Presidential Election Has Become a Race to Be Man Enough

You know what they say about the size of a man's hands.

Well, we all do at this point. That's because the leading narrative in the current presidential campaign is about foreign policy. No, sorry, minimum wage. Or wait, immigration.

Excuse us. Wishful thinking. It's about penis size.

Things escalated a week or two ago when one candidate insinuated that his chief rival is poorly endowed. (Also, a spray-tanning, pants-wetting, over-coiffing wuss. At the next debate the rival boasted, with characteristic subtlety, that he is quite the opposite.)

Everyone's talking about this, but no one's really calling it what it is. This kind of taunting is not just juvenile. It is gendered. It's not about whether someone is experienced or visionary enough to be president. It's about whether someone is man enough to be president.

We're not here to endorse a party or a candidate. We are saying that gender norms and stereotypes are playing a major role in this election, on all sides, perhaps more than ever before. We're saying that, actually, we the people, as opposed to any particular player here, are responsible for the culture that creates these conversations. That's why we can, and must, do better.

What are gender norms? They are the cultural instruction manual we get about the "right" way to be a man or a woman. Obvious example: a man must be strong. Strength itself is hardly a bad thing, but what kind of strength? The messages sent to boys and men give them basically one option: strength means "don't cry"; strength means dominate. Women don't get that one. Women get: be nice. So when women act tough, it freaks people out.

What's wrong with all that? At best, people get limited options for who and how we want to be. At worst, gendered beliefs about what's "normal" can lead to gender-based discrimination and violence. Today, they're certainly obscuring rational, thoughtful evaluation of all the current candidates.

Of course, it's long been both norm and reality that the president is a man. But not just any man. A man who's strong and tough, not "soft" on terrorism or crime. A man who can, as Rush Limbaugh put it in 2008, "take a punch." (Related: sneering at the image of then-candidate John Kerry in 2004 windsurfing, considered lightweight and effete.) Today, it's gotten pretty literal, with candidates threatening rivals, protesters and other enemies with physical violence (or at least besting one another at pull-ups).

We expected gender to play a role in this election. But we pretty much expected only Hillary Clinton's gender to play a role. One micro-example among millions: When Bernie Sanders shouts, he's just a guy shouting. But when Clinton raises her voice, she's chided for "screaming." Gender norms? There's no debate.

We need to change the way we talk about gender -- far beyond this political cycle. We can start at home and with our kids. As the father of two young girls (Pete here), I don't refer to stuff they do as "girly." We use tools, do pushups, paint nails, build Legos, and play soccer together. We clean litter from our local parks. We consider all these activities and responsibilities gender-neutral. Why would I want to narrow their path? (Or my own. I recently discovered that wearing tights for running is SO MUCH BETTER than baggy sweats, and I don't care if my neighbor says "NICE TIGHTS, BRO" from behind his can of beer every time I run by.)

The messages kids get matter beyond our families, too. One recent Harvard study suggested that girls still see leaders as men (and child care workers as women).

Even our smallest actions make a difference. They add up. They help us see that gender norms affect, and limit, all of us -- and once we see those limits, we can break through them. That's why Breakthrough is collecting personal stories about gender norms at THE G WORD. They're stories about the boy whose parents didn't let him knit. About young women being told not to be "bossy" (and doing it anyway). About people who experienced direct discrimination or violence -- bullying, anti-gay or trans violence, domestic abuse, sexual assault -- for not fitting one gender norm or another. When we share our stories and connect to others', we can see amazing new possibilities for everyone.

Not settling for rigid gender norms means not molding ourselves to the expectations of others. It means that we as individuals, communities and even nations can reach our full potential. It may be too late for this particular election cycle, but let's build a new conversation -- with our kids, our peers and those in power -- about what leadership means, what strength means, what power means, what it all means, when not attached to gender. It's not about what it takes for a man or woman, or president, to be strong. It's about what it means for a human to be strong. We'll all be stronger for it.