How This Election Could Change the Meaning of Masculinity in America

Election '08

In the waning days of the presidential campaign, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain are the leads in a gripping national drama about masculinity and Sen. Joe Biden and Gov. Sarah Palin are nominees for best supporting actors.

Sen. McCain has replaced George Bush as the standard bearer for conventional manhood -- stubborn, controlling, shoot-from-the-hip, inflexible. From his sneering angry attacks on Sen. Obama's character to his Marlboro Man response to the perilous financial calamity, John Wayne (and Richard Nixon) would be proud. While his handlers spin his behavior as a sign of decisive, manly leadership, his campaign has devolved to the point former Secretary of State Colin Powell crossed party lines to endorse Sen. Obama. Neither on Main Street, nor on Wall Street, polls indicate, are people buying the Republican ticket's bullying tactics (which McCain briefly curtailed, only to resume with zeals). No cross dresser, Gov. Palin, meanwhile, is behaving in a way that would make that bastion of masculine behavior, the late Charlton Heston, proud indeed. Sen. Obama, who has been described in scores of newspaper editorial endorsements as sensitive, thoughtful, composed, and collaborative, reflects a gentler brand of masculinity. Polls suggest his "let's stay calm" approach to the financial crisis -- and in general -- is playing much better with voters than the McCain-Palin fear-mongering. While "It's the masculinity, stupid" is unlikely to become a last minute campaign theme, manhood is a subtext in the campaign. Consider how a less strident brand of American masculinity as practiced by an Obama-Biden administration would contribute to polishing our tarnished reputation internationally.

Obama has resisted supporters' calls to find his "killer instinct" and "go for the jugular." They miss the point. Obama really does want to do things differently. He understands that old school manhood translates into old style politics and visa versa. Whatever legitimate criticisms can be made about some of Obama's positions, his conduct signals an effort to expand the definition of masculinity away from suspicion and isolation and toward trust and collaboration. For growing numbers of voters, being willing to talk with our enemies (now central to the Bush administration's diplomatic strategy) is seen not as a naïve flaw but as a quiet strength.

As gender's role as a force in the campaign has unfolded, a new political reality has emerged: "kinder, gentler" expressions of masculinity are being viewed positively. Mean-spirited representations, as evidenced by Gov. Palin's snarly attacks, rather than attracting Hillary Clinton's supporters, aren't getting much traction. Among the electorate those most excited about her candidacy -- portraying Dick Cheney in a dress -- are Tina Fey and her writers at "Saturday Night Live."

By contrast, remember Sen. Biden's emotional moment at his debate against Gov. Palin? There was a time (think Sen. Edmund Muskie crying in New Hampshire 40 years ago) when a display of such feeling by a man would have been seen as a game-changing moment of weakness. Biden's moment only made him seem more human and, when commented on at all, elicited a positive response. Clearly, ideas about manhood are changing. It's about time. (In case you've forgotten, the Delaware senator choked up for a moment while recalling his life as a single father 35 years ago in the aftermath of his wife and baby daughter dying in an automobile accident that also seriously injured his two young sons). Notably, Gov. Palin didn't acknowledge Biden's tender moment. How old school male. Imagine what the response would have been if the roles had been reversed?

All of the vital issues facing the nation -- from civil liberties to global warming, from finding a way out of the financial morass to ending two wars -- have been directly impacted these past eight years by the old style masculinity practiced by the president and much of the senior members of his administration. The now laughable image of George ("Mission Accomplished") W. triumphantly striding in his flight suit across the aircraft carrier deck, may be one John McCain longs to reprise, but it is the polar opposite of the brand of manhood Obama and Joe Biden are symbolizing. And lest some presume that a "new masculinity" is only something Obama is embodying, consider this: That at 65, Biden, a white, senior, respected Senate leader, is willing to play second fiddle to his younger, African American colleague, communicates volumes about what's possible in redefining masculinity.

Women have long asked the question: "Is it possible for more men to grow and change?" For them, and for all voters, this campaign season offers a simple, clear answer: "Yes, we can."

Copyright 2008 Women's eNews. All Rights Reserved.

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