Macho (Wo)men in Politics

The United States has a long history of publicizing so-called “macho” men. Over the years, the prototypical macho American man has seen numerous incarnations – from cowboys to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator. Often, these characters have proven their masculinity by being “tough” or by relentlessly beating down their opposition. Now, as next year’s presidential election approaches, the primaries have created a new arena for sparring. A period of relentless political jockeying in which candidates vie for media attention and try to best their opponents, the primaries have become a platform notable for displays of American machismo.

As Meredith Conroy explains in her book Masculinity, Media, and the American Presidency, “Without question, leadership is a quality we want in our presidents. Yet, leadership is a trait that is described and measured in terms of strength and weakness. This association with strength and weakness explicitly acknowledges leadership’s association with masculinity, as strength is most notably a trait observed in men, especially when connected to physicality.”

Accordingly, in the current presidential race we have seen candidates emphasize their masculinity in both subtle and explicit ways, in order to appeal to voters who positively associate masculine qualities with political leadership. Notably, in September, Jeb Bush stood up on his tiptoes for a group photo to tower above the rest of the Republican candidates. At 6’3”, Jeb is already the tallest candidate in the Republican primary, nevertheless, he chose to reassert this feature in the group picture.

Such exploits are not necessarily far-fetched or irrational. Economists have shown that height is “as important as race or gender as a determinant of wages.” An additional inch of height can be worth around an extra $1,000 a year in wages. Similarly, height also can affect perceived leadership ability. Four out of the last five American presidents have been 6’1” or taller. These associations reinforce our association between the capacity to lead and masculinity – the taller and more manly, the better. Arguably, Jeb Bush was appealing to these associations.

Bush is by no means the only candidate to fall prey to these tactics. Donald Trump has also carefully built up the “bullish image” that some view as “the key to his appeal among voters…” He has continuously emphasized his toughness on the campaign trail. Stephen Collinson of CNN writes, “Being tough is not unusual in presidential campaigns: It’s required, for instance, for presidential nominees to show they have the steel to be commander-in-chief. But Trump takes political bravado to a whole new level, branding himself as a human battering ram…” Since the day of his announcement, Trump has continued to dismiss other candidates or incumbents for their alleged weakness while seeking to strengthen his own tough, masculine image.

This machismo reflects the behavior of politicians in other countries as well, chiefly Russian president Vladimir Putin, who is infamous for his well-publicized macho antics. Putin’s administration has propagated a number of pictures of the leader engaging in various manly activities over the years – usually while shirtless. The photographs border on comical, and many of them are arguably staged, but they are no doubt part of a strategy to underline his masculine image and thus his claim to leadership. The Economist suggests, “[H]is daredevil antics also embody an idealized version of manhood…Considered in this way, Mr. Putin is less the subject of a [personality] cult than its high priest…”

What makes this phenomenon particularly interesting is that female candidates are not exempt from the pressures that make Jeb Bush stand on his tip toes. Female political leaders, like their male counterparts, also fall prey to their own version of machismo in order to appeal to the same connections we make between leadership and masculinity. However, their toughness demonstrates itself almost exclusively through their foreign policy rather than through their physical brawn.

Consider, once again, the American primaries, where female candidates from both the Republican and Democratic Party polish their image as tough leaders. Their machismo comes to the fore most clearly through their foreign policy stances, which strive to embody the same tough, relentless beating of the “opponent.”

The factors we positively associate with leadership correspond to the qualities we associate with masculinity, encouraging male leaders to emphasize their toughness and strength.

Carly Fiorina, for one, has made aggressive, sometimes draconian foreign policy recommendations. A Slate article quotes Fiorina at a CPAC conference in February where she said, “I applauded King Abdullah’s leadership when his response to the beheading of a Jordanian pilot was the immediate execution of two terrorist prisoners and to begin bombing.” According to Slate, this mind-boggling statement is directly connected to Fiorina’s efforts to come across as tough. “Fiorina is giving King Abdullah the high five for answering the deliberate killing of a prisoner with the deliberate killing of two prisoners…just because you’re a woman doesn’t mean you have to be civilized.”

While Fiorina’s recommendations are too severe to be credible, this hawkish foreign policy approach arguably bears resemblance to Angela Merkel’s tenure of leadership in Germany. The German chancellor has emerged as Europe’s leading political figure during the recent, tumultuous times that have shaken Europe . Her assertive and decisive foreign policy approach has garnered her worldwide support and reflects a clear and offensive strategy. Merkel flew to Moscow in the spring to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin over the Ukraine crisis, condemning Putin’s annexation of Crimea as “criminal and illegal.” Merkel has also demonstrated her tough approach while embattled over sovereign debt negotiations in Greece. At the time, Merkel demanded that Greece pay its debt back in full and dismissed the nation’s demands for the compensation of Nazi war crimes in Greece, a position reflective of her blunt assertion that “politics is tough.”

Not all women in politics employ this strategy, however. Argentinian president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, for example, has been known to project a strongly feminine image as has Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, who not only incorporates engendered rhetoric into her public statements, but also dresses effeminately. Likewise, in the United States, political leaders have chosen to emphasize their femininity notably Sarah Palin, whose femininity was integral to her image during her run for president. During her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, for example, she “tossed occasional kisses and winks to supporters in the crowd.”

Although not every political leader appeals to the macho, the question that must be asked is whether this enhanced machismo is an effective political tactic for both female and male leaders alike. While some would like to think that we are past the point where engendered political tactics are still relevant, in fact, masculinity continues to be an integral factor to the assessment of political leaders around the world.

The factors that society positively associates with leadership correspond to the qualities it associates with masculinity, encouraging male leaders to emphasize their toughness and strength. Consequently, in order to be respected and seen as competent, female leaders are compelled to demonstrate their masculinity, lest they act too feminine and receive sexist criticism as a result. Palin was reduced to a bimbo, dubbed “Caribou Barbie, Malibu Barbie” and “Winking Wonderwoman of Wasilia…” while Croatia’s Grabar-Kitarovic’s soft foreign policy stance and false eyelashes have likewise brought her ridicule. Similarly, Fernández de Kirchner has been subject to demeaning treatment – in tabloids she is overly sexualized and most recently, a video of her dancing during a recent political rally went viral.

Masculinity and its political byproduct, machismo, are more relevant than ever in public political life, in the United States and countries around the globe. As the nation looks to the presidential race that unfolds into next year, the American public can look forward to seeing which candidates bully their way to the top.