THE BLOG
06/12/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Cowboys, Prairie Fairies, and Mother Earth: The Political Psychology of Gendering Nature Female

The beautiful bosom of nature will be exposed to our view. We shall enter its garden and taste of its fruits, and satisfy ourselves with its plenty. - Thomas Sprat, a founding member of the Royal Society of London for the Advancement of Science, circa 1662.

Well ... you can't just let nature run wild. - Former Alaska Republican Governor Walter Hickel explaining to a journalist in 1992 why the aerial slaughter of wolves should be legalized.

As it has been for the last eight years, the Bush Interior Department is busy trying to sell off or ravage the interior. Just when it was safe for northern Rocky Mountain gray wolves to leave their dens once again, in February of this year the agency removed them from the endangered species list. Now "sportsmen" can return to the sanguinary pleasure of seeing lupine fur and entrails splatter across the landscape. More recently, in time for the June 1st deadline for proposing new agency rulings, they announced their intention to implement two regulations that further exemplify the malignant consequences of Republican cowboy psychology. The first will allow mining companies to blow off mountaintops without regard for the contamination of nearby steams and waterways. The second will permit visitors to national parks to carry concealed weapons. Whether in Appalachia or Yellowstone, it looks like it will be ordinary Americans, not just subjugated peoples in other lands, whose environment and sense of safety will be imperiled by the current posse of yahoo predators.

One of the most mind-boggling of the many contradictions that plague conservative ideologues is how little there is they want to conserve -- at least beyond their own wealth and power. And let's not forget their guns. Perhaps the least precious to them is the natural world. Forests, mountains, and oceans -- they should all be on the auction block. As Republicans see things, especially the men of the party, those enamored of plants, animals, and other girly things just don't get it. Nature, like women, must be conquered, controlled, and dominated. For 400 years this has been the guiding ethos of Western patriarchy. If being on top makes one the man -- a notion as old as ancient Greece -- then it's guys, not Gaia who must be in charge.

Male scientists, colonial adventurers, pioneers, developers, and government authorities have long used metaphors of rape and gendered subordination to rationalize and ennoble their actions. In their view, just as women are there to serve and must know their place, so must the Earth (along with its animals and indigenous human inhabitants) be used and treated as a resource that requires no reciprocity.

American Indians, for example, were viewed by U.S. politicians of the 19th century as simply part of the fauna and flora of a wilderness that had to be subdued by any means necessary. Seen as the feral and feminized children of Mother Earth, Native Americans, to the extent they were given a choice, were often told: accept the "civilizing" mission of the Great White Father or be exterminated.

This brings us to the ultimate iconic signifier of American hypermasculinity, the cowboy, which is no longer an anachronism- - thanks to the swaggering arrogance of our current President and those who have joined his global lynch mob. Country singer Toby Keith, in his rousing Iraq invasion anthem, Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue, heralded our new cowboy empire by reminding the untamed swarthy hoards of the world, "You'll be sorry you messed with the U.S. of A. 'Cuz we'll put a boot in your ass. It's the American way."

Clearly, the cowboy fantasy of imperial kick-ass manhood endures, and is much coveted by Republican males in particular. But what has given this uniquely American archetype such longevity? What makes it so compelling to a certain species of conservative male? Perhaps, if we look more closely at the myth, its psychology might come into sharper relief. The cowboy not only wrestles an enraged and sinewy steer to the ground. He brands him. In other words, the cowboy doesn't simply subdue this wild beast but burns on his flesh a mark of possession - thus expressing a double gesture of manly domination. Unlike the nature he conquers, whether plant, animal, or native human, the cowboy repudiates interdependent relationships. In fact, this fantasy cowboy rejects all relationships and remains alone. Attachments are seen as weak and feminizing. "I'll be goin' now, ma'am," he says to the tearful, heartbroken woman as he rides off into the sunset. A monosyllabic speaker with even fewer emotions, his primary motive is conquest.

The enemy in the hypermasculine narrative of exercising dominion over the natural world is the "tree-hugger" or the "dirt-worshipper." These are the familiar insults directed at those bleeding hearts who fail to reduce the natural world to the sum of its extractable resources. As the terms imply, such eco-freaks actually have affection for and an attachment to the Earth, as if it were a living organism with which they were having a relationship. This is not just a challenge to the predatory ethic of the marketplace, which knows only dead things and their prices. It is an affront to those who see masculinity as domination. A Montana Republican congressional candidate, Ron Marlenee, got to the heart of the matter when he referred to the environmental activists who opposed his candidacy as "prairie fairies."

This sense of not wanting to be a mama's boy in relation to Mother Earth isn't limited to the anxious masculinity of right wing policy makers. It is also evident in the attitudes of some ordinary male voters. Research I conducted for my book, The Wimp Factor, showed that men were significantly less likely than women to support government measures to protect the natural world from corporate predation. This seemed related to two factors: 1.) an identification with the cowboy version of the corporate personhood fiction; a corporation should be able to roam free, seek its fortune, and remain unencumbered by nanny state fetters, and 2.) a striking disidentification with nature, a sense that they are not part of the environment. (A notable cultural contrast to this attitude can be found among the Hopi, who, at least in their past, rarely said, "It's a beautiful day." Instead, they would observe, "I am in a beautiful day.")

Of course, there are many tree-hugging dirt worshippers among men, such as myself -- just as there are some women who take right wing positions on environmental issues. But the gender gap in this area is very real. In my study, for example, significantly more women than men agreed with the statement, "When I pass through a wilderness area that has been clear-cut, I feel like an important part of my world has been taken from me." Men who disagreed with this statement tended to hold conservative positions on other issues. And more significantly, they tended to score much higher on tests that measure fear of femininity (femiphobia).

I have not been alone in these observations. A Zogby poll found that men were much more likely to view global warming as a product of "junk science." And, only a minority (47%) of male respondents saw climate change as a danger, where as a majority (60%) of women held that position. Again, this makes sense if we appreciate the fact that accepting the validity of human-caused global warming would require also accepting the necessity of government regulation of corporate behavior. This violates the cowboy sensibilities of femiphobic right wing males. They find it intolerable for a maternal "Big Government" to impinge upon the manly enterprises of making money and plundering the planet.

One of the most dramatic and direct confirmations of this relationship between insecure masculinity and cowboy conservatism comes from a fascinating study conducted by a Cornell University sociologist, Robb Willer. He administered a fake gender identity test to male and female subjects. He told half of them that their scores were "normal," i.e. masculine for men and feminine for women. To test the effects of threatening their gender identity, he told the remaining half of the subjects that their scores were atypical -- feminine for the men and masculine for the women. The attempt to threaten the women's sense of femininity had no effect on their social and political attitudes. However, the men who had been told they scored high on femininity were then much more likely on a follow-up questionnaire to support George W. Bush's handling of the Iraq War, want a big SUV and be willing to pay a lot more for one, and express negative views of homosexuality. These guys were determined not to be prairie fairies.

Perhaps the most succinct repudiation of the feminizing threat posed by the growing legions of ardent tree-huggers is a camouflage t-shirt offered by ThoseShirts.com that reads: "Less Flower Power, More Fire Power." The right wing online store also offers a "Pave the Whales" shirt, apparently unperturbed by the mixed metaphor. But who needs coherence when you've got really big guns.