Conservatives, particularly conservative men, are often prone to accusing feminists of being overly emotional and injecting gender into issues that are not about gender. This should be understood for what it is: pure projection. It’s the right that is obsessed with gender to the point of abandoning all rationality, insisting on injecting a bunch of gendered anxieties and fantasies into the discourse on various issues and derailing any hope of having rational, evidence-based discussions about them.
Last week, Mother Jones published a piece by Mark Follman about the politics of gun control that demonstrates how true this is. In theory, the issue of gun control shouldn’t be about gender at all. Men and women both can use guns and presumably both have an interest in the self-defense motive that gun manufacturers use to sell their products. The gun industry lobby certainly likes to claim that it’s a gender-free issue, and they even go out of their way to try to highlight female gun enthusiasts. (Though, it’s important to understand the primary objective of groups like the National Rifle Association is to improve profitability for gun manufacturers, and so these efforts are more about trying to get women to buy guns than anything else.) But, as Follman’s reporting shows, the average gun rights enthusiast very much sees the issue as being about gender. Guns are, to be blunt, a way for men who experience high levels of insecurity and anxiety about masculinity to feel powerful and manly.
Unsurprisingly, then, the battle over guns, as experienced on a personal level, is extremely gendered. The same guys who cling to guns to prove their manhood to themselves tend toward
extreme levels of misogyny, getting completely bent out of shape particularly over the idea that women might believe they have a right to advocate for better gun control. Follman painstakingly demonstrates how female gun control activists are at the receiving end of unbelievable amounts of abuse and threats from these easily threatened men. Even women who aren’t gun control activists have been subject to abuse from strangers for merely calling the emergency hotline when they saw a gang of men brandishing weapons in public at one of those “open carry” protests and, understandably, were afraid that gang warfare or a mass shooting were about to happen.
Female-focused gun control groups, such as Moms Demand Action, get far more hate from pro-gun people than groups that are seen as less gendered. In fact, one of the most telling details from the Mother Jones story involves the hatred of Moms Demand Action.
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In March, a group of [Open Carry Texas members] held a “mad minute” at a firing range, pulverizing a female mannequin with a hail of bullets. They positioned the figure with her hands raised in surrender, naked from the waist up. Afterward, they posed with the bullet-riddled mannequin, her arms blown off and her pants down at her ankles. “Mad minute” is a military expression referring to a burst of rapid fire, and Open Carry Texas members have often referred to Moms Demand Action as “mad moms.”
The fear and loathing on display for outspoken women reminded me of nothing so much as the way the issue of health-care coverage for contraception has been hijacked by men with major, unabashed issues when it comes to sex and gender. While the “official” line from anti-contraception forces is that it’s not about gender so much as abstractions like economics or religious liberty, hostility to insurance coverage for contraception is being sold to the right-wing masses mainly by provoking anxieties about women choosing to have sex on their own terms.
To briefly reiterate some of the most obnoxious examples: Rush Limbaugh demanding that Sandra Fluke provide him pornography if she uses her own insurance to pay for her own contraception; Gary Bauer tying contraception to a “promiscuous coed,” exhibiting dual anxiety about women both having sex on their own terms and getting an education; and saying that using your insurance for contraception makes it “hosurance” or “Floozycare,” and that women who use contraception are “hoeing” themselves out. And just last week, Sean Hannity, while claiming (unconvincingly) not to be opposed to contraception, spent most of his rant emphasizing a belief that contraception is only for women who are having abnormally frequent sexual encounters.
The blunt truth of the matter is that men who have high levels of anxiety about gender and sexuality are extremely good at hijacking policy discussions and turning them away from talk of evidence and societal improvement and toward their own personal issues with gender. Everything becomes about the need to display a nearly comical level of masculinity and to put women in a subservient position. Football players showing understandable emotion at getting drafted? Evidence, somehow, that female power is out of control. Batman driving a hybrid? Clearly, an assault on American manhood. (Never mind that electric engines are quiet, improving stealth abilities.) Hundreds of girls are kidnapped in Nigeria? Watch Laura Ingraham try to make it about how America is supposedly not tough enough.
It’s frustrating in and of itself that so many men suffering from so much anxiety are able to stymie women’s progress on everything from reproductive health access to equal pay. But, as this all shows, the problem of irrational, angry male anxiety reaches far beyond just so-called women’s issues. Defensive masculinity posturing contaminates our ability to have rational discourse on a whole host of topics, from climate change to gun control to health-care reform to, yes, even the Batmobile. Imagine if we spent a week—just a week!—in this country agreeing to have a discussion about the issues without injecting inchoate, irrational fears about threatened masculinity. We’d probably get more done to improve people’s lives in that week than we’ll be able to in years of working through the political system as it currently stands.
Not that this will ever happen. After all, asking anxious men—and the women who support them—to give it a rest with the belligerent hyper-masculine posturing for even a week would, in and of itself, be seen as an attempt to steal their precious manhood away. But a girl can dare to dream.