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Donald Trump and Masculinity as Motivator

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In October 2016, Donald Trump created an unprecedentedly hostile-feeling presidential debate by following his opponent, Hilary Clinton, around the stage, looming over her and scowling as she spoke.  For many women watching the debate, the image of a large, unqualified candidate hovering behind an accomplished stateswoman as she attempted to speak knowledgeably to her audience was a familiar intimidation tactic. Using his height, imposing posture, scowling visage, and bravado, Trump projected aggressive power, playing on assumptions and biases about gender. Earlier, Trump had also attacked the masculinity of Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s competitor in the race for the Democratic nomination. Trump claimed that Bernie was weak for allowing protestors to interrupt his speaking engagements, specifically when he let two women speak in front of him at his own rally.

As a historian of Jewish masculinity, watching the candidates announce in 2015 I did not think I would have any particular professional insight into the 2016 election or the following four years of Trump’s presidency. I was not expecting the combination of absurd obstreperousness and flagrant antisemitism of Donald Trump and his supporters, which made me feel I was living in a stress dream trapped inside my own historical manuscript. Trump demonstrates, in the image he projects to the public, the most heavy-handed displays of white masculinity imaginable. In addition, his attacks on his opponents are pointedly gendered, implying weakness and femininity in contrast to his own projected virility and bravado. And this approach appeals to his support base, consisting of both men and women, who cringe at new and more expansive views of gender and its role in American society.

Throughout Trump’s political rise, I was researching a book on Jewish masculinity in America in the twentieth century.  One of my core arguments is that Jews have attempted to acculturate in American society by changing the perceived image of Jewish men to better embody the American masculine ideals cultivated over the previous centuries. Despite these efforts, differences in perception of levels of manliness lingered. The most notable change in these perceptions has been growing since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, as Jewish Americans embrace (and at times, revel in) the reflected manliness of Jewish military victories in the Middle East. This is particularly the case of American Jews coming of age during or born after the Six Day War in 1967.  Bernie Sanders, however, embodies the more classic, continuing perceived difference in masculinity which has been maintained between Jewish and white American men throughout the twentieth century. A New York Jew, Sanders participated with many other young Jews in the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s, and considers his Judaism a link to a past of oppression, far more than a path to Zionism and Israeli strength. Sanders, as a child of the Holocaust survivor generation (though his father left Poland before Hitler invaded) identifies with a Jewish past that feels connected to a long history of oppression and recognizes the need to support other oppressed peoples. 

By contrast, younger generations of American Jews, like Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, identify more with the international image of Israeli strength and self-protection than with the history of oppression which defined earlier generations. As a staunch defender of Israel, Trump himself courts Evangelical Christians, helping to cement Israeli-American relations while damaging Arab-American relations in the process, as well as, according to the Evangelicals, assisting to usher in the End of Days.[1]  He praises Israel for its toughness, its defense, and its aggression.  Trump himself is not anyone’s definition of the American masculine ideal.  He is out of shape, non-athletic, avoided military service, and lacks dignity, humility, and generosity—necessary components of most iterations of ideal American manhood.  And yet he is praised by supporters, largely white working-class men, which is the demographic segment of society perhaps most outspoken about what a man should be.  According to a feature from the American Psychiatric Association, white, middle-class masculine ideology is “built on a set of gender norms that endorses features such as toughness, dominance, self-reliance, heterosexual behaviors, restriction of emotional expression and the avoidance of traditionally feminine attitudes and behaviors.”  Admittedly, Trump indeed exhibits some of these behaviors, but he does so to their unmanly extreme.  His dominance becomes bullying, his self-reliance becomes isolationist, and his overt heterosexuality makes him an aggressive sexual predator. Why his support base of white men, confident and proud in their definition of masculinity, do not find his heavy-handed donning of their ideals (like a sort of white-heterosexual-drag) insulting is one of the most mysterious aspects of his support.

Playing to his base, who do, in fact, revel in his manifested hyper-masculinity, Trump attacks his adversaries one by one, giving them childish nicknames like a schoolyard bully.  He has dubbed opponents “Wild” Bill Clinton, “Cheatin’ Obama,” “Sleepy Joe” Biden, Elizabeth “Pocahontas” Warren, “little” Adam Schiff, “mini” Michael Bloomberg, “cryin’” Chuck Shumer, and “little” Jeff Zucker.  The last four, all diminutive/emasculating titles, are used to refer to Jews.  These nicknames jump out at me, as part of a continuing tradition of emasculating Jewish men.  It is only when Trump is speaking directly to groups of Jews that he abandons the attack on their manhood, though he certainly isn’t flattering.  In fact, when he is speaking about Israel, or to American Jews who support Israel, he assumes the hypermasculinity associated with the Jewish state. Trump told a room full of American Zionists in Hollywood, for example, that he knew Jews in business, and that they were “brutal killers, not nice people at all.”

Trump’s insults aside, it is worth recognizing that his rhetoric is not merely sexist or chauvinist, that his disrespect for women is not the core of his sexist language. Rather, he is on a constant mission to prove his masculinity, his vitality, his rigor, his strength, and even his physical manhood. If we take it for granted that one of Trump’s largest motivations for his unprepared statements and insults is his desperate need to prove his masculinity, his actions make fractionally more sense, even if they are still shocking and inscrutable. His rhetoric also serves as a reminder to those of us who follow such things, that in spite of his support for Israel and praise of Israeli hyper-masculine identity and politics, the kneejerk return to emasculating language when insulting or rebuffing a Jewish male opponent is ever-present.

Miriam Eve Mora is a historian of American Immigration and Ethnicity, Jewish America, Gender, the Holocaust, and Genocide. You can find her on Twitter @MiriamEveMora

Cover image: Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo by Gage Skidmore (29 October 2016)
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Donald_Trump_(30354612000).jpg


[1] For more on the Evangelical connection, see Till Kingdom Come, a new documentary by Maya Zinshtein. https://www.docnyc.net/film/til-kingdom-come/?fbclid=IwAR0L-Q5d5qsZX04m-WZHBabzagkBrw_P4rRjcQu3Dt4SAGMheYwsIToAyR4

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The #MeToo movement, intersectionality, and its implications for Dalit women

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The phrase ‘Me Too’ originated with Tarana Burke, an African American civil rights activist, to raise awareness of the magnitude of sexual harassment and assault among women of colour.  Yet the recent upsurge in its use, and the face of the Hollywood movement, has been spearheaded by Western (and mostly white) celebrities.

Their campaigning has undoubtedly exposed the severity of sexual harassment in the film industry, but it has raised some troubling questions about the influence of race on perceptions of violence and the granting of support to its victims.

These questions have opened a vital dialogue about the importance of intersectionality in the feminist movement and of making space for women from vulnerable minorities who face discrimination on multiple axes.#MeToo revealed the everyday (and sadly unexceptional) nature of sexual harassment, whilst providing women with a safe platform to voice their experience, without having to disclose explicit details.

Yet for many women, including those living in stigmatised Dalit (‘Untouchable’) communities in postcolonial India, this sort of platform remains largely unavailable. Their low status in the caste system and position within economically impoverished communities exacerbates their vulnerability to severe discrimination. The small distance separating women from their attackers, and from the violent repercussions of men surrounding them, further restricts their ability to seek support and refuge.

Notions of purity are essential to the caste system and rest exclusively on female behaviour, marriage practices and reproduction. Transgressions from social norms frequently lead to the gendered humiliation of Dalit women, which presents a means of collectively punishing the family and wider community. [1] This ranges from verbal abuse and harassment, to violent physical and sexual assault.

The distance separating Dalit communities from caste Hindus and Muslims makes them easily identifiable, and they often become the sites of violence. A letter sent to the secretary of the Home Department of Bombay in 1928 outlines the violence inflicted on a group of Dalits within their own village, as punishment for refusing to continue customary ‘untouchable’ practices. [2]

Historians like Nicholas Dirks have done much to emphasise the role played by colonial administration in the construction of the caste system. Vast ethnographic volumes and official censuses were produced for the colonial government, categorising groups according to their perceived varna status. By doing this, the British imprisoned their Indian subjects into castes, whilst largely granting political representation to higher caste groups that controlled access to material resources. [3]

Historian Rupa Viswanath, in particular, has documented the increasing influence of ‘untouchability’ in the public consciousness since the late nineteenth century. [4] Such narratives demonstrate the historical construction of caste and lend understanding to the problems afflicting Indian society today. The use of caste in the Census of India was withdrawn by 1931, but its rigid hierarchical organisation continues to influence discriminatory practices against lower caste groups. [5] Dalit communities remain bound to the bottom of caste and class hierarchies, separated both spatially and economically from caste Hindu villages.

The denial of basic resources such as water requires Dalit women to leave their homes to provide for their families in a way that upper caste women avoid. [6] Without access to toilet facilities, they are forced to defecate openly, and often at night, away from their homes. The distance this demands leaves them vulnerable to humiliation and harassment from upper caste individuals and groups.

Physical and sexual violence against Dalit women is so common place that it receives very little attention. In contrast, cases involving the rape of higher caste and middle class women, such as the Jyoti Singh case in 2012, are given significant attention in international media coverage. This disparity begs a comparison between the influence of racial and caste prejudice in responses to gendered violence.

Utilising a discourse of human rights legislation, academics are beginning to draw comparative histories that categorise caste and race under ‘descent-based discrimination’. [7] This presents a vital development in widening understanding of caste issues by placing them within a global context.

The persecution women face is exacerbated by patriarchal practices within the home. Dalit men often enforce their own superiority within these rigid social hierarchies by subordinating women in their own communities. In interviews conducted with 400 Dalit couples in Tiruppur district, Tamil Nadu, between 2009-2010, over 60% of the women reported high male alcohol consumption and violence. [8]

The complications of reporting sexual violence when it occurs at the intersection of several spheres of loyalty was emphasised in Burke’s original MeToo campaign. African American women were much less likely to report violence committed against them when they risked incriminating men within their already-vulnerable homes and communities. [9] The position of Dalit women presents a similar problem and one that requires a unique human rights discourse.

The rise of international online movements such as #MeToo present a promising shift for women working in established industries. Yet for those trapped at the bottom of caste, class, and gender hierarchies, in economically impoverished communities in postcolonial India, the sentiment of the movement is lost. The violence faced by Dalit women is a relentless, everyday occurrence deeply embedded within the socio-religious framework that dominates Indian society.

Raising awareness of the historical context behind contemporary discrimination is vital. However, more needs to be done to make international women’s movements and the contemporary human rights discourse inclusive for those facing violence and persecution under vastly different circumstances.

 

Frances Hargreaves is an undergraduate student at the University of Sheffield. Her interests lie in gender history in late colonial and postcolonial South Asia.

 

[1] Anupama Rao, The Caste Question: Dalits and the politics of modern India (California, 2009), p. 222

[2] Letter available in the India Office Records at the British Library, London. File L/PJ/6/1959.

[3] Nicholas B. Dirks, Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the making of modern India (Princeton, 2001), p. 5

[4] Rupa Viswanath, The Pariah Problem (New York, 2014)

[5] Nicholas B. Dirks, Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the making of modern India (Princeton, 2001), p. 16

[6] Aloysius S.J Iruduyam, Jayshree P. Mangubhai and Joel G. Lee, Dalit women speak out: caste, class and gender violence in India (New Delhi, 2014), p.12

[7] Deepa S. Reddy, ‘The Ethnicity of Caste’, Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 78, No. 3 (Summer, 2005), pp. 543-584

[8] Nitya Rao, Marriage, Violence and Choice, Gender and Society, Vol. 29 Issue 3 (2015), p. 428

 

Feature Image: https://pixabay.com/en/india-wedding-saree-women-978488/

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