A mustachioed Teddy Roosevelt astride his galloping horse. JFK with wind-ruffled hair and Wayfarers. Ronald Reagan in Brylcreem and black tie. When it comes to representing American masculinity, Hollywood's got nothing on the White House. The celebrity-industrial complex does its best to advance certain sorts of manly idealsthink Clint Eastwood and George Clooneybut movie stars, subject as they are to fickle studio marketing budgets, fade in and out of view. Whereas the president dominates the news, and our collective consciousness, every damn day for four or eight years running.
The chief executive's behavior sets the tone for what it is to be a boss, a father, and a husband, as well as a leaderthough not always for the better. For every Roosevelt or Kennedy or Reagan, there's a sweaty control freak (Nixon) or a mealymouthed milquetoast in a cardigan (Carter). Among our recent, younger, theoretically more relatable presidents, Bill Clinton, the feels-your-pain empath (enthusiast of McDonald's and other oral treats), didn't exactly inspire men to greater heights. And George W., the biz-school frat guy, forever mispronouncing big words and flunking big tests, lowered the bar with a self-satisfied smirk.
Then, in 2008, the country voted for changein an election that was essentially a referendum on guyhood. Obama had a famously thin résumé, so it came down to this: calm, cerebral young black dude or cranky, hotheaded old white guy.
The nation spoke loud and clear, but did weor at least the 54 percent of the electorate that didn't vote for John McCainreally mean to vote for the Obamafication of the American male? We watch the occupant of the Oval Office more than any other living male, and yet the effect he has on our notions of manhood, our sense of ourselves as American men, largely escapes attention.
In Obama's case, sometimes he lives up to the male ideal and sometimes he doesn't (let's overlook those boxy, too-wide-in-the-shoulder suits and his dorky dad jeans, shall we?). But it might not matter all that much, because in voting for a radically different avatar of American masculinity, we were, in a way, voting for Barack Obama to change us. Which is exactly what he's doing.
For some, it's what's not there that matters. Byron Hurt, a New Yorkarea filmmaker who last fall produced a documentary titled Barack & Curtis, sees Obama's ascent as the rejection of "defiant, in-your-face manhood." Hurt's film drew a parallel between George W.'s masculine identity and that of 50 Centa.k.a. Curtis Jacksonreminding us that Fitty once admiringly called Dubya "gangsta." ("I wanna meet George Bush," he said. "Just shake his hand and tell him how much of me I see in him.") "Barack Obama doesn't have to front like he's hard," Hurt says. "It's a deeply secure presentation of masculinity."