Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Political Clichés: Testicular Fortitude

This particular cliché is, of course, well known as a favourite of former Deputy Trevor Pitman. Therefore at the outset, I should note that with the history and the feminist critique which has been made of the term in the USA, I am not implying that when Mr Pitman uses it, he is in any way supporting any kind of discrimination against women, which I am certain that he would never countenance.

In Jersey politics, as used by the former Deputy in the States, it had the advantage of slipping beneath the radar on language, while phrases such as "godforsaken" were prohibited from political discourse on the grounds that they were religious (which shows how ignorant some people are of basic language change - in the UK no such objections were made). As such it had an initial shock value, as well as a rhetorical cleverness (and I was amused by its initial use) which unfortunately became somewhat devalued as time went on by overuse.

Nevertheless, such language can implicitly collude with attitudes to women, and I myself have read books written in the 1970s and 1980s, or even my own writings from that time, and note that I was as guilty as many other writers of the time in using non-inclusive language.

It was not something we even thought about, and it was so innocent - the use of the term "man" to mean human beings in general. The term "man" was taken to taken meaning "a human regardless of sex or age; a person", and include women, but it had an ambiguity which meant it could also be read purely as meaning male human beings.

In fact, when Rousseau wrote that ""Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains", and calls for man to throw off those chains, break the shackles, we read that as talking about human beings in general, but as philosopher Mary Midgeley noted, Rousseau, in fact, only meant men, and not women, whom he was quite happy to have in menial serving roles.

But to return to "testicular fortitude". The term was coined by Michael Francis "Mick" Foley a retired American professional wrestler, who was a huge hit on World Wrestling Entertainment.  The only non-dictionary reference I have been able to locate comes from 2011 Artvoice:

"It's possible that Mick Foley would be known only as the most brutalized pro wrestler ever had he not let his personality pop through somewhere along the way. With the discovery of Foley's depth as a performer came several more personae. The disturbing, mutilated "Mankind," the cheesy party guy "Dude Love," and finally "Mick Foley," the man behind the wrestler with whom the fans had learned to connect through the years. Foley earned their respect by putting his body on the line but gained their empathy with the depth of his character."

"That connection was built in no small part by Foley's broad comedic range and willingness to be absurd. Fans recall his sock puppet "Mr. Socko" and his briefly used finishing move, the kick to the shin. He even coined phrases like "testicular fortitude." (1)

The origins, therefore, appear to be from the USA in the province of male wresting; the phrase is about demonstrating a kind of macho masculinity. But it has come under attack for its indiscriminate use in politics in the USA, and its implicit placement of women as second rate, because, of course, they lack those parts of the male anatomy.

The phrase itself has come in for criticism on the Leslie Charteris website. Charteris (author of "The Saint" books) was a very astute user of language, and one of his fans, Willliam Smith, suggests that people who use this language have not really thought through the implications of what it could mean:

"Here in the States, I recently heard one politician say of another that "He should show more 'Testicular Fortitude'. My dictionary describes Fortitude as "Strength of endure pain or adversity with courage". Did this individual mean to say that the other person should have his brains in his testicles?"(2)

Freya Jones provided a strong feminist critique of the phrase. She wrote:

"Paul Gipson's introduction of Hilary Clinton back in 2008 where he said (of political leaders) that 'I truly believe that that's going to take an individual that has testicular fortitude.' Gipson was inherently saying that to be a successful female political leader one must have "balls". One must think, talk and act like a man would in that same situation and Clinton couldn't have been happier to hear it. Why is it that at a time when women are finally beginning to rank amongst the world's most powerful, that they must adopt a masculine approach?" (3)

And she notes that the way in which such phrases become common currency collude with demeaning women in politics:

"Statements like Gipson's do nothing to further the political agenda of helping women to achieve equal stance in politics. Perhaps the most disturbing thing about it is the fact that it goes widely unchallenged in our society. Even talking to my fellow classmates I was shocked by how little they thought the term mattered and how easily they dismissed the implications of masculinity. Many of them felt that saying a political leader needs balls was merely saying a political leader needs to be courageous. Our patriarchal society has normalised the term to the point where women no longer consider the connotations behind it."(3)

This becomes explicit in statements like those made by Bryan Fischer on the Bible:

"If you look at the Scriptures, I believe it's clear that God has designed men to exercise authority in the home, in the church, in society, and in government..Now then the question becomes what if God can't find any men with the spine and with the testicular fortitude to provide the kind of leadership? Well, what he'll do is He'll send a woman to do a man's job."

And Kristen Houghton comments in an article entitled "Do you have testicular fortitude?"

"If you're a woman do you even need it? Unfortunately there is still the idea that drive and getting ahead seem to be eternally equated with high levels of testosterone. Testicular Fortitude a term to describe a person who is successful in their chosen field."

"We know women can be successful in their own right, but for some reason the idea that to succeed, women have to act more like men still survives despite solid facts to the contrary." (5)

And she notes that phrases like "testicular fortitude" and "act like a man" collude with stereotypes of masculinity which demean women, and which Blogger Mary thinks are a form of political posturing in the USA:

"Does anyone else out there think that our political process suffers from testosterone toxicity?  I am getting heartily sick of the would-be Presidents trying to out macho each other.  Whenever the sound bites stray too far from the terrorism and who has the 'equipment' to deal with that oh-so-dangerous world out there, someone or something directs it back... No matter where the argument starts (economy, jobs, social security, what ever) it always seems to end in the same place: which one has the testicular fortitude.  "

There is an inbuilt gendered rhetoric in the phrase "testicular fortitude" which feminists in particular have noted gives "mixed signals" on gender roles. It is an extremely popular cliché in American politics, where it is often used with the intention of saying that someone has the courage of their convictions, but all too often refers to the Hawkish element of macho posturing in politics in preference to political "Doves".  As one writer noted, calls for "testicular fortitude" are often linked to calls for strong military action.



Catherine said...

Very informative. I find Angela Merkel's approach to political disagreement interesting: the way she will listen to an opponent's argument and take it on as her own (or parts of it) which seems very non-macho. The focus on a type of "testicular fortitude" way of doing things seems very limiting.

Hoppy Uniatz said...

If you read the web page you referenced you can see that the quote you ascribe to Leslie Charteris actually comes from author William Simon, not Charteris.

Darius Pearce said...

I have read somewhere that originally male men were referred to as were man and female men were referred to as wombed man. At some point the were was dropped and the wombed was shortened.