Gender is on the ballot on Tuesday, but not in the way many of us expected. In fact, while early expectations were that the most prominent gender dynamics in 2016 would be about a woman breaking the highest, hardest glass ceiling in American politics, the reality is that this race may well serve as a referendum on the re-entrenchment of presidential masculinity. The masculine dominance of the presidency is quite literally on the ballot, not simply in the sex of the nominees, but in the behaviors, values, and agendas they espouse.
In my book, I argue that all candidates – male and female – navigate gender dynamics in making decisions about the images and messages they put forth to voters, and the tactics or style by which they do so. They “perform gender” in ways that align with stereotypical ideals of masculinity or femininity. But how candidates perform gender is conditioned by stereotypical expectations of both gender and candidacy. While those expectations are complementary for men, they are often contradictory for women, who face distinct challenges in proving they are both man enough to do the job and woman enough to appear authentically female.
These perceptions are evolving, and research demonstrates that gender stereotypes, even where persistent, are not determinative in how voters cast their ballots. But that does not mean they do not matter at all. In fact, stereotypes shape the ways in which candidates campaign, so much so that the apparent gender neutrality at the ballot box is by design. As one political consultant told me, “You either win the race or you don’t, … and gender really ceases to be an important factor if you do your work well.” In other words, campaigns address gender in drafting and executing campaign strategy to be sure that it will not be determinative in candidates’ victory or defeat. They “play the gender card” in ways that they deem most effective in meeting voter expectations.
At the presidential level, where we have long sought and celebrated “great men” to serve as heroes and protectors of the nation, meeting voter expectations has often meant reinforcing – instead of disrupting – masculine norms. But candidates and campaigns can also be disruptive, altering the image and expectations of presidential leadership that challenge masculine dominance instead of adapting to it.
In 2016, Donald Trump has adhered to the most traditional notions of masculinity, presenting himself to the country as a tough man taking on weak opponents. When he called Ben Carson “super low energy,” repeatedly referred to Jeb Bush as “really weak,” and argues “Hillary Clinton doesn’t have the fortitude, strength or stamina to lead in our world,” Trump seeks to position himself as the candidate most fit to meet the expectations of authentic masculinity. In Robert Brannon’s classic characterization of male sex roles, these expectations include a success and status (“the big wheel”); toughness, confidence, and self-reliance (“the big oak”); aggression, daring, and violence (“give ‘em hell”); and “no sissy stuff,” thus stigmatizing feminine characteristics. Trump’s emasculation strategies serve to reinforce the subordination of femininity, a key facet of patriarchal masculinity. In his many attacks on Marco Rubio, he criticized his size (“Little Marco”) and frequently characterized him as scared (calling him a “frightened little puppy”), a vulnerability associated with femininity. Trump also said that Jeb Bush “needed his mommy,” infantilizing him as another way to question his manhood. In a more overt way, he has claimed that Hillary Clinton simply doesn’t “look presidential.” In each of these attacks, Trump seeks to feminize his opponents to undermine perceptions that they can or should be president.
A more paternalistic brand of masculinity is evident in Trump’s messaging about his support among women. In an April interview on Fox, he explained that “so many women really want to have protection….and they like me for that reason.” In one of his latest ads, the final shot reads, “Donald Trump will protect you. He is the only one who can.” Scholar Iris Marion Young describes this “logic of masculinist protection” as “that associated with the position of male head of household as a protector of the family, and, by extension, with masculine leaders and risk takers as protectors of a population.” Trump’s rhetoric adheres to this logic, making it unsurprising that a pastor introducing him at a recent rally emphasized, “Our nation needs a father,” and presumably one that is not a woman.
Trump’s final brand of masculinity, however, undermines his claims of masculinist protection. The toxic masculinity evident in Trump’s comments about and treatment of women uphold misogyny as a route toward maintaining masculine dominance. In past remarks, Trump has reduced women to “a piece of ass,” repeatedly tied their attractiveness to worth, and called women names like “fat pig,” “miss piggy,” and “dog.” He has, just in this election cycle, fired back at women who have questioned him by calling them “neurotic,” “wacky,” or “nasty,” and condoning even worse name-calling among his supporters. In response to his own on-tape admission and subsequent allegations of sexual assault, Trump doubled down on misogynist messages – excusing his remarks as “locker room banter” and mass backlash to them as “nothing more than a distraction from the important issues.” He went on to try to discredit those making the assault claims by reinforcing misogynist tropes, denying that he could have assaulted some of the women because they are not attractive enough (“Look at her! I don’t think so.”) and discounting assault of another because she works in the adult film industry (“Oh, I’m sure she’s never been grabbed before.”).
While Trump has sought to position himself as the manliest candidate of 2016, Hillary Clinton has performed gender in a subtler way. Early in the campaign, she assured voters, “I’m not asking people to vote for me simply because I’m a woman. I’m asking people to vote for me on the merits.” But, unlike in 2008, she added, “I think one of the merits is I am a woman.” In touting the value-added of her distinct gender experience (as a feminist, a working mother, and a grandmother, for example), Clinton goes beyond simply disrupting the masculine face of presidential leadership to challenge the prioritization of masculine credentials in assessing fitness to serve in the Oval Office. That doesn’t mean that Clinton hasn’t worked to assure voters she is tough enough to be Commander-in-Chief, but her gender strategy this cycle is markedly different from the one she used in 2008, when her campaign focused on proving she could be the “first father” with the requisite “testicular fortitude” to do the job.
Interestingly, though, Hillary Clinton has engaged in her own brand of emasculation in this campaign, focused specifically on undermining the masculinity claims of her general election opponent. She has warned of Trump’s temperament by warning audiences, “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.” In her convention speech, she followed that statement with: “I can’t put it any better than Jackie Kennedy did after the Cuban Missile Crisis. She said that what worried President Kennedy during that very dangerous time was that a war might be started – not by big men with self-control and restraint, but by little men – the ones moved by fear and pride.” Here, Clinton questions the type of man that Trump is and defines masculinity differently than Trump – associating it with a type of maturity she argues he lacks. Using this definition, she argues that Trump is not man enough to be president.
Author Jackson Katz argues, “Presidential politics are the site of an ongoing cultural struggle over the meaning of American manhood.” This struggle seems particularly fraught and especially prominent in election 2016. More specifically, this campaign marks a critical juncture in our perceptions of masculinity and the degree to which they shape our evaluations and choices of who can and should lead the nation. Will we endorse the models of masculinity that Donald Trump has adopted throughout the campaign, or will we reject the principles upon which they are maintained in electing a candidate who not only disrupts the masculine image of the presidency, but also offers some alternative credentials for being head of state?
That choice is one among many for voters on Tuesday, reminding us that gender is on the ballot this year, but perhaps not only in the way that we thought.