When Hillary built her 2008 campaign on her toughness and her fortitude, Barack Obama swept in to fill the void of missing feminine energy. Citing both his leadership style and his public image, multiple political columnists have called Obama the first female president.
Now, Obama’s open expression of his feminine side does not eliminate the need to elect a woman to our highest office. But I want to take a moment to appreciate how our current president — particularly, through his close friendship with Vice President Joe Biden — has challenged the constructs of gender.
Obama joked at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2015 that he and Biden had “gotten so close that in some places in Indiana they won’t serve us pizza anymore.” The president recently appeared in this Buzzfeed video braiding a friendship bracelet for Biden. When Biden wished Obama a happy birthday last week on Twitter, he included a picture of the friendship bracelets. He called Obama his “best friend forever.”
By celebrating their friendship in stereotypically feminine ways, Obama and Biden challenge the culture of toxic masculinity which forbids men from expressing affection towards each other.
As boys transition from childhood to manhood, their social environments teach them that close friendships between men are taboo. Female friends are expected to share their secrets with each other, talk about their feelings and take pride in their friendship using bracelets and social media posts. If two male friends are that close, they are presumed to be “more than friends,” and the suspicion surrounding their sexual orientation threatens their masculinity.
Heterosexual white men, who are positioned at the top of the social hierarchy, tend to have the fewest emotional connections with other men. This is likely because such a close friendship is ultimately perceived as a sign of weakness, something which is not socially acceptable for men to show.
Obama’s joke that he and Biden would be refused service in Indiana because they were presumed to be gay turns the stereotype about close male friendships on its head. While he was poking fun at himself and his VP, Obama’s joke was really made at the expense of Indiana’s bigoted “religious freedom” law and all who boldly supported it. By linking negative stereotypes about male friendships with the attack on LGBT civil liberties, Obama declared that the people who would judge him and Biden (or any other male friends) for their closeness are the ones with the problem. We should be laughing at the enforcers of toxic masculinity, not at the ones who dare to challenge it.
One of the purposes of feminism is to promote the idea that the stereotypically feminine way of doing things is not inferior to the masculine way. In many cases, the feminine way might lead to improved health, happiness, and harmony. Friendship style is one example. In a world where all people felt free to express their feelings to and form close relationships with anyone, regardless of gender, would we not experience improved mental health and communication skills?
Obama’s and Biden’s friendship bracelets are a celebration of being themselves.
Obama recently wrote in his essay on feminism in Glamour, “It’s easy to absorb all kinds of messages from society about masculinity and come to believe that there’s a right way and a wrong way to be a man. But as I got older, I realized that my ideas about being a tough guy or cool guy just weren’t me. They were a manifestation of my youth and insecurity. Life became a lot easier when I simply started being myself.”
Obama’s and Biden’s friendship bracelets are a celebration of being themselves. They are a celebration of the feminine style of companionship which the president and VP have adopted and defended. Their decision to share the bracelets on social media reflects a desire to wipe out the shame which society tries to inflict on those who refuse to fit into gender boxes.
Biden’s friendship bracelet tweet has been re-tweeted 280,000 times, more than any other tweet from his account. The world is celebrating male leaders who embrace the feminine — who have acted out the political goal of gender equality in their personal lives.
Obama may be remembered for some of his policies, but he will probably be most remembered for the way he has redefined strength and leadership. His brand of feminism includes giving both women and men the freedom to be whoever they want to be. He has been the example that others can follow, simply by being himself.