While Chicago was well aware of masculinity as a discursive construct, she wasn’t about to let men off the hook so easily. What, precisely, she asked, is the difference between the social script that animates male performance and the men who embody that discourse or, alternatively, are cast aside for refusing to do so? “PowerPlay” was, in essence, about the ugly contortions patriarchy demands of men in order to kill off their more female-coded virtues of equality, compassion, understanding, and communality. The hallmark of the series was the angry male face, and viewers apparently found that face’s painful contortions too expressive, too high-decibel for an era grounded in the ironic.
But the Trump era has so powerfully given the lie to optimistic accounts of male evolution as to make Chicago’s work not only newly visible and relevant, but also actively prescient. What was once old-school has been recast as visionary, and Chicago, now 79, has reemerged as the leader of a newly visible, palpably angry feminist resistance. As she noted in response to my recent queries:
“Over the course of the five years I spent on ‘PowerPlay,’ I began to look behind the surfaces of male behavior, at the multiple sources of their often gross and destructive actions. What I found was that the prohibitions around openly expressing feelings—particularly of vulnerability as expressed in tears—caused innumerable personality distortions. Add to this the expectations to succeed, to ‘act manly,’ to provide for others through money-making, et cetera—which often led to a level of pressure that is unhealthy. That said, too many men go along with these expectations rather than challenge them, probably because of the rewards they are offered.”
During the Senate’s highly stage-managed face-off between Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh, Chicago recognized a distressingly familiar dynamic. She had seen a post on Bustle magazine’s website
that reproduced photographs of the judge and two Republican senators; the artist thought they mirrored her Three Faces of Man
. “I had exposed this type of deplorable behavior in my series from the late 1980s,” she said. “At that time, no one seemed able to see what I saw, but now, the entire nation watched it.” That the hearings turned on an account of Kavanaugh’s sexual assault was, for Chicago, also a sadly familiar refrain. As she told me:
“Sexual assault is one of the most visible manifestations of toxic masculinity which is, of course, a function of patriarchy and how men are socialized. Another positive discussion that is emerging from the hearings and the #MeToo movement is that it is not enough that feminism has allowed women to break out of the confines of the construct of femininity. Men have to be helped to revolt against the dehumanizing aspects of the construct of masculinity; to face that too many of them have become monstrous and that their monstrosity is threatening life on earth. Men have to change and women have to insist that this happen. It is not enough to lose one’s job; men have to wake up and work to regain their humanity which will result in their becoming unable to rape and pillage anyone or anything.”