Coronavirus Safety Runs Into a Stubborn Barrier: Masculinity

On Tuesday, and not for the first time, Joseph R. Biden Jr. described President Trump’s reluctant attitude toward wearing masks as “macho.”

Tomi Lahren, a conservative commentator and Fox Nation host, countered that Mr. Biden “might as well carry a purse with that mask.”

They were among the most direct comments yet that have tied stereotypes about acting and appearing manly to the basic precautions that doctors, epidemiologists and other health experts recommend to prevent infection by the highly contagious and deadly coronavirus.

The theme has been there since the beginning of the pandemic. Some experts who study masculinity and public health say the perception that wearing masks and following social distancing guidelines are unmanly has carried a destructive cost. The virus has infected more men than women and killed far more of them.

Theresa Vescio, a professor of psychology and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Penn State University, said Mr. Trump has frequently engaged in “masculinity contests” as a president and candidate.

He has demeaned male rivals — repeatedly referring to former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg as “Mini Mike,” for one — and in the 2016 Republican primary defended the size of his penis after an attack by Senator Marco Rubio.

And Republicans have successfully staked ground as the party for men who take their masculinity seriously. In research with Nathaniel Schermerhorn, a graduate student at Penn State, Professor Vescio has found that the degree to which someone endorses traditional masculine ideals — including women who value traditionally masculine men — very strongly correlates with identifying as a Republican. Polls show Mr. Trump attracts more support from men than from women.

“Republicans have been doing this since 2016, effectively feminizing or suggesting Democrats have masculine shortcomings,” she said.

Credit…Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Many of Mr. Trump’s supporters admire his aggressive style, Professor Glick said, and see him as a model of male dominance.

It was a lost opportunity early in the pandemic. The president could have used that authority to change the perception of masks and other precautions among those who value traditional masculine traits, he said.

“It certainly would have helped,” Professor Glick said. “But at this point, it’s hard to go back.”

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