While indeed elections are contests, their likening to a violent athletic contest makes as much sense as their likening to a beauty contest. In both types of contests, there is a winner, yet the media rely on metaphors that invite notions that masculinity, violence, and strength are appropriate, as opposed to metaphors invoking poise, devotion, or beauty, which would preference feminine traits and characteristics. In reality, physical beauty and physical strength are equally relevant to political elections, and yet the metaphor where maleness is the norm is preferred by media coverage. Thus, media use gendered mediation that largely benefits men.
One really does have to wonder what history is going to do with this utterly mad year of 2016, assuming of course that there are future historians around to write about it. Perhaps they’ll be huddled together in some Alpine cave, taking turns in venturing out into the environmental or nuclear tundra, raking up torn pages from newspapers as they flutter down from the clouds; examining them by candle before etching learned opinions on the walls with sticks dipped in dried blood and charcoal, so informing future generations of highly advanced cockroaches the answer to their question, What the hell just happened?
Of course, humanity might come through this year just fine. After all, as a species we’ve managed to survive Ice Ages, the Black Plague, perhaps even a Great Flood if you’re a Biblical truther, so what’s there to worry regarding Brexit upheavals, the release of methane gas from climate change, or that curious combination of the two, Donald Trump? We shall see. Hopefully.
Any inquiry into the varied ills facing the world begins and ends with us. Economic inequality, racism, prejudice, environmental collapse, war, even the spread of contagious disease all comes down to our own incapability in managing ourselves and the planet we live on. Absolutely none of the above is any way ‘natural’; we don’t get a scapegoat unless or until a meteor the size of Alaska crashes out an Alaska-sized hole in, oh let’s say Alaska.
The tragedy of it all is, as those cave-dwelling academics will undoubtedly mutter and shout, is that we know better. If we’d all just behaved the way our Mummies taught us – be polite, waste not want not, tidy up after yourselves, study hard and avoid that bad crowd at school – civilization might actually be civilized. Well we haven’t, we don’t, so why do we keep on doing destructive things?
That of course is a question whose answers could fill the Library of Alexandria, if that Wonder of the Ancient World hadn’t been destroyed by Julius Caesar. The reputation of Caesar, the first Dictator of Rome, is actually a rather convenient comparison with which to examine the current American Presidency. If you don’t quite see that, or darkly see it as a bloviating piece of hyperbole, read on.
Let’s begin here. Think about Julius Caesar and what you know of him. Now decide whether you would say he was an admirable leader. When you have made your choice – or if you will, cast your vote – let’s look at how you made it. To use the terminology within Meredith Conroy’s excellent Masculinity, Media, and the American Presidency (Palgrave Macmillan) such a decision is influenced by how the assessment of a candidate (or Roman Dictator) is primed and framed. From the book:
Studies on the effects of media find that while the media may not tell us what to think, they do tell us what to think about, through agenda setting, how to think about it, using frames, and contextualize the information, through priming … Priming is the process by which media attend to particular topics over others. For instance, an audience will be primed to consider a candidate’s record on environmental issues if overall media attention is overtly focused on global climate change.
I detect a certain degree of wishful thinking on Conroy’s part there. The environment has never yet been a decisive issue in a national election. Instead, as the author points out in her analysis of the American Presidential elections from 2000-2012 inclusive, the electorate has been primed to give the greatest consideration to the economy, the so-termed War on Terror, and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Framing is rather more insidious, or at least potentially so. Coming back to Julius Caesar, I only asked if you think his time was admirable or not. Two ways of framing that question would be to ask, “Was Caesar an admirable military leader?,” or “Was Caesar an admirable democratic leader?” In the first context, you would be influenced to say yes; in the second, no.
The first word in Conroy’s title is Masculinity and here there is a fine line to be noticed between sex (is the candidate a man or woman) and gender (does that candidate have perceived masculine or feminine characteristics). We’ll use Julius Caesar one more time for praise or burial purposes. What characteristics or similar terms would you associate with the old Roman? Don’t bother thinking too long about it, as I’ll give you two lists of five for your consideration.
Let me go way out on a limb here and wildly speculate that you probably chose the first list. It doesn’t matter that at certain points in his life Caesar was inconsistent, indecisive etc. (for one thing, he both minimized the power of the Senate, while simultaneously stacking it with his partisans). Our perception is that such a man must have been overwhelmingly confident and a fighter. Furthermore, is it not true that you react to that first list as a list of positives whereas the second are largely negative? Would it then interest you to know that List One are all characteristics we psychologically associate as ‘masculine’ whereas the second list are “feminine” behaviors? Lastly, those two lists of five were specifically chosen because they were the terms most used in a positive or pejorative way in 300 character-driven political articles as printed in the New York Times or USA Today during the quadrennial Presidential election years from 2000 through 2012.
Why else do you think there are all those photo opps of Presidential candidates chopping wood or shooting birds, and God help the candidate who can’t throw a tight spiral while tossing about a football on an airport tarmac, because that’s what ‘the boys’ do. George H.W. Bush was haunted for years by a Newsweek cover in 1980 damning him for a Wimp Factor whereas John Kerry – that would be decorated Vietnam War veteran John Kerry – was described by New York Times columnist Frank Rich in a September 2004 editorial with the headline “How Girlie Became a Girlie-Man”. No wonder Kerry used the word “strength” in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in 1984 no less that 17 times; any more and it would have been a mantra. No matter, he lost anyway to George W. Bush, his blue jeans, his ranch, and his flight suits. Kerry speaks fluent French you know, and you know what that means. It actually means nothing besides intellectual vibrancy, but that’s one of those feminine thingies.
Needless to say, actual women candidates face the worst of it in an electoral world where the most boyish of the boys win. Conroy details what you may have casually noticed; that stories about Elizabeth Dole, Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton all discuss clothing or the tenor of voice much, much more than equivalent descriptions of male candidates. Also, a curiosity – male candidates are more than eager to be photographed with their children and families, whereas for women that is an ominous reminder that in seeking higher office they are abandoning their, ahem, proper role.
So to come back to where we began, is the eagerness to elect the most macho the reason for pestilence, war and poverty? Well, it would be naive to state that as a total reason, however any illogical barrier to intelligent decision-making certainly doesn’t help. And given that the American Presidency is still the most powerful elective office in the world (as anyone running for it will be happy to tell you) electing those who we associate with fighting, attack, risk-taking, dominance and competition over those so-called feminine traits of compassion, cheerfulness, sympathy and just plain feminine … well, what you want to see is what you get.
Masculinity, Media, and the American Presidency is one of the finest books on American politics I have ever had the intriguing pleasure to read. Meredith Conroy exposes the dubious preconceptions of the American voter and the media that is the chicken to the electoral egg with impeccable argument, superb examples, and just enough wit to keep any sense of drudgery at bay. The education you will receive from reading Masculinity, Media, and the American Presidency will make you see the world a little differently than before; and brother or sister, that ain’t a bad thing. ◊
Hubert O’Hearn is a writer/editor born in Canada and currently living in Ireland. Author of four books, as a reviewer he has previously been on the editorial staff of Winnipeg Review, San Francisco Book Review, Le Herald de Paris et Cie and many other publications. This is the second in a political series he has been writing for January Magazine. The first can be seen here.