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The Great Reckoning of Vice President Joe Biden

Joe Biden

Everyone knows that Joe Biden is a grabby guy. What happens next will be an important marker of how we think about gender and power. 

Meme Joe Biden is finally catching up to real-life Joe Biden.

As the former Vice President has been leading national polls heading into the 2020 Democratic primary, Biden is coming face-to-face with the behavior that has made him both beloved as a folksy, down-to-earth man of the people, and the subject of digital side-eye.

Is his inclination to lean in and wrap his arm around voters crossing a line? Are his shoulder rubs unwarranted? Does he get just a little too close when he's telling you something that doesn't really require such proximity? Meet Creepy Uncle Joe, the subject of online mockery and the reason for eyebrow raises among feminists for years. Seriously, The Daily Show called it out in 2015.

This week Biden has so far had to confront four allegations from women who say he crossed a line in trying to communicate and connect with them. In the era of #MeToo, and a general heightened awareness of gendered power dynamics, the allegations against Biden are not as cut-and-dried as "he grabbed my breast," or "he fired me because I wouldn't put out," (especially since there are plenty of examples of Biden jostling with men too). The allegations do not even come close to the ridiculous assertion from our current president that when you're famous you're allowed to sexually assault women.

The claims against Biden, however, are the more subtle actions that people face from those who ignore boundaries in an attempt to connect. They're still weird and uncomfortable, but they're the types of things women, especially, tend to have to rationalize away. They're the types of interactions that still feel inappropriate days after they've happened, but don't seem to warrant the energy to file an official complaint or a full-on confrontation.

First, Nevada lawmaker Lucy Flores wrote in an essay for The Cut that she was preparing to make a speech at a campaign event when the then-vice president grabbed her shoulders in a manner too intimate by her estimation. "I felt him get closer to me from behind. He leaned further in and inhaled my hair. I was mortified. I thought to myself, 'I didn't wash my hair today and the vice president of the United States is smelling it. And also, what in the actual fuck? Why is the vice president of the United States smelling my hair?' He proceeded to plant a big slow kiss on the back of my head. My brain couldn't process what was happening. I was embarrassed. I was shocked. I was confused."

That allegation was followed by three other women in political circles who say Biden touched them in a similarly unwanted manner. Amy Lappos, told The Hartford Courant that Biden grabbed her head and rubbed noses with her during a political fundraiser in 2009. Two other women, D.J. Hill and Caitlyn Caruso, recounted their awkward dealings with Biden this week, in the New York Times.

Finally, after issuing an initial reaction along the lines of "yeah, but I always do this," Biden released a longer statement on a video via Twitter: "In my career, I have always tried to make a human connection. That's my responsibility, I think. I shake hands. I hug people. I grab men and women by the shoulders and say, 'You can do this.' And whether they're women, men, young, old, it's the way I have always been. And it's the way I have tried to show I care about them and I'm listening. And, over the years, knowing what I have been through, the things that I have faced, I have found that scores, if not hundreds of people have come up to me and reached out for solace and comfort. Social norms have begun to change. They have shifted. And the boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset. And I get it. I get it. I hear what they're saying. I understand it. And I will be much more mindful. That's my responsibility, my responsibility. And I will meet it."

For political observers watching Biden circle around announcing his third run for the presidency, it seemed like it was only a matter of time before he was called out for this fairly well documented behavior. So much so, that Stephanie Carter had to issue a public statement this week that she wasn't being touched inappropriately by Biden in a viral 2015 video in which he holds her shoulders as her husband, then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter, makes a speech in the foreground.

Let's be real, Biden has momentum behind his campaign for a reason. As vice president, Biden was viewed by Democrats as both an elder, amiable counterbalance for President Barack Obama, and a pretty woke white guy. He sponsored the inaugural Violence Against Women Act when he was a senator and proved to be a clear LGBTQ+ ally during the Obama years, announcing his full support of marriage equality before the president, perhaps even prompting Obama to follow suit. He and the president were also involved with It's On Us, an organization to stop sexual assault on college campuses, and his foundation has supported several LGBTQ+-related projects over the years.

Counting against him, however, Biden also has a damning history as a senate sponsor of several tough-on-crime policies that increased penalties for drug possession, and expanded sentencing for certain crimes, which led to a huge uptick in mass incarceration. But among his most notable historic gaffes was Biden's involvement in the 1991 confirmation hearing for Clarence Thomas's Supreme Court nomination. As Senate Judiciary Chair, Biden oversaw the hostile questioning by a wall of white male senators against legal scholar Anita Hill, who came forward with allegations that Thomas sexually harassed her in the workplace. Years later, Biden has said several times that he regrets the way the hearing was handled (Hill says she has yet to receive an apology from him). With the hearing featuring Christine Blasey-Ford's testimony against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh still lingering in the ether, the similarities are noteworthy.

As New York magazine writer Rebecca Traister put it on PBS News Hour, "The paternalism in that kind of touching is also reflective of his policy record," she said, referring especially to his decades as a member of Congress and then as vice president. "He has also had a sort of paternalistic role in his positions on abortion, reproductive health, his role as the head of the Judiciary in the Anita Hill hearings. He's had -- he needs to address a lot about what has shifted in our politics and norms and our ideas about gender and power."

In a field of candidates where half are women, and many of them are people of color, it's telling that Democrats are eager to thrust 76-year-old Biden at the front of the pack -- and frankly, will probably continue to do so. In him, they see someone who can beat Trump in debates, or call Trump out in ways that a woman candidate couldn't do without looking "unladylike" or a person of color couldn't do without looking "uppity" or "hostile," and nevermind the captivating, longshot candidacy of the gay mayor of a small city in the Midwest. They see a man whose own folksiness and apparent lack of awareness around boundaries and power reflects many of our dads, uncles, and male friends who are suddenly befuddled by the fact that there is a line that they've been crossing: the access to women's bodies that they have assumed for all these years was never actually earned.

Advocate Channel - HuluOut / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff and Wayne Brady

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