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What’s Behind Our Obsession With ‘Likability’

On sexism and the politics of beer

John DeVore
Jan 4, 2019 · 6 min read
Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

It has come to my attention that women, especially those in power, are not “likable.” This is my main takeaway from the reaction to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s Instagram Live, in which she answered questions and drank a beer. The Massachusetts Democrat had launched a 2020 presidential exploratory committee a few days prior and was simply attempting to connect with voters.

And she seemed pretty likable to me. Not that I need to like her to want to listen to what she has to say about how she would help the middle class.

However, some in the Politico-Media Complex disagreed — including, predictably, Fox News. They have decided Senator Warren is not likable. She is not someone you’d share a beer with. She’s trying too hard. Relatable people shouldn’t have to broadcast how relatable they are, they say.

Senator Warren is an accomplished woman with the rare ability to explain complicated economic issues of interest to both progressives and populists. But all anyone can talk about is whether she’s likable — or why it shouldn’t matter, should matter, or definitely will. Politico published a story about Senator Warren’s “coldness” and “aloofness,” two words that are not likable.

Never mind her qualifications or her policy positions. Forget the fact that she is smart and funny and feisty, a real fighter. “Likability” has become an important modern-day measurement for political success. Many of us — men in particular — still define a likable candidate as someone a man would want to “sit down and have a beer with.”

In a way, Sen. Warren’s Instabeer was a bit of blasphemy against the patriarchy.

According to a study by Kantar Public, 45 percent of American men would be “very comfortable” with a female president. I think I may know some of those dudes. It doesn’t matter how “comfortable” they say they are — they’re still hung up on likability. I heard the phrase “I’m not sexist, I just don’t like Hillary Clinton” more than a couple of times during the 2016 election. So it doesn’t surprise me that there are men who also dislike Elizabeth Warren. It’s as if these two politicians have something in common.

In a way, Senator Warren’s Instabeer was a bit of blasphemy against the patriarchy. Beer is a man’s drink. Or at least that’s the stereotype (a tired trope that cheap beer marketers love to exploit in their advertisements). This is the stuff of bad stand-up comedy: “Men love beer, women love white wine. What’s the deal with that?” “A couple of guys sharing a beer” is another one of male culture’s reinforced stereotypes.

A beer between two men is a sacred ritual, apparently. A safe space. At a bar, in the garage, watching baseball. When one man needs advice from another, they crack open cold ones. A blow-out with the girlfriend? Pick-up a six-pack. Career advice? Get thee to happy hour.

It’s one of the few social activities where men are allowed to voice their hidden thoughts. Drunk, men can admit their fears and hopes to one another without being accused of weakness. Men are not allowed to express pain unless they’re chugging watery anesthetic. We are, after all, the strong sex, built Ford tough. I have admitted truths to friends of mine — insecurities about relationships, frustrations with finances — that I would never have brought up sober. It’s a modern variation on the Latin phrase “in wine lies truth,” only it’s in Miller Light veritas.

I have never seen a sober man cry when his team loses the big game. But beer drunk? Sure. He’s allowed to be vulnerable so long as he’s sucking on a bottle of Bud. In the morning, hungover, he can say “I was drunk!” That’s the deal.

Women in American politics are accused of not being “likable” because that word is a not-so-clever code for “not to be trusted.” How can you trust a woman who isn’t a man you can knock back a couple of brewskis with?

But you know who is fit to rule? Literally any dude drinking at a pub.

The ancient art of likability is practiced by car salesmen, henchmen, and CMOs. It is a high-value quality. I am a likable man. I know this because I have rehearsed my part for years. The behaviors society expects men and women to perform are called “gender roles” because we’re all just playacting. I am likable because other men—friends and strangers—have put their arm around me and said: “I like this guy!”

So, yes, I am the sort of guy you’d want to have a beer with. Or at least, I used to be the sort of guy you’d want to have a beer with; I haven’t had a drink in eight years. But when I was drinking I was extremely likable, at least by the standards of male culture. Those aren’t very high standards, but I can belch the alphabet.

There are a few common male gender roles, some more likable than others. I’m not The Strong and Silent Type, nor am I Mr. Misunderstood Asshole, which are both very popular. I have tried to be the former but I love to complain too much, and I have definitely been the latter. There is another type, Captain Inexplicable Confidence, but I have never been cast in that role. I have, however, been a champion backslapping, joke-slinging bullshit artist. A righteous dude. The kind of man who sits at the end of the dark, windowless bar and laughs like a degenerate Santa Claus.

Being likable is like being respected without having to do any hard moral work.

My agreeable personality wasn’t really what made me likable, though. A likable man is also spineless. He may bust a few balls here and there, but he never pushes back. He goes with the flow, man. He cheers and applauds when he shouldn’t. He’s a one-man “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” monkey. A likable man never betrays his brothers, even when he knows better. He can keep a secret. Tell you what you want to hear. A likable man is popular because he will roll over and show his belly at just the right moments.

Being likable is like being respected without having to do any hard moral work. It’s being a character without having any character. I was likable because you could share a beer (or a bourbon, or a Jager shot) with me at the bar and I’d listen to your confession, no matter how vile, and make soft, understanding mouth sounds.

In short, likability is a superficial virtue that no elected official should be expected to possess. It boggles my mind that any man would think a leader should also be his best friend.

I will go ahead and point out the obvious: that any national conversation about whether or not a woman is “likable” isn’t actually a conversation about women. It is, in fact, a conversation about men, between men, and women are left to shout from the sidelines, “this is a sexist conversation!”

In order to be likable, a woman must conform to certain male sensibilities. She must accept that men are in charge. She must laugh when belittled — because, you know, she can take a joke, like your average Joe. One need only tune into Fox News to see the kind of women the mostly male conservative demographic likes: ideological flamethrowers in heels. Ann Coulter, Tomi Lahren, and Laura Ingraham are all conservative cultural cheerleaders that men, especially conservative men, like… just not enough to vote for.

The male fixation on Senator Warren’s likability is a sexist trap. There is no way she, nor any number of political stars like Senator Kamala Harris or Congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, can ever be likable to a certain caste of men. To be likable, those women would have to become no different from likable men. They would have to stop challenging the “boys will be boys” status quo.

Anyway, I could have been president. I was that likable. Alas, my chance is over. These days I’m too busy trying to learn to be a decent human being who can make eye contact with himself in the mirror. So I don’t know if I’m as likable as I use to be. That means my loyalty to the patriarchy will be suspect, but I can live with that. I’m certainly not the kind of person to share a beer with, that’s for sure. I just don’t give a shit anymore. I’m too old, I guess, to care if other men think I’m likable or not.

Actually, now that I think about it, Sen. Warren’s “unlikability” is pretty likable.

Creator, Humungus. I write about movies, TV, and feelings.

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