Imitating white male swagger can help women understand its durable power and sway. I know, because I tried it.
A few years ago, my sociological imagination awoke when watching Friday Night Lights, the once-popular teen drama about football in Texas, in response to the figure of Coach Taylor, a handsome, mostly angry, but putatively good-hearted leader.
Coach Taylor and I could not be more different. He is a short-tempered, unilateral man of few words, who doesn’t believe anyone deserves an explanation. As a professor, I explain my decisions, grading, data and assigned readings to a fault. In seminars, I ensure each student is heard, and has a full chance to participate and be part of the scholarly conversation. If students seek my counsel, I follow up with more readings or questions to make sure I have helped them.
These are, I understand, gendered behaviours, which I perform with colleagues as well. I make sure junior faculty members get support and attention. I aim for inclusivity, and explain decisions with five-paragraph essays to my chair or in faculty meetings. At the risk of sharing too much information, I behave similarly at home.
Imagine then, my puzzlement watching a leader whose monosyllabic brevity accrues such respect. Paper and pen in hand, I observed Coach Taylor, making note of his phrases. In coaching meetings he would end conversations with the sentence, “We’re not going to do that.” He responded to student concerns with “Nope. Not gonna do it” or “You’re better than this!” “Stay away from dumb, gentlemen,” and “Don’t quit.”
Actors on the receiving end of Coach Taylor’s missives usually respond quite positively and fall in step with him, appreciating his brick wall approach. At home his utterances appear even more brief: to his wife: “don’t ask me that” or “Damn I love you” and to his daughter, “If you’re wondering if he’s thinking about you, he’s not.”
My last name is also Taylor. Sweeping my hair uneasily into a baseball cap, I decided to try to be as “Coach Eric Taylor” as possible for two weeks. I am a five-foot-two white woman with glasses, shoulder-length hair, a wide smile and ready eye contact. I was dubious about this stunt working. Could I truly effect male power?
When students asked for alternatives to the assignment, I swallowed, paused, and said, “Not gonna happen.” They packed up and got the work done as I asked. I met a graduate student who was dragging her feet on her dissertation with, “Do you have what it takes? Then just do it.” She looked dumbfounded but turned a chapter in shortly thereafter. In a faculty meeting, a colleague ventured complex curriculum revision that I would normally have spoken at length against based on my extensive experience as a former associate chair. Instead I let people cast about with questions and concerns and then said, trying not to laugh at its simplicity, “We’re not gonna do it.” The subject was dropped.
I came to meetings late, and left early. I made jokes. Crucially, I started to meet colleagues for beers more in my faculty association, where I was a member of the council. I was one of the only women, and my status was quickly elevated to one of the power brokers and I joined the executive committee. I believe drinking beer and speaking with more jocularity helped me gain respect. Coach Taylor’s affect was effective for me at work.
The same was true at home. I responded to my kids’ entreaties with, “Don’t ask me that.” I opened dinner with, “here’s how it’s gonna go” giving each person a job and no room for argument. Our household is so dialogical, I was afraid no one would fall for it, but they did. Things ran my way.
I noticed many things. I wasn’t co-operating, I was dictating, and I used a lot less energy. No one asked followup questions, there was less negotiation, and I didn’t lose time wondering if everyone was OK with the decisions. Students were more productive, and I was more effective at getting what I wanted. I will never forget that my colleagues, with PhDs and argumentation in their bones, dropped a proposal after I uttered five words. Adopting white male southern swagger was pretty darn effective for getting my way.
So why am I not delivering TED Talks on how women can gain power by imitating white male football coaches on TV? Because this was an experiment in affect, language, demeanour and gender, and one I found deeply saddening. Being a good partner, mother, professor and citizen to me has always meant being deferential, inclusive, transparent about what I am thinking, as concrete and thoughtful as possible in explaining my decisions, and collaborative with students, family and colleagues. But these features are not often respected as signs of good leadership, and they are exhausting to perform. I won’t promote getting one’s way by force and intimidation. I won’t promote the silencing of dissent through verbal muscularity.
I was reminded of my experiment watching Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh speak in favour of his own confirmation. Kavanaugh was a lot like Coach Taylor: rageful, monosyllabic, sentimental about alcohol, and used to being in charge. Kavanaugh was incredulous, imperious, sneering, prideful and monstrous in his unilateralism. He interrupted Democratic senators, he rolled his eyes, sobbed, raged. He failed to exhibit judicial temperament, but he also failed at basic collegiality and respect.
And that might be why he was ultimately confirmed. Rage and entitlement are the purview of white men and the measure of their legitimacy. If you doubt this, imagine Ruth Bader Ginsburg dancing Kavanaugh’s dance, and still getting confirmed. Bullying is the most traditional and respected form of masculinity.
The ghastly theatre of Kavanaugh’s address indicates that men on whose shoulders all vulnerability in the U.S. rests, are allowed to be disrespectful, tight-lipped engines of rage, focused only on their own power and unflinching in the face of others’ pain. “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose,” says Coach Taylor. Indeed. The story of power in the U.S. isn’t a parable in sharing. It’s a parable of identity-based inequality in which the southern white male looms large, and football, beers and fathers are much more than just a sport, a drink, and a role in the family.
Kavanaugh’s confirmation has been a breathtaking elucidation of how white male power is performed. So, women: grab a baseball hat, a set of terse, controlling phrases and a pint. Try it on. Coming to understand our cultural sacred cows is the only way to send them out to pasture.
Judith Taylor is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto jointly appointed to the Women and Gender Studies Institute.