HomeLearning Center’Speaking As a Man’: Gendered Insults at Republican Debate Highlight a Risky Strategy

’Speaking As a Man’: Gendered Insults at Republican Debate Highlight a Risky Strategy

Originally published by Ashley Parker for the Washington Post

Three-inch heels. Shirtless video clips. A literal below-the-belt manhood debate.

Attacks among Republican presidential candidates have turned personal — including during Wednesday night’s primary debate in Miami, as candidates exchanged gendered insults onstage, drawing some concerns of sexism within the Republican Party amid its struggle to appeal to more female voters.

Tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, for instance, dismissed both Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley as a “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels.”

Haley parried that in fact, she wears “five-inch heels,” taunted her male rivals not to wear them “unless you can run in them,” and noted that they’re not a “fashion statement — they’re for ammunition.”

And Ramaswamy began an answer on abortion by offering a male perspective, declaring he was “speaking as a man,” and adding that “sexual responsibility for men” and “genetic paternity tests” should also be included in the discourse around abortion.

As the field of Republican hopefuls vying to emerge as a more palatable alternative to former president Donald Trump winnows, the group also finds itself fighting a cruder, more gendered battle.

In recent months, the 2024 Republican slate has engaged in a round-robin of gendered insults and, at times, clumsy attempts at machismo. And while Haley and her male counterparts have both lobbed and dodged the jibes, the underlying conceit often seemed to be that femininity equals weakness.

Haley, Ramaswamy and Trump, for instance, have all mocked DeSantis for wearing lifts in his cowboy boots — a charge he denies. The DeSantis and Trump orbits have gone back and forth over who has “the balls” to show up for a debate. And Ramaswamy has twice tried to burnish his bro bona fides by posting videos of himself shirtless engaging in what he claims is debate prep — once on the tennis courts and more recently on a jet ski.

“I do think it is clear that sexism is alive and well in the Republican Party,” said Erica Scharrer, a communication professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who is an expert in gender and media. “Equating femininity with weakness is inherently sexist, and seems to be a kind of prolonged strategy that is playing out in the campaign so far.”

Or, as Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics, posted on X during the Tuesday night heels exchange: “So if you didn’t catch it. Ramaswamy: Heels = feminine. Feminine = weak/unqualified. Haley: Heels = weapon. Weapon = masculine. Masculine = qualified/strong. #masculinitytrap.”

In many ways, the former president has set the tone from the top. Trump — who has a habit of using misogynistic nicknames and a lengthy trail of sexual misconduct allegations against him — was found liable earlier this year of sexually abusing advice columnist E. Jean Carroll in 1996, with a federal jury awarding her $5 million in a judgment. In nearly a decade in national politics, Trump has provided a blueprint for fellow Republicans eager to follow his lead into the netherworld of sexist invective — or at least a permission structure for those curious to try on a cloak of coarseness.

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