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Candidates' Gendered Pot Shots Getting Out of Hand

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The phrase "man up" has been used to spoof overzealous football fans and to help spread programs targeting gender-based violence—it’s safe to say the phrase has trickled up to the mainstream since its origins in sports and, later, hip-hop. But last week, when Tea Party candidate Sharron Angle told Harry Reid to “man up” on his Social Security stance during the Nevada Senate debates, she was just the latest in a string of candidates using ugly, empty gender imperatives to signify their “toughness”—and their value systems.

Empty gender jabs have been common this election, and according to experts, that's no coincidence. In a recent Chicago Tribune report, experts noted the gender-norm-regressive language as a cheap way to frame an opposing candidate. According to Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, "Male candidates have traditionally been assumed by would-be voters to be tough and competent. Women have traditionally been assumed to be caring and have to establish their competence. 'Man up' frames the attacker as tougher than the person attacked and suggests the male candidate is not taking responsibility or being accountable for his failures."

Mama Grizzlies have been helming the "masculinity-as-strength" boat, with Palin and her famously (and ironic!) "cojones" comment about Obama's stance on immigration leading the charge. (Sharron Angle, of course, would like to play both sides of the gender card.) But a few male candidates have been attacking their female opponents in kind: for instance, Colorado Republican Ken Buck used the fact that he does "not wear high heels" as an advantage over opponent Jane Norton. Clearly, these kinds of blanket statements aren't just gendered pot shots—they're easy ways to bury the issues at hand. And as for the lowering of the discourse, according to Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown University linguist, "The lines between public and private keep blurring, so ways of talking you used to do only in private you more and more do in public." As the election season prattles on, one wishes the candidates would leave their gender notions (at least) at home.