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November 14, 2018

SWAN | Dismantling the Mainstream

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Two years ago, just after the election of President Trump in November 2016, I wrote a column for this paper in which I questioned what would become of art — and expression, more broadly — in the “era of Trump and pseudo-masculinity.” I enjoy reading this column two years later because I feel a bit of nostalgia in remembering the sophomoric (and sophomore) naivete that I exhibited in my writing at the time. I’m not exactly sure what I meant by “pseudo-masculinity.” If I wrote that column today, I think I would have used “pseudo-hypermasculinity,” or maybe even just “hypermasculinity,” because the pseudo prefix possesses a connotation that suggests the succeeding term is not real. Of course, I was referring to the toxic vitriol, the misogynistic, “locker room” banter that forms a part of Trump’s identity, especially in those weeks leading up to the election.

When I wrote that column, I seemed convinced that hypermasculinity as it pervaded the identities of men everywhere, but particularly in the United States, had eroded and almost ceased to exist. I viewed Trump’s election as a sort of resurgence of hypermasculinity, one that I lamented greatly. I worried that culture would move once again to a rejection of personal expression and relegate men and women back to opposing sides of some gender binary. Furthermore, I praised Barack Obama as one of the last bastions of hope for sensitivity as he represented and role modeled the American public.

Two years into a Trump presidency, things have generally gone as expected. Backed by a Republican majority in Congress —  for the first two years — the president has signed a number of pieces of legislation that have been met with controversy and widespread protest. The president has failed to swing center, choosing instead to maintain the polarizing rhetoric that characterized his campaign. The president has appointed two white males to the Supreme Court, one of who’s affirmation process was marred by sexual assault allegations that I need not discuss here. I think that my personal approach to the political landscape of the past two years has largely been one of ignorance and dejection; if you don’t pay it any attention, if you try to live your life and express yourself to the fullest, then politics can’t really hurt you. Right?

As the sage senior who’s discovered the implications of postmodern identity formation, I no longer think that ignorance is an apt response to politics, just as it is not an apt response to misdoings in other modes of popular culture. None of us are fortunate enough to be able to wholly escape the effects of mainstream politics and so ultimately, we need to base some part of our lives in response to it – I suppose the very problem with mainstream anything is that, in the end, the images it promulgates are too ubiquitous to be evaded. Amending the simplistic assertions of my earlier column, hypermasculinity certainly never “left” and is rather some part of the broader heteronormativity that continues to dominate popular culture, college culture, and political culture. President Obama exhibited more sensitivity than President Trump, but it’s important to remember that he still exhibited a harsh virility when talking about the wars he facilitated and the terrorists he had killed; this leads to my broader point, that we do not need to consider these politicians as representatives of us. However, the images that mainstream politics produce and that permeate newsfeeds everywhere do affect us and limit the ways in which we can conceive of our own identities and express ourselves, much in the same way that popular music and movies, for example, can influence us.

So, assuming that these cultural institutions influence our identities as we inevitably consume them on a daily basis, it is critical to challenge misrepresentation – including a lack of representation – in political culture just as we protest such things in other arenas. I suppose the unique thing about political culture is that, theoretically, we the people can directly control its composition by voting. The results of last week’s midterm elections are uplifting as a diverse group of individuals were elected; Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar are the first two Muslim women to be elected to Congress, Jared Polis is the first openly gay man to be elected governor of a U.S. state, and Kyrsten Sinema is the first openly bisexual individual elected to the Senate (of course, the list goes on). These election results are important not simply because they show that non-heteronormative and Muslim individuals can be elected to fulfill government roles, but also because they show that non-heteronormative and Muslim individuals can exist. What we witnessed last week was the start of a productive dismantling of a restrictive mainstream as it takes form in American politics, and it is this sort of action that will award people more material with which to craft their identities and ultimately express themselves as individuals.

 

Nick Swan is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at nswan@cornellsun.com. Swan’s Song runs alternating Thursdays this semester.