One of the night’s most striking images captured Minnesota senator and hot-dish enthusiast Amy Klobuchar standing at her lectern as, on either side of her, Joe Biden and Tom Steyer shout at each other, the former vice president’s finger pointed, his billionaire foil weakly raising his hand in a fist. Caught in the crossfire, Klobuchar’s face appears to be mid-laugh; her arms gesture in resigned exasperation, palms turned upward in a wordless appeal to onlookers: Can you believe these two?
One snapshot, obviously, doesn’t tell the story of this debate, or any other: Fighting to be heard is a predictable result when seven candidates are all trying to make the case for their electability in a time frame roughly equal to that of an average episode of “The Bachelor.” But the photo captures the mood of a moment when people have started to ask an important question: Are men too emotional to be president?
Admittedly, most of the time that query is posed in jest — and even then, men don’t seem to like it. But no one has ever found the question inappropriate when the subject is a woman stepping forward to seek the highest office in the land. From Victoria Woodhull in 1872 (before women could legally vote) to Shirley Chisholm a century later, from vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 to Hillary Clinton in 2016, the inability to imagine a female commander in chief persists. Roughly 1 in 8 Americans still see men as more emotionally suited to the presidency. Women are irrational! They change their minds too much! Weird stuff happens with their bodies! They remind men of nagging mothers and girlfriends, because apparently those are the only two roles that women play in men’s lives!
But women aren’t the ones flushed with anger, yelling at one another across a debate stage, as Pete Buttigieg did when he insistently talked over Bernie Sanders about something that was probably important but got wholly swallowed up by all the noise. It’s not women who are petulantly declaring, “You spoke over time, and I’m going to talk,” as Biden did in an exchange with Steyer. It’s not women who are publicly challenging fellow candidates to push-up contests, continually interrupting one another or arguing over who gets to compare himself to Barack Obama. And it’s notably not a woman who currently runs the country with the restraint of a toddler, the entitlement of a dictator and the priorities of a schoolyard bully. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump amassed his base with the promise to be a tough, manly leader, a real American man with no time for liberal sissies. (Never mind that his run was little more than a public vendetta against Obama, a man who had the temerity to be black, American and president.)
Yet the Trump years, should they ever end, will be remembered as a voyage into the unquiet heart of white, male grievance, expressed frequently, crassly and loudly. Brett M. Kavanaugh’s pinch-faced outrage as he ranted about beer during his confirmation hearings. Tiki-torch-wielding attendees of white-nationalist rallies shouting “Jews will not replace us.” YouTube edgelords warning other men that they are the collateral of an out-of-control culture war on all white men. Men firing guns into synagogues and Walmarts and newspaper offices. Men melting down on MSNBC and screaming at NPR reporters.
These men are, as the kids say, big mad. They are no longer setting all the agendas, making all the decisions; they are no longer the authorities on every subject; they are no longer the default voice of the people. And their responses are powering a political upheaval that is proving dangerous to everyone, including themselves.
The false binary of men as rational and women as emotional persists because we teach men that their emotions are different. This has some basis in truth: Though numerous studies have found that men’s brains and women’s brains experience the same emotions with the same intensity, there’s a marked difference in the way they process and express those emotions. The processing-and-expressing part is where nature meets nurture: Our cultural narratives attach disproportionate values to the expression of emotions, and those considered least acceptable in men are the ones most associated with women. (There’s a reason that boys shamed in childhood for “crying like a girl” often become men who can’t hug other men without adding an assurance — sometimes joking, sometimes not — of “no homo.”)
Women who compete in realms still coded as masculine, like politics, meanwhile, have never had the luxury of showing much emotion at all. And women who run for president do so with full awareness that the characteristics the electorate wants in a leader — brave, steady, decisive, aggressive when necessary — have always been ascribed to men and valued accordingly.
They also know that they will be scrutinized differently and held to a higher standard than their male counterparts. They are expected to thread an impossible needle: Confident, forceful speech will be heard as “shrill” and hectoring; showing no emotion will brand them as robotic and inauthentic; succumbing to a single tearful moment will confirm that they just feel too much. Just try to imagine a female president waking in the wee hours to fire off a round of unpunctuated tweets to, say, a retired four-star general or a distinguished congressman. Now try to imagine that this is a woman of color. Now try to imagine this woman orchestrating a comically ham-handed attempt to bribe a foreign power, and then imagine that almost every senator in her political party refuses to censure her because they’re afraid of what she’ll tweet about them. It’s a fun game, huh?
Truly, the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that the acts of men — whether perpetuating a genocide or fistfighting a stranger in the stands of a baseball stadium — aren’t expressions of emotion but of masculinity. In establishing emotionality as the exclusive realm of women, we all — yes, women too — internalize its stigma.
We still don’t know what a female president would look like, and we don’t trust that our friends and neighbors will accept one. We also don’t know whether a female president’s leadership would make this country a more equitable place, whether it would materially change our lives for the better, whether it would change the trajectory of a fast-crumbling democracy. But if the men of 2020 show us one thing, it’s that women’s emotions aren’t the ones we should be worrying about.