The XX Factor

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

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.”

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.