“The Emperor Has No Balls”:Virility, Masculinity, and the American Presidency

By: Meredith Conroy and Caroline Heldman (originally posted at The New West blog)

Screen Shot 2016-09-03 at 12.20.17 PM.png

Two weeks ago, the guerilla art collective Indecline unveiled a series of statues featuring a naked Donald Trump in New York City, Cleveland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Indecline entitled the installation “The Emperor Has No Balls” in reference to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Andersen’s parable is about a vain emperor who is duped into parading around naked by two weavers who convince the leader his suit is only invisible to those who are incompetent or unfit for their positions. No one dares to call out the naked emperor until a child cries out that he has no clothes.

A multitude of meanings could be drawn from the statue, and many have already criticized the Indecline installation for being fat shaming and transphobic. Our critique lies in the most obvious of Indecline’s statements—an assault on Trump’s masculinity. The artist created statues with no balls and a very small penis; a trimming of Trump’s “manhood.”

The problem with this seemingly radical installation is the underlying theme that feminized men are less fit to lead. That Trump is without his balls unwittingly elevates masculinity in the presidential contest at the expense of femininity. This is certainly not the first time this message has circulated in presidential politics, and these messages incentivize both men and women to take on more masculine behaviors and positions, which limit political diversity and representation.

Most Americans conflate competent leadership with masculine traits. In the political world, people prefer masculine traits and expertise on “masculine” issues, such as national security, while feminine traits and issues are seen as less salient. The office of the presidency is seen as the most masculinist institution of all. According to Jackson Katz, presidential elections are always contests for competing notions of manhood, regardless of the sex of the candidates involved, and feminized candidates are seen as weak and unfit for office.

Dukakis.jpg

Male candidates have long been feminized by their opponents to exploit the unconscious incongruence between femininity and president leadership. For example, in 1988, Michael Dukakis’s tank ride feminized him in a way that made him appear unfit for the presidency in the eyes of many. Once a video surfaced of the Democratic nominee looking diminutive in an enormous tank, wearing an oversized helmet with his name stenciled across the front, the Bush campaign worked tirelessly to keep those images in the press. In one ad, the Bush campaign went after Dukakis’s military and national security positions and looped footage of the tank ride with the message, “Now he wants to be our commander in chief? America can’t afford that risk.”

Screen Shot 2016-09-03 at 12.20.29 PM.png

George H. W. Bush was also feminized during the 1988 campaign. Before he formally announced he was running for president, Newsweek magazine ran a cover story entitled, “Bush Battles the ‘Wimp Factor.’” This same wimp label reemerged during the 2012 presidential election, again on the cover of Newsweek, only this time applied to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. In the article, the author wrote that Romney is “risk averse,” “annoying,” and “whiny.” Furthermore, the article went on to say that, “a Republican president sure of his manhood [like Reagan] has nothing to prove…But a weenie Republican [Romney]—look out.” The “wimp” Newsweek headline reprise is a clear sign of the relevance of physical weakness and thereby physical strength in our politics and especially to the office of the Presidency.

In his book, The Wimp Factor: Gender Gaps, Holy Wars, and the Politics of Anxious Masculinity, clinical psychologist Stephan Ducat describes this kind of discourse as illustrating “femiphobic” masculinity. He explains that,

American folk speech regarding masculinity and femininity, or phrases, captures much of our cultures’ taboos surrounding gender. For example, sissy, pussy, and mama’s boy are examples of gendered speech that when applied to men are pejorative, grievous insults and it is their association with the feminine that is the source of the insult.

The Trump statues tap into femiphobia by reminding viewers through virtual castration that a man’s power is figuratively tied to his manhood.

Size Matters

Scholars disagree about the effects of gender stereotypes on electoral outcomes.Meredith Conroy finds that those presidential candidates who are portrayed as more feminine in media coverage are more likely to lose the election, but this observational data cannot directly test whether gendered media portrayals influence vote choice. Other studies find that although many Americans do view men and women as possessing distinct traits and issue expertise, party identification outweighs gender stereotyping when it comes to vote choice.

However, existing studies do not measure indirect effects of the use of feminization to attack male candidates. We argue that feminizing attacks reinforce the conflation of leadership and masculinity, which disadvantages female candidates who are seen as less inherently capable of being masculine. Female candidates navigate this masculine deficit by showcasing their families in campaign materials less often than male candidates, supporting hawkish policies, altering their vocabulary, and even lowering the tone of their voices.

 Hillary’s Family Jewels

When Indecline was asked whether there were any plans in the works for a Hillary Clinton statue, their spokesperson stated:

Hillary doesn’t deserve a statue. But now that we’re talking about it, we’ll probably do one anyway—and give her a huge wiener.

This humorous retort buttresses the message that a large penis symbolizes power. Richard Goldstein analyzed cultural projections of the penis during the 2004 election that pitted gritty cowboy George W. Bush against a Botoxed, wind–surfing, “French” John Kerry:

We may resent the fact that Americans regard the penis and its symbolic projections as synonymous with strength. But psychic reality cannot be denied. At this moment, most voters are looking for a leader who reassures them with a manly presentation.

The Trump statues attempt subversion, but end up recycling the tired, sexist trope that leadership means manliness. One step toward eliminating the reverence for this model of political leadership is to refrain from feminizing men who seek political office, no matter how funny, amusing, or electorally effective.

Meredith Conroy is an assistant professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino.  Her book, Masculinity, Media, and the American Presidency, was published in 2015. 

Caroline Heldman is an associate professor of politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Her Ted Talk, The Sexy Lie, which discusses how objectification impacts the representation of women in power, has been viewed over 1.3 million times. Her book, Women, Power, and Politics, is forthcoming with Oxford University Press.