John Cardillo, a television host and former police officer, posted on Twitter on Wednesday what he seemed to think was a dunk on Joe Biden and his relationship with his son, Hunter. “Does this look like an appropriate father/son interaction to you?” he asked.
The tweet was panned by the thousands, and rightfully so. Cardillo’s implication is absurd. But dismissing it out of hand misses a crucial opportunity to talk bluntly about how complicated a father’s love for his son can be, and the equally complicated way sons receive that love. It is not crazy to feel uncomfortable or a little embarrassed by that picture. That’s how men are trained to be.
My father would argue that for men, there is nothing more important than providing for your family. Given his circumstances as an Arab taxi driver with four kids, he did just that. He believed helping me to develop in other ways was just beyond his pay grade. Especially when I hit puberty, there were no hugs, no talking about our days, no intimacy whatsoever. It would have been revelatory just to feel like more of a part of his world. In retrospect, I think now listening to him describe what he was going through emotionally would have given me the right vocabulary to do the same. But while I was lucky enough to be raised in a household with two parents, he believed his share of the work was fulfilled when he paid the bills.
If that sounds off to you, that’s because those ideas are changing, slowly. In a sense, American fathers are now raising sons in a new world. In a 2016 YouGov survey, researchers found that younger men were far less likely to say they were “completely masculine” than older men; only 30 percent of respondents under 29 said they were, compared with 65 percent of men 65 or older. But still, ideals of stoicism, hardness, and quiet, solitary strength are projected and performed by men. A portrait of open and unembarrassed affection between a father and his adult son challenges that, and as you can see in Cardillo’s reaction, defying those conventions often yields mistrust and even disgust.
When I was younger, projecting strength was easy. I was from Newark, New Jersey; I knew how to stand my ground. I was swept up with wanting to keep it real, which ironically meant hiding behind a façade of toughness, so much so that I didn’t allow myself to sit with my feelings before I tossed them out. The fear of being perceived as unmasculine ruled my behavior, and it ruled my father’s behavior too. Being soft and intimate around other boys on the playground was dangerous because of how boys found it easier to knock one another down. Similarly, my father was patient and kind in private, but stern and unforgiving with me in public, worried that a moment of compassion would be misconstrued as a sign of fragile authority. Many of us don’t free ourselves from that pressure until later in life, if at all.
If I hadn’t matured since then, I’d have agreed with Cardillo that that picture is an expression of weakness. But I realize now that those feelings were coming from a fear that’s constantly reinforced. So I don’t think we should harangue men for not recognizing the strength it takes to be intimate with other men. I know from experience that it’s entirely possible for someone to learn to make themselves emotionally available to friends and family. But for men who can’t let go of backward ideals, ridicule is exactly the wrong reaction. What will work for people like Cardillo is what worked for me: to reframe what strength is. In that photo, Biden is showing it. That kind of intimacy takes work, courage, and strength, the kind of traits people tend to lionize when Pew polls them about masculinity. These “masculine” traits are required to be compassionate and kind, particularly with other men, and it’s absolutely the more difficult role to take on.
If you’re a man reading this, maybe you’ve thought about this stuff and feel like you’re in a good place with it. Maybe you are. But I doubt it will be hard for you to think of a man close to you that you would feel uncomfortable embracing like this. Try it. I do with my dad now. It’s more difficult than you might think.