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Schwarzenegger borrowed the term from a series of Saturday Night Live sketches in which Dana Carvey and Kevin Nealon played bodybuilders named Hans and Franz, large men with Austrian accents. The two characters, for obvious comic reasons, were characterized as cousins of Schwarzenegger. The inverted usage provides an element of irony to the comedy and the term, as well.
The term was first used by Schwarzenegger in the 1988 Presidential election, accompanied by then Vice President George H.W. Bush. He was shown attacking Bush's opponents, saying "They all look like a bunch of girlie men, right?" He repeated it in the 1992 election, then campaigning for President Bush, again applying it to the Democratic candidates, as seen in the 1992 documentary Feed by Kevin Rafferty and James Ridgeway. He used the phrase again on July 17, 2004, where he stated "[i]f they don't have the guts to come up here in front of you and say, 'I don't want to represent you, I want to represent those special interests, the unions, the trial lawyers ...' if they don't have the guts, I call them girlie men." He would use the term twice in the speech.
Schwarzenegger was criticized by various gay rights and feminist groups. California State Senator Sheila Kuehl, who is a member of the legislature's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Caucus, claimed that the governor had resorted to "blatant homophobia," stating that the phrase "uses an image that is associated with gay men in an insulting way, and it was supposed to be an insult. That's very troubling that he would use such a homophobic way of trying to put down legislative leadership." Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, said he wasn't upset by the remark but that his 13-year-old daughter was. "She's a young girl who knows the governor and really likes him a lot and didn't find the term to be a positive term, and finds it to be derogatory," Nunez said. "It was no question a very, very insensitive comment to make. I personally am not intimidated or threatened by it, but I think it really is beneath Gov. Schwarzenegger." Jeff Bissiri, the Log Cabin Republicans' California Director, defended Schwarzenegger, responding to Kuehl's statements by stating that "the Governor’s use of the term 'girlie man' was not a slur aimed at the gay and lesbian community and Senator Kuehl knows that ... Where was her outrage when the Bustamante campaign referred to candidate Schwarzenegger as a ‘sissy’ for not agreeing to an endless series of debates?"
The term, popularized initially by the Saturday Night Live sketch, received new life following Schwarzenegger's usage. New York Times opinion columnist Maureen Dowd quoted a Democratic insider who claimed that 2004 Presidential candidate John Kerry had "turned into a girlie man."
In the game Get Medieval, a gauntlet clone, the barbarian character spoofs Schwarzeneggers voice and thick accent and refers to the hordes of opponents as "Girliemonsters"
In an article in the journal American Speech, linguist Edwin Battistella analyzes the development of the expression from ironic mockery of bodybuilding culture to an overt connotation of weakness and a covert connotation of effeminacy. He writes:
In all this usage, girly-man is implicitly contrasted with such terms as
he-man, macho-man, or manly man. These terms bring together images of physique, strength, courage, and will in an image of comic-book manliness. The controlling male stereotype is that of the muscular action-hero male as manly and of other men (non–weight lifters, nonmacho straight men, gays) as lacking courage, strength, and decisiveness. As critics of the usage pointed out, referring to someone as a girly-man requires adopting this stereotype as an instrument of either humor or derogation. And it further entails adopting the complementary stereotype that women are not so strong or decisiveas men.
Contrasting the expression "girly girl" with "girly man," Battistella suggests that in the former the adjective intensifies the stereotype present in the noun, while in the latter the adjective negates components of the stereotype to produce a range of derisive meanings.