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Angle, Reid and The “Man Up” Meme: The Pitfalls Of Gendered Attacks

Oct 22, 2010

“Man Up” has become the latest trendy political catch phrase. Female candidates like Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell have used “Man Up” or a variant in attacks on their male opponents. And now Harry Reid’s campaign has flipped the script and told Angle to “man up” and apologize for racially insensitive comments. This obsession with “masculinity” must end.

 Angle, Reid and The Man Up Meme: The Pitfalls Of Gendered Attacks

Angle joined the masculine-centric craze during her debate with Reid earlier this month, when she told the Democratic Senator to “man up” on social security: “Man Up, Harry Reid. You need to understand that we have a problem with Social Security,” said Angle. Angle used the phrase again last night — four times:

We are saying tonight and every night of early voting, man up, Harry Reid. He needs to take some responsibility. He says it is not his fault on the economy. Man up, Harry Reid. He says there is no problem with Social Security. Man up, Harry Reid. He says this war is lost and your general is dishonest. You owe us an apology. Man up, Harry Reid.

You can’t really blame Angle for her word choice. Erratic is out, and “man up” is in. Angle’s just following the lead of other female candidates, like Democrat Robin Carnahan, who used the phrase when attacking her opponent, Republican Sen. Roy Blunt’s position on health care, and Christine O’Donnell, who put her own spin on it by suggesting primary rival Mike Castle put on “man-pants” to deal with social security. And of course who could forget when Sarah Palin said, quite confusingly, that Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer has “cojones,” while President Obama does not.

Coming from women, “man up” and its figurative cousins sound somewhat comical. The message from Reid’s campaign, however, helps underscore this seemingly harmless phrase’s insidious origins, and ramifications.

The Reid, statement, penned by male spokesman Kelly Steele, revolves around Angle’s storied history of racially questionable remarks, like when she recently told Hispanic high school students they “look more Asian.” “Sharron Angle continues to make statewide and national news for insulting an entire community of Nevadans, and she should man up and apologize to the Hispanic students she’s offended,” Steele insisted.

His message is right, but the packaging is all wrong: While Angle surely does need to apologize, contrition and being a “man” are not inherently related.

“Man up” assumes there’s an archetypal, unquestionably straight, male. He’s that’s masculine and gruff, yet honorable and gracious. He’s the Bounty paper towel model, Cary Grant and the Marlboro Man rolled into one: A lumberjack gentleman cowboy. To tell someone to “man up” is to project this gendered ideal on them. Such projections rarely end well: if you’re not “right,” you’re wrong, and being “wrong” brings “dishonor” and disaster.

Reid’s statement, meanwhile, takes the stereotyping to a whole new level by assuming that only men have the gumption it takes to atone for their hypothetical sins. Women are weak-willed, while men are brave. To “man up” here presumes both a male ideal and its opposite, a cowering woman.

The American male has lately been undergoing an identity crisis: there’s the clearly self-conscious Men’s Rights movement, a shifting economy in which women are tops, and the optimal male has been brought down to size. And that’s okay.  This gender-bending upheaval should be an opportunity to expand the definition of not only a good “man,” but what it means to be a good person.

Apology, responsibility, honesty, these attributes and more are part of what make an exemplary human, that perhaps Utopian character we — I hope — all hope to emulate. Surely playing on a man’s male vanity can work in some situations, like telling a man to take care of his child, but such tactics should be used sparingly, because accountability isn’t about masculinity. It’s about being an adult.

If Reid’s campaign wanted to send a powerful, progressive message, they would have said, “Angle needs to reclaim her humanity,” rather than trying to play on phrase that perpetuates unseemly gendered stereotypes. With “man up” becoming a political go-to, perhaps we can use this opportunity to celebrate traits that aren’t for “men” or “women.” They’re for all of mankind.

Plus, can you imagine the fallout if a candidate blatantly questioned their opponent’s humanity? They would be guaranteed at least two days of headlines, and perhaps even a little honest discussion about why “be a man” deserves to be retired. Two birds, one stone.

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