‘Toughness,’ Pull-ups, and the Race for the Presidency

By Meredith Conroy

Ann Telnaes, editorial cartoonist, Washington Post

On Friday, The Week published an opinion piece entitled, “American presidential elections used to be ‘manliness’ competitions. What happened?” by journalist Paul Waldman. This piece was inspired by remarks from Donald Trump to the Daily Mail.com about Texas Governor and Presidential candidate, Rick Perry. Trump has been insulting his way through the Republican presidential field, as the media has been rabidly covering; of Rick Perry, Trump remarked, “I think that he’s trying so hard, but it’s not about trying. It’s about energy, it’s about brainpower, it’s about toughness.” A few hours later, Perry chose to respond to that which he is most likely to have an edge (toughness), and challenged Trump to a pull-up contest: “Let’s get a pull-up bar out there and see who can do more pull-ups.” While its unlikely that a pull-up contest will result from this verbal tiff between Trump and Perry, as spectators of presidential politics we should expect to see many more attempts by the candidates to assert their manliness. Because unlike the assumed premise of Waldman’s article, manliness is now, as it has always been, inextricably linked to campaigning for, and media coverage of, presidential elections. Here, I review some of the political science scholarship on the topic, present original insight from a larger project of my own, and discuss consequences of this routine political certainty.

In the minds of many Americans, presidential leadership and masculinity (or manliness), are tacit synonyms. This connection looms large due to the belief that more masculine characteristics and traits, such as independence, resolve, and in particular, toughness (as mentioned by Trump) are necessary to handle issues of national security and defense, which presidents are most notably prone to deal. Whereas characteristics and traits that are more feminine, such as compassion and collaboration, while valuable, are less necessary. And when voters are asked to name traits and characteristics they want in a president, they list mostly gender neutral traits such as honesty, and masculine traits, such as assertiveness. This tendency to favor more masculine qualities is heightened in times of war and security crises.

The origins of this preference for masculinity in our leaders in the US is complicated, but is certainly related to the separate spheres ideology, which is the longstanding belief that women are best suited to the home and care-taking, and men to the public sphere, which includes politics. This is not to say that potential voters do not also value traits more characteristic of women, such as empathy, in their presidents. Mitt Romney had a major empathy deficit in 2012, after the publicity of some remarks he made suggesting that he was writing off 47 percent of the country who struggled economically; this empathy deficit contributed to his defeat. Yet, Romney also lacked the perception that he was capable of strong leadership. In other words, Romney had the perception of multiple character deficiencies. As I have argued, for voters it is more acceptable for a president to lack positive feminine qualities, but it is unacceptable for a president to lack positive masculine qualities in contemporary politics, especially those related to physical strength.

In addition to the public’s desire for manly presidents, there is a long history of the mainstream media to openly critique candidates who waiver from staunch, normative, masculinity. As Waldman notes in his article, for decades now New York Times Columist Maureen Dowd has been critical of a number of presidential candidates for being less than macho; it was Dowd who suggested that Al Gore was so feminine he could lactate. Another well-known debasement of a presidential candidate’s manliness is Newsweek’s Wimp Factor” exposè on George H. W. Bush, reprised in 2012, but applied to Mitt Romney.

Candidates also buy into the fixation on masculinity, as evidenced by the carefully crafted campaign photo ops, where they sport the appropriate attire, and handle the required accouterment–camouflage and a rifle, rolled up sleeves and a football. If the candidate gets it wrong, it can be catastrophic. The now famous misstep that befell John Kerry was a photo of him wind surfing. The wind surfing conveyed pompous effeteness, instead of regular guy manliness. Furthermore, it was not lost on the opposition that wind surfing served as a convenient metaphor for Kerry’s oscillating position on the Iraq War.

Ryan Hutton, AP

The sports metaphor is a common rhetorical device used by reporters to convey the conflict and drama of elections. Real election-time headlines during the 2008 race, for example, included, “In Final Debate, McCain Takes the Fight to Obama,” “Candidates Take off Gloves for Final Debate; McCain, Obama take Shots on Economy, Campaign Tone,” “Economy Again Is Front and Center; Candidates Spar Over Rescue Plans, Ad Tactics,” “McCain Seen as ‘Bare Knuckled Fighter’ Who Won’t Take No for an Answer,” “Round 2: No Big Flubs, No Knockouts; McCain Aims for Comeback; Casual Setting Can’t Dull Jabs,” and “Why Obama Needs to Fight Like Ali, and Not Louis.” All of these headlines were from articles published at USA Today between September 1st and Election Day.

The prominence of sports and sports metaphors in presidential campaign coverage has mostly been studied by political science and communications scholars to better understand why women have historically been barred access to the presidency. Sports metaphors treat men as the norm in politics, in that they focus on external dynamics that are more appropriate for men and perceived to be inappropriate for women, like a boxing ring (side note: obviously Ronda Rousey would take issue with this). Furthermore, sports metaphors assume a gendered narrative where physical strength is preferential, reinforcing the notion that politics is a “male preserve.” Yet, as our political history has shown, the focus on athleticism by candidates and media is also of major consequence for men running for office; it changes the dynamics of campaigning, and for those who are unable to portray themselves as masculine, their campaigns are hindered. Thus, gender plays a prominent role in political contests, regardless of the sex of the candidates.

In attempt to better understand the degree to which gendered discourse influences presidential candidate’s campaigns I executed a content analysis of print media coverage (New York Times, and USA Today) for the 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012 general elections. As you might expect, where media was critical of the (all male) candidates, they described the candidates as not living up to masculine qualities. For example, being described as not tough enough, or strong enough. Furthermore, I found that where one candidate was feminized, the other was overtly masculinized. In a sense, a “gender conflict frame” emerged, within the context of individual articles. Closely related to this observation was the revelation that those candidates who saw a higher proportion of their character described in more feminine terms were less likely to win the election. For each individual election under analysis, the candidate with a higher proportion of their character described as feminine lost the election.

Beyond immediate electoral consequences for the candidate described in more feminine terms, the invocation of gender by media during presidential contests is meaningful and important to understanding political representation more generally in our governing institutions. In a political systems and societies where masculinity is consistently elevated and femininity is debased, women will have a more difficult time being elected. Moreover, women will be less represented in a system characterized by reverence for masculinity, in terms of policy outcomes. This is not only due to fewer women being elected as political officials but also due to fewer elected officials being willing to champion issues such as paid family leave, social welfare, childcare, and equal pay that may associate them with feminine characteristics. To enhance the true representativeness of our political institutions, we need candidates to diversify their campaigning tactics, and demonstrations of political character, while media would need to expand their metaphor glossary, and their descriptions of candidates beyond worn out gended dichotomies, like strong/weak, manly/wimpy, aggressive/passive, cool/warm, or decisive/indecisive.

Meredith Conroy is an assistant professor of Political Science at California State University San Bernardino. Her book, Masculinity, Media, and the American Presidency, publishes in September 2015. In this book, Conroy discusses the role of the media in perpetuating masculinity  as the norm and preference in presidential candidates and leadership.   

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