Commentators discussing the U.S. attack on Afghanistan mention gender primarily as a justification for aggression. One of the benefits, they tell us, of dumping tons of bombs on Afghan targets and installing a pro-U.S. government in the country, is that now Afghan women are free to get schooling, shed their burqas, and walk the streets. But aside from this cynically opportunistic use of women and feminist concerns as an excuse to justify U.S. aggression abroad, there hasn't been much focus on gender in either public or (at least in my experience) private discourse on events since September 11. The silence is surprising, for a close look at American ideas about gender roles-especially ideas about masculinity-reveals that those ideas have supplied important emotional and metaphorical fuel for the government's recent military actions in Afghanistan, and for increased American bellicosity around the world.
Of course the reasons for both the attack and the American response are complex. Many factors have no doubt motivated the United States' actions in Afghanistan, both before and after September 11. Likely suspects include: Cold War thinking-the U.S. tried to "set up" the Russians in Afghanistan, hoping that the region would become "the Russian Vietnam"; oil-the best means of accessing the expansive (and landlocked) Caspian oil reserves is through Afghanistan; and domestic politics-Bush is in bed with both oil and weapons-producing interests, and has clearly needed something to distract the nation's attention from the flagging economy, as well as the Enron fiasco.
Nevertheless, to understand the particular virulence of U.S. reactions to September 11-both at the level of the government and among the general population-we need to understand American norms about masculinity. Under the set of unstated ideas about what makes a "real" man, disproportionate violence is the only viable response to an extreme experience of victimization such as the attack of September 11.
Masculinity and Violence
Masculinity has been defined as the "images, values, interests, and activities held important to a successful achievement of male adulthood in American cultures." It's what "real" men have, and what women and "sissies" lack. It protects boys from getting beaten up, helps men attract women, and proves males' heterosexuality (even when they're gay).
Of course, ideas about masculinity vary from one ethnic group to another, as well as from one institutional context to another. But an idealized American image of masculinity dominates the media, the advertising and film industries, and mainstream American culture in general. And that set of gender-linked behavioral norms is coercive, putting pressure on men to conform just as norms defining femininity coerce women.
To be a "real" man, a male cannot be fearful, indecisive, conciliatory or weak. A boy or man who is not sufficiently masculine will be stigmatized as a sissy, ostracized as a "mama's boy," or stereotyped as gay. These gendered tropes associate weakness and victimization with both femaleness and inadequate masculinity, conveying the message that a male victim of violence is an inadequate man. Unless, of course, he responds in kind. In fact, the rhetoric of highly masculinized activities in this society (including football, the military, and big business) is all about how defeat feminizes and humiliates the defeated-and how it must be revenged by victory. Thus, fear of the feminine, and the related fear of being seen as gay, play a crucial role in enforcing masculine gender norms on men.
According to William Pollack, author of Real Boys (billed as the male analogue to Reviving Ophelia), psychological literature supports this association between masculinity and violence. Fathers often enforce violent gender norms on their sons, he explains, while mothers accede to this "boys don't cry" socialization out of fear that their boys will be stigmatized, ostracized, or even subjected to harassment and physical violence if they don't. …