Post-Debate, Pundits Get Excited About Obama's Sexual Dominance

What Women Really Think
Oct. 17 2012 12:34 PM

Post-Debate, Pundits Get Excited About Obama's Sexual Dominance

152828051
Mitt Romney, shifter

Photograph by Carsten Rehder/AFP/GettyImages.

Last night’s debate was an entertainingly stilted exchange of personal attacks, very much contra to my prediction. Neither man seemed to know where to stand, when to sit, or how to address the audience. (Was it Lillian? Liliana? Lolita?) Given the freedom to move, Obama and Romney called one another liars in close proximity. The sputtering back-and-forth had people on both sides excited about their man’s swagger, eager to brag about his willingness to engage. But it turns out that pundits don’t know a lot of synonyms for “aggressive.”

“Wow,” blogged Andrew Sullivan, “President Obama just eviscerated Romney. As an alpha male.” “Alpha vs. alpha moment,” said NBC’s Chuck Todd. “Second debate brings out the alpha males,” wrote the San Francisco Chronicle. Mickey Kaus went with “alpha male theater.” "It was a tense debate with two alpha males ranging the stage,” said the Deseret News. For a change of pace, Geraldo Rivera wanted to talk about "balls," specifically the president’s, which he called “a beautiful thing.” “I loved that these real men stood nose to nose and neither backed down,” he said. “Face it: Either way USA wins.”

Advertisement

It may be, as Geraldo contends, that real alpha males with balls will save America. And yet I find it impossible not to imagine how the same level of aggression from a woman would have been received. Actually, I don't have to imagine: Hillary Clinton, when combative, is perceived as cold and unlikable. Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, in their enthusiasm for engagement, are considered completely unhinged. Stone-cold bitch or hysterical virago: This is the range of public identities political women are invited to inhabit. Given this imbalance, it might be worth developing a vocabulary that doesn’t cast admirable aggression as an exclusively male quality. Every quote above contributes to the impression that competence is a measure of testosterone.

The alpha wolf myth has long been discredited and disowned by the scientist who started it all, though the terminology survives, and carries with it the unmistakable implication of sexual dominance. Before listening to the post-debate commentary, it would not have occurred to me to watch an exchange between presidential candidates and try to discern which man would win the opportunity to mate with the most females in the audience. (Loraina? Lori?) This is not a train of thought I recommend pursuing. Rather, here are some other ways to say "aggressive." Let’s all learn them.  

Kerry Howley's work has appeared in the Paris Review, Bookforum, and the New York Times Magazine. She is currently finishing a book about consensual violence, ecstatic experience, and the body.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
  Life
Gaming
Sept. 30 2014 7:35 PM Who Owns Scrabble’s Word List? Hasbro says the list of playable words belongs to the company. Players beg to differ.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 8:54 PM Bette Davis Talks Gender Roles in a Delightful, Animated Interview From 1963
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 11:51 PM Should You Freeze Your Eggs? An egg freezing party is not a great place to find answers to this or other questions.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.