Fetterman’s Step Back Promotes Positive Masculinity


Photo courtesy of CNBC

Senator John Fetterman has been uniquely open about his mental health in recent weeks.

Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman checked himself into treatment for clinical depression at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Feb. 15. A statement released by Fetterman’s office assured that “John is getting the care that he needs, and will soon be back to himself.” The announcement came after Fetterman’s widely publicized, near-fatal stroke last May and a more recent hospitalization on Feb. 8 after a Senate Democratic retreat. 

This has come on the heels of a months-long campaign largely focused on Fetterman’s personal style. In order to paint him in a way that reflected the blue-  collar values of the moderate and conservative voters, coverage of the campaign focused a disproportionate amount on his clothing. Fetterman’s 6’8” stature, thick eyebrows, and tattooed forearms work together to create an intimidating persona, but it’s his clothes that got the most coverage during his Senate run. He does not look like a traditional politician, and despite his degrees from Harvard and the University of Connecticut, he has used this fact to pose himself as an everyman. The persona he has created caters to a certain image of what traditional masculinity dictates a man should look like — big and strong with little concern for polished fashion or rhetoric. This is part of the reason Fetterman’s admission to the hospital for clinical depression has been so jarring for many of his constituents. 

Historically, masculinity within the U.S. and the Western sphere more broadly has been associated with a repression of weakness in order to emphasize strength — both physically and emotionally. This repression, in recent years, has led to the formation of a term we see thrown around regularly online and more recently in political spheres: toxic masculinity. The term was used as early as the 1980s, but really gained traction in popular culture in the 2010s. Toxic masculinity points to a particular understanding and performance of masculinity that causes harm — sometimes physically, but generally mentally — to its adherents. Researchers have found a connection between this conformation to masculine norms and higher rates of male suicide.

Fetterman’s traditionally masculine image promoted by months of campaign efforts, combined with an admission to needing help with something like mental health, seems revolutionary. His choice to take care of his mental and physical health as a prominent figure in the political sphere presents him as a new type of role model for young people in this country. 

Fetterman’s win was highly contentious because the seat he competed for was one that determined the Senate party majority, but the response to his announcement has been largely positive, even among members of the opposing political party. South Dakota Republican Senator John Thune came forward to say, “The more open, transparent people can be, the better our understanding is.” Even Senator Ted Cruz, a prominent detractor of Fetterman during his campaign and a hardline Republican, tweeted out, “Heidi [and] I are lifting John up in prayer. Mental illness is real [and] serious, and I hope that he gets the care he needs.” 

The bipartisan support that has been drawn from this campaign is a breath of fresh air in a country that seems increasingly divided. However, I would challenge Republican senators who voiced their support for Fetterman’s withdrawal and bravery to put their money where their mouth is and support mental health initiatives and bills within the Senate. What Fetterman has done is an admirable feat, one that is evidence of a shifting political and national emphasis on the importance of mental health and one that presents a good role model for young boys growing up in a continually shifting political climate.