men, masculinities and gender politics

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Open to interpretation: Who’s Man enough in 2012?

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In a few days from now, two men in suits -- Mitt Romney and Barack Obama -- will stand side-by-side to debate each other three times in three weeks. Imagine those moments. The two men defending their records and outlining their case to the American people: “This is why you should choose me to lead you for the next four years.”

If you follow politics you know that Obama and Romney are more than their fiscal ideas or foreign policies. Elections are also battles for each candidate’s identity. And that identity is negotiated in the press, in the minds of the public, and in the actions of the candidates and campaigns. And a significant part of that identity is gender: the performance of certain aspects of masculinity and femininity in the private or public sphere.

As evidenced most recently by Newsweek’s cover article, Romney: The Wimp Factor, the media can weigh language with gendered meaning to boost their case. In our book Performing American Masculinities: The 21st-Century Man in Popular Culture (Indiana University Press, 2011) we wrote about this idea, Obama’s masculine identities during the 2008 election. The months leading up to the election show “a social process that gives bodies meaning. Gender definitions are produced through active negotiation in the rigors of the extended electoral setting. The various media […] debate the meaning(s) of these [candidates’] bodies on display.” A single night onstage at a televised debate is a metaphor for the lengthy campaign cycle. The two candidates, like actors on a stage, are watched by the audience, their motives and actions interpreted and given meaning, as the plot climaxes on election day.

Newsweek’s labeling Mitt a wimp constitutes a single moment in the ongoing public negotiation of one candidate’s masculinities. In gender studies departments across the country, it is perfectly acceptable for a male to be a bit of a wimp, a little less than the masculine ideal of traditional rugged manliness. We can celebrate a transgressive identity as a break from the norm. But, a national election is a different story, because a wimp is not presidential, not someone you want defending national security or as commander-in-chief.

This nomenclature is not sexist: a wimp can be male or female. In politics, the opposite of a wimp, a stud perhaps, can be male or female. This was the case that Hillary Clinton tried to make against Obama in her primary ads in 2008:“it’s 3am, who do you want answering the phone [on important international decisions]?” Decisive wisdom can be the characteristic or the default attitude of any candidate, male or female. Mitt could out-wimp Bachman; Palin could out-swagger McCain. And how gender is perceived is also relative to the individual in the audience: a Hillary Clinton supporter might think she’s the only one with balls big enough to defend America, including Dick Cheney.

Newsweek’s declaring Obama a different sort of gendered term, “the first gay president,”-- complete with a cover picture of Obama sporting a rainbow-colored halo out of a heavenly pride parade -- might turn-off some independent voters as much as the Mitt/wimp connection. In the same way Clinton was the “first black president,” Andrew Sullivan argues the president deserves a similar title for his recent reversal on gay marriage: “Barack Obama had to come out of a different closet. He had to discover his black identity and then reconcile it with his white family, just as gays discover their homosexual identity and then have to reconcile it with their heterosexual family.” This awareness of identity is key to Obama’s projected self and to how he performs his masculinity. Whether or not this “sainting” from the gay community will hurt Obama in more religious swing states remains to be seen, but what was most interesting was how Obama couched his announcement of his change of heart.

Astutely, he framed himself -- his masculine identity -- as a caring father, trying to explain to Malia and Sasha “sitting around the dinner table” why their friends whose parents are same-sex couples “would be treated differently.” Obama continued: “It doesn’t make sense to them. And frankly, that’s the kind of thing that prompts a change of perspective.” An intimate domestic moment becomes a national tectonic shift. In positioning himself as a father seeing the world anew through the simple, innocent eyes of his own daughters, it complicates the situation for him and for us as his audience. Along with Malia and Sasha we question why those parents should be treated “differently when it comes to the eyes of the law.”

This is not the only time President Obama has donned the rhetorically-effective cap of Father-in-Chief in this election year. After the Trayvon Martin shooting, Obama again mentioned his own children and added an imaginary child: “you know, if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” This meant that every black youth in America should receive the same benefit of the doubt as the President’s son would hopefully receive from law enforcement or neighborhood watchmen. But, wisely, Obama did not take a clear side on the unresolved case, stating only that: “I think [Trayvon’s parents] are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and we are going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.”

Earlier this summer, as Father-in-Chief the morning after the Aurora shootings, Obama put a familiar face on the tragedy for the nation, quickly connecting the people who died to the imagined deaths of his own: “I’m sure that many of you who are parents here had the same reaction that I did when I heard this news. My daughters go to the movies. What if Malia and Sasha had been at the theater, as so many of our kids do every day? Michelle and I will be fortunate enough to hug our girls a little tighter tonight, and I’m sure you will do the same with your children.” It’s hard for anyone of any political bent not to be moved by that image of parenthood.

Negotiation of gender -- each candidate’s performance of masculinities -- takes place between the campaigns, too. Each side looks to define their candidate as an authentic male, while discounting the opposing candidate as something lesser.

Look at the most effective attack ad of this campaign season, “Firms.” Obama’s campaign isolates a part of Romney’s body -- his singing voice -- to make him eerie, foreign, anti-American, and robotic. The ad starts with the upbeat, familiar voice of Obama saying he approves the message to follow. As he gives his consent, the president strolls casually, coolly, hands-in-pockets along a sunny, pillared walkway which looks like the White House. Presidential but approachable, he’s heading to an important meeting; but, he’ll approve this laser-like attack on the way.

Switch suddenly to a grainy video of Romney singing “America the Beautiful” at a campaign event, early 2012. He’s a bit off-tune: “Oh, beautiful for spacious skies.” And spaciousness manifests itself in the next image: an empty, workerless factory. The camera pans down a conveyor belt or production line, but nothing’s manufactured there. Romney’s voice (“…For amber waves of grain”) now sings to us from the PA-system in the same factory, like a boss‘s karaoke-gone-wrong. He wants to croon patriotism, but we now read on screen that when he was The Man his firms shipped jobs to Mexico--onscreen citations are provided on screen for all of the damning facts on Romney. By the end of this song, we might think he’s more Mr. Burns than Uncle Sam.

Now we switch locations (“…For purple mountains majesties”) to outside the factory. We are moving inside a vehicle as in a car commercial, so perhaps we are in Detroit--but these ruined buildings are the opposite of majesties. On the other hand, we might be in an abandoned Pennsylvania steel town, because we learn on screen that Romney also shipped jobs to China! So far America is not The Beautiful but The Devastated, and it’s devastating to Romney if he’s implicit. We’re on the move again, now going inside an empty corporate meeting room. We hear the boss’s echoed singing (“Above the fruited plain…”) coming from the meeting room’s speaker phone. No employees are there to listen, and this time we find out all the jobs have been shipped off to India--and Romney did the outsourcing.

You get the point. If Romney were a beer or a car part, he’d probably be in the foreign, not domestic, section. The ad ends by sending us to Switzerland to wonder about the millions in Romney’s bank account. We see and hear a Swiss flag flapping where Old Glory should be. We’re then on the beaches of Bermuda and then the Cayman Islands wondering about his tax havens. By the time Romney gets to “God shed his grace on thee,” we’re sure to heaven he’s an enemy of the state. And the Obama campaign’s tagline is like a coda to this bitter symphony: he’s not “the solution“; he’s “the problem.” The subtext is that he’s not really the same type of American as you. The engineering of Romney’s voice, though subtle and almost subtextual, adds to his identity-positioning as not quite real, not an authentic man who cares about his fellow Americans, but a mechanized 1%-er who sings while the Titanic sinks. His recent acerbic and dismissive comments
about the 47% of Americans who are supposedly are “lazy and feel entitled” confirmed such condescension.

The opposition has tried to paint the president as unauthentic, foreign, and anti-American since day one. The attacks in person and in the media have intensified the more power Obama gained. But one important aspect of Obama’s masculine identity is that he keeps his cool--while still returning fire when necessary. As an African American male, Obama treads a fine line, not wanting to appear too angry or too weak. But Obama has kept his cool despite a litany of disrespect: from Pat Buchanan referring to him as a “boy”; to Arizona governor Jan Brewer shaking her finger inches from his face (Obama ignored her and walked away); to Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett threatening to keep the president off the ballot in that state (because he‘s a Kenyan!); to Bush I’s disgraced former-Chief of Staff John Sununu, arguing that Obama needs to learn “how to be an American;” to Joe Wilson shouting “you lie” to the president’s face during the State of the Union address; to Neil Munroe, The Daily Caller blogger, interrupting and confronting the President during White House press conference. As in all instances where Obama experiences demeaning attacks in person, the president kept his cool, simply referred to Munroe as “Sir,” and gently but directly admonishing him for his outburst. Rather than allow himself to be baited into the “angry Black Man” caricature, Obama frustrates detractors by adhering to a “Jackie Robinson-esque” persona when confronted with affronts.

In an attempt to marginalize or question Obama’s masculinity, a few wealthy right-wing financiers attempted to tag him, according to their own documents as a “Metrosexual Black Abraham Lincoln.” After the leaked information created immediate ridicule (including from some conservatives), the billionaire Joe Ricketts, who had considered bankrolling the proposal, quickly distanced himself from the idea. It might seem strange that Ricketts would try to pin the “metrosexual” label on Obama when just eight years ago Howard Dean and other candidates were admitting that, yes, they were metrosexuals. Romney and his five sons are about as well-coifed as you will find, but perhaps their look can be read as “business ready” not “metro.”

The masculinities presented often depend on the viewer for interpretation. Take Al Green, for example. When President Obama sang “Let’s Stay Together” at the Apollo this year, his sexy urbanity went up in many people‘s eyes. The song’s sales rose nearly 500%, and Al Green himself said Obama “nailed it.” For some African Americans, the performance further solidifies Obama as a real "brother" who is down with his roots. But the Romney campaign used Obama’s singing in an ad critiquing the president-as-celebrity.

Obviously, too, there is a subtle stereotype of associating black men as elemental, randy, and immaturely playful. The interpretation depends upon where you are looking from. Like an LDS Democrat friend of ours who likes Mitt Romney as a person, but hates his politics says: “There’s a Mitt Romney in every Mormon congregation I know. I like the guy personally. He’s the type that shows up with his sons to help you move any time you ask.” A Republican Dudley Do-Right. Absolutely nothing wrong with that. Or is there? This campaign is getting more exciting by the day. Are you man enough to handle it? That questions applies to everyone.

Elwood Watson, Ph.D. and Marc E. Shaw, Ph.D. are co-editors of the anthology Performing American Masculinities: The 21st Century Man in Popular Culture. Indiana University Press, 2011). Professor Watson will be the host of an upcoming internet radio program “The 21st Century Man” that will examine various contemporary issues facing men, in particular men who are members of Generation X and Millenials (Generation Y) Both men can be reached at either watsone@etsu.edu or shawm@hartwick.edu