On January 20, 2021 President Joe Biden became the 46th president after repeatedly tearing up during his campaign. No previous presidential candidate would have been elected if they had shown even modest signs of such “female behavior,” actions that the majority of Americans have deemed weak. The president’s unique behavior is a measure of how much our society has changed.
In past years, any male presidential candidate showing a smidge of “feminine behavior” was shuffled off to the trash can. In 1972, Democrat Edmund Muskie reportedly teared up in a discussion of his deceased wife in the New Hampshire primary and lost the presidential nomination. Boys don’t cry and neither did successful presidential candidates at that time.
Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis held a 17-point lead over Ronald Reagan in the summer of 1988. That lead fell apart when a helmeted Dukakis, in an attempt to show support for the military, was shown riding in a 68-ton Abrams Main Battle Tank. He looked like a child playing with an oversized toy rather than a strong masculine leader. That film, which even had newscasters laughing, was fatal to his campaign. Bush defeated Dukakis by eight percent and Dukakis never again gained a political foothold. Looking childlike was deadly in presidential elections.
Biden stands out on emotional expressiveness and particularly on empathy measures. In addition to a childhood stutter that left a strong sense of sensitivity to others with difficulties, Joe Biden’s life has seen more challenges than most. When he was 30, his wife and 1-year-old daughter died in a car accident. Then at age 72, his 46-year-old son, Beau, died of brain cancer. Biden is no stranger to deep loss and intense emotions and has the ability and willingness to show it in a way that strengthens his masculine image rather than lessening it.
Our new president and former president, Donald Trump, may both have a Y chromosome, but their similarity in maleness ends there. The 45th president is the diametric opposite of the 46th.
Trump stands out not only compared to Joe Biden but falls on the extreme end of those men who hide virtually all emotions and neurotically work to express their testosterone creds as often as possible. Such men, like the former president, are obsessively devoted to displaying stereotypic signs of masculinity and denying any indication of vulnerability. In that sense the majority of Americans have not only selected different political styles and philosophies but, some would say, embraced a more modern definition of manhood as well.
A strong manly presence may still play a role in the nation’s appraisal of a man running for president, but the definition of maleness has changed. Showing empathy, emotions and outward sorrow have moved into the picture, alongside strength, courage and leadership. Boys and presidents can cry in the right circumstances.
We saw this during the Obama administration when the president teared up on numerous occasion while soothing parents or spouses of soldiers fallen in battle. His deep emotions were evident when, after a long grief laden pause, he sang Amazing Grace at the funeral of nine African Americans at the Emanuel African Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Super macho men who are incapable of showing emotion often have one exception — anger. Fully developed men can show anger when appropriate but also have a full range of other acceptable emotions. President Biden exhibits the entire list. Numerous times on the campaign trail Biden was confronted with aggressive questions that he answered with anger and force. To his credit, his anger was appropriate and well controlled.
In our recent election almost half of American voters, including many women, supported our previous insensitive and emotionally stunted president. But the fact that Joe Biden won the election by over seven million votes is another sign that our definition of maleness and what is acceptable in a male president has evolved.