“Senator Obama will meet volunteers after the event.”
It was October of 2007, and I was helping to staff an event at Iowa Memorial Union featuring a speech by Barack Obama, then the young Senator of Illinois who had, a few years earlier, risen to national prominence with his rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention.
After giving his predictably inspiring speech, Obama was escorted to the back room, where he was greeted by an anxious throng of volunteers, myself included. He was kind as he made his way around the front of the room, shaking hands like a seasoned politician. His voice was raised just above a normal speaking level. Everyone laughed a bit too quickly when he cracked a joke.
After a few minutes, the volunteers were asked to assemble for a photo.
As one of the tallest girls in the room, I retreated to the back of the crowd. A flock of eager college-aged young women made space in what was quickly becoming the front row for the senator. They were giddy with excitement, like small birds at an overfilled feeder. “Senator Obama, stand here, we have a space for you!” they chirped.
“Thank you, that is very kind,” he said affably, “but you know, I’m tall. I like to stand in the back.”
Obama shook a few more hands as he made his way to the back row, where he stopped and stood next to me. He extended his hand in my direction. “Hello,” he said shaking my hand. “Thanks for your support today.”
“It is wonderful to meet you,” I said (or at least, I think that’s what I managed to eke out).
As if on cue, the event organizer once more spoke over the crowd, asking for everyone’s attention so they could take a photograph.
And then, Obama said these 10 simple words: “Can I put my arm around you for the photo?”
The question seemed, at the time, incidental to my story about meeting the man who would become America’s 44th president. Little did I know that, nine years later, it would seem like so much more.
And then, Obama said these 10 simple words: 'Can I put my arm around you for the photo?'
Earlier this week, I happened to remember this story about Obama and relay it to my friend John-Michael. We were having a late lunch in the politically historic Hamburg Inn Diner in Iowa City’s Northside neighborhood. The food was comfortingly, predictably mediocre. As John-Michael dove into his patty melt and I ate my omelet with extra crispy hash-browns, I reached the pinnacle of the story. Then, almost as an afterthought, I reflected: “Obama asked for consent before touching me even in the most innocent, public, non-threatening way. And he sure as hell didn’t grab anything.”
That’s when I realized that my anecdote is a parable about not only integrity, but about the very nature of masculinity.
The last month has turned into something of a referendum on manhood in our society. Trump’s infamous words from the leaked Access Hollywood tape, which bear repeating every time ― “You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful... I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait.” ― have become a litmus test of sorts for our cultural notions of what it means to be a man.
Trump and his surrogates, with their defense of “locker room talk” and “alpha male” bantering, are perpetuating a vision of manhood that political writer Amanda Marcotte has defined as one “geared towards dominance and control.” Within this framework of masculinity, entitlement to women is seen as an inalienable right, thereby creating a culture where it is acceptable behavior “to grab them by the pussy.”
This model of masculinity is the traditional one in America, founded on notions of “boys will be boys” and “acting like a man.” Indeed, it’s what our patriarchal systems are largely founded on.
But it’s a model rooted in fallacy.
Social scientists have noted that manhood isn’t so much innate as it is learned, perhaps best evidenced by the fact that not all cultures even have a concept for masculinity. As researchers put it in the Open Journal of Social Science Research:
. . . masculinity is a performance, a set of stage directions, a ‘script’ that men learn to perform. Socializing agents like the family, school, and the media inculcate and validate gender appropriate behavior and the boy learns the male role through observation, initiation and feedback.
And more and more, we’re realizing that this performance is hurting our society in myriad ways. In a New York Times op-ed after the Trump tapes were released, Jared Yates Sexton wrote that, “Disturbing trends show that men, especially the white men who make up a majority of Mr. Trump’s base, are suffering greatly for their posturing,” detailing how rates of drug overdoses, alcohol-related liver disease, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and suicide are all on the rise.
And it goes without saying that women and people who are gender nonconforming bear the brunt of masculinity’s capacity for harm. As the more than a dozen women who’ve come forward to allege that Trump has assaulted them can attest, the ill effects of violent masculinity and rape culture are wide-ranging and debilitating.
It should come as no surprise, then, that in recent years, there’s been a growing push to repudiate what’s become colloquially known as “toxic masculinity,” with movies, books, TV shows, and a plethora of articles taking a stand for a new vision of what it means to be a man.
In her brilliant response to Trump’s grandstanding, First Lady Michelle Obama succinctly encapsulated this counter-vision of masculinity when she stated, “Strong men ― men who are truly role models ― don’t need to put down women to make themselves feel powerful.”
In 2005, on a bus in California, a man who would later become a presidential contender exerted his manhood by bragging about sexually assaulting women.
Two years later, at an event in Iowa City, a man who would later become president asked a woman ― me ― for her consent before putting his arm behind her back.
It was a small moment, but also a significant one. After all, if masculinity is a script, we must ask: Who’s helping to write it?
Other recent stories include: