Gender and Presidential Debates, How Toxic Masculinity Continues to Set the Tone

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seeing Hillary Clinton dodge with some grace the primitive aggressiveness of a much less worn-out Donald Trump than the one who confronted Joe Biden a week ago.

Although it seems like months ago, the first presidential debate of 2020 was just a week ago, just before the White House mounted the paraphernalia of a sick president with COVID-19 and who emerges from the halls of the military hospital as one who returns from the dead.

But for those of us who spin the facts chronologically, the presidential debate marked a turning point in Donald Trump’s reelection race. This time, unlike four years ago, he faced an individual whom he seemed to consider closer than Hillary Clinton.

That is, a white, cis, heterosexual male.

Ignoring, as much as possible, the disaster of eloquence and civility that the presidential debate turned into, the most obvious thing was the power game directly related to the gender of both opponents.

That strange sense of normality in the aggressive and incoherent encounter has to do with the historical habit of “men have always been president” and with the fact that “presidential candidates have overwhelmingly been men,” as the default in American politics, as Danielle Kurtzleben explains in her brilliant analysis for NPR.

And often, as is often the case every time two men argue, little was said in the 90 minutes about policies and plans, and much about personality despite Biden’s naive attempts to speak directly to the camera.

The question on everyone’s lips was, “What if the debate were between two women?”

Many of us are sure that there would have been, indeed, less emotion and more protocol. After all, women are used to controlling their impulses and anger for fear of being “too much,” while men can beat their breasts like primates, even after the age of 70.

“If a woman behaved the way President Trump behaved, she would probably be referred to as the B-word,” said Alice Stewart, a CNN commentator who worked on Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign and former Minnesota Republican Rep.

“The perception [and] optics of a woman being forceful is offensive to some people,” she added. “I don’t agree with that, but that’s the way the mind of some voters happens to work.”

Although the term “toxic masculinity” originated within academia in the 1980s and 1990s, its widespread use in the media during 2010 has referred to traditional norms applied to masculinity and manhood. According to sociologist Michael Flood, toxic masculinity implies “expectations that boys and men must be active, aggressive, tough, daring, and dominant.”

According to the American Psychological Association, these kinds of rigid gender role attributes often lead to the so-called “Gender Role Conflict” (GRC), where attitudes learned during socialization favor personal restraint, devaluation, or rape of others or self.

Once Trump reached the center of U.S. politics, many warned of the danger of a man with such attitudes at the helm of one of the world’s most powerful countries.

“Trump is in many other ways a caricature of a man’s man,” James Hamblin described in his column for The Atlantic in August 2016. “He shouts and bullies and berates people. He speaks mostly in superlatives and mentions himself in most sentences. He plays golf and has a head full of hair, as men are supposed to. He hasn’t gone full Putin and hunted shirtless on horseback with his press pool, but he has alluded to the size of his penis from the stage of a presidential primary debate.”

A year later, the Pew Research Center found that about half of Americans (53%) say most people in our society these days look up to men who are manly or masculine, with women more likely than men (62% vs. 43%) and Democrats more likely than Republicans (58% vs. 47%) to hold this view. 

According to the survey, about two-thirds of men who say society looks up to masculine men (68%) say this is a good thing; a narrower majority of women (56%) say the same. Views differ more widely along party lines: Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who say society values masculinity, 78% say this is a good thing, compared with 49% of their Democratic and Democratic-leaning counterparts.

Thus, the intrinsic relationship between gender roles and U.S. politics was clearly evident.

As we await the debate among the candidates for the vice presidency, the weight that falls on the shoulders of Kamala Harris is precisely this tragic historical legacy.

Harris will not only be debating the second in command in a country led by Donald Trump, but a man with radicalized ideas and beliefs, and who has echoed views where the role of women remains in the background.

Whatever the outcome of Wednesday’s debate, Kamala Harris runs the risk of being perceived through the lens of gender, which often nullifies her status as an individual and reduces her to a handful of rigid codes that have nothing to do with what she might do if she were to become the first vice president of the United States of America.