Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent decision to return as executive editor of Muscle & Fitness and Flex magazines makes one thing abundantly clear: The former bodybuilder, movie star and California governor can’t seem to grasp the simple fact that his era is over.
He tried to ride out the revelation that he had secretly fathered a child with his housekeeper by penning an autobiography that was long on self-aggrandizement and short on introspection. Then he ventured back to the big screen with “The Last Stand,” prompting critics to declare him too old, too odd-looking (who knew Austrians turned orange as they aged?) and too mired in scandal to resurrect his action hero career.
Now he plans to return to his bodybuilding roots because he just doesn’t get it: The He-Man is dead, and few mourn his passing.
While Schwarzenegger was governating, the cultural landscape changed. Women, led by Lara Croft, Buffy and Nikita, gained muscles and martial arts skills on the big screen and small, while men learned how to talk and even (gasp) intuit.
Dr. Gregory House and Don Draper became the objects of serial desire while the cinematic action hero morphed into Robert Downey Jr., more mind and mouth than muscle. James Bond still thrives, but it is Daniel Craig’s scarred, haunted and human Bond, weeping tears of salt, not vermouth. Sylvester Stallone tried to get back in the game too, and “Bullet to the Head” bombed even faster than “The Last Stand.”
It isn’t just anatomy, it’s attitude. Social, economic and environmental concerns have turned on the in-your-face consumer-machismo that Schwarzenegger and other big men made their signature. Bodybuilding, Hummers, the Cuban cigars, the triple Scotches, the wild nights and womanizing are no longer the accoutrement of A-list masculinity.
Nowadays, real men drive hybrids, extol super-foods and worry more about core muscles and resting heart rates than the size of their pecs. Smart is the new sexy, struggling the new strong, insecurity a form of seduction. It helps if you can sing.
The He-Man did not go quietly. Roused to fury by the feminist movement and the quiche-eating New Male, the He-Man took power in the 1980s, both politically and culturally — it’s no coincidence that Schwarzenegger’s film career launched during the Reagan years. Subsequently, he found sustenance in both the “Fast and Furious” video-game generation and the new political right.
But the rise of the woman warrior, both real and fictitious, the increasing acceptance of gay Americans with their richly diverse definitions of masculine and feminine, and a digitally led shift toward Steve Jobs-cerebral over blue-collar-physical forced the classic He-Man into a very real Last Stand.
It all but defined this past election. Mitt Romney, no one’s definition of a He-Man, was recast as Mr. Fix-It, a can-do guy with money-making smarts who might be good to have around the house. Meanwhile, some of his supporters seemed intent on taking up the machismo slack with a game of gender-political chicken.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) convened a House panel on birth control that was all male. Rush Limbaugh called law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” because she thought insurance companies should cover birth control. Then-Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) tried to argue that women could not get pregnant in cases of “legitimate rape” in last year’s GOP primary for a U.S. Senate seat. In the Indiana Senate race, Republican Richard Mourdock insisted that abortion not be allowed in cases of rape because such births are in fact a “gift from God.” (Both Akin and Mourdock lost their races.)
Coming from hard-line conservatives, none of these views were new or even surprising, but the response of bipartisan outrage certainly was. The gender gap has been a political reality for years, but during this past election many voters seemed intent on sending a message: “Knock it off, guys.” Smug and sexist just doesn’t fly even among conservative women.
So for another four years we have a president whose wife has better biceps than he does, a man more visually associated with a library than a ranch. In many ways, Barack Obama is the quintessential third-millennium alpha, the antithesis of such He-Man presidents as Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton (who, after a life-saving diet of veganism and spousal deference, has also changed with the times).
Obama may be commander in chief of two wars and the man who brought down Osama bin Laden, but unlike most of his predecessors he is rarely seen handling a firearm (and then only shooting at clay targets). He does not yell; he has been known to sing.
Indeed, prompted by the Sandy Hook tragedy, one of the first big fights of his second term is against the National Rifle Assn., arguably the most powerful embodiment of Old Guard masculinity in the country. Certainly NRA Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre followed the He-Man script to the letter when he finally broke his silence after 20 children and six adults were slain by a lone gunman in a matter of minutes. The obvious solution, he said, happily stepping back into a time when men were men and women didn’t have the vote, was to arm all the teachers.
And it isn’t just an American phenomenon. All over the world, in countries where male authority is socially and politically institutionalized, the old models of masculinity are being reconsidered. The recent gang rape and killing of a female student in New Delhi sparked a national uproar that resulted in a government panel examining the widespread abuse of women in India and calling for an end to “a culture of masculinity, a cult of aggression.” In Pakistan, the shooting of 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai by members of the Taliban infuriated by her insistence that girls should receive an education caused international outrage.
Not even the pope, arguably the world’s most spiritual He-Man — head of the most famous patriarchy, defined by his position as infallible, speaking literally in edicts — is immune. Beset by scandal, including and especially the revelations that the Catholic Church has, for decades, ignored and covered up the rape and sexual abuse of children by pedophile priests, the now-former Pope Benedict XVI recently acknowledged that, beset by health issues and general frailty, he was no longer the man for the job and became the first pontiff in centuries to resign.
So out of style is the concept of He-Man masculinity that History, in publicizing its much-anticipated series “The Vikings,” is pushing not only the role of women (did you know they were allowed to own property and go into battle?) but intellectual curiosity. The lead character may be named for a famous Norse pirate, but he’s portrayed as just as interested in acquiring knowledge and technology as he is in slaughter and booty.
If Ragnar the Viking realizes the age of the He-Man is over, perhaps it’s time Arnold Schwarzenegger did too.
— Mary McNamara, Senior Culture Editor
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