How Our Politics Are Defined by Masculinity

Using the Kavanaugh hearings as a backdrop, Jess Zimmerman shares some important insights into how patriarchy affects the current discussion about civility in an article titled, “Why Can’t Democrats Get Angry.”

The left—even the moderate left—is feminized in this country to a degree that I have come to believe actually restricts its avenues for acceptable self-expression.

Our weird cultural commitment to the gender binary goes way beyond actual living men and women—if it didn’t, people wouldn’t freak out so badly when someone declines to choose. Masculinity and femininity are concepts we layer on top of everything from people to pens to political parties. Sometimes there’s a middle ground, but often we seem lost without our familiar patterns…Take any opposed things—Democrats and Republicans, cats and dogs, even the sun and the moon—and you’ll find one of them associated with physical strength, action, and domineering behavior, and the other associated with emotion, reticence, and calm. That’s not just descriptive; it’s prescriptive, and proscriptive too. If we could judge the moon for yelling, we would…

This isn’t just about who’s allowed to scream without consequence; it’s also about who’s expected to be reasonable and who gets to be stubborn, who keeps the peace and who advocates force, who makes compromises and who makes demands, who can and can’t successfully run a human tantrum for president. It’s also about ideology. Democrats’ concerns are those that are cast as feminine: justice, feelings, women’s bodily autonomy, children, the ability to keep a family provided for and alive. Republicans’ concerns are those considered masculine: money, business, repelling those seen as intruders, the wielding of physical and economic brutality. It’s not an accident that people who are deeply invested in the sanctity of masculinity—the right of men to power, violence, and control—tend to vote GOP. It is not an accident that these same people tend to denigrate the other party as womanly. (They think it’s a denigration, anyway.)

That is a profound expansion of the idea that the Democrats are the “mommy party” and the Republicans the “daddy party.” It is also a perfect illustration of why we’ve grown accustomed to the fact that the right is allowed to throw tantrums, while the left gets called out for being uncivil.

But the problem isn’t just the binary we project onto everything. This is where it becomes sexist:

The problem with misogyny in this country goes beyond the oppression of women—although that alone should be a reason to shatter the patriarchy where it stands. It’s also the oppression of anything seen as feminine: those who show “weakness,” which is defined in our patriarchal system as anything outside the two acceptable masculine modes of brutish violence and cold indifference. Even cisgender men suffer when they are not able to convincingly perform this twisted vision of manliness…The practical upshot of this is that the entire left wing—yes, even the socialist irony bros—is, on a metaphorical level, a bevy of maidens. Our culture is dominated by men, yes, but more than that, it’s dominated by masculinity. No matter how much male privilege you have and regularly wield, going up against cardinal masculine virtues like violence, wealth, and the unchecked use of power taints you with a feminine stain, and in our society, femininity is disdained.

All of that reminded me of when some liberal men began calling on Barack Obama to “man up” or “grow a set of balls” during his first term. It angered me, not in defense of the president, but because of the way it implied a denigration of the feminine. As Zimmerman points out, it is also an undertone to Ted Cruz’s “tough as Texas” meme, with it’s insinuation that O’Rourke is ladylike.

Zimmerman ends her piece by calling out all the ways that we force things into a binary.

…it’s worth considering that our commitment to binaries is outdated in every aspect of our lives. Both the gender binary and the two-party system are susceptible to being layered on top of other opposed pairs: winner and loser, master and servant, loud and quiet, good and bad. Perhaps it’s time to learn to count to three.

I say, “Amen to that, sister!” To the extent that we can learn to count to three (or maybe even four or five), there are whole other worlds of engagement that open up in both our personal lives and our politics. I know that seems far-fetched in this era of Donald Trump, but a girl can dream, can’t she?

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.