After a prominent Trump supporter criticized a photo of former Vice President Joe Biden hugging his son, Hunter, Twitter became a confusing party-line battle ground of masculine discourse. The black and white photo, in which the two men are embracing while Hunter looks into the camera and Joe kisses his son on the cheek, became the subject of backlash from Republicans, who labeled the tender father-son moment as "inappropriate."
The brouhaha began with a tweet from John Cardillo, a Trump supporter, former NYPD officer, and radio host. “Does this look like an appropriate father/son interaction to you?” Cardillo asked, posting the photo to his feed. The implication was that there was something unnatural about Biden’s relationship with his younger son, something devious.
But Cardillo is clearly following a precedent put forth by Trump, who tried to use Biden's relationships with his son as a "gotcha" during the first presidential debate. In the weeks since, Biden received similar criticism when text messages between him and Hunter were leaked and revealed. In the texts, the Democratic nominee messaged his son who was in rehab, writing, “Good morning my beautiful son. I miss you and love you. Dad.”
Despite what Republican trolls may allege, the photo and texts simply reveal a loving relationship between Joe and Hunter Biden — one where a father is expressing affection, both physically and verbally, towards his son. But the invented controversy revealed toxic ideas around masculinity and manhood in the United States, combined with a heavy dose of good ol’ homophobia.
While this all might just be another last ditch effort from Trump's team to undermine the Biden campaign (you know, along with the pointless investigation into his Amtrak trips, and allegations that he helped set up Rudy Giuliani's Borat cameo), it does speak to our current culture of platonic affection between men, which, at one point in time, was the norm. But when the idea that homosexuality was actually perversion began to solidify, men stopped touching each other so much.
In a society that has taught men and boys that to be physically intimate with each other is a sign of gayness, and that gayness is associated with femininity and, therefore, weakness, it remains rare to see two men in a non-romantic relationship show the kind of love and affection we see in the photo of the male Bidens, even when those men are family members.
It’s worth noting that there are countless pictures of Trump kissing and being overly affectionate with his daughter, Ivanka, that have no garnered the same accusations of “inappropriate touching” from his supporters that this one photo of the Bidens has (and, let’s be real, the way Trump touches Ivanka actually does veer into inappropriate and uncomfortable at times, especially when he says that if they weren't related he would "probably date" his daughter). But it's also worth noting that the image, which was taken in 2016, was captured during the first interview between Joe Biden after his other son, Beau, passed away.
But by implying that there is something wrong with that photo, the men critical of this are actually just telling on themselves: They are demonstrating their toxic and harmful ideas around masculinity and manhood, and reinforcing ideas around homophobia that end up hurting straight men the most. The reinforcement of this criticism will only deprive men of the touch and affection that all humans need, touch that provides safety, comfort, and emotional support. We force straight men to seek all their physical affection from their women partners instead, and we deprive young boys of the kind of affection they deserve from the men in their lives, like their fathers.
“Boys imitate what they see,” Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson write in their book Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. “If what they see is emotional distance, guardedness, and coldness between men they will grow up to imitate that behavior.” The authors ask, “What do boys learn when they do not see men with close friendships, where there are no visible models of intimacy in a man’s life beyond his spouse?”
Joe Biden is a man who knows grief: he has lost a wife and two children, including Hunter’s older brother, Beau. He holds tightly to the son he has left because he knows the pain of losing one. What Joe Biden’s words and actions have shown us over the last week is not that he is weak or that he coddles his son. What they’ve shown us is that, even when no one is looking, he is the kind of father that other men should strive to be and that he refuses to give into some of the most harmful scripts around American masculinity. Hunter is lucky to have a father like that.