Tuesday's presidential debate may have been the most emotional in history -- thanks to the interruptions, angry fits and outbursts from President Donald Trump. There was little policy discussion, rational debate or rationality at all (although Democratic candidate Joe Biden tried). Instead, viewers were treated to the rantings of a hysterical, mercurial man who wants to be reelected president.
And yet the word that perhaps best describes Trump's debate style -- emotional -- is almost totally absent from the coverage of the event. Why? Because Trump and Biden are both men, and 'emotional' is a term typically reserved for women.
Anger, it should be said, is an emotion. When women get angry, people notice; and because anger is widely perceived as unfeminine, a woman who gets angry may find that others twist her emotions into something more nefarious. She's not just angry; she's hysterical, she's impulsive, she's crazy. To follow the line of stereotypical thinking further, crazy women make rash decisions. They're unpredictable and scary. They can't be trusted to regulate their own feelings, let alone lead the country. There's a reason 'she's crazy' or 'she's hysterical' or 'she's shrill' are among the go-to right-wing attacks on strong women leaders, and why the images of Hillary Clinton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Kamala Harris and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that you find on right-wing websites (or the President's Twitter account) are routinely unflattering photos of these women with emotionally exaggerated expressions like bulging eyes, pointing fingers, and open mouths.
If women show the wrong kind of emotion in public, then we're weak -- God save the female politician who cries in public. If women rein in our emotions too effectively, then we're cold and unemotional, which suggests to some that we are conniving, crooked and not to be trusted. Is this sounding a bit familiar?
For men, it's a different game. Our society's constricted ideas of what a man should be mean that they typically have to control their emotions even more so than women, with one exception: Anger. The communication of male anger is valid, respected, and excused, even where other reactions -- sadness, hurt, fear, shame, guilt -- might be more appropriate in the same moment. We are so accustomed to male anger dominating every other male emotional signifier that we fail to recognize that while anger can be useful and powerful, as the primary way a man expresses himself it is usually a sign of stunted expressive faculties and dangerously limited emotional range.
We hardly see male anger as an emotion at all, even while we register that it can be a destabilizing, destructive force.
The white-hot Trump rage that burned up the debate stage Tuesday night certainly left me wishing that there were two women up there instead of two men. Not because women are inherently gentler, kinder or less angry -- we are not -- but because, judging by every prominent and respected woman in politics, women who rise to the top of the political world are nearly all more lucid, emotionally well-adjusted and serious than Donald Trump. And frankly, many of them are far more politically talented than Joe Biden.
The debate debacle was enough to make you wonder: Are men too emotional to be president?
The question is facetious, of course, but it's one that has been turned on women seeking involvement in politics for time immemorial, from when they demanded the right to vote ('If you know the physical life of a woman, you know until she is 50 she has moods and tenses,' read one anti-suffrage pamphlet from around 1915) right up to the present day, when 13% of Americans -- and, stunningly, more than 30% of strong Republicans -- say that men are better emotionally suited for politics than women, according to research from Georgetown University drawing on data from the General Social Survey.
This is more of a conservative problem than a liberal one. While Republican women make up less than 3% of seats in the House of Representatives, and the United States has never had a female president or vice president from any party, only a third of Republican voters say that there are too few women in higher office, according to the Pew Research Center, and an overwhelming majority of Republican men reject the idea that discrimination has anything to do with the dearth of elected women. Also according to Pew, almost 50% of those who vote or lean Republican say that the current state of affairs -- where men dominate politics at every level -- reflects a country whose progress on gender equality in the last century has 'been about right.'
Women are not inherently more emotionally evolved than men. But it is absolutely the case that women in politics are judged for their gender-- as women -- in a way that men aren't; that the bar for women isn't just higher, it's rising and falling wildly, making it impossible to clear.
The only way to fix the problem of the stereotypes that keep women out of office is to get more of them into office so that women in positions of power become normal, just 'politicians' and not 'female politicians' (who would ever say, for example, that someone is a 'prominent male politician'?). That's a difficult prescription -- if women are kept out of office by sexist stereotypes, and the only way to break through those stereotypes is to get more women in office, well, you see how you wind up caught in a cycle of exclusion and sexism and then more exclusion.
But how we talk about men in politics matters just as much as how we talk about women. When the emotional realm is (incorrectly) assumed to be feminine while logic, rationality, leadership, and aggression are reserved for men, we lose the ability to accurately assess --and name -- human behavior on its face. When we distort certain actions or reactions through the lens of gender stereotypes, we are less able to evaluate what those actions and reactions -- like a President losing it on the debate stage -- tell us about a person.
Let's call Trump's performance Tuesday night what it was: A hysterical outburst that calls into question the President's ability to emotionally self-regulate, his psychological well-being and his basic fitness for the job.