Why isn’t Donald Trump wearing a dress? Why isn’t that something that’s happening right now? This is a bit of fairly deliberate concern trolling, sure, but part of me is genuinely, honestly curious, too. Why isn’t DJT walking out to a lectern in the latest from Diane von Furstenberg, offering us a spin so we can get a sense of the entirety of the dress, and then proceeding with whatever his remarks would have been? Why isn’t he skipping through the Brady Briefing Room with a rose between his teeth, kicking one of his feet backward in something resembling joyous abandon?
The toxic masculinity on display from Trump we’ve seen over time (and will no doubt see in the future) may seem to be the least of our most pressing worries at the moment—doubly so if you support the man—but it’s important to take the time to divorce the ideas of healthy masculinity and healthy whiteness from what Trump represents. And, by that, I don’t mean the fact that a voter wanted Trump to be a role model for his daughters, though that’s important, and I’m not referring to the fact that fifth graders see Trump as a bully, though that’s important, too.
This is about what happens when those small, seemingly inconsequential ticks of behavior get wedded to something greater than itself. He may be on tape saying, “Grab ‘em by the pussy,” but that is part of something we already know. He may have been accused of sexual assault by multiple women, but that is part of something we already know. He may have dismissed a line of questioning from Megyn Kelly because he claimed she was menstruating, but that is something we already know. He may have asked an African-American journalist to set up a meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, but that is something we already know. His behavior and lack of punishment may have encouraged other men to attempt to grab women, but that is also something some of us already know.
All this may sound like something in the moment, as if we all have an idea of what it means, but it’s important to emphasize how little it actually does mean. It is the sine qua non of nada. Even the person sitting next to you on a nearby barstool would pause and ask for a little bit more detail after hearing one of the harrowing corkers from the preceding paragraph. In what context could we imagine John Wayne saying, “Grab ‘em by the pussy?” Would Cool Hand Luke do that? Humphrey Bogart? Cary Grant? What world would have to exist for these leading men to say a line like that and for it not only to be okay, but for it to exist as an example of cunning, thrilling masculinity? How could the texture of consequence here be positive?
It’s in twinning the specific meaninglessness of toxic masculinity so frequently evident in this man with the country’s changing demographics, an age of terror, changing gender roles, and economic shocks that attracts my attention, as it partly provides a framework in which we can start to ground some observations of this phenomenon. Sara Grossman of The Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society wrote a compelling essay on the subject and notes that—based on the accumulation of the data and the trend lines at play in the United States—there are some who would have been surprised if “the United States [had not seen the] emergence of a white nationalist movement.”
From Grossman’s essay —
“The key questions now include: For how long? With what degree of political violence? . . . And, will it continue to be under the banner of the Republican Party? Or will the Republican Party, at some point after this election, take a principled stand against this ugly underbelly of social and political transformation?”
When I tease the idea of Trump wearing a dress, I’m not only going after this big, thematic linkage, I’m also asking why the Michael Dukakis tank photo, the Ed Miliband bacon sandwich photo, or the John Kerry windsurfing photo had to be fatal. I’m asking why a candidate has to look something like Scott Taylor, Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg, or Emmanuel Macron.
“Default Men dress to embody neutrality,” Grayson Perry writes and reminds us in The Descent Of Man, “it is not true that they are neutral.” When my Dad worked in a television studio in the Bank of America building in San Francisco in the 70’s, he and his colleagues would enter into an elevator with bankers in formal wear. Everyone was wearing a suit. Once the bankers had left, they would take off their suits and exit into the studio wearing their Hawaiian shirts. (Compare that to a system administrator surprising their co-workers in being a New Orleans stomper.)
But that’s how we dress. That’s indicative of character at best—they’re just clothes, right?—but that isn’t at the root of a character. It’s book versus cover.
So what’s in the ‘book?’ A friend of mine in Lyon who works with children wrote in the aftermath of the Bataclan attacks that she had “the naive idea that the more you take care of babies, the smallest of the small, the more we’d help them have confidence, the ability to question, the ability to build, and the more we’d be able to help them deconstruct all that is wrong around you and love others. Because that’s what one does, no? Deconstruct (the politics of war), question (that which seems to be evident), take care of yourself and others, and love a lot (a lot), with all the resources we have with us.”
Once the book is set in motion, though, then we can perhaps look to what Mr. Rogers wrote —
Any televised danger seems close to home to [children] because the tragic scenes are taking place on the TV set in their own living room. Children can’t tell the difference between what’s close and what’s far away, what’s real and what’s pretend, or what’s new and what’s re-run … If they ask questions [about an awful event on TV], our best answer may be to ask them, “What do you think happened?” If the answer is “I don’t know,” then the simplest reply might be something like, “I’m sad about the news, and I’m worried. But I love you, and I’m here to care for you” … Angry feelings are part of being human, especially when we feel powerless. One of the most important messages we can give our children is, “It’s okay to be angry, but it’s not okay to hurt ourselves or others.”
The question of modern masculinity was going to come to a head regardless of whoever won the election. “While women have steadily made their way into traditionally male domains,” Jill Filipovic wrote in The New York Times in the run-up to the day of the vote, “men have not crossed the other way. Men do more at home than they used to, but women still do much more an average day, 67 percent of men do some housework compared with 85 percent of women. Male identity remains tied up in dominance and earning potential, and when those things flag, it seems men either give up or get angry.”
And not only that, but the question of masculinity was going to have its modern pop culture moment, too. And if Trump’s reaction to Melissa McCarthy portraying Sean Spicer and asking women to ‘dress nicely’ is any indication of where we’re going (let alone one of his advisors barking to a journalist that ‘alpha males are back’)—there’s going to be more than one.
Where does that leave us? In a perpetual state of “We’re good,” because when is a man never not in a state of “We’re good”? Does it mean we have to march into a locker room somewhere, ask to be given the honorary title of Coach, and start saying things like, ‘You want to be a hero? You want to be ‘the man?’ You want to be an ‘Alpha Male?’ You want to dance on the head of that precarious pin? Fine. You’ve got a grab bag’s worth of stuff to sort through: maybe it’s in finding a way to defend the honor not of someone based on some verbal slight that will be forgotten in five minutes, but the planet itself as it barrels into a climate change future. Maybe it’s in helping your grandparents shop at the supermarket as they start to age. Maybe it’s in David Foster Wallace’s adage that ‘true heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care—with no one there to see or cheer.’ Maybe it’s turning the idea of masculinity into a meta-game where you can slowly let the excess baggage escape into the air like steam from a kettle?”
Gender-bending blasted through the doors of rock’n’roll long ago—the theater longer still before that—but it never quite made its way through the Presidency with the same force: James Buchanan may have been gay, but Dwight Eisenhower didn’t quite have the Ziggy Stardust period he could have had.
So the next time you hear the phrase “bad dudes,” “bad hombres,” or “We’ve got to be tough”—or some sort of variation on that—please remember the land those phrases come from, the tradition those phrases could follow but otherwise do not, and how the only thing you’ll ever hear in that land if you ever happen to visit is a hollow wind that blows.