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Political InQueery: Policing Masculinity

Karen HandelIn last night's Nevada Senatorial debate, Sharron Angle told Harry Reid to "man up." This was in response to Reid's pressure on Angle regarding her stance on Social Security. The exchange:

Reid: Don't frighten people about Social Security. The deal that was made by President Reagan and Tip O'Neil is holding strong. The money is there and taking care of our folks and will for the next 35 years.

Angle: Man up, Harry Reid. You need to understand that we have a problem with Social Security. That problem was created because of government taking money out of the Social Security trust fund.

For the record, Angle is wrong. And in the interest of full disclosure, I worked for the Social Security Administration for two years. Nobody in the Federal (or any) government has taken out of the SSA trust fund. And no other Federal agency's trustees look 75 years ahead to ensure the solvency of their program. So one of the reasons—there are many, to be sure—why people carp about SSA becoming insolvent is because there is such transparent math performed on this program. But what Ms. Angle is saying about the government taking money out of the trust fund is simply and clearly incorrect.

It was a rhetorical move on her part to start with a command to "man up," just in front of her opponent's name, a phrase that is all over popular culture in a way that didn't occur with such frequency say, a decade ago. Now we can't even get through Julie & Julia without hearing it. Culturally, it's said when men are perceived as not pulling their weight or being too emotional, so the order to "man up" is a policing tactic on a person's gendered inadequacy.

Carl PaladinoIn was in another debate, in Delaware, when Christine O'Donnell told the audience that her opponent, Chris Coons, was "addicted" to spending money, including $53,000 for a "men's fashion show." While these numbers have been shown to be closer to $5,000—for a gala event that included a fashion show among other entertainment during a fundraising evening—O'Donnell seems to be making a statement about Coons' masculinity, attaching it to a stereotype, often applied to women, that he is a shopaholic. This isn't necessarily surprising for O'Donnell, since during her primary run she said of her opponent, Mike Castle:

You know, these are the kind of cheap, underhanded, un-manly tactics that we've come to expect from Obama's favorite Republican, Mike Castle. You know, I released a statement today, saying, "Mike this is not a bake-off, get your man-pants on." (Laughs)

I'm not sure if she's accusing Mr. Castle of cross-dressing or just being inadequately masculine, but in either case, it's a rhetorical choice that means something. And it's happening all throughout this election cycle.

In Georgia, Republican gubernatorial candidate Karen Handle told runoff opponent Nathan Deal, "It's frankly time to put the big boy pants on," suggesting he wasn't ready for the election or to govern the state. Deal did go on to win the GOP nomination. Out in New York, the surprise by Carl Paladino over Republican vetern Rick Lazio in the governor primary race took a sudden back seat in the press to Paladino's taunts toward his Democratic opponent, Andrew Cuomo, son of former NY governor Mario Cuomo.

Frankly, I don't think you have the cojones to face me and the other candidates in an open debate. . . . So Andrew, for the first time in your life be a man. Don't hide behind Daddy's coattails even though he pulled strings to advance your career every step of your way. Come out and debate like a man.

Paladino is saying he's the more manly man in the fight. So of course that would make him the better governor, right? And cojones is exactly the term that Sarah Palin used in August about President Obama, saying, "Jan Brewer has the cojones that our president does not have to look out for all Americans [on immigration reform]." What could be worse for a man than to be less manly that a woman?

In these examples, Republicans are calling Democrats weak, soft, and dangerous to have as a part of government because they're not masculine enough. These moments come up as sound bites in debates, distractions from actually talking about policy, or from talking about policy accurately. They appear during news shows, or to goad the opposition into making a heated or overly emotional response, as Cuomo did in September. But because the ideology around "man up" includes a man too weak to keep his emotions in check, such attempts at firebrand defenses can play into the accusation itself. 

Also interesting is how for Reid, Deal, and—though he's not running at the moment—Obama, discussions that they would like to have on political issues must be, at least temporarily, precluded until they can assert their masculinity. None of these male candidates ever agrees with the charge of masculine weakness, of course. So it is that the right-wing has seen that it's an effective tactic for keeping their opponents on the defensive.

One wonders why the left-wing lets this gender policing wield such power.

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Thank you

Thanks for writing this! I was fuming about this issue in the car this morning while listening to the "man up" exchange on the radio.