Q&A with Jackson Katz, Ph.D.

I talk to the renowned educator, author, and social theorist, about his recent documentary and the relationship between Republican politics and performative masculinity

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In last week’s article, “A New Era of Political Masculinity,” I wrote at some length about the excellent documentary, The Man Card: White Male Identity Politics from Nixon to Trump, which focuses on the Republican party’s consistent use of macho posturing to win the support of the “traditional man.”

This week, I had the honor of talking to Jackson Katz, Ph.D., the creator of the film. You may know Jackson from his viral TED Talk, but he has spent three decades working as an educator, author, and social theorist on topics such as gender, violence, and race.

He co-founded the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP), one of the longest-running and most widely influential gender violence prevention programs in North America. And the intersection of masculinities and violence is the topic of his next book.

Without further ado, my conversation with Jackson Katz.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity).

Can you tell me a little bit about The Man Card documentary’s history and how you began looking at the intersection between politics and masculinities?

Sure. I've been looking at questions about masculinities and politics, especially presidential politics, since the 1980s. In 1992, I put together a slide lecture (that’s what we used to call it before PowerPoint) entitled “Fighter Pilots and Draft Dodgers: Images of Presidential Masculinity 1972-1992.” It was an attempt to look at how media narratives, political advertising, and other stories about manhood made their way into presidential politics. 

This was coming out of the Reagan era, when a significant factor in Reagan's popularity was his successful performance of a certain kind of rugged individualist, white cowboy masculinity; the storyline was the gun-slinging hero rides in from the west to save a country that was in decline due to the supposed softness and weakness of its leaders. (Which, by the way, was a theme picked up by Donald Trump).  

Fast-forward to 2016, when I published Man Enough? Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and the Politics of Presidential Masculinity, a book that examined the topic of manhood — especially white manhood — and the American presidency. I tried to show that over the past 50 years, as the Republican party moved further to the right, it increasingly became not only the party of white racial resentment but also the party of (white) men reacting against the advances of the feminist and LGBT movements.

You can see how this plays out if you look at the gender gap in American presidential elections. Since 1980, there has been a persistent and growing gap between the women’s and the men’s vote. The gender gap is regularly discussed in political commentary, but most of the analysis focuses on the women’s vote, and how important it has become for the Democrats. There has been much less discussion of why men, especially white men, and even more notably blue-collar white men, have been voting increasingly Republican.  

I wanted to make a film to provide historical background and context for an analysis of presidential masculinity and the white male vote, because I knew how visually powerful this story could be with all kinds of political ads, news clips, and scenes in Hollywood films. For the past decade, I had been pitching the idea of making a film on this topic to my colleagues at the Media Education Foundation, and we already had a rudimentary script that my friend and colleague Jeremy Earp and I had been working on. It just so happened that during COVID, the stars kind of lined up, and we had the chance to work with a couple of talented filmmakers (Peter Hutchison & Lucas Sabean) who had the time to work on it, so we seized the opportunity. 

The other factor was that Trump's presidency brought into focus, in caricatured form, themes that I had been writing and thinking about for decades. So it made sense, in the run-up to the 2020 election, to make a film that highlighted these dynamics and put the racial and gender politics of “Trumpism” into historical perspective. The idea was to give people a way to think about Trump and his movement as being about more than racist backlash and anti-immigrant resentment, but also about white men’s aggrieved entitlement in the face of feminist gains and other markers of their diminishing economic and cultural centrality. 

You point out that the Republican Party has worked for decades to brand itself as the party of the traditional man, or perhaps the “real man.” The phrase "real man" has always been a slippery term. What meaning does it connote to you?

On one level, it's an absurd designation because, you know, what is a real man? It's also a contested term that is subject to multiple readings. The traditional way of defining a “real man” is one who is first and foremost heterosexual, competitive, physically strong, and dominant vis-à-vis both women and other men.

But that description itself is something of a caricature. Take, for example, someone like John Wayne, whom a lot of men and women, especially those of a certain generation, identify as the prototypical “real man.” What does that mean? The John Wayne that so many idolized was a movie character that an actor brought to life on the silver screen. While John Wayne the authentic human being did have some characteristics that aligned with this sort of dominant person, John Wayne as a person (born Marion Morrison) was someone else entirely. In his real life, Wayne had upper-class tastes, wore fancy suits, and didn't even like horses. 

During the Second World War, Wayne was of prime age to serve in the military. Many of his Hollywood colleagues — actors and directors — were enlisting, even if they hadn’t been drafted. He decided not to do so (some of his contemporaries believed) because he figured his career would be better served at home with so many of his competitors off at war. And yet the rest of his life, Wayne was a super-hawk on military matters, supporting the U.S. war in Vietnam and elsewhere, and mocking the manhood of men in the anti-war movement at home.

That's just one example of the distortions that occur with respect to this notion of a “real man.” Thankfully we’re beginning to understand, because of feminist challenges to unquestioned male dominance and LGBT challenges to heteronormative culture, that even saying there's such a thing as a “real man” is presumptuous and even offensive. 

That's really interesting, especially as a juxtaposition against the brand of cowboy masculinity that you mentioned earlier (as well detail in the doc).

Right. I often joke that because John Wayne died in 1979, he wasn’t available to run for president in 1980; Ronald Reagan was the next best thing. In a symbolic sense, a vote for Reagan was a vote for John Wayne. Reagan and Michael Deaver, his communications strategist from his days as governor of California, knew exactly what they were doing in helping to create the template for the president as a TV or movie character. Trump had a similar understanding of the role he played as a media figure, only updated to the era of the tabloids and reality TV.

According to the WSJ's record of 2020 election speeches, Trump and Pence used the phrase "Law and Order" something like 90 times. In The Man Card, you offer some background around the ways in which the Republican party has used this phrase over the years. Can you share a little bit more about how it's been used to make candidates appear tougher and where that intersects with race?

In The Man Card, we have a lot of great footage from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush exploiting white anxiety through calls for law and order in a way that clearly positioned the GOP as “tough on crime,” a strategy Trump clearly copied in 2016 and 2020. As we show in the film, this law-and-order trope, and a whole range of other tough-talking, hypermasculine rhetorical strategies, have been expertly employed by right-wing political leaders since the 1960s not only to tap into white anxiety and fear in the wake of the Civil Rights Act, but also to appeal more narrowly to white men as protectors.

Much of the national political commentary about Trump’s calls for “law and order” in the face of the racial justice protests of 2020 identified this as an attempt to win back suburban white women voters by scaring them. What was much-less discussed were the ways in which these appeals were designed to reinforce the idea — pervasive in conservative media — that liberal and progressive men are soft and weak, a strategy that for decades has contributed to a diminishing number of white men who are willing to align themselves with the Democratic Party. 

Trump’s mentor, Roy Cohn, apparently taught him, as the Washington Post put it, to “attack, counterattack and never apologize.” However, presidential history shows us that a lot of macho posturing involves variations of this approach. How does a leader like Biden avoid overt displays of machismo while still effectively engaging in conflict?

A lot depends on answers to the questions: “what does it mean to be strong?” and “how do we understand strength, especially in men?” For example, Trump infamously refuses to apologize or admit mistakes, which he sees as an admission of weakness. He likes to say that if someone hits him he’ll hit back ten times harder. To me and many others, it is totally absurd that this somehow demonstrates how strong he is. 

If you're truly strong, of course, when you make a mistake you are confident enough to say, “I made a mistake, I'm going to assess what I did, try to make sure I don't do it again, and move forward,” as opposed to pretending it didn’t happen because you're so fragile that you can't admit or acknowledge you made a mistake! Or because the idea of apologizing makes you fear being unmanned. To me, this is the opposite of strength.

I think there's a certain divide in the country between those of us (I wouldn't say just men because it’s more complicated than that) who look at someone like Donald Trump and his performance of manhood and say, this is anachronistic, discredited, and ridiculous. And those who look at it as the embodiment of the sort of masculine strength they identify with and want to see more of.  The degree to which this single characteristic of Trump either repulses or attracts people demonstrates how divisive a figure he is.

If you go into an airport bookstore and look at the leadership literature, especially the business leadership literature, almost no one in the 21st-century talks admiringly about the kind of leadership Donald Trump displays. Dominant themes in leadership literature are collaboration, listening, inclusivity, entertaining diverse points of view, etc. as opposed to the authoritarian, “my way or the highway” approach, or “going on your gut” without seeking advice. Trump infamously didn't even read briefing papers, let alone articles or books.  This was the most powerful person in the world! He was so ill-prepared to make the multitude of decisions one needs to make as president. This isn’t a left-wing critique. Leadership literature in the mainstream business world would say it’s further evidence of his incredible managerial incompetence.

Donald Trump is a deeply damaged narcissist. Biden is a more complicated, deeper person. His empathy, born of both his upbringing and personal experiences of tragedy, is not evidence of weakness at all. When it comes to the complex job of being president of the United States in the 21st century, I think you want somebody who is capable of a range of emotional experience, like vulnerability and empathy, alongside displays of strength and projections of power.

In last week's article, I wrote something like a wishlist of behaviors I'd like to see from Biden to signal a more conscious form of masculinity. What would your wish list be?

The most important qualities of a good leader are not gendered qualities. They are empathy, compassion, moral integrity...the ability to listen and sift through a range of different policy choices and positions and make decisions about the best way forward. Humility, rather than grandiosity, empathy rather than sociopathy. 

These qualities are not gendered. They are human qualities. You want the president to possess them whether they’re a man or a woman. Ultimately, the kind of analysis we presented in The Man Card will help people see through the ways in which gendered performances – especially by male candidates -- serve to distract and confuse voters about what interests they represent and who they truly stand for. 

However, one of the big challenges for women presidential candidates is that the presidency is a very masculine institution, in a country that sees itself as a very manly country. The President, more than any single person, embodies the national identity. The President is the head of the First Family, (he) lives in the White House, which is a kind of national residence. The President is both the chief of the executive branch, but also the head of state who ceremonially represents the country.

The President plays a really powerful symbolic role. So for a woman to become president, she has to navigate not only the very real obstacles of fundraising and working her way up through the party system, but also the symbolic aspects of the presidency. No woman has ever done that successfully. We're 240 odd years into the American experiment, and there's never been a woman president, in part because the navigation of that symbolic space has been so difficult. It will take having a woman as president for many people to realize just how important the “maleness” of the presidency has been to our national identity.  

Presidential races have always been about masculinity, but they’ve always been about race, too. However, race wasn’t visible in presidential campaigns until 2008, when Barack Obama, as an African American man, made it visible. Until that election, it was always one, two, or (in some cases) three versions of white masculinity competing against each other, but no one talked about race, because the race was white. When Hillary Clinton ran in 2016 as the first woman to receive the nomination from a major party, her being a woman made gender visible in a way that it had never been, because it had always been men pitted against other men. 

In your TEDx Talk, you say that the key to reducing gender violence is to focus on “bystander moments” (when others observe offenses and can stand up and call them out). How does this thinking show up in the political sphere? Where should we be calling out bad, unhelpful, or even potentially dangerous behavior? For example, a relative that’s gone deep into a QAnon rabbit hole...

During Trump's presidency, many Republicans in Congress and other officials in the party knew that his behavior was extremely problematic — his abusive tweeting, his bullying behavior — but didn't criticize him publicly. This provided the whole country with a gigantic teachable moment about the bystander approach.

When it comes to gender violence, one dynamic that often plays out on college campuses, on athletic teams, fraternities, or just a group of guys, is that one of them is acting inappropriately or abusively and others don’t call him on it. There’s a reason why. It's not just that specific individuals agree with the behavior, because they often don't, and might even be very uncomfortable with it. But they make a conscious or unconscious calculation, a sort of cost-benefit analysis, about whether to speak up. They know that if they say something, it could cause all sorts of awkward developments in their friendship with the guy, and it might affect their standing and status in the group. So a lot of guys choose not to get involved and just walk away, saying to themselves “you know, it's just not worth it.” They tell themselves a story about how it’s going to cause unnecessary tension and probably won’t change his behavior anyway. 

This is what happened in the Trump presidency. Many Republicans, officeholders and others, knew that his behavior was inappropriate and disqualifying, including his behavior towards women in the past and present. And yet they didn't say anything publicly, because they made a very similar cost-benefit analysis about their political career and what could happen to them if they criticized Trump. They knew that if they did, they’d be lambasted in conservative media, Trump’s base would turn on them, and they might very well lose their position in the next election. 

Watching people around Trump routinely enable his abusive behavior provided a lens into the dynamics that go on in many different peer cultures, especially with men and young men across the categories of class, race, and ethnicity. Men are often making decisions about what they value more: their ability to keep a job or their status within a group, or their moral integrity and self-regard. 

One of the things we should be talking about -- in general but also in political terms -- is what is complicity? Take your example of a friend or family member who is going down some sort of delusional rabbit hole, whether it's Qanon, other far-right conspiracy theories, or political identification that make you uncomfortable because you find it racist, sexist, heterosexist, etc. We all have to make decisions about what are we willing to tolerate, be silent about, and therefore complicit in, and what we are willing to sacrifice. It's impossible to draw a hard line because everybody has to make subjective judgments about their relationships. And sometimes people will choose to remain silent rather than take a strong stand on an issue as a way to preserve a relationship. In other cases, they make the opposite decision. They say, “this has gone too far; if I remain silent and allow this person to keep talking or acting like they do in my presence or in my peer culture, then I'm guilty of complicity in their racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc. And I can't abide that.” 

Everyone has to make their own determination. But I think part of what we need to be doing in educational spaces like K-12, colleges/universities, and workplaces is helping people think through these ethical dilemmas and decision-making processes. If they can think through their responsibilities to each other, to themselves, and to the group, they will better understand the range of ethical choices available to them, as well as the implications of those choices, and thus be able to make better decisions in the end.

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