On Wednesday evening, a verified Twitter user and conservative, all-hat Florida cowboy posted what he determined was a “creepy” black and white photo of former Vice President Joe Biden and his adult son Hunter. The image shows the Bidens in an embrace — the elder kissing his son fondly on the cheek while his son looks contentedly towards the camera. The image is posed, captured in a studio for a 2016 Popular Mechanics article about the duo for the magazine’s “Things My Father Taught Me” interview series.
Along with the photo — out of context and uncredited to photographer Pari Dukovic — the tweet included a presumably rhetorical question: “Does this look like an appropriate father/son interaction to you?”
The vast majority of the 52,000 comments that followed offered the only reasonable answer to the bizarre and disingenuous query: Yes, of course, it looks appropriate, unless you’ve built your idea of fatherhood on books by Senator Ben Sasse.
Obviously, the intent of posting the pic was to telegraph He-Man energy, promote disdain for Biden, and spoil for a fight. He got his “fight” — if that’s what you want to call the rhetorical walloping he reaped — but otherwise failed. The greater achievement was in publicizing an endearing image of affectionate fatherhood and masculinity. And, in boosting an image of a good dad, he succeeded in showing that the impotently performative masculine ideals which are so damaging to men’s mental and physical health are thankfully slinking towards the exits of polite society.
Still, those masculine ideals that find affection creepy and seek to keep boys tough and men tougher through John Wayne swagger persist in some (mostly older, mostly conservative) circles. Recently they’ve been observed from the Whitehouse and a President who denied masks to project manly-man strength which landed him in the hospital for COVID-19 and hubris. Mary Trump, the president’s niece, noted that the trait was passed down from father Fred Trump Senior who considered sickness an “unforgivable” sign of weakness.
The image of Biden and his son shows something remarkably different — a father who is passing down masculine ideals of closeness, concern, and consideration. That closeness and support is evident in the cheek-kiss and the embrace likely finessed into existence by the photographer. But it’s more clearly laid out in the interview the picture originally illustrated. Here the pair talk about their close relationship that managed to persist despite the death of Hunter’s mother Neilia and baby sister Naomi when he was just three-years-old, and the subsequent loss of his big brother Beau.
When asked the best thing his father Joe taught him, the younger Biden answers clearly. “The single best thing is, family comes first,” he tells interviewer Ryan D’agostino. “Over everything. I can’t think of anything that has been more pervasive and played a larger part in my life than that simple lesson. And as you said, he didn’t have to teach it by saying it. It was just in his actions. After we lost my mom and my sister in the accident that my brother and I were also in, he was ever-present.”
Joe Biden, serving as Vice President at the time, talks about how the early adversity changed him and redoubled his resolve to be there. He explains, “Well there’s no such thing as quality time. It’s all quantity … Every important thing that’s ever happened to me with my children has been on unscheduled time.”
There has not historically been a distance between the Bidens. He was not simply a breadwinner and some stoic fighter battling the evils of the world to protect his family. He was and has been present for his son — both physically and emotionally. That’s true even as his son struggled with drug addiction or faced his own adversities. And, as candidate Biden showed in the September presidential debate, he takes public pride in his son still. His love is unconditional and immediate.
The black and white hug between father and son that was meant to be derided actually shows progress. Research into how masculinity is transmitted between fathers and sons does appear to show that the norms are changing. For instance, a 2016 study in the journal Psychology of Men & Masculinity surveyed 400 participants to understand perceptions of changing parental roles. Researchers were startled to find that people believed fatherhood was becoming markedly more typically maternal — meaning nurturing, kind, and caring rather than stern and authoritative — compared to previous generations.
“The expectation that fathers and mothers are shifting to become more similar to each other over time reflects a shifting landscape regarding parenthood,” researchers conclude. “And it may actively shape our understanding and enactment of what it means to be parents as well as men and women.”
That’s news that should be greeted with a sense of joy and hope. As old ideas of gender and masculinity crumble, children will have more support and affection, not less. And with that affection, they will flourish. They will become smarter, better adjusted, and better able to face adversity.
And perhaps what some conservatives may find most “creepy” about the Biden photograph is that their outmoded ideas are not reflected in the image. That makes sense. Change is frightening and uncomfortable. It makes us feel small and helpless and limited. And that sense of helplessness can cause those who aren’t well-adjusted to lash out in flaccid anger and ineffectual pride.
More than anything, we should have a sense of pity for people who object to affectionate fatherhood. Like an old cowboy on the dusty plains, they are the last of their kind. Sad and forlorn they are riding into the sunset, their final joy in life being the surging strength of horse-flanks between their thighs and the cold comfort of a gun. And nobody is calling for them to return.