How ‘Snowflake’ Became America’s Inescapable Tough-Guy Taunt
Every age has its own preferred terms of political emasculation. Teddy Roosevelt called Woodrow Wilson a “white-handy Miss Nancy.” Adlai Stevenson was dubbed “Adelaide.” Michael Dukakis was called a “pansy,” George H.W. Bush a “wimp” and John Kerry — in a subtle feat of gendered rhetoric — an effete “flip-flopper” who “looks French.” It’s not just individual politicians who are painted as deficient in their manhood, either. Ideas and coalitions get the same treatment: Irving Kristol observed in the 1990s that “the American welfare state has had a feminine coloration from the very beginning”; Orrin Hatch once called the Democrats “the party of homosexuals.”
These days, the preferred insult is a new addition to the canon: “snowflake.” It is simultaneously emasculating and infantilizing, suggesting fragility but also an inflated sense of a person’s own specialness and a naïve embrace of difference. It evokes the grade-school art classes in which children scissor up folded pieces of construction paper and learn that every snowflake is unique, and every person is, too. But in the Trump era, it feels as if the classroom bully has tipped over the craft table and is wielding the scissors triumphantly in the air.
So when the Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte body-slammed the Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, breaking his glasses, conservative commentators burst into a flurry of “snowflake”s. Rob O’Neill, a former Navy SEAL, went on Fox News to call Jacobs a “snowflake reporter,” while anonymous Twitter users lobbed the insult at every opportunity: “Crying little snowflake got his glasses broken. Boohoo.” Soon this bled into an indictment of the entire press. Julia Carrie Wong, also reporting for The Guardian in Montana, tweeted that a local woman walked past a table of journalists and labeled them all: “Snowflakes, snowflakes, snowflakes.”
This derogatory “snowflake” has its roots in a 1996 novel, “Fight Club,” by Chuck Palahniuk, whose narrator, beaten down into a shell of a man by his office-drone job and cookie-cutter condominium, finds himself by joining an underground men’s street-fighting cult. Club members repeat a mantra that begins: “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.” A 2005 afterword by Palahniuk said the book “presented a new social model for men to share their lives,” one that would give them “the structure and roles and rules of a game” but not be “too touchy-feely.” In the years since, a similar model has flourished in the online “manosphere,” a constellation of men’s-rights activist sites, pick-up-artist guides and bodybuilding forums that serves as a caldron for far-right politics.
The particular alignment of politics and gender behind “snowflake,” though, was forged in the 1950s — a decade during which, even in public policy, masculinity became associated with all that is independent, instinctual and pugilistic, and femininity with the communal, nurturing and systemic. Early in the Cold War, the threat of Communism was cast as not only a red scare but also a pink one. At the same time, cultural critics warned of a sinister feminizing threat from within: the defanging of the middle-class man in office buildings. In 1956, William Whyte’s “The Organization Man” denounced the “soft-minded” harmony of a corporate life that was predicated on “togetherness.” Two years later, an Esquire essay by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. argued that men had retreated “into the womblike security of the group” — that democratic society itself constituted an “assault on individual identity.” And if “people do not know who they are,” Schlesinger wrote, it follows that “they are no longer sure what sex they are.”
In the American political imagination, Republicans became men and Democrats became women — one group associated with the West and “real” masculinity, the other with the East Coast, with intellectualism and elitism, with femininity. The New York Daily News called Adlai Stevenson “fruity” but also an “egghead,” dismissing his supporters as “Harvard lace-cuff liberals” and “lace-panty diplomats.” Today, when conservatives razz liberals for their markers of high-class cultural refinement, from John Kerry’s windsurfing to Barack Obama’s arugula, they may call them “out of touch,” but the subtext is that what they’re really alienated from is their own manhood. When Jacobs was body-slammed, conservative critics zeroed in on the detail of the glasses: “What kind of a wuss files charges over broken glasses?” Derek Hunter of The Daily Caller asked. And when the Newseum acquired the spectacles for its collection, one Twitter critic sneered: “Another artifact for the Snowflake Museum.”
These alignments between politics and gender are not natural or static: They have shifted, time and again, with changes in America’s society and economy. According to E. Anthony Rotundo, the author of the 1994 book “American Manhood,” colonial men were actually respected for a “communal manhood” that prioritized care for others, including children. It was later in the nation’s history that the ideal turned toward individual achievements and, eventually, toward toughness, competitiveness and symbolic displays of virility.
Even recently, the ideal of traditional conservative masculinity has still been mediated by notes of femininity: a manly man who was soft around the edges, especially to women and children. Reagan was a grandfather figure; George W. Bush a “compassionate conservative.” Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared in countless films as a muscled killing machine, but he also humanized his image with movies that placed him in classically feminine roles, like “Kindergarten Cop” and “Junior,” in which he is actually pregnant. These days, the flagship model of the old-school G.O.P. man may be Vice President Mike Pence — an earnest patriarch who calls his wife “Mother” and won’t dine alone with other women.
With President Trump, however, the masculine archetype seems to have regressed. Trump is less the strict father than the petulant child: a boyish figure who rejects advice, shirks discipline and refuses to be beholden to behavioral norms. He is rarely even seen as the patriarch of his own family; as Melania Trump said after he was caught boasting about assaults on tape, “Sometimes I say I have two boys at home.” His supporters among the so-called alt-right, too, have, in addition to embracing racist views and conspiracy theories, worked to scrub away the sober adult trappings of conservative masculinity, branding them as compromised and conformist.
“Snowflake” didn’t start off directed at liberals or leftists, but at young people: Just a few years ago, it was primarily a generational insult, used to accuse millennials of being the whiny, entitled products of helicopter parenting and participation trophies. But during the 2016 election, youth became confused with liberalism, and an entire political posture was infantilized. Asked recently about the proliferation of “snowflake” as a political insult, Palahniuk responded by talking about modern-day students, who he said were “very easily offended.” Post-body-slam, Laura Ingraham tweeted of Jacobs: “Did anyone get his lunch money stolen today and then run to tell the recess monitor?”
Talk of “snowflakes” — like “triggering” and “safe space” — conflates the school campus with progressive politics generally, as if the whole worldview were suspended in childhood. It also revives the idea of a culturewide wussification that must be fought with a return to aggression, physicality and ego. This is what the insult argues for — a rough-and-tumble world in which raw power reigns and nobody ever asks for help or complains of ill treatment. This pose isn’t merely aesthetic: There are those who truly believe that set free from etiquette, care and cooperation, they would prevail over others. The alt-right has even picked up the word “anti-fragile” and whipped it into a political strategy — embracing chaos and conflict because they think they’re better suited to thrive in those conditions than weaker people are.
Are they, though? The truth is that people who use “snowflake” as an insult tend to seem pretty aggrieved themselves — hypersensitive to dissent or complication and nursing a healthy appetite for feeling oppressed. (Hence the delight people take, lately, in making “snowflake” jokes whenever figures on the right claim to have been victimized or treated poorly; when the conservative activist Cassandra Fairbanks sued a journalist who said she had made a “white power” hand symbol, citing emotional distress, one headline read “Pro-Trump Snowflake Triggered by Tweet.”)
Today’s tough-guy posturing seems rooted, paradoxically, in threat and fear: fear of defeat, fear of lost status and fear that society is growing increasingly ill suited to tough-guy posturing in the first place.
The narrator of “Fight Club,” source of that “snowflake” mantra, was a delusional man coping with modernity by inventing a hypermasculine alter-ego, imagining himself as the man-cult leader Tyler Durden. But making an entire alternate masculine identity is a lot of work. It’s always much easier to just call other people wimps and snowflakes — and hope they’ll be intimidated enough to melt away.
Amanda Hess is a David Carr fellow at The New York Times.