Hey, Joe Biden: Your macho fantasies about a Trump beatdown don't help women

No one doubts the former veep's heart and commitment. But his macho posturing is ugly and counterproductive

By Erin Keane

Editor in Chief

Published March 21, 2018 6:59PM (EDT)

Former vice president Joe Biden (Getty/Scott Olson)
Former vice president Joe Biden (Getty/Scott Olson)

Let no one say Joe Biden doesn’t know how to work a crowd. Speaking at a University of Miami rally for sexual assault prevention on Tuesday, the former vice president reportedly earned an enthusiastic reaction by slamming President Donald Trump’s misogyny. Addressing Trump’s comments about women captured on the infamous "Access Hollywood" tape that was released about a month before Trump won the 2016 election, Biden went all-in with a headline-grabbing zinger.

"A guy who ended up becoming our national leader said, 'I can grab a woman anywhere and she likes it,'" Biden said. "They asked me if I’d like to debate this gentleman, and I said 'no.' I said, 'If we were in high school, I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him.'"

Biden also took a shot at Trump's "locker room talk" defense. “I’ve been in a lot of locker rooms my whole life,” he added. “I’m a pretty damn good athlete. Any guy that talked that way was usually the fattest, ugliest SOB in the room.”

Biden’s never been wrong when he’s scoffed at the idea of debating Trump. You might as well debate the wind, or an airline gate agent. His pugnacious punchline, on the other hand — that carefully crafted combo of derring-do mixed with scrappy honor that screams Vintage Uncle Joe — could use some work.

I want to state for the record that it’s not easy for me to criticize the guy. In addition to having a sharp mind and a long record of solid civic work and leadership, Joe Biden is also the human embodiment of everything I love about dogs: unabashedly emotional, loyal to the core, stout of heart, willing to throw himself in front of a dangerous animal or a Trump to save someone else from harm. You don’t have to be too deep in the edibles to wonder, am I living up to the potential Joe Biden might see in me?  

But if I can’t put on my humorless feminist pants when talking about the prevention of sexual assault, when can I? If we’re going to make the most of this #MeToo momentum and create an opportunity for meaningful progress, we have to break some old toxic-masculinity habits.

Let's start with the low-hanging fruit, even for powerful allies. Can we declare a moratorium on glorifying violence, on celebrating the patriarchal ideal of man as enforcer and protector, and on equating (even in the inverse) athletic prowess with good character? Because these ingrained cultural habits have historically not been kind to women and girls.

Taking someone behind the gym and beating the hell out of him is an ego-driven enterprise, a poor way of preventing future sexual assaults, and also -- oh yeah! -- an illegal criminal assault. Working to change the system — as Biden has done, notably with the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, which he later found out had made no dent in campus sexual-assault statistics — can be a hard and long, collaborative process where nobody gets exactly what they want and everyone has to live with the consequences of a failed attempt. If anyone could make that sound like a bad-ass mission -- as much as roughing up a creep -- it would be Joe Biden, which makes me wish he'd gone for that kind of mic-drop moment instead.

Biden has been on a speaking tour of college campuses in conjunction with the anti-sexual violence organization It’s On Us that he founded with President Barack Obama in 2014. About a year ago, as HuffPo reported, Biden hopped on a call with students to discuss ideas for combatting sexual assault on campuses, starting with the feedback he’d received from high school and college students about how to start:

Almost all of the students got back to him with the same answer: Get men involved.

“Ergo the phrase: ‘It’s on Us,’” Biden said. “It’s on all of us. It’s on the Chrises and the Joes and the Kyles; everybody on campus, everyone in the country who sees this violence occurring has an obligation to intervene. If you do not intervene you are an accessory. If you do not intervene you are sanctioning what happens.”

A colleague told me recently that a stranger emailed to ask her — obviously in good faith, of course — just what kind of outcome #MeToo "warriors" like her wanted. Her reply: "The endgame is actions having consequences."

If it’s on every Chris and Kyle on campus to stop sexual violence — and I'm sorry to harsh the Fun Uncle Joe vibe here — we need to teach those guys how to take the work of advocating for women seriously. An entry-level lesson could be: "It's not about you or your righteous rage," followed by the more obvious but still important: "Violence is never an acceptable solution."

Biden's less glamorous mandate — "if you do not intervene, you are an accessory" — is a potential game-changer. If only a quote like that, along with some sense of what those interventions might need to look like, could grab a fraction of the headlines and Twitter love we give a Donald Trump beatdown fantasy.

By Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Chief Content Officer. She is also on faculty at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University and her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," was named one of NPR's Books We Loved In 2022.

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