Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s red lip. The image alone carries power and symbolizes the strength of femininity. And what an interesting concept: strength in femininity. When I read it, I can’t help but consider it an ironic juxtaposition. Women can be strong, yes, but the notions of society don’t associate that as feminine. A strong woman is admired because we’re told it’s something a woman achieves through experience. To a female, strength is not innate. A male, however, isn’t praised for being strong as a woman is. Instead, strength is a baseline for the male race. A pillar of masculinity, so to speak.
The red lip is iconic because of its contradictory relationship with society’s gender norms. The red lip is modern-day Cleopatra. On the one hand, the red lip accepts and represents the female as desirable and sexual. On the other hand, the boldness of the red lip stands out in an act of rebellion. It’s angry, it’s fiery, it’s passionate. Most importantly, it’s strong. In the political realm, the red lip for AOC is a tool to ignite confidence and speaks to not only hers but the strength of the female. When AOC was sworn in, she wore her staple red lip and tweeted: “Lip+hoops were inspired by Sonia Sotomayor, who was advised to wear neutral-colored nail polish to her confirmation hearing to avoid scrutiny. She kept her red.” While the color choice represented confidence in herself, it also stood alongside countless women whose stories of sexual violence were silenced with the assumption that a woman asks to be sexualized based on the way she dresses.
For women in politics like AOC, the red lip represents strength. It’s an extension of her personality, something she needs to add to herself to make her presence more powerful. For the male, however, society denotes the strength and power as within. There is no equivalent red lip for a man because what the red lip does for a woman is done simply by being a man. As a result, masculinity in and of itself is a strategic power move that politicians lean into and exacerbate to legitimize authority.
There’ an interesting Washington Post article by Matt Viser that examines “Trump, Biden, and masculinity in the age of coronavirus.” Viser evaluates how Trump and Biden present themselves as various versions of masculinity. Whether it be performed consciously or unconsciously, playing up and into the hegemonic ideals of what it means to be a man positions them in a higher state of power and authority.
Jackson Katz describes Trump as “a more caricatured version of masculinity,” (Washington Post). He is overly aggressive to demonstrate his physical and mental toughness. Biden on the other hand represents a “manly but caring boy next door,” (Washington Post). Biden has moments of vulnerability in the public eye, but still interacts with and displays old fashion stereotypes of masculinity.
Regardless of the form, the two play into their masculinity to legitimize their ability to lead. The qualities of a strong leader – mental and physical toughness – are traditionally associated with masculinity. So, while a woman represents her ability to lead by the way she presents herself (ie how she dresses, her posture), Biden and Trump announce their presence as a leader by perpetuating gender stereotypes. Strategically, this makes sense. The hegemonic gender ideals enable men, white men particularly, to have greater access to power purely based on their gender and race.
The masculinity becomes increasingly toxic and dangerous when the battle for who is stronger and more capable to lead takes center stage in the media. Twitter exchanges and remarks during speeches attacking the other candidates’ manhood are highlighted and showcased across television channels, media outlets, and spread over the cover of newspapers. The back-and-forth banter, particularly the arguments that call out Biden as weak or Trump as a “fat, ugly SOB,” normalize, to an extent, the struggle for who is more of a man. The constant cycle of this in the media consumes the people and perpetuates the narrative. And when the toxic masculinity is not addressed and pushed back, it’s too easy to find yourself on one side of the fight, cheering on from the sidelines who is stronger and more of a man.
The qualities associated with a strong leader fall under the same umbrella as the qualities associated with a man. Similarly, the qualities society deems feminine – gentle, nurturing, loving, kind – constrict her ability to lead in a position of power. So, until we can separate these definitions of what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman concerning qualities of a leader, women will have to continuously draw on tools (ie, red lip) to legitimize their strength and authority.