Why the president's "manhood" matters

10/18/2016 05:18 pm ET

With the national conversation intensifying about presidents as “role models” — especially for young men and boys — I wanted to share a brief passage from my book Man Enough? Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and the Politics of Presidential Masculinity. This provides some historical context for the current conversation that has been raging about what Trump’s success to date is teaching our sons, especially since the story broke on October 7 about the Access Hollywood video of him talking about kissing and groping women without their consent.

Please note that language referring exclusively to men as president reflects the reality that until now all the presidents have been men — a historical reality that will persist at least until January 20, 2017. JK

From Man Enough:

The man who is the American president plays an important function in the gender order that transcends his purely political duties. How he performs his manhood—and how his identity as a man is described and debated through the filters of a 24/7 media culture—both reflects and simultaneously helps to produce and reinforce masculine norms. In one sense he is analogous to a national alpha male; the leader of the pack against whom other men measure their status. The historian Andrew Bacevich describes the modern president as “Pope, pop star, scold, scapegoat, crisis manager, commander in chief, agenda setter, moral philosopher, interpreter of the nation’s charisma, object of veneration, and the butt of jokes ... all these rolled into one.”

In sociological terms he embodies what R. W. Connell identified in 1987 as the hegemonic (dominant) masculinity in our society. Hegemonic masculinity is a conceptual tool that refers to the idealized and dominant form of masculinity in a given cultural context. In our culture, it is white, middle and upper class, and heterosexual, and is further characterized as aggressive and competitive. Not surprisingly, the qualities considered “presidential”—with the notable exception of Barack Obama’s blackness—track closely with those associated with hegemonic masculinity.

Feminist scholars have looked at the question of what it means for someone to be considered “presidential,” or in old school language, to be of “presidential timber,” because of the implicit exclusion of women from that men-only club. “Presidential,” it appears, means “manly”—or to be specific, a certain kind of manly.

Thus, when they elect presidents, voters are not just selecting the country’s chief executive; they’re making a statement about manhood: specifically, what kind of manhood is most exalted and should be in charge. When elections are understood in this way, all sorts of questions arise: which masculine characteristics must a man running for office possess, or at the very least be able to perform, before he passes the threshold for presidential consideration? What role do race, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation play in this process?

Does it matter if a man acts differently in private than the image he is able to project on camera? At what points do the differences between a man’s private and public selves become a political liability? To what extent are the qualities expected of a president expected of all dominant men? To what extent are they now, and will be in future elections, expected of women?

Is it possible for a man to achieve and then successfully wield political power if he does not conform to certain masculine conventions of “strength” and stoicism that can effectively be conveyed by televisual performance? Is it possible for a woman to achieve and then successfully wield political power if she does not conform to certain “masculine” conventions of strength and stoicism that are similarly performative?

The answers to these questions have consequences beyond the political realm, because the presidency itself can be understood as a kind of teaching platform, with the president as a kind of pedagogue in chief. He literally teaches—by example—what one highly influential version of dominant masculinity looks like. The cultural theorist Henry Giroux, in a critique of the Hollywood movie Fight Club, argues that certain Hollywood films play a role as teaching machines that purposely attempt to influence how and what knowledge and identities can be produced within a limited range of social relations.

The presidency as it is constructed in media culture plays a similar function, especially insofar as it defines the masculine ideal, and thus serves to model for boys and men the most socially acceptable and validated qualities of manhood at a given cultural moment. Like masculinity itself, this masculine ideal is not static, but instead is ever-changing and subject to ongoing historical evolutions, retrenchments, and assorted other pressures.

Because masculinity is an ever-changing concept, and because new tests in the form of unanticipated events and issues are always occurring, presidents need constantly to prove their manhood, just like other men. Moreover, in a culture awash in media spectacle, they must perform their manhood on the public stage. Hence one of the critical functions of the White House Office of Communications is to manage the president’s masculine image and sell it to the public. Fortunately for them, they have lots of props and symbolic backdrops to work with: Air Force One, the Oval Office, the Secret Service, and so on.

How the president, his party, and his policies are portrayed and described outside of the political-media complex of cable TV, talk radio, social media and the blogosphere also contributes to how people regard him as a man. For example, late-night comedians routinely use presidents and presidential candidates as fodder for jokes and impersonations. In part, the jokes and comedy routines that work do so because politicians embody some of the many contradictions in contemporary American identity, including those related to gender. By poking fun at them, the best comedians tap into deep-seated anxieties in male (and female) audience members/voters and offer comic relief.

There are numerous example of comedians doing routines and delivering punch lines that have contributed to the construction of presidential masculinities, from Dana Carvey’s emasculating sketches of George H. W. Bush in the late 1980s, to late-night comedians’ jokes about Bill Clinton as a henpecked husband (before the Monica Lewinsky scandal, when the jokes switched to playful jabs at his “player” status), to editorial cartoons throughout his two terms of George W. Bush as a swaggering cowboy. In a 24/7 media environment, the pedagogical impact of the presidency is felt far and wide.

Cultural chatter about presidents helps to define the masculine ideal, but it also helps to determine which qualities in men are not worthy of respect and emulation. One characteristic of many recent Democratic presidential candidates that conservative Republicans on cable TV and talk radio have mocked ceaselessly is the proclivity to ponder the complexity of problems and not rush to judgments or make rash decisions.

To many populist conservatives, this tendency is regarded as evidence of a man’s “indecisiveness,” and hence inability to serve as commander in chief. Presumably this cultural belief about authoritative manhood continues to resonate with many Americans; recall that George W. Bush, who often told audiences, “I don’t do nuance,” was reelected in 2004 with more votes than any president in history.

Another way male presidential candidates are mocked is for showing vulnerability—such as tearing up—outside of the ritually approved occasions. One of the most famous examples of this was the criticism heaped on Ed Muskie, the then-frontrunner for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination, when what appeared to be tears streamed down his face on a snowy New Hampshire day as he was responding to negative reports in the media about his wife’s behavior.

Muskie later claimed they were not tears but melted snowflakes, but the damage had been done to his reputation as calm and self-assured. To this day, the Muskie “crying” episode serves as a cautionary tale for politicians: don’t show even the slightest hint of vulnerability—or expect negative consequences.

Until now, the role of the presidency in establishing or maintaining norms of masculinity has not been widely appreciated or discussed. But this role is not itself a product of the era of mass media. In fact, in the late-eighteenth century the founders of the American republic were quite clear about the idea that the presidency was a masculine institution. They were also explicit about their desire to have a great and heroic man in that position who could model “independent manhood.” As Mark Kann wrote in The Republic of Men:

His [the president’s] public exhibition of manly prowess heightened the other men’s awareness of their own masculine shortcomings and encouraged them to strive for male maturity. His manly language and masterful deeds provided criteria by which most men could measure, judge and rate one another. His public persona as a self-disciplined man who transcended personal prejudices, parochial loyalties, and factional politics fostered a sense of fraternal solidarity and national pride that bound men together.

Michael Kimmel’s cultural history Manhood in America (1996) demonstrates that through the centuries, common-sense ideas about what is considered “manly” have been continuously negotiated and are subject to a multitude of economic, social, and political pressures. Throughout US history, presidential masculinity has both reflected and helped to produce broader cultural shifts in the notion of what it means to be a man.

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