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David Mamet and American Macho


  • 19 b/w illus.
  • Page extent: 322 pages
  • Size: 229 x 152 mm
  • Weight: 0.6 kg
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 (ISBN-13: 9781107532281)

  • Also available in Hardback
  • Published July 2015

Manufactured on demand: supplied direct from the printer

$34.99 (C)
David Mamet and American Macho
Cambridge University Press
9780521620642 - David Mamet and American Macho - By Arthur Holmberg


Once upon a time, long, long ago, masculinity seemed unproblematic, but all that changed with the Copernican Revolution called feminism. Feminists challenged the belief that the world revolves around the phallus. Femininity and masculinity exist in a structural relation. By calling our gender order into question, feminism forced men to examine what was once taken for granted: the meaning of manhood. This questioning of our gender cosmos led to confusion and anxiety. Confusion and anxiety create malaise. They also create opportunities for change and growth. Collectively and individually we continue to struggle with gender. “Gender,” declared Judith Butler, “will not go away.”1

Current usage employs the word “sex” to refer to a biological designation – male or female. Gender refers to the cultural norms a specific society attributes to a biological sex. Society takes a biological sex and kneads it into a gender: masculinity or femininity. Enormous historical and cross-cultural evidence shows that culture shapes gender. In my lifetime, women have changed what it means to be a woman.

Some people believe that gender is an unmediated expression of biological sex. But the relationship between biological sex and social gender is complicated and murky. Conflating the two into a single category creates intellectual bedlam. Therefore, when I refer to “masculinity,” I mean gender, a human construct. No universal masculinity or femininity exists. “Rather, economic, demographic, and ideational factors came together within specific societies to determine which rights, powers, privileges, and personalities women and men would possess.”2

Mamet, the poet laureate of macho, has delved deeply into masculinity. For anyone interested in men as an object of inquiry, Mamet’s works are invaluable. Beyond their literary and theatrical power, they provide a rich vein of sociological and psychological information about men. Mamet’s works ponder masculinity, laying bare the malaise of American men.

When I speak of masculinity, I refer to hegemonic American masculinity. The term, borrowed from Gramsci’s political writings, gained currency in men’s studies thanks to sociologist R. W. Connell. There are many different ways to embody masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity refers to the dominant ideal. Although no single man incarnates this ideal, it wields great force in shaping social practices, practices that organize power relations between men and women and among men. According to Connell, the hegemonic ideal is a “fantasy.” A specific fantasy achieves hegemony because society falls under its spell. Hegemony requires broad consensus. It also provokes protest.3

What is the American fantasy? Who embodies our hegemonic norm? Erving Goffman summed it up this way:

[T]here is only one complete unblushing male in America: a young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual Protestant father of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight, and height, and a recent record in sports … Any male who fails to qualify in any of these ways is likely to view himself – during moments at least – as unworthy, incomplete, and inferior.4

Even though fifty years have passed since Goffman formulated his tart definition, it still holds. Each year I discuss this passage with my students, and each year, to my surprise, they concur with an occasional quibble.

One must not, however, think of hegemonic masculinity as a character type. Connell defines the hegemonic function as “configurations of practice generated in particular situations.” How a man performs masculinity, therefore, depends on a specific context, not on a masculine essence.5

Masculinity is not always and everywhere the same. In a class I taught on cop action films, a Viennese student said that to perform American masculinity, “all you have to do is dress in dirty jeans and spit in the street.” Everyone laughed; no one disagreed. Masculinity has a history, a sociology, a psychology, and an anthropology. We can trace its evolution. Most Americans take their current model of manhood as natural, but it is neither natural nor inevitable. A new paradigm of tough masculinity emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century, and it found a seductive icon in the cowboy. I call this new paradigm American macho, and it is historically specific. Where did it come from? Why did Americans discard the model of the British gentleman they had inherited from England?

Spitting in the street did not always signify American manhood. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had more in common with British aristocrats than with Buffalo Bill. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, genteel patriarchs held sway, dressed in jabots and demi-bateaux. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the cowboy had booted the genteel patriarchs into the trash bin of history. Why did Americans need the myth of the cowboy, and what does he have to do with Darwinian capitalism? My first chapter explores the historic and economic factors that forged the Homo americanus. The frontier and the Age of Enterprise converged in Chicago, where Mamet grew up. His plays and films dramatize the consequences of this convergence for American macho.

Mamet came of age in the 1950s. World War II had disrupted traditional gender arrangements. Men went off to fight; women went off to work. The heroic efforts of both were needed to win. After the war, the country set about demobilizing men and redomesticating women. On the surface the traditional gender order returned, but underneath confusion and conflict bubbled and hissed, blowing the lid off society in the 1960s. In the 1950s, the cowboy dominated American screens, big and small. In Hollywood and on television the cowboy rode herd on the anxieties of American men, who sought comfort in an old-fashioned icon that had nothing to do with contemporary life.

The cowboy reassured American men that they were still men: tall, strong, dominant. The cowboy seemed to embody an eternal masculine mystique. But celluloid cowboys, tricked out in theatrical ten-gallon hats and well-worn chaps, inadvertently drew attention to the performativity of gender. Masculinity is a script men act out, and performing masculinity drives Mamet’s men. One cannot understand Mamet’s ambivalence towards his male characters without understanding his paradoxical relation to the myths of American macho, explored in Chapter 2.

Little boys do not enter the world thinking of themselves as big men. Little boys begin life identifying with their mother. What role does the mother play in the construction of masculinity? How do little boys acquire a male identity? What happens to the primary identification with the mother? The family is the cauldron of gender and gender conflict. Feminist rereadings of Freud have shed new light on this conflict, and Mamet has written autobiographical plays that stage these conflicts. Chapter 3 looks at the contradictions inherent in constructing a male identity.

After the age of five, peers replace the family as the most important agent in gender socialization. Chapter 4 explores the boy culture. Mamet’s plays showcase this culture, illustrating how boys learn the code of masculinity from other boys. His plays also dramatize the difficulty men have leaving the boy culture. American macho infantilizes men, trapping them in a never-never land of guyhood. Why do American men find it difficult to grow up? Mamet’s plays help explain why men put off adulthood as long as possible.

The Gordian knot of gender is difficult to untie. Understanding it requires an interdisciplinary approach. Consequently, this study uses the insights of anthropology, sociology, psychology, feminist theory, sociolinguistics, and history to provide a context for reading Mamet’s texts and productions.6

In some circles, Mamet enjoys the reputation of a hog-headed misogynist. Certainly, many of his men are blow-hard chauvinists. But no intelligent reader takes the words of an imaginary character for those of the implied author. The meaning of a play arises from a complex design. Only a moron would believe that Iago or Iacchimo speak for Shakespeare. The Glengarry Glen Ross gang put money in their purse by lying and swindling and stealing. Even though we may sympathize with them, no one can read the play as a defense of theft. The production of meaning “is not exclusively … positioned … among the characters engaging in dialogue … The primary site where meaning is engendered … is between the audience and the characters in dialogue.”7 When buying real estate or reading plays, therefore, caveat emptor. In the real world, where Mamet wields considerable influence in theatre and film, he puts women into positions of power. People who stigmatize him as a woman-hater ignore the man who empowers women.

On a personal note, my favorite memory of Mamet comes from a sunny afternoon in late spring when he, Felicity Huffman, Mary McCann, and Rebecca Pidgeon were working on Boston Marriage at the American Repertory Theater. Mamet wrote the play for the three women on demand. Good friends, the actresses wanted to work together. To oblige, Mamet came up with a late Victorian comedy of manners about a female couple, their maid, and an emerald necklace. He called it an homage to Oscar Wilde. “I should put Boston Marriage out under a pseudonym,” Mamet mused, “to see if anybody identifies me as the author.”

For some reason, the babysitter did not show up at the Mamet home one morning. David arrived late to rehearsal, papoose attached to hip. As he directed, he gently rocked his son back and forth. During the breaks, he sang lullabies to him. Contrary to his image, Mamet is a gentleman – kind, thoughtful, magnanimous. He is the only male director I have worked with who has never screamed during rehearsals. And he is an excellent babysitter.

Mamet is also the zoologist of American macho. His zoo contains a pack of crooks and con men, thugs and thespians, playboys and killjoys. But no matter how varied his male animals may be, all Mamet’s plays explore why American men perform masculinity the way they do. Mamet’s relationship to American macho is complex. He questions it and laughs, celebrates it and criticizes.

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