After months of minimizing the threat of Covid-19, Donald Trump now labels it an invasion by an “invisible enemy.” Pronouncing himself a “wartime president,” he describes his pandemic response as “our big war.” And he assures us that this “aggressive strategy” will end in “victory.”
In invoking a militarized masculinity, Trump follows in the footsteps of U.S. Presidents. This version of masculinity is adopted by men who see themselves as fighting for a feminized “homeland.” To be masculine, for most contemporary Americans, means to be strong, fearless, self-assertive – to face down danger. These ideas are as old as patriarchy. And during a pandemic, they are deadly.
We are not at war. Our toolkit for surviving the coronavirus is non-violent: wash your hands, shelter-in-place, wear a mask for essential errands, and quarantine if you’ve been exposed. This will buy us time while scientists develop a vaccine that will contain the virus. This is how we withstand this pandemic.
Tools, not weapons. Contain, not kill. Surviving, not fighting. Withstand, not win.
What we need right now is caution. This is typically the advice you get from a mother, not a father. We need people to hunker down, not “man up.” But this is contrary to traditional notions of manliness. This may be why men are substantially less likely than women to wash their hands. Even under pandemic conditions. Even now. Bemoaning this problem, one expert commented: “We need to make sure men don’t feel too macho to worry about germs.”
Notably, men are not in denial about the risks. A person can only be brave in the face of a genuine threat. The sum of the polls suggests that men are as likely as women to believe they will become ill, but a full 15 percentage points less likely to admit that they’re afraid. To wash their hands is to admit fear.
Pandemics don’t respond to displays of bravery, dominance, or self-reliance. Such displays are irrelevant at best. We need to be afraid, to recognize our own and others’ vulnerability. We need to obey rules and cooperate with others. We need leaders capable of saying, “I’m scared. You should be, too. I need your help.” Sometimes leading means recognizing that we ought to be afraid and cannot rely solely on ourselves.
Consider the response of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand. Ardern imposed some of the most radical restrictions in the world when there were only 102 cases in New Zealand and no recorded deaths. She mandated a quarantine for citizens in non-essential jobs and initiated financial compensation for workers and businesses. Ardern recognized her people’s vulnerability, displayed a healthy amount of worry, and asked for her country’s trust, help, and cooperation. She responded, in other words, in a culturally feminine way.
By contrast, despite finally acknowledging the danger posed by Covid-19, Donald Trump continues to engage in masculine posturing about winning and “moving on.” On April 8, he stated that he would love to reopen the country “with a big bang.” A “BOOM,” he tweeted, promising the “horror” of this pandemic will be “quickly forgotten” in the midst of an explosion of economic activity. In the days since, he has waffled, alternating between sharing the staid guidance of expert advisers and his characteristic bombast.
But the science is clear: we should reopen with a whimper, not a bang.
Denmark and Austria, for example, have announced plans that involve careful staging. The Chancellor of Austria announced that small shops will open first, larger stores later. Schools and restaurants will follow. The German Chancellor agrees they must emerge “step by step.” The French Prime Minister has announced a “complex” set of rules. There will not be, he warns, a “general deconfinement, all at once, everywhere and for everyone.” No bang.
In America too, we will be in survival mode for a good long time. There is still much to withstand. This means continuing to embody characteristics more commonly associated with women: humility, vulnerability, and community-mindedness. Women are generally more comfortable embracing these traits, which is perhaps why the world’s women leaders have mounted some of the most effective responses to this pandemic.
But a person doesn’t have to be a woman to see the value in traits stereotyped as “feminine.” We all need to embrace it. We need to collectively change our minds about what makes a great leader, too, and what excellent management of the pandemic looks like. Because the best approach to saving lives and protecting our economies is a feminine one.
Lisa Wade is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University, officially joining the faculty in 2021 as an Associate Professor with appointments in Sociology, the Gender and Sexuality Studies Program, and the Newcomb Institute. Her research explores how gendered ideas about the body inform sexual attitudes and behaviors and sexuality-related discourse and policy. She is the author of American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, and co-editor of Assigned: Life with Gender. You can find her online at lisa-wade.com and on Twitter @lisawade.
Tristan Bridges is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is co-editor of the interdisciplinary journal, Men and Masculinities, and co-editor of Exploring Masculinities: Identity, Inequality, Continuity, and Change. You can follow him on Twitter @tristanbphd or at his website tristanbridges.com.