Gore Vidal may have been having some fun with Myra speaking truth to power in his novel Myra Breckinridge, but for myself, I find it alarming how fifty years ago he could have predicted Donald Trump winning the American presidency. He says, “Not only are the male students drawn to violence…they are also quite totalitarian-minded, even for Americans, and I am convinced that any attractive television personality who wanted to become our dictator would have their full support.” Vidal could portend a Trump presidency as the fallout from the display of ‘toxic masculinity’—to use a term commonly heard today—by the young men of the 60s and 70s and perhaps by America’s obsession with celebrity. It makes me think of the Trump 2016 campaign rallies where Trump told his followers to “knock the crap out of him,” referring to a protestor, or when Trump said, “We’re not allowed to punch back anymore. I love the old days. You know what they used to do to a guy like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out in a stretcher, folks,” and then you’d see footage of a protestor getting punched in the face and carried out.
A great deal of this story is farcical, but if there weren’t any truth to it, it wouldn’t work, so while some might think it facetious, I find Vidal’s rationale for the display of “masculine superiority” by many men kind of convincing. (Masculine superiority is toxic masculinity.) He says, “To be a man in a society of machines is to be expendable, soft auxiliary to what is useful and hard. Today there is nothing left for the old-fashion male to do, no ritual testing of his manhood through initiation or personal contest no physical struggle to survive or mate.” Vidal seems to suggest manhood is just a role that men must now play because there is nothing in modern society that would require a true display of manliness. It’s hard to know whether or not this is really true. I mean. How does a traditional man behave? Vidal asks the same thing. It sort of reminds me of what Charles Blow said in The Fire Shut Up In My Bones: “Playing a man is always easier than being one.” But how does one play a man? I believe it was Judith Butler who said something to the effect of gender is not a cultural construct but it’s culturally constructed. So how then is manhood culturally constructed?
Myra tells Rusty, “You’ve been taught that to be a man is to be physically strong, self-reliant, and a lover of girls.” When Myra speaks to Mary Ann about Rusty, Mary Ann says, “I think the man’s got to be a boss so a girl knows where she is.” Myra responds, “The relationship between the sexes is changing so rapidly, and women are becoming aggressive and men passive,” to which Mary Ann responds, “Which I just hate! I hate these boys who just drift around, taking pot and trips and not caring if—well, if it’s a boy or a girl they’re with. It’s just terrible the way so many are now, and I guess that’s why I’m so hung up on Rusty. He’s all man.” Herein lies the answer. It has to do with power and is even more evident by how Vidal turns traditional gender roles on their head. His opening sentence is “I am Myra Breckenridge whom no man will ever possess.” Vidal says, “What, finally, are human relations but the desire in each of us to exercise absolute power over others?”
When I think about the Me Too movement and the number of women coming forward telling their experiences with sexual harassment, does it not seem as though it’s endemic? How is it that our culture is producing so many men who violate women? I can’t definitively answer this question, but I believe what I’ve heard—that rape is more about power than it is about sex. Vidal confirms this, not only when Myra rapes Rusty, but also from her quoting Parker Tyler and his critique of Betty Hutton: “’Hutton comedienne is a persuasive hieroglyph that symbolizes something deeply ingrained in modern morality: the commoner man’s subconscious impulse, when a girl evades or refuses a kiss, to knock her out, take it, and have done.’” Does this not sound like Trump—“grab them by the pussy”?
I will end with this. When Myra thinks about how she must destroy Buck Loner and considers a quote from Hölderlin’s novel Hyperion, she says, “’It was no man that you wanted, believe me; you wanted a world.’ I too want a world and mean to have it. This man—any man—is simply a means of getting it (which is Man).”