When word broke this past week that Vice President Mike Pence has a longstanding practice of refusing to dine alone with any woman not his wife in order to ensure that he is not tempted by an illicit relationship, the reactions from all sides of the aisle were intriguing but pretty predictable. On the left, the claim was that this behavior was not only sexist and completely diminishing of women, but that such a move would prevent many women politicos from (literally) getting a seat at the table in an atmosphere where never-ending work schedules make working meals a prerequisite for employment. On the right, a general rejection of the sexism thesis was followed by praise for Pence and his commitment to his marriage.
What strikes me as interesting about these positions is their relative place in the symbolcraft of Washington masculinity, a system that marks and thereby normalizes male politicians’ identities in specific ways. Janet Jakobsen describes this masculinity as a dual system that runs on contradiction: on the one hand, there is the ideal of the rule-following “family man” whose moral integrity and commitment to his family is a sign that he is a trustworthy father who will provide for the nation; on the other hand, just as common is the “old boys’ club” where men are hypersexual and illicit sex is the norm. If there is a question about whether such a contradictory gendering system actually exists, we need only consider two pieces of data: 1) when politicians open their mouths, a rhetorical reference to “family values” is just about as common as their own exhalation; and 2) a google search of “politician sex scandals” will yield more information than can be digested by any one person.
With this in mind, I am intrigued by the ease with which so many Americans will normalize claims of male sexual frailty to justify Pence’s behavior as a model of proper and responsible masculinity but question it as an example of sexual exploitation when it is used, for instance, to justify the wearing of hijab by many Muslim women. This sensibility demonstrates that perhaps these two standards of masculinity aren’t actually contradictory in the way they are presently conceived, for under this logic, every family man is just one opportunity away from becoming completely overcome by his libido.
It may seem ironic that a culture that is so concerned about its politicians’ private lives votes a majority of people into office (that is, men) who are simultaneously cast as completely vulnerable to what are portrayed as their own worst impulses. But lest we attempt to rationalize this too much, I prefer Jackson Katz’s explanation for this phenomenon, which is that Americans have a long history of voting for symbols of masculinity over good policy. For as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, so long as we understand that people form political ideas based on inchoate feelings rather than logic, our democracy will be defined by the sexual hierarchies that are so deeply embedded in both our psyches and our culture.
photo credit: politico.com