is a conflation between the white middle-class men who are, in fact, at the center of Tiger and Faludi's analysis with men in general. Thus, by evoking the rhetoric of pathos, Faludi and Tiger are able to elide the nuances of cultural, class, and sexual variability of contemporary masculinities, as well as the history of patriarchy, and reconstruct an altogether different national landscape, one that places white middle-class men at the center of a deep fraternity of the nation.

Although Tiger is able to implicitly re-center white middle-class men by constructing a narrative of pathos, he is ultimately overwhelmed by his own pathos and isn't able to articulate a vision of a renewed sense of national manhood. But his narrative of pathos does in effect reinscribe the (male) reader's sense of self. Even in the midst of crisis, the male reader's own sense of self is reaffirmed through his ability to maintain a sense of his own rationality in the surrounding sea of chaos and dissolution. But strikingly, Faludi is able to reinscribe a narrative of a renewed national manhood through her recuperation of a usable past in 19th and early 20th century white middle-class manhood. By celebrating the ideal of the (white, middle-class) masculine producer, she reinscribes a narrative of a deep fraternity of middle-class white men by subsuming race, class, and gender difference.

Faludi locates her "usable past"--the historical period where she is able to recuperate an ideal of male authority--in the pre-World War II era, where she believes that men's productive capacity was intact. By rooting masculinity in productive labor, Faludi is reinscribing the foundations of 19th century notions of citizenship that explicitly identified Euro-American men with productive labor. Thus, Faludi suggests that this older notion of male identity was rooted in "useful manhood, grounded in work and care" (p. 23). Traditionally, men were able to provide useful service through their work, through civic participation, and through combat in war. She cites a well-known historian of masculinity, Anthony Rotundo (1993), on this older ideal: "They were judged by their contribution to the larger community" (p. 11).

Faludi recuperates an ideal of manhood that provided the foundation for post-enlightenment bourgeois male authority. In this bourgeois narrative of masculinity, men, by exerting their will, were able to overcome and transform feminine nature, both internally in relation to the "feminine" emotion of vulnerability and externally by taming the natural world. Bourgeois men were able to gain a sense of their ability to assert their will through productive labor, where men, according to Faludi, were able to "wrest something out of the raw materials of the physical world" (p. 85). For Faludi, this ability to create something was the foundation for men's sense of authority. Faludi writes:

As a result, men felt they had something useful to impart to others. Faludi goes on to say:

By suggesting that productive labor is the foundation for cultural authority, Faludi is implicitly recuperating the 19th century discourse of national manhood that placed white middle-class men at the center of a "deep fraternity" or synthetic national community, and excluded women and people of color. In the 19th century discourse of civic republicanism, it was solely white male producers that were capable of the virtuous citizenry that formed the basis for the deep fraternity of the nation. In the discourse that Christopher Lasch (1991) referred to as "producerism," it was through production that middle-class Euro-American men were able to obtain the virtue necessary to participate in determining the common good. It was the yeoman farmer (not a peasant, but a small-scale farmer) and the artisan who embodied the independence, autonomy, and cultural authority that were the central characteristics of citizenship. Like Faludi, this 19th century civic ideology of producerism suggested that men, through their ability to tame raw sensuous feminine nature, proved that they were authors of their own fate, that they could assert their masculine will over feminine seductive nature. The male producer, able to master external nature, proved he was capable of mastering his inner nature, which, in civic republican discourse, consisted of the feminine corrupting influence of desire, emotion, and self-interest (Lasch, 1991). Thus, the independent producer, characterized by "frugality, industry, temperance, and simplicity" (Wood, 1969, p. 52) was thus capable of containing his desire as well as transcending his cultural and historical particularity in order to determine the universal or common good. This universal subjectivity--which was in fact male subjectivity--was at the heart of 18th and 19th notions of citizenship (Eley, 1994; Pateman, 1989; Young, 1987).

Often, Faludi explicitly exudes nostalgia for the nation as a "deep fraternity" of men. She describes how in pre-World War II "America" there was a sense of trust and loyalty between individual men and the public realm. Men, according to Faludi, experienced a sense of reciprocity, that their contributions to the public good would be valued and appreciated. She cites Henry Wallace's (1888) notion of the "common man," who had a sense of respect and moral decency accorded to him (p. 22). Faludi refers to this as "the promise of post war masculinity," a promise that she argues failed to come into effect. She writes:

The problem is that this pre-World War II discourse of the nation conferred trust and authority only upon white middle-class heterosexual men; all others were excluded. Thus, Faludi consistently recuperates a usable past of the nation that conferred a sense of privilege and entitlement on white men. Thus, her depictions of male dispossession are implicitly the anxieties of white men's loss of cultural authority. Yes, Faludi is correct is pointing out that globalization has had a profound effect on working class and men of color as well due to the shift of industrial production overseas. But her focus is ultimately on a sense of loss of cultural authority and entitlement that these working-class men and men of color never had in "America."

Both Tiger and Faludi are attempting to respond to the tide of globalization, which has resulted in the displacement of white middle-class men from their culturally authoritative position at the center of the nation. Because of globalization, cultural authority has dispersed, and there is no longer a culturally authoritative center from which to speak. The nation is no longer the site of a single culturally authoritative voice (Readings, 1996). As a result, white middle-class men feel displaced and experience this as a state of crisis. Tiger and Faludi respond to this feeling of crisis by describing it as a crisis of national manhood, thus placing white middle-class men once again at the center of the nation.


In addition to the cultural analysis I have just examined, many films of the 1980s and 1990s also evoke the narrative of male pathos and a resulting reinscription of white men at the center of a national culture. For example, in a striking reversal of the national narrative up to 1945, two contemporary films--Falling Down (1993) and Rambo: First Blood, Part II (1985)--portray the U.S. national landscape not as the site of white male freedom and authority, but rather of confinement, limitation, and pathos. (3) For example, in the opening scene of Rambo: First Blood, Part II, Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is seen doing hard labor in a prison somewhere in the United States. He has to escape oversees to Vietnam in order to perform productive labor (through combat), although he is constantly constrained from doing so by the U.S. government. Michael Douglas in Falling Down (1993) plays an "everyman" who has recently been laid off from his defense job and can't find work. When his car gets stuck in traffic on an LA freeway, he abandons it and embarks on an (anti-) heroic journey though the streets of LA to reunite with his recently divorced wife and daughter. His pathos results from the fact that although he has the expectation of entitlement as a white middle-class man, he finds himself experiencing a feeling of displacement (Gates, 1993). For example, he becomes enraged when he encounters a storekeeper, who is Asian, who cannot meet Douglas's demand to speak "proper English." He also feels a sense of his own economic displacement; he identifies with a black man on strike carrying a sign stating "economically not viable." And in a thinly veiled inference to feminism, he feels betrayed by his ex-wife, who he believes has stolen his daughter from him. When he finally reaches the end of his journey at the ocean, he exclaims to the police officer who has been tracking him: "I'm the bad guy? But I did everything I was told I was supposed to do." Implicit in this statement is a feeling of pathos, expressed over and over again by the men chronicled by Faludi as well as in Tiger's narrative, that the rules have changed, and that the culturally authoritative forms that had once provided a sense of entitlement for white men have collapsed. This same anxiety over displacement is expressed in many of the popular action-hero movies of the 1980s (Gibson, 1994; Jeffords, 1989, 1994). By foregrounding this sense of pathos in much the same way that Faludi and Tiger have done, these movies succeed in reinscribing white middle-class men at the center of a unified national narrative and marginalize women as well as various other groups of men.

But while it has become fairly common to identify this discourse of male pathos and the resulting reauthorization of masculinity in what can be considered politically reactionary figures such as Rambo, I want to show how this same rhetorical strategy gets reproduced in cultural products that we might associate with the cultural left and avant-garde. The two films that I want to analyze in depth are Warren Beatty's Bulworth, and John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation.

Warren Beatty, long associated with the left, wrote, directed, and starred in the film "Bulworth." The movie is ostensibly a critique of contemporary political corruption and the role that big money plays in politics. But in actuality this film is a narrative of white middle-class male pathos and results in the reinscription of white masculinity at the center of the nation. The film opens with Jay Billington Bulworth, a U.S. senator from California, sobbing in his office. He is surrounded by the trappings of power, but is utterly distraught and, as it turns out, suicidal. We see him playing sections of one of his advertisement campaign spots over and over again on the TV. The rhetoric of the commercial is empty; the phrase "we are standing on the edge of a new millennium" is repeated ad nauseam. (4) In the background, we see photographs on the wall of Bulworth standing with liberal/left political figures of the past: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Robert Kennedy. We realize that Senator Bulworth is in the midst of a crisis; he has sold out his liberal commitments and is now beholden to big business. We see him meeting with an insurance company lobbyist who demands that he tie up a bill in Congress that would have provided low-income people with insurance policies. Bulworth agrees to do this in exchange for a $10 million life insurance policy. We then discover that he has made plans to have himself assassinated.

Beatty is clearly expressing his pathos over white male cultural elites' loss of political authority. In Beatty's version of this displacement, cultural elites such as politicians have lost their authority because they are no longer representative of "the people." Implicit in this notion of "the people" is the idea of a unitary national culture or "deep fraternity; that "the people" are cut of one cloth culturally speaking. Thus, for Beatty, the erosion of political authority is tied to the displacement of masculinity. Unlike Faludi, Beatty places most of the blame of this loss of authority on big business, which in his view has corrupted cultural and institutional elites by basically buying them out. Big business represents, in Beatty's view, a ruthless competitive masculinity that, simply put, has overwhelmed traditional male political authority. (5) But Beatty also exhibits some of Faludi's anxiety over the feminization of men due to consumerism. He depicts consumer culture as having emptied political campaigns of any substance. Bulworth has become entranced with sound bites and photo ops. He spends his time sitting in his office, passive, totally disconsolate, channel surfing, utterly consumed by images.

In Beatty's view, not only are the political institutions upon which white men based their authority on corrupt, but their culture is as well. In order for Bulworth's authority to be reinscribed, he must reestablish his ability to speak for "the people," thus reaffirming his ability to represent the deep fraternity of the nation. But Beatty has a problem. Unlike Faludi, he finds white culture moribund and thus he cannot use it as a basis for constructing a usable past. Rather, it is an object of fear and terror. As Bulworth races from one political event to another trying to avoid his own hired assassin, the place that is most terrifying is the Protestant church where he is slated to give a speech. Here he runs in terror from the church before he even has a chance to say anything. This is the venue that Bulworth, according to Beatty, finds most repulsive, not because of the politics but because of the cultural emptiness. Beatty describes this fear in an interview:

So Beatty, unable to find a usable past in white culture, looks to black culture to resuscitate white masculinity. Black culture serves as a trope for the reinscription of white masculinity. As bell hooks (1992) and Toni Morrison (1990) suggest, the recuperation of white manhood through "eating the other" (to use bell hooks' phrase) is as old as notions of blackness itself. Beginning in the 18th century, Euro-American men constructed "the other" as the site of the primitive, inscribing their repressed passions, including fantasies of violence and sexuality upon it (Lott, 1993). But ironically, Euro-American men were then drawn to this otherness as a way of reinvigorating their own moribund sense of self. In the movie, Bulworth suffers a disintegration of his identity due to his pathos, but then experiences a sublime transformation through his engagement with black culture, which results in a reinvigoration of his masculinity.

So Bulworth's transformation and the resulting reinvigoration of his masculinity and political authority occurs by adopting the style and rhetoric of black manhood, thus appropriating the aesthetic authority of the black underclass. Bulworth, formerly a staid and conventional Protestant white male, becomes a "wigger," (conventional parlance for a "white Negro") complete with dark sunglasses, baggy pants, a red ski cap, and a penchant for rhythming, rap style. He rejects the worn and empty political rhetoric of the conventional political culture, and instead adopts black slang, thus recuperating a "man making language." (6) The conventional political language has lost its meaning, as we see from the repetition of empty campaign slogans like "We stand on the edge of a new millennium." On several occasions, Bulworth attempts to read a prepared speech where he begins by mouthing these words, but he then falters and, after a pause, launches into the rap rhythms and colloquialisms of black culture that in turn enable him to critique the status quo of the dominance of interest group politics, the media, and big money. Bulworth is fascinated and obsessed with the slang of black culture; he picks up the words and repeats them, asking what they mean. It is this marginalized language, including words such as "motherfucker," where Bulworth is able to find meaning, vitality, and force. (7) By appropriating this language and culture, Bulworth is able to recover his masculinity and political authority.

But is it in the climax of the film, so to speak, where Bulworth fully recovers a culturally authoritative masculinity. Bulworth, having recovered from his delirium, has put back on his traditional suit and tie. He then momentarily balks at continuing the romance he had established earlier in the film with a black activist named Nina, played by Halle Berry. Nina challenges him and asks him why he is abandoning her. Bulworth states that he is ashamed because he is white, thus explicitly articulating his feeling of loss of cultural authority as a white man. Nina responds by saying "you're my nigga," thus legitimizing his appropriation of black culture and bestowing cultural authority upon him. As one commentator noted, "it's just the ultimate white-boy fantasy--to be granted that title on top of his own skin privileges" (Hardy, 1998, p. 84)

But in fact Beatty cannot sustain the possibility of this interracial relationship in the movie. In the next and final scene, having won the election, a shadowy figure assassinates Bulworth (echoing the Kennedy assassination). Beatty can't sustain the narrative of an interracial relationship because in effect there never really was a substantive relationship. Nina, as a black women, was simply a trope for Bulworth's sublime transformation and not a significant three-dimensional character in her own right. Nina served the purpose of the exotic and sexualized "other," which Bulworth consumes in order to enact his transformation and the resulting reinscription of his cultural authority and manhood. In other words, Nina's sole purpose was to confer cultural authority upon Bulworth, which she in fact does explicitly. It is in the pathos of this final scene, through martyrdom, that white men are reinscribed at the center of the national culture. Beatty can't quite imagine this literally happening; instead he creates something like a usable past through the memory of a martyr where white men were representative of the people and truly at the center of a national culture. Black culture, although ostensibly celebrated in the movie, is ultimately relegated to the margins.

Another movie that subtly reinscribes white male cultural authority is Six Degrees of Separation. The movie is based on a play of the same name by John Guare (1994), a well-known New York playwright (the screen version is essentially the same dialogue). The movie plot is relatively simple and is based, according to reviewers, on a "real life" incident. The film centers on a wealthy cultured New York couple by the name of Flan and Ouisa Kittredge. One evening they are entertaining a friend from South Africa named Geoffrey when a young black man knocks on their door, claiming to have just been stabbed and mugged in the park below. He introduces himself as Paul Poitier, the son of the famous actor. He claims to have gone to Harvard with the Kittredge's children, and seems to know much about their lives. Paul proceeds to spend the evening, entertaining them and cooking them a wonderful dinner. He figuratively seduces them with his narrative; he speaks of his life and his father, about his master's thesis on alienation and paralysis of bourgeois culture (thus reflecting Guare's theme), and describes the project his father is working on, which is a film rendition of the play Cats. The Kittredges are entranced with Paul's grace and wit and invite him to spend the night, promising to wake him up early so that he can meet his father. In the morning the wife, Ouisa, enters into Paul's room and finds him in bed with another man (a male prostitute), who proceeds to run around the apartment naked, shouting and challenging them. They are scandalized and in a fury kick Paul out.

In recounting the story to friends, Flan and Ouisa discover that some of their friends have been similarly duped by the same man. They realize that what they all have in common is that all their children went to the same elite prep schools. They discover Paul is an "imposter," who found out about their lives though a male lover, who had in fact known their children through school. The plot hinges around this idea of "six degrees of separation," that any one person, including the quintessential "other"--in this case a poor black gay male--is only separated from any one other person by six people.

But Guare, like Beatty, is concerned with the vacuousness of white bourgeois culture and what he sees as the resulting erosion of white male cultural authority. In other words, like Bulworth, Flan, the central white male figure in the story, doesn't seem to have any real cultural substance or vitality. The central scene of the film, for example, where Paul spends the evening with the Kittredges, has a strange surreal quality and hollowness to it. Guare intentionally uses a narrative device to give the viewer this feeling. We view this scene secondhand; we only find out what has happened thought Flan and Ouisa's retelling of the event the next day at a wedding. Guare is intentionally setting this up as a narrated experience; that is, as a narrative of an experience as distinguished from an "actual experience." (I place this in quotes because from a narrative theory standpoint, all experience is mediated through narrative.) This narrative removal is, we discover, a central theme for Guare. At the end of the film, Ouisa is distressed over the fact that Paul is no longer part of their lives. (He has been arrested.) For her, Paul represents actual "experience," while all she and Flan can do is "turn their experiences into anecdotes," thus removing themselves from anything like "the real." Guare is suggesting that elite culture's propensity to narrative (what in the film is referred to as "anecdotes") results in a hollowness and emotional removal. The effect of this narrative removal on the viewer is that we have this sense of Flan and Ouisa as caricatures of themselves. The film has a staged quality to it.

This sense of surrealism and emptiness is ironic. On the surface it is Paul who is the poseur. But for Guare, Paul is simply a mirror for the vacuous nature of elite bourgeois culture. On the evening that Paul knocks on the door and enters into their lives, Flan and Ouisa are entertaining Geoffrey, a wealthy friend from South Africa. We find out that they are planning to ask him for money to help finance a piece of art which Flan, an art dealer, is attempting to buy and then sell at a higher price. As we see them describe the evening to friends, Ouisa readily acknowledges the awkwardness and duplicity of this interaction. On the one hand, they need to treat Geoffrey as a friend and keep out of their mind that they want his money, but in reality all they can think about is the $2 million dollars that they want him to loan them. Everything in their lives, Guare seems to be saying, is reducible to a cash nexus, including their appreciation of art and their friendships.

But they are saved by Paul, who becomes the "spice" that enlivens their evening and makes it a success. Paul serves as the sublime trope that allows Flan to secure the deal and thus secure his membership in elite culture. At the end of the evening Geoffrey offers to lend them the $2 million. There is clearly an feeling of atrophy at the center of Flan and Ouisa's lives that Paul, at least momentarily, cures. As a gay black man, Paul is able to "penetrate" their lives (both literally as well as metaphorically), for we are reminded of the play's theme, that there are only "six degrees of separation." Paul's ability to penetrate elite bourgeois culture is alternately enlivening and threatening. On the one hand, he enlivens it, making the evening a success. But this penetration is also transgressive, as we can see from the two scenes where Paul's sexuality is an issue; the one where Ouisa finds Paul in their house in bed with another man, and when Paul seduces a young white man, who then later commits suicide. Ouisa also at one point asks Paul if he has AIDs, thus explicitly evoking the fear of contagion by the "other" and the ultimate dissolution of boundaries.

In fact, Paul both threatens to undermine Flan and Ouisa's cultural authority and reinscribes it. On the one hand, the fact that Paul is so easily able to gain entrance into their lives by imitating their culture threatens to undermine their cultural authority. Imitation is the antithesis of Euro-American bourgeois masculinity and cultural authority; the ideal of the masculine producer embodies the notion of men's creative capacity and thus of originality and individuality. Guare may be suggesting that if Flan and Ouisa are so easily duped by Paul's imitation of their culture, that perhaps these people's lives are not so unique after all and their cultural authority is a sham. Flan, in fact, is enraged that he has been so easily duped, and he and Ouisa go to the police with their story and demand Paul's arrest. But the police refuse to do so; as they point out Paul has committed no crime. It is only when Paul commits a "real" violation, when he is successfully able to penetrate (literally, through anal sex) another person's life, that he is arrested. Thus, although Flan's masculinity is threatened by imitation, it is the specter of gay sex and the resulting dissolution of boundaries that is the ultimate violation here.

Paul represents the threat of the dissolution of the self, which in turn becomes the sublime trope that enables Flan's (re)authorization. Flan is able to contain this threat by turning "the experience" into a narrative; he literally publishes their story in The Times. His ability to "author" a narrative effects a reauthorization of the self. He experiences his creative capacity by containing the "experience" through narrative. This is the aesthetic analogue to productive labor, which as we have seen in the analysis of Faludi is the trope that provides the basis for bourgeois male authority. Thus, at the end of the film Flan continues to have faith in his cultural authority and in his ability to use this experience as a form of cultural capital. Ultimately, it is this narrative structure of the sublime that marginalizes Paul as a character. It is Flan and Ouisa who are at the center of the story; it is their story, they are the one's who tell it and who star in it. Paul simply serves as the sublime trope that instigates their transformation. Thus, although the play is ostensibly a critique of white cultural elites, it ultimately reauthorizes their presence at the center of a unitary national culture.

Flan, as a man, is perfectly comfortable with his ability to provide narrative resolution to the experience, even if his life is empty of any real emotional content. Using the analogy of Cezanne's painting, he suggests: "Cezanne would leave blank spaces in his canvasses if he couldn't account for the brush stroke, give a reason for the color" (Guare, 1994, p. 118). Flan could care less about his cultural emptiness; he defines his success as his ability to make money selling art. But Ouisa, on the other hand, seems to question their narrative authority. At the end of the film, she bemoans the emptiness of their lives; they have, according to her, managed to once again turn "experience" into a narrative, and have thus enacted an emotional removal. She describes this:

Ouisa is holding out for unmediated experience. She expresses pessimism over her narrative authority and bemoans the fact that Paul simply becomes a good story, thus limiting the possibility for authentic connection:

Flan's response to this is "Paul could've killed me." But Ouisa experiences pathos; she has in fact lost her faith.


I want to suggest that the larger framework for understanding the narrative of crisis among white middle-class men is due to the erosion of their cultural authority resulting from the breakdown of the discourse of the nation due to the emergence of globalization and cultural pluralism in the post-war era. Euro-American men have increasing difficulty imagining themselves at the center of a unitary national culture, which in turn has undermined their cultural self-confidence. They no longer have a culturally authoritative voice because they no longer perceive themselves as speaking from the culturally sanctified standpoint of a unitary national narrative.

Yet the narratives I have discussed implicitly recuperate Euro-American middle-class male authority. Faludi and Tiger's narratives of the crisis of masculinity reinscribe white middle-class men at the center of a national narrative by erasing cultural, economic, and sexual difference and by offering a 19th century narrative of "national manhood" based on the ideal of the producer. (8) Beatty and Guare also reinscribe this ideal of the male producer through their narrative of sublimity. Both use the trope of "the other" as a way of inducing sublimity that results in the reinscription of white male authority.

These narratives that reinscribe white middle-class men at the center of the nation are representative of a broad-based reaction against economic and cultural changes brought about by globalization. These changes include negative consequences such as the increasing centralization of economic and political power among transnational economic elites. But it has also resulted in the opening up of cultural, political, and economic life of the United States to diverse groups, including women and people of color. Thus, the danger of these narratives that reproduce white middle-class men at the center of a homogenous and synthetic nation is that they reject these progressive opportunities and fuel a reactionary and fearful politics.


(1.) The irony is that Faludi's book Backlash (1991) is all about this.

(2.) This anxiety about feminization is a common theme in male narratives of both the late 19th and late 20th centuries. Robert Bly, for example, warns that men have become soft (Bly, 1981,17).

(3.) For an analysis of 19th and early 20th century narratives that articulate the national landscape as the site of male freedom and bonding, see Nina Baym (1979).

(4.) A not so subtle reference to recent campaign rhetoric.

(5.) David Leverenz (1989) suggests that this competitive anxiety between the business class and national cultural elites such as Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau was endemic in the 19th century.

(6.) For an example of the way in which 19th century cultural elites did this, see Leverenz op. cit.

(7.) What alienated some of the people that I know from this movie was the liberal use of such phrases.

(8.) The term is Dana Nelson's (1998).


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Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Andrew Walzer, 545 S. Euclid Avenue, #5, Pasadena, California 91101. Electronic mail may be sent to
Males are relatively vulnerable where they start out, in the womb. But they
   are most at risk by where they end up--the modern world where their
   evolutionary preparation is no longer useful. It's a world indifferent and
   even hostile to many of the aggressive aptitudes and hands-on predatory
   enthusiasm helpful and essential to males in the past. (p. 109)

[An] important aspect of such a masculinity was the importance of
   commanding the inner skills to work with materials. Workmanship generated a
   pride founded in the certainty that what you did bespoke a know-how not
   acquired overnight. "I was good at it" was a frequent statement that the
   shipyard men made to me about their work, a remark offered without
   inflection or posturing, just as a matter of unassailable fact, a truth on
   which a man' s life could be securely founded. Out of that security grew
   authority--an authority based, as in the root meaning of the word, on
   having authored something productive. (p. 86, italics in the original)

They still wanted to believe in a patrimony, not of money but of know-how,
   the sort of secret knowledge that a father mastered and taught his son, the
   sort of knowledge that a son would know he had learned by the approving
   glint in his father's eye. (p. 530)

A social pact between the nation's men and its institutions was collapsing,
   most prominently but not exclusively within the institutions of work.
   Masculine ideals of loyalty, productivity, and service lay in shards. (p.

[T]heir amount of repression and inhibition, the level of Puritanism, the
   thickness of the vanilla armor is very funny to me.... Talk about
   stereotypes. These are stereotypical vanilla, soulless people--the
   Massachusetts Bay Colony all in one gathering. That is what Bulworth is
   running away from." (Hardy, 1998, p. 83)

And we turn him into an anecdote to dine out on. Or dine in on. But it was
   an experience. I will not turn him into an anecdote. How do we fit what
   happened to us into life without turning it into an anecdote with no teeth
   and a punch line you'll mouth over and over for years to come.... And we
   become these human jukeboxes spilling out these anecdotes. But it was an
   experience. How do we keep the experience? (Guare, 1994, pp. 117-118)

We believed him--for a few hours. He did more for us in a few hours than
   our children ever did. He wanted to be your child. Don't let that go. He
   sat out in that park and said that man is my father. He's in trouble and we
   don't know how to help him. (Guare, 1994, p. 117)

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