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Feminize Your Opponent

Meredith Conroy

Meredith Conroy is an assistant professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and author of Masculinity, Media, and American Presidency. She was raised in Meridian, Idaho.

In an article published last week at The Guardian, Jessica Valenti referred to the current GOP presidential contest as a “locker-room election.” This title was earned due to the crass nature of the ongoing dialogue between the Republican candidates, which includes inappropriate name-calling, teasing and bullying, all of which are more suited to a locker room than a presidential race.

Yet, as both Valenti and political scientist Kelly Ditmar in her post at note, presidential contests between men attempting to establish themselves as the more manly choice is nothing new. Think back to 2004, where the campaigns of George W. Bush and John Kerry carefully crafted photo ops of their candidates hunting, chopping wood and throwing footballs. These efforts to establish their candidate as the more masculine choice are also efforts to assure the voting public that their candidate is not a wimp or a wussy.

Thus, while the back and forth over Trump’s small hands is shocking, it is a reiteration of a now well-worn path to the presidency, which is to masculinize yourself and feminize your opponent.


Much of the macho posturing in presidential races is driven by the overlap between popular notions of leadership and masculinity. In the minds of many Americans, presidential leadership and masculinity (or manliness), are tacit synonyms. Indeed, when voters are asked to name traits and characteristics they want in a president, they tend to list masculine traits such as assertiveness and self-confidence. Moreover, this tendency to favor more masculine qualities is heightened in times of war and security crises including the present era. Read more of Conroy on gender and the presidency in TBR.

In the month of December, following the terrorist attacks in Paris and the shootings in San Bernardino, Ca., more Americans agreed that terrorism was the number one issue facing the country. The terrorist attack in Brussels last month likely will drive terrorism concerns back to the forefront of the minds of voters. These events tend to lead voters to desire more masculine politicians.

Trump is certainly banking on this, and tapping into the racial resentment toward Muslims that often follows attacks to bolster his campaign. His rhetoric following the attack suggests that he sees Muslims as the enemy and sees himself as the solution, the sole national protector from that enemy. Following the Easter bombing in Pakistan, he tweeted “I alone can solve” the terrorism issues facing the world:

Another radical Islamic attack, this time in Pakistan, targeting Christian women & children. At least 67 dead,400 injured. I alone can solve

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump)
March 27, 2016

Despite his amped up rhetoric surrounding terrorism, an ABC/Washington Post poll from early March finds respondents choose Clinton when asked whom they trust more to handle the threat of terrorism. Yet Bethany Albertson of University of Texas-Austin, writing with Joshua Busby and Shana Gadarian for the Monkey Cage, uncover an interesting relationship between anxiety about terrorism and candidate support. They find a positive correlation between anxiety about a terrorist attack and support for Donald Trump. Thus, in general, the public sees Clinton as better able to handle terrorism, but those who are the most anxious about terrorism are more likely to support Donald Trump.

Masculinity, Media, and the American Presidency, Conroy
Conroy’s new book, Masculinity, Media, and the American Presidency, examines many of the themes of this article.

Another reason that Republicans are competing for masculine credentials is that GOP voters, more than Democrats, prefer traditionally masculine candidates. In an article published late last year, Lasse Lausten and his colleagues report that conservative individuals prefer candidates with more dominant faces. Moreover, another paper by Lausten and his colleagues finds conservatives prefer candidates with lower-pitched voices. Taken together, these studies paint a portrait of Republican voters as preferring more masculine candidates, which may explain why Republican candidates in particular are prone to tearing down their opponents on the basis of appearance and physical stature. The Republican constituency is looking for a “manlier” chief executive.

In past elections this gendered campaigning has been reinforced by media coverage. As I describe in more depth in my book, Masculinity, Media, and the American Presidency, the media’s reliance on conflict as a narrative to explain elections leads many journalists to fall into the trap of comparing debate performances in terms better suited to athletic arenas. For instance, these headlines from the 2008 election reinforce the notion that the presidential race is a contest of physical strength: “In Final Debate, McCain Takes the Fight to Obama,” “Candidates Take off Gloves for Final Debate; McCain, Obama take Shots on Economy, Campaign Tone,” “McCain Seen as ‘Bare Knuckled Fighter’ Who Won’t Take No for an Answer,” and “Why Obama Needs to Fight Like Ali, and Not Louis.”

Here, the headlines evoke the sense that presidential debates are sites of physical altercations. Political scientists Elisabeth Gidengil and Joanna Everett have characterized this norm of reporting as gendered mediation. Scholars have mostly studied gendered mediation as it affects women who run for office, finding that it hurts their candidacies due to the incongruence between notions of what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a prizefighter or professional hockey player. Yet sports metaphors also affect the campaigns of men, and possibly contribute to candidates’ efforts to project masculinity and amp up their efforts to be declared manlier.

A small point worth mentioning is that there have been instances in our recent history where presidential candidates do tamp down their macho rhetoric and opt for what could be characterized as a more feminine approach. For example, “compassionate conservatism” was a rallying cry for Republican candidates, like George W. Bush in 2000, to convey a stance, driven by compassion, on issues that tend to be owned by Democrats, like social welfare. Republicans have gotten so effective at their masculine imaging, that some candidates have had to attempt to roll it back, slightly, to appeal to a broader audience and appear competent on broader issues.


While the name-calling and masculine posturing are not necessarily new to presidential politics, what makes this election unique in this regard is that that the Democratic nominee is likely to be Hillary Clinton. Although in past elections a candidate could attempt to feminize his opponent as a means of attacking his credibility, femininity is not incongruent with Clinton’s sex, and as a line of attack this path may be less effective.

This depends largely on a couple of things. First, it depends on voters’ views of  whether feminine traits are indeed a feature of leadership. As described above, Americans typically view masculine traits as more congruent with presidential leadership. Yet this is likely to be a function of the implicit maleness associated with the office to date. With a woman in mind, like Clinton, voters may consider feminine qualities such as compassion or willingness to compromise as desirable and revered. Insofar as femininity continues to be associated with weakness, then regardless of the candidate’s sex, the feminization of an opponent will be an effective attack.

Second, femininity as a successful line of attack depends on Clinton’s own strategy. If Clinton tries to position herself as a masculine candidate, then feminizing her may have more resonance in that it will serve to break down this “tough” image. A consistent narrative is important in presidential politics. In her 2008 primary run, Clinton largely avoided discussing what she would bring to the office as a woman. For instance, in campaign memos, Clinton’s top advisers pushed for her to project a masculine, tough image. When this image broke as she teared up during her New Hampshire primary victory speech, the news was flooded with analysis of whether it meant she was in fact not tough enough to be president, or if it was a manipulation tactic, neither of which gave a positive spin.

It seems as though Clinton has learned from her 2008 run and instead of shying away from her sex, she is embracing it. For example, in a Buzzfeed interview she touted love and kindness as the motivating forces in her public career. She is also making a direct appeal to voters as a mother and grandmother in her campaign materials and public speeches. Furthermore, instead of ignoring the sexism she is facing, she is tackling it, head on. This is aided by a much larger social media presence this election cycle, that is more sensitive to, and critical of, sexism in the campaign. For example, on multiple occasions, Clinton’s opponent, Bernie Sanders, and numerous men in the media, have criticized Clinton for shouting too loudly. Twitter users have been quick to react by pointing out this sexist double standard, as have public figures.

Likely sensing this support, Clinton has been speaking out against this sexist critique. At the Women’s leadership forum she responded: “Well first of all, I’m not shouting. It’s just when women talk some people think we’re shouting.” These actions signal that Clinton is not only embracing her role as a woman, but also going after those who rely on tired stereotypes about women in power (most recently, with Sanders criticizing Clinton’s qualifications).

Hillary on those who tell her to “stop shouting” on issues that matter.

— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) October 23, 2015

In any event, Clinton’s experiences thus far demonstrate the political tightrope women must walk, in presidential politics, where they face an incongruence between their sex and notions of leadership, and also criticism for not properly performing their gender.

In sum, masculinity in presidential politics is not new. Candidates take turns feminizing each other and very often the winner of the election is also the candidate who was more effective at it. Yet in the upcoming general election, particularly if Clinton is the nominee, femininity as a line of attack may fall on deaf ears. And particularly if Clinton ends up facing Trump, who more than any other candidate relies upon the machismo strategy, our reprieve from this type of sexist campaigning and Clinton’s ability to disarm Trump’s attempts to feminize, could be …. huge.