America's macho men pass the nachos

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Next weekend, US sports fans will crowd their couches for their favourite television programme, the Super Bowl. Later in February, at the Oscars, Clint Eastwood's boxing film Million Dollar Baby will compete for best movie. Meanwhile the US is at war. You might conclude that American masculinity is in good order.

However, it isn't. By traditional measures, American men are less manly than ever before. This explains the country's current tastes in spectator sports, computer games, music and politicians.

The last golden age of American masculinity was 50 years ago. The "greatest generation" were lean, farm-raised men who had won a war. Their president was a former soldier. They didn't watch much sport: there were few televisions and no Super Bowl. Instead they hunted, boxed, wrestled, played baseball without helmets, and had pick-up games of tackle football. Sports and war were then all-male preserves, in which women featured only as cheerleaders and nurses.

Later, traditional masculinity washed off. People left the farms for suburbs, where they worked in office parks. Enjoying the most luxurious existences in history, they grew unwilling to go and die in some benighted country without air conditioning. After Vietnam the draft was dropped. Things may change if terrorists strike again, but this morning America is the safest it's ever been: you can hardly even get murdered in Harlem or die of second-hand smoke, and as David Brooks notes in his marvellous account of suburbia, On Paradise Drive, children own multiple helmets for their various supervised activities.

Sport, too, has been made safe for American men. Million Dollar Baby encapsulates the change: the Eastwood character, an old boxer from the manly past, has become a trainer scared of letting his charges get hurt. In a knowledge economy few people are willing to be hit in the brains, and so the number of American boxers fell 27 per cent to 945,000 over the last decade, estimates the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. SGMA also says the wrestling population more than halved between 1998 and 2003 to 1.8m.

Tackle football has been made safer by rule changes. Nonetheless it's in relative decline: the number of people playing it in full uniform seems to have held steady at about 5.5m since 1987, while meanwhile the American population has grown 15 per cent. Children today prefer calisthenics or scooter riding. "We're seeing a rise in no- and low-impact activities," says the SGMA's Mike May.

Killing animals is going out of fashion too. Hunting with shotguns and rifles declined 35 per cent from 1987 to 2000, says American Sports Data, a research company. Only about 13m American hunters remain. The main problem seems to be with the suburbs expanding, leaving fewer places left to shoot. All you can bag on Elm St nowadays is a car full of helmeted kids going to soccer practice. Male hunters became so scarce game managers in Illinois began teaching single mothers to hunt.

Everywhere women are grabbing traditional macho roles. They now account for one in six American soldiers, and they have also invaded sport. In the old days, almost all money for sports at high schools and colleges was spent on males. Then in 1972 the "Title IX" legislation made that illegal, and now 42 per cent of people playing intercollegiate sports are female. So is the star boxer in Million Dollar Baby.

In short, American men no longer do much that is traditionally masculine. This wouldn't matter, except that many of them still like to think they do.

Many white men now subcontract their masculinity to poor, black and/or fictional people. Imagine today's typical suburban home. The daughter is out kickboxing at the gym, the mother is chopping wood, and upstairs the son is playing violent computer games on his Game Boy. Downstairs an overweight father is watching his wide-screen television. Hopping channels, he sees predominantly black men playing professional football, predominantly black rappers glorifying street violence, soldiers (many of them black) fighting in Iraq, and a white president issuing threats against terrorists.

George W. Bush, bestriding his ranch in cowboy boots, mimics the traditional masculinity of a bygone America. That is why he speaks in cadences borrowed from actors playing sheriffs in old Westerns. Because the president avoided service in Vietnam, he is often called a "chicken hawk". What is seldom noted is that in his preference for violence in the abstract - the closest he got to serious football was as a cheerleader - Bush stands for a generation of white males.

No wonder white men are the staunchest supporters of his rhetorical machismo: it's one of the few ways left for them to prove their masculinity. Thanks to the war on terror, they can fight for America while still enjoying the Super Bowl in their mansions.

Watching football became a craze as the Vietnam war tailed off. At least during next week's game, the only cracks visible in American masculinity will be the now standard ads for erectile drugs. "And it's not just a little bit of this. They're everywhere," notes Richard Crepeau, the University of Central Florida's great commentator on sport.

If any of this sounds anti-American, it isn't meant to be. I remain a fan.

simonkuper@ftnetwork.com

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