Masculinity as a Factor in the Presidential Election

Roundup: Media's Take

James Rainey, in the LAT (March 18, 2004):

In a campaign that has seen candidate Howard Dean infamously appeal to"guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks," many political scientists, historians and gender experts say that a good portion of the presidential image-making in 2004 will center on masculinity.

Driving the paternal imperative, they say, is the anxiety many Americans feel because of the war in Iraq and the threat of terrorist attacks at home.

"When you have a war going on, usually the macho factor will prevail," said Joan Hoff, a Montana State University history professor and former president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency."Bush feels it's to his advantage to keep foreign policy as a major issue. But when that comes up, I think you are going to see a lot of 'Who is tougher than whom.'"

The televised images of machismo may be as overt as Bush powering along the Maine coast in his father's cigarette boat or Kerry exchanging slap shots and forechecks on the hockey rink. But the manly theme also will be cast in more subtle and euphemistic terms, as pundits talk about the candidates'"authenticity,""decisiveness" and"toughness."

"There is no doubt that one of the things that Bush has going for him, even with some people who otherwise wouldn't like him, is that he seems decisive and a leader," said Pepper Schwartz, a University of Washington sociologist and gender expert."For many people that links to maleness."

But both the president and the senator from Massachusetts need to be careful that their embrace of traditional masculine roles does not become forced, Schwartz said, lest they become perceived in that most un-macho of roles — the poseur. Think Michael Dukakis in 1988, clad in an oversized helmet and perched atop a tank.

American politicians have not been above feminizing their opponents dating back to the era of powdered wigs, playing on the stereotypical notion that only the"manly" can lead.

Some critics of the day called Thomas Jefferson"womanish." In 1840, President Martin Van Buren — accused of wearing a corset and taking too many baths — lost to William Henry Harrison. The challenger purportedly took care not to be seen in the tub.

Adlai E. Stevenson found himself belittled as"Adelaide" in two unsuccessful 1950s presidential confrontations with Dwight D. Eisenhower, the retired war hero. And in 1984, onetime movie cowboy Ronald Reagan made swift work of Walter F. Mondale, who was labeled a"quiche eater" by Republican true believers....

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