By Valerie Sperling
Masculinity is a characteristic that many people associate with political legitimacy; we expect politicians to be “strong” and to “protect” the country’s citizens and national interests. Politicians (male and female) thus make an effort to demonstrate their strength and toughness on various issues. But masculinity can also be used as a tool to undermine the perceived legitimacy of opponents. This trope is exhibited in the politics of many states. We can see it in play in the current presidential race in the U.S., for example, when a presidential candidate or his/her supporters question their opponents’ masculinity (suggesting they’re insufficiently manly). Donald Trump’s repeated suggestion that Jeb Bush was “low energy” and his use of the “little Marco” moniker to refer to Marco Rubio embody this notion. So did Marco Rubio’s remark that Donald Trump had “small hands” and his suggestion that Trump’s demand for a full-length mirror during a break in the CNN debate in late February was spurred by the desire to make sure his pants weren’t wet. Efforts to undermine an opponent’s masculine image can also come out in homophobic or misogynist terms, such as a Donald Trump supporter in New Hampshire referring to Ted Cruz as a “pussy” when Cruz refused to wholeheartedly endorse the use of waterboarding. Witness too a variety of then-presidential candidates making fun of the ostensibly effeminate boots that Rubio received from his wife for Christmas (this teasing reportedly then pushing Rubio to fondle guns and talk football in public).
Male candidates are also affected by claims that the women affiliated with them aren’t doing femininity or womanliness “correctly” — meaning that the women on their side aren’t sufficiently attractive, or that they’re accused of violating a sexual norm, usually by being “slutty” or “cheap.” This is an indirect way of trying to undermine the male politician associated with the woman or women in question. Trump’s reference to Carly Fiorina’s face, or his supporters’ tweeting photos comparing images of Melania Trump and Heidi Cruz fit in this first part of this category. In the latter case, the argument is, “Mine’s hotter than yours,” and the implication is that a male politician’s masculine credibility and status can hinge on the sexual attractiveness of the women on his team. The Facebook advertisement aimed at Mormon voters and posted by Ted Cruz’s SUPERPAC that featured a nude photo of Melania Trump, saying, “Meet Melania Trump. Your Next First Lady — Or, You Could Support Ted Cruz on Tuesday” (in the primary) is an example of the second technique, the message being – in this case – Don’t vote for Donald Trump, because his wife is a slut.
Along similar lines, female candidates can be targeted as insufficiently manly. Donald Trump’s repeated labeling of Hillary Clinton as “weak” is the most straightforward example. Women running for office can also be reduced to sex objects who don’t deserve to be taken seriously as politicians. For instance, Bob Sutton, the Chair of the Broward County, Florida, GOP, stated in late April that when Hillary Clinton debates Donald Trump, “she’s going to go down like Monica Lewinsky.” Female candidates’ proper femininity or heterosexuality can also be questioned as a means of undermining their legitimacy. An example of this was a statement Carly Fiorina made early in the race, aimed at Hillary Clinton: “Unlike another woman in this race, I actually love spending time with my husband.” And like male politicians whose legitimacy can be undermined by their female partners’ supposedly improper behavior as women, so too can female politicians be criticized for their husbands’ alleged deviance from the norm. Donald Trump and Sean Hannity’s efforts to paint Bill Clinton as a rapist and abuser of women are intended indirectly to impugn Hillary Clinton’s character as a potential presidential candidate. By saying that her husband has gone overboard in his interactions with women, they suggest that he’s not doing masculinity correctly, and that this behavior reflects badly on Hillary, making her unfit for the presidency.
The prevailing means of asserting political legitimacy by means of masculinity, of course, is the assertion of strength and toughness, both of which are qualities typically associated with manliness. This is common across geographic areas and types of political regimes, from dictatorships to democracies. In the current presidential election, a number of commentators have drawn the “masculinity” parallel between Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, both known for their “shoot from the hip” style and occasionally crude remarks.
Masculinity in these senses has been a key component of the image-crafting in Donald Trump’s campaign and Putin’s presidency. The plethora of images in the media where Putin’s masculinity is on display are well known. Whether he is saving a TV camera crew from a Siberian tiger, taking a shirtless fishing trip in Tuva, or fighting fires outside Moscow from a helicopter, Putin’s manliness was stressed as part of his image as a strong leader who would protect Russia’s national interests at home and abroad, regardless of any Western governments’ objections. Putin’s masculine image also came out in his choices of words, which early on emphasized his toughness. Following the brutal apartment bombings in Russia in September 1999, which served as one impetus to renew the war in Chechnya, Putin (who was Russian Prime Minister at the time) made it clear that the terrorists would be found and “wasted” wherever they were discovered, even in their “outhouses.”
In the U.S., while Donald Trump has not been pictured shirtless, he has become known for talking “tough,” such as in his comments against Mexico and Mexican immigrants in his presidential announcement speech in June 2015, saying that he would build a wall to keep out Mexican drug criminals and rapists, and that he would force Mexico to pay for it. Sometimes his endorsement of violence has been more direct, such as when he encouraged his supporters to use violence against anti-Trump protestors, saying at a rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in February – “if you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you?” and then promising to pay any legal fees that resulted. Both Trump and Putin have projected a “tough guy” masculine image, and in both cases, found mainstream media and social media sources eager to promote it.
Image-crafting with regard to masculinity, then, may entail displays of muscles or bravery, or of tough talk in addition to (or in lieu of) either one. As we have seen, masculinity is also a weapon to use against opponents, visible when a president or presidential candidate or their supporters question rivals’ masculinity as a way to try to undermine their political authority. With Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as the presumptive nominees for their respective parties, we can be sure that this presidential campaign will continue to constitute a gathering of lightning rods for the further exploration of masculinity and misogyny in elections and in politics more broadly.
Valerie Sperling is Professor of Political Science at Clark University. She is the author of Sex, Politics, and Putin: Political Legitimacy in Russia, Altered States: The Globalization of Accountability, and Organizing Women in Contemporary Russia: Engendering Transition.