Influential political commentator and former television host Tomi Lahren recently tweeted a joke about presidential nominee Joe Biden, writing, “Might as well carry a purse with that mask, Joe.”
Her reasoning for doing so isn’t hard to unravel. As a conservative publicist, she hopes to make Biden look weak, unmanly and wimpy. Biden, frequently spotted wearing a mask in public, has been an advocate for widespread mask usage.
And true enough, he may not be gracing the cover of GQ with his choice of facial coverings.
The joke also lends some branding support to the image of President Donald Trump as someone who does not need help or protection. We witnessed this branding effort on full display by the scene of the president ripping off his mask with bravado, while actively contagious.
Yet, at face value the joke is flawed.
Using outdated gender stereotypes, one could argue that Trump is the weaker one, because he contracted the deadly virus while Biden stayed healthy. Trump himself used that tactic four years ago, when he teased Hillary Clinton for getting pneumonia during a critical stretch of the 2016 campaign.
But here’s the deal.
The joke that Lahren offers is far more hurtful and offensive than a typical political attack. The message it sends is engrained in messages that are not only outdated, but harmful about masculinity and femininity.
The real message it sends is this: Men who engage in protective health measures are less than men. They may even be women, because women are a weaker and inferior gender and need protection. Real men do not. Only women should proudly wear masks. And men who carry purses or wear masks aren’t really men at all.
The message implied in the joke is present despite the fact that wearing a mask is the No. 1 protective measure against contracting COVID-19, a disease that has killed more than 210,000 Americans.
Although the tweet is fresh, its message is dated and deadly. And it has been killing men for a long time.
Men’s engagement in riskier behavior and fewer preventive health measures has consistently been proved as one of the key factors leading to their earlier deaths than women. It’s a well-known fact that women tend to outlive men. For example, Harvard Health Publishing outlined that 57% of people ages 65 and older are women. By age 85, 67% are women. Women live about five years longer on average than men in the U.S. and 7 years longer worldwide.
Men, for example, are known to avoid things like sunscreen. If we continue to poke fun at men with these kinds of jokes, we can add masks to that list.
It is true that this way of thinking has both an impetus and a following. There are people who, at least initially, are attracted to risk-taking men or those who avoid protecting themselves in situations where simple interventions may keep them alive. They may see such traits initially as attractive, daring or brave.
That’s why the political message works, at some level. We tend to want a president who isn’t “covered up” and can “face anything.”
Who doesn’t want toughness as a characteristic of the president?
Though we may never move completely away from these gendered messages, masculine norms have changed, albeit slowly. In addition to toughness, there are other valuable qualities that apply to male and female leaders. They include empathy, connection and emotional intelligence. And they should include appropriate self-protection and modeling healthy, common sense health measures.
Messages around mask wearing shouldn’t be centered around gender or political affiliation. Certainly, we have learned the virus doesn’t discriminate, although it has proved to be far deadlier for men. Instead, wearing a mask should be about connecting as a community and country in the midst of a pandemic with no clear end in sight. And that’s not particularly funny.
Aaron B. Rochlen is professor of educational psychology at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in The Hill.