Maybe It's Time We Redefined Manliness

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Maybe if he had a swagger like Marion Barry or a knack for vicious hyperbole like Jesse L. Jackson Sr. or a military bearing like Colin Powell. Then, perhaps, Barack Obama could put an end to questions about his masculinity.

"Does Barack Obama have testicular fortitude?" read a recent headline on the History News Network, an online publication hosted by George Mason University.

Paul Gipson, president of a local steelworkers union in Indiana, endorsed Hillary Clinton's bid for president, saying "what we gotta have" is "an individual that has testicular fortitude."

What is Obama to do?

Obviously, it's not enough to battle your way to the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. You can vanquish a field of primary candidates. You can win campaigns in the far northwest, in places where there are no blacks to speak of. You can raise a war chest that exceeds the annual budget of a midsize town.

You can walk a fine line between being too black for whites and not black enough for blacks. But here you are, just weeks away from the presidential election, being called on to prove that you are man enough -- without coming off as an angry black man.

"Barack Obama, as an African American man, has a real challenge," Estelle B. Freedman, professor of history at Stanford University, said Sunday on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." "Some of the criticism of Obama as being too aloof or not going after red meat enough or not being aggressive enough are really questioning his masculinity in some ways.

"But given the historic stereotypes about fear of African American men's masculinity and fears of their aggression, Obama has been successful because he embodies an earlier model of black male politicians for whom respectability and reason were tickets into full citizenship."

But not successful enough, apparently.

On Tuesday, Richard Cohen wrote on the op-ed page of The Washington Post that Obama's appearance on a TV talk show Sunday "had me wondering if, as a kid, Obama ever got a shot in the mouth on the playground, he'd glare at the bully -- and convene a meeting."

Arita L. Coleman, assistant professor of Black American Studies at the University of Delaware, deconstructs such criticism in an article that appeared June 2 on the History News Network.

"Historically, our leaders have been white. Thus, whiteness and masculinity have also become synonymous," she writes. That women like Clinton and now Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee, can be considered more masculine than Obama "bears historical significance" in that it grows out of a 19th century view of race which holds whiteness as masculine and dominant and blackness as feminine and submissive.

Palin's claim to masculine fame is that she is a moose hunter and hockey mother of five who can morph into a pit bull. She also has a penchant for drilling oil -- "drill, baby, drill," her supporters chant. She thinks Obama is a wimp, in part, for his reluctance to do so.

The manly response by Obama would be to sic his pit bull -- vice presidential nominee Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware -- on her. Then Obama can pick up where he left off at the Democratic National Convention: going after the Republican presidential candidate, John McCain.

"If John McCain wants to have a debate about who has the temperament and judgment to serve as the next commander in chief, that's a debate I'm ready to have," Obama said, to the sustained applause of nearly 80,000 conventioneers. Then came the knockout punch: "John McCain likes to say that he'll follow bin Laden to the Gates of Hell, but he won't even go to the cave where he lives."

If traditional campaigning can't convince voters that Obama is man enough, then perhaps he should wear his baseball cap backward and saunter cockily, a model of black masculinity that America is more familiar with. He could vow to off his rivals with the political equivalent of what Palin does to a moose.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company