In his book, Jackson Katz writes, “Presidential politics are the site of an ongoing cultural struggle over the meaning of American manhood.” For over two centuries, presidential candidates have worked to meet masculine credentials of the job, proving they are tough, strong, and “manly men.” More importantly, they have worked to emasculate their opponents, characterizing them as too weak, infantile, or feminine to be Commander-in-Chief. This politics of emasculation is on full display in the current GOP primary, where the top contenders are engaged in fights over who is man enough to be president.
In just the past three days, Donald Trump and Marco Rubio have worked to paint each other as “girly men,” whether in traits, behavior, or appearance. A quick review of Donald Trump’s Twitter timeline in the past 72 hours reveals at least ten references to Rubio as “little” or “lightweight.” While Trump’s rhetoric implies that he is the “heavyweight” in the boxing match currently taking place in the Republican primary, Rubio countered on Friday that Trump has “never punched anyone in the face,” adding, “Donald Trump is the first guy who begged for Secret Service protection, the first guy.” Rubio’s rebuttal buys into the politics of manhood and emasculation, suggesting that seeking Secret Service protection is a sign of weakness; tough guys don’t need protection, Rubio implies, especially if they throw the first punch.
But the two presidential contenders did not stop there. They moved on to criticize each other on appearance, spending time on the stump fighting over who sweat more at Thursday night’s Republican debate. Responding to Trump tweets, Rubio told an audience on Friday, “Trump had this little makeup thing, applying makeup around his mustache, because he had one of those sweat mustaches.”
Trump was quick to respond, explaining at a press conference, “[Rubio] looked like he just came out of a swimming pool” at the debate; at an event that day, he sprayed a water bottle all over the stage while yelling, “It’s Rubio!”
He ridiculed Rubio for putting on makeup “with a trowel” and took to Twitter, tweeting an image of Rubio having sweat blotted by a makeup artist with the words, “Never let them see you sweat.”
Never let them see you sweat! pic.twitter.com/qygVFf6JFF
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 26, 2016
Both candidates’ attacks evoke femininity through vanity; using the images of men fixing their makeup as evidence of their girliness. This is not a new tactic. Remember when a similar image of John Edwards fixing his hair (with a compact in hand) went viral?
Even more than vanity, the emphasis on candidate sweat implies they might be scared, something Rubio hit more directly when he said of Trump’s behavior backstage, “Then he asked for a full-length mirror…maybe to make sure his pants weren’t wet.” Trump hit back, calling Rubio a “frightened little puppy” and “nervous Nellie,” which is – by his measure – obviously “not presidential material.” If masculinity is measured by fearlessness, casting candidates as fearful is another way to emasculate them.
In the midst of what New York Times columnist Gail Collins has characterized as “dialogue more normally overheard in a junior high bathroom” than on the campaign trail, the Republican candidates have spent far less energy debating substantive qualifications for office than fighting to uphold stereotypical expectations of presidential masculinity in recent days. This rhetoric may be entertaining to some, but it reinforces gender stereotypical norms that empower the manliest among us. In a year when a woman has the potential to top the ticket on the Democratic side, maybe it’s time we reimagine the presidency as more than a symbol of American manhood.