THE GRIN OF FEAR (2004)

When California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger took the stage at last month’s Republican convention, he chided American pessimists for being "economic girly-men." This wasn’t a riff on one of Arnold’s own movie lines. The "girly-men" quote originated with Saturday Night Live’s Hans and Frans, balloon-armed Austrian weightlifters with a penchant for stupid sayings. Even if Arnie’s speechwriters intended it more as a soundbite than a policy statement, it’s a measure of how retro the US has become when feminization is equated, even comically, with opposition to the US economy’s militarization.

But maybe Arnie is right for the wrong reasons. There seems to be something strange going on with male behaviour in political circles. You may recall a photo of Prime Minister Paul Martin taken at a gathering of world leaders soon after the federal election. Martin has his hands curled up, palms forward, his head thrown back with an expression of giddy transport. Bush stands behind him wearing a vacant look. It resembles a shampoo ad, with Martin lathering himself into ecstasy, and Shrub about to break the mood as a Hitchcockian shower-time stalker. Some friends commented on this Psycho shot, noting the former shipping magnate looked positively "girly," in the stereotypical slumber-party, giggle-fit sense.

Another leader who projects serial giddiness on camera is Tony Blair. I’ve seen clips of the British Prime Minister in the presence of Bush where it looks like he’s stuck a coathanger in his piehole. That grin assumes frightening, Joker-like proportions, with the corners of his mouth threatening to meet up on the back of his head and unzip the very flesh on Phony Tony’s skull.

From where I sit, the Commonwealth’s toothsome twosome are sending the semiotic signals of submissiveness; the grin of fear that acknowledges one’s social station. (In several photo-ops, Martin couldn’t have looked more the underdog had he rolled over and presented his tummy for a presidential tickle.) This kind of status-conscious behaviour is reminiscent of the "doormat" – an archetype not limited to under-the-thumb females as the Gilded Age makes a return engagement.

In relations between superpower leaders and lesser beings, the going-girly grin says several quick things in succession: "Hey, I’m your friend. Look, I’m bending over backwards to please you. Please be gentle. And for God’s sake, don’t bring out that Dick Cheney guy to go medieval on my nation’s assets."

The grinning pretty much goes in one direction, and not the other. Donald Trump doesn’t smile much on The Apprentice, but the human fodder on his show all wear tight, Stockholm syndrome grins – at least at the beginning. By show’s end, the trainwreck of egos is a thing to behold. In one episode, the Donald had goaded the players into an all-out verbal knifefight in the boardroom. After all the betrayals and near-hysterical sucking-up – with "you’re fired" served up with Lucerferian relish -- the men and women staggered out bleeding from every emotional orifice, their faces flatlined. "It doesn’t get any better than that, said the developer with the Art Deco hairdo. "I agree," replied the prim blonde aide sitting next to him.

As Freud’s "thin veneer of civilization" gets a severe sanding down, expect to see more behaviour that’s less MBA than DNA. Homo sap is halfway between the apes and the angels, goofed on endocrinal juices that are straight from the savanna. The secretions translate into fight or flight, and all the ambivalent shades between, including nervous grinning.

This sort of signalling crosses FCC standards and gender lines, and even species barriers. "Like the rich, chimpanzees know the value of putting on the right face, writes Richard Coniff in his entertaining book, A Natural History of the Rich. The author recounts a tale from an anthropologist who watched the spectacle of a dominant male chimp being challenged from behind by a rival. "Before turning to meet his challenger, Luit paused, like a CEO about to enter a roomful of dissident stockholders, and actually reached up with this fingers to press his lips together and wipe away his nervous grin. Then he turned around to face down his rival with the serene image of unshakable power."

No ape ever got anywhere behaving like Phony Tony, after all.

Geoff Olson