- Masculinity, Media, and the American Presidency by Meredith Conroy
There is something oddly comforting about reading Meredith Conroy's Masculinity, Media, and the American Presidency in the wake of the 2016 US presidential election. Conroy's work deftly identifies patterns in how the American news media frames its political candidates, and in doing so offers a useful and critical context for making sense of the United States' most recent election. With Conroy's insights at hand, it becomes easier to grasp, for instance, the American news media's apparent fascination with handshakes between world leaders, or how old WWE wrestling footage manages to find new political purchase. Conroy's Masculinity, Media, and [End Page 515] the American Presidency provides a thorough, precise, and polemical account of the relationship between popular perceptions of gender roles and political success or failure.
Conroy explains that her core goal is to better understand how "the Office of the President has established itself, with no variation, as a man's domain" (1). This research question is anchored in the distinction between masculinity and maleness, and femininity and femaleness; in other words, between gender and sex. As her first chapter points out, American news media is less preoccupied with a political candidate's biological sex than with gendered traits most commonly associated with sex, such as masculinity and strength. This opens the door for Conroy to gender men in her analysis: to understand how masculinity and femininity, rather than the more commonly investigated maleness and femaleness, may impact men's fortunes in the political process in the United States. In doing so, Conroy is filling an important gap in the literature, as "there has not been an empirically [sic] assessment of the degree to which an association with gender has affected male candidates' campaigns" (12).
A key part of Masculinity, Media, and the American Presidency is what Conroy terms gender conflict framing: "The prominent dichotomy of gender as masculine versus feminine lends itself to the negative and combative nature of elections, and journalistic practices and routines of political reporting" (138), so that the dynamic of conflict that motivates media coverage of politics is pitched as a battle between masculinity and femininity. Moreover, Conroy demonstrates how traits associated with femininity are regularly used to discredit or undermine a candidate; the broader impact of this, Conroy suggests, lies in the message being sent to voters: "that one candidate is the more masculine choice, whereas the other candidate is the more feminine choice" (3). Voters are choosing not just a party or a platform, but also a particular evaluation, and valuation, of gender.
By theorizing gender conflict framing, Conroy can now more effectively ask and answer: "To what degree is gendered language employed in political discussion, for what purpose, and to what effect?" (73). Through a content analysis of two prominent American newspapers (the New York Times and USA Today) from 2000 to 2012, she establishes that "it is acceptable for a president to lack positive feminine qualities, but it is unacceptable for a president to lack positive masculine qualities" (102). To fully illustrate her results, Conroy digs into a few specific political contests, such as the 2004 race between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat John Kerry, as the United States' more militaristic cultural environment after the attacks on New York City's World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 provided a fertile ground for the resonance of aggressively masculinized leadership.
Such arguments and data may indeed be sorely needed in political science; as Conroy demonstrates, the field has, to this point, relied upon perspectives that do not explicitly differentiate between sex and gender as she does here. Speaking primarily to a presumed audience of political science scholars and enthusiasts, however, means that many significant insights about sex, gender, representation, media, and culture [End Page 516] generated beyond this field are absent from Conroy's discussions. Scholars familiar with this wider range of material may find themselves disappointed by the connections that could have been made and the robust...