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Presidential Manliness, part 1

24 September 2008

The 2008 presidential race presents all sorts of opportunities for examining masculinities in America. This has been the case in every election, viz., that the public judges the criteria for being “the man.” Does the candidate have a confidence and charisma, perhaps a little swagger? Is he a warrior, someone who can strike fear into America’s enemies? Does he have a professionalness to him? Does he look manly? Is he strong and assertive, sensitive and affective in the right combination?

Of course, this election year has some especially notable elements.
– A black man is running for president.
– A woman is running for vice-president.
– The candidates seek to replace a wildly unpopular president, a man despised largely on account of his public image.

Media news groups are churning out all sorts of highly gendered images. Here are a couple banner ads from Newsmax.com I feel are comment-worthy.

Here I want to point out how McCain, for all his professional demeanor and military identity, is portrayed as jovial. He is serious, but not so much as to lose his sense of humor. Grandfatherly, perhaps. Maybe (if we read the picture negatively) too happy, almost saccharine. Palin seems like a strange complement to the would-be president. Placed in McCain’s background, she looks nervous, even scared. She holds out her hand in a defensive, sort of explanatory posture. Is she leading a meeting – or does she have some explaining to do? Or are we to read the two portraits together: the president keeps on smiling no matter what, and the exculpating, codependent woman tries to cover up the family dysfunctions?

Obama and (especially) Biden strike more traditional, manly poses. Both are stalwart and serious, though Obama in particular has a look of ease on his face. Though dressed formally and clean shaven, they exude a sense of disarming self-confidence. Biden’s hand gesture is remarkable: he points out to the future, to the frontier. He is purposeful and, in contrast to Palin, right beside the presidential nominee.

In this case at least, the banner ads clearly favor the Democratic team, if only because their picture matches up with the tried-and-true archetypes for manliness in election years: they are the cowboys, the pioneers, the businessmen, the generals, “the man.” More to come on this.

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