Just when you might think the GOP race couldn't get any more ridiculous, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are now facing off over their wives' virtues and reputations. Earlier this week, hoping to appeal to Utah Mormon's sensibilities, an anti-Trump organization placed slut-shaming ads in Facebook featuring nearly nude photos of his wife, Melania Trump. In retaliation, Trump tweeted that "Lyin' Ted Cruz" used the photos, taken from a GQ spread, for political gain and threatened to "spill the beans" on Cruz's wife. It's been retweeted and liked more than 50K times. Cruz responded, tweeting back,"if you try to attack Heidi, you're more of a coward than I thought. #classless."
This is hardly new in American politics, where sexualizing women is a daily event for women politicians, who have to contend with being turned, non-consensually, into pornography memes. In honor-based, patriarchal societies like ours, it's the most reliable traditional way of implying women are immoral and of degrading their credibility. Male politicians' wives serve the same purpose with the added bonus of conveying that men don't have control over what's theirs.
This exchange is the perfectly sexist, and benevolently sexist, acme to months of dick-slapping bravado from men who endlessly go on about their wives, mothers, daughters, making assertions about how much they "love women," "protect women," "think women are beautiful," "cherish women," and "want only the best for America's women." It's hard to reconcile words like these with the idea that they actually betray deeply sexist and misogynistic ideologies.
Benevolent sexism encompasses a whole range of attitudes and beliefs that support men and women in traditional roles, which means, in the end, ones in which women are granted safety and security in exchange for men being imbued with authority and granted power over them. It's characterized by an emphasis on how women look, by the underlying and sometimes overt messages that women are vulnerable and weaker, by sexist humor, and by Madonna/whore ideas of women and sex. It's often expressed in what are considered positive and gentlemanly expressions: unnecessarily gendered solicitude, manners and acts of kindness such as men insisting on opening doors or sitting last, "women and children first," complementing women on their looks.
Institutionally, it shows up in persistent legal and corporate paternalisms that render women, financially, psychologically, emotionally and politically less than full adults, and turns men, who would be their peers and partners, into their functional fathers. Birth control permission slips or mandatory waiting periods for abortions are only the tip of the iceberg in which women making moral life decisions in the absence of men is thought to be impossible. Benevolent sexism, and the chest-thumping so on display during this election, is the lingua franca of conservative patriarchal societies all over the world.
Linguist George Lakoff explored related themes in his book, Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know that Liberals Don't, and suggested that liberals and conservatives could be divided into "nurturant parent," and "strict father" camps. He related this model to policy approaches, evident in GOP debates, to drugs, same-sex marriage, reproductive rights and abortion, multiculturalism, Obamacare, crime, and climate change. You can also see the "strong father" in GOP pink-shaming President Obama as not "man enough" to "keep us safe."
The presidency is a particular nexus for assessments of American masculinity, but it is hardly the only political office that is, in the eyes of many, inherently the purview of men only. While 43 percent of Americans think having more women in politics is important, the breakdown between Republicans and Democrats is telling: 60 percent of those who think we need women in office are Democrats, only 23% are Republicans; 49 percent are women, only 36 percent are men.
In the case of Trump's ascendancy, however, popular support goes beyond implicit bias against women as leaders or the steady, corrosive drop of ambient sexism. Trump is the ideal embodiment of the Internet's commodification of hate, harassment and prurience. His deplorable bluster and repugnant expression shed light on how benevolent sexism necessarily means that controlling femininity is a pillar of masculine power. Trump's incredible arrogance and entitlement are a prime, albeit oversized, example of this ubiquitous reality. "Trump considers himself such a virile example of masculinity," wrote Slate's Franklin earlier today, "that he's qualified to serve as the ultimate arbiter of femininity." And, his starting point is disgust and sexual objectification, openly on display in his endless commentary on women -- Carly Fiorina's face, Hillary Clinton's bathroom habits, Megyn Kelly's menstruating. Trump's endless obsession with women's bodies, his sexual prowess and his own sexual apparatus aren't, however, repelling people, but attracting them -- men and women both. His willingness to "say what others won't" has moved misogyny and race and ethnic hatred from sub-text to text. I, for one, am grateful the ugliness is all out in the open.
These beliefs, and personal ways of organizing life, are undermining women's equality and physical security every day. As I say to my daughters, run as far as possible from the man that is most ardent about protecting you. Both entitlement and sexism are both primary predictors of tolerance not only for professional and political discrimination, but for the widespread violence toward women. Benevolent sexism institutionalized in the law and in rape and domestic violence myths has for decades ensured that women are more, not less, vulnerable because they are most likely to suffer harm from the very men who say they will protect them. Take Trump himself, for example. He's a presidential candidate whose lawyer, only last year, announced, in defending Trump against his former wife's late 1980s allegations of sexual assault, that marital rape isn't illegal, which, until 1993 it still wasn't in all states. Benevolent sexism permeates our legal and judicial theory regarding autonomy and agency--a fact that is highly evident in todays consent and rape debates. Today, still, 13 states continue to make exceptions for marital rape.
Entitled men or those how are aggrieved about their loss of entitlements, are far more likely to have hostile views towards women and entitled women are more likely to hold views of women as needing protection and incapable of being authoritative.
That lack of faith in women's abilities and belief in their primary role as mothers, sex toys and babymakers affects our workplace environments. Men in traditional marriages, where they are the primary or sole breadwinner, view women in the workplace unfavorably, think that businesses with higher numbers of women workers operate less smoothly, find organizations with women leaders relatively unattractive, and are more likely to deny qualified women promotions. The people managing our government, corporations, and religions are overwhelmingly men (84-100 percent). A survey of 1,200 executives conducted by the Families and Work Institute revealed that 75 percent of male executives had stay-at-home wives.
All this Big Man posturing does is seek to justify women's subordinate status to men. Whether you like or loathe her, that Hillary Clinton, a woman and an old one at that, might actually win this presidency is a revolutionary possibility, marking a radical change in American ideals of leadership.