115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Masculinity in White Noise: The Great Dark Lake of Male Rage

Lauren White, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona

Viewing gender in Don DeLillo’s White Noise as a product of socialization reveals the threat feminism and modernization posed to patriarchal society in the twentieth century leading to the reshaping of masculinities. 

Proposal: 

To many scholars, gender in Don DeLillo’s work may take a back seat to American consumerism, technology, or other heavily discussed themes found within DeLillo’s novels.  However, viewing gender in DeLillo’s work, specifically in White Noise, as a product of socialization reveals the threat feminism and modernization posed to patriarchal society in the twentieth century leading to the reshaping of masculinities.  The novel takes place in the 1980s, a time when gender roles were changing form.  In response to this rise in feminism, men’s rights movements were formed by activists arguing that men had become victimized by feminism and its feminizing influences in society.  As critics of White Noise have clearly established, the novel’s protagonist, Jack Gladney, suffers from a profound identity crisis.  I extend this reading by arguing that this insecurity exists because of his hyperawareness of his own performativity of gender.  By looking at how Jack’s inability to achieve an authentic masculine identity undermines his perceived inadequacy, DeLillo emphasizes the threat second-wave feminism posed to patriarchal society, which, in Jack’s case, incites violence as he attempts to reestablish his masculinity through traditional categories of masculine behavior marked by dominance and violence.  The concept of plural masculinities was proposed by R.W. Connell in her book, Masculinities, which introduces the “Hierarchy of Masculinities” displaying the crisis men, like Jack, face if they do not fit into the most culturally valued category and is useful in understanding the factors contributing to Jack’s crisis of masculinity.  In his role as a male in the late twentieth century, Jack longs for the power and masculinity that would come with the reinstatement of traditional gender roles in the family unit.  The novel situates Jack’s wife, Babette, at the center of his identity crisis as his ideological anchor to masculine authenticity found in traditional marriage roles.  During a conversation between Jack and Babette in which he expresses his pain and disappointment with Babette as she is no longer playing the role of a trustworthy, traditional housewife, “a man on talk show radio says: ‘I was getting mixed messages about my sexuality” (201).  In this, DeLillo is using the background (white) noise as a means to not just affirm some gender expectations in Jack’s own home, but to identify its source in the broader cultural crisis.  DeLillo highlights strong, intelligent women in the novel as a means to represent feminism as a parallel growth to Jack’s growing insecurities over his own masculine identity.  Jack reacts to his threatened masculinity through the equation of “masculinity through violent masculinity” that gender critic, Jackson Katz, argues serves as an explanation of how today’s culture privileges aggressiveness over emotion, leading to masculinity equaling a display of violence. As a professor of Hitler studies, Jack aligns himself with violent men of the past, which underscores the masculinity Jack longs for- that authentic masculinity that has been demobilized by modernization.