Masculinities Commentary

James Taggart Masculinity

 

    Ayn Rand’s 1957 classic Atlas Shrugged lays the foundation for a new moral philosophy-- objectivism. Briefly defined, objectivism holds both that contradictions do not and can not exist and that men, motivated by the engine of their morality, control their own destinies. This philosophy currently enjoys favor among many of the top brass Republicans in the USA. Rand’s abhorrence of big government and her fanatical devotion to the myth of the free market conform well with conservative policy in this country. However, Rand’s critical eye exposes much more about American society than merely the flaws inherent to bureaucratic institutions such as government and business. Atlas Shrugged is not only the outline of a moral philosophy, but also a modern tragedy regarding the triumph of an inferior kind of masculinity over the ideal kind, the kind epitomized by Rand’s hyper-masculine heroes.

The novel contains innumerable references to gender, identity, and sexuality in its 1000-some pages. The protagonist, Dagny Taggart, is a brilliant engineer and industrialist. Her femininity is suppressed throughout the novel, even as she pursues three romantic relationships with three men who, along with Dagny, strive for and largely meet the characteristics associated with hegemonic masculinity. Though all three suitors are physically capable, financially brilliant, and perfectly self-sufficient, the enigmatic John Galt dominates his peers. His name appears again and again on the lips of most every character, “Who is John Galt?,” a prayer for a masculine savior for all the country’s ills.

Dagny’s brother, James, is the President of the family’s railroad company-- Taggart Transcontinental. James is, from the novel’s start, a dithering buffoon. He passes all responsibility for the family business to his sister and elects to spend his days and nights in small, dim rooms with other executives. They plot and scheme, hungry to expand their power and determined to destroy anyone whose ability or effort might threaten their position. These men are weak, but their aggression grants them some form of masculinity.

In most other ways though, these men are not masculine. James and his cadre are indecisive and emotionally unstable. They whine incessantly about fairness and blame. They have no technical competence whatsoever. They are referred to as “leeches” at many points in the novel. And most importantly, they have no ties to rationality, opting instead to pursue a path of contradiction in order to increase uncertainty in the populace and thus expand their power. Miraculously, they succeed.

When James Taggart and his Unification Board take control of the country, they institute nonsensical economic policies designed to starve the prosperous and the able. When their actions cause a national catastrophe, they capture and torture John Galt, pleading with him to lead them as a dictator from their dire situation. When James and his men refuse to acknowledge their share of the blame, Galt declines. By declining, the ideal masculine, embodied by Galt, bows to a lesser form of masculinity. He knows that incorporation into James’ crew will lead to the destruction of his masculine identity. Rand is arguing here that the dominant masculinity in a social context need not be or even strive to be the ideal form. James Taggart’s masculinity is that of a drowning man who pulls someone down in order to reach the surface. Weakness can be a great source of power.

James Taggart masculinity abounds today. Our Commander in Chief ran on a campaign of blaming immigrants for domestic problems and has since shifted blame for all his missteps to the courts, the press, and the American people. His administration seems more interested in defending their image than governing. His economic success is mainly the product of inheritance. And he has little to no respect for facts.

In the novel’s closing pages James realizes that his moral engine was the desire to “[prove] to himself that he could exist in defiance of reality and would never have to be bound by any solid, immutable facts.” Why are the Rand-ites in Congress today unable to see the parallels between President Trump and James Taggart? Perhaps pushing policy with little interference from the White House is more alluring than a strong, competent leader. Or maybe their fascination with Rand is merely superficial, a philosophical justification for the way things are. What is clear is that the James Taggart masculinity espoused by Trump dominates all others, unchallenged not because of its strength, but because of its weakness.

 

Into the Pool

I was sitting across the pool from a gaggle of jostling boys. They were jumping on each other in the water and splashing it up onto the deck. I use the term boys hyperbolically, since they were likely a few years older than me. But their actions were so juvenile that I felt compelled to think of them as a crew of boys, mischievous and dumb.

A girl joined them. She had on a long-sleeve shirt and long black tights, shoes, makeup; everything about her getup suggested that she had not come here to swim.

“Get in the water,” was her greeting.

She laughed it off and shook her head. One of the muscled backs on the folding chairs rolled over to give his input.

“Yeah, you should jump in,” he said, adding “I’ll pay for your dry cleaning or whatever.”

She refused a few more times until finally, someone simply placed a hand on her lower back and gave her a shove.

This scene is not unique. Nor is it particularly malicious. I knew both that she chose to spend her time with these boys and that her entering the pool was more or less guaranteed as soon as she sat among them. I would imagine that she knew that she would end up swimming at some point. The one who greeted her made it pretty clear.

But the one who offered to pay for her dry-cleaning was the focus of my inquiry. Would he? Probably not. For one thing, adding “or whatever” to a sentence usually betrays the apathy of the speaker. For another, I don’t think he expected her to ask him to pay for it. I think the offer was a subtle jab, meant to suggest that the only thing keeping her from the pool was a concern for her clothes. This innocuous little interaction at a public pool exemplifies the consequences of hegemonic masculinity.

Males who perform masculinity by displaying their control over women, for example by ordering them to enter a swimming pool, assert themselves within the social context as possessing a degree of capital. Whether this capital is physical size, financial security, or key connections, men, especially white heterosexual men have collectively hoarded this resource. The fortune that has amassed is held in trust for every white heterosexual male who contributes to the cause by asserting his physical, social, and economic capital over others.

So by throwing his friend into a swimming pool after offering to pay for it, the boy was giving the girl a promise that some of the capital would be returned. Only the amount returned is pocket lint to the boy and the amount gained by his performance is invaluable for it reproduces the social conditions by which he can order a woman to get into a pool whether she wants to or not.