Commentary

The political battle of the sexes

It’s about more than love stories on the gridiron

February 2, 2024 5:30 am

Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift after the Chiefs secured a spot in this year’s Super Bowl. Their romance seems tailor-made for audiences longing to escape to Hallmark towns where every day is Homecoming or Christmas Eve, writes political scientist Stephen Voss. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

A cold war between men and women has been reshaping the political world for most of this century. Americans may be aware of it like never before, though, for a silly reason: The political battle of the sexes recently bled over into the world of entertainment.

Anybody with the slightest exposure to pop culture knows by now about the budding romance at the center of the firestorm. It’s a love story tailored for celebrity-obsessed masses, uniting a record maker with a record breaker.

Our heroine? Pop star Taylor Swift, the singer/songwriter who has dominated music charts since first becoming a country sensation in 2006.

Her beau? Burly American football player Travis Kelce, “tight end” for a team marching relentlessly to the National Football League’s Super Bowl championship.

Images of Swift wearing her Kansas City Chiefs regalia, joyously celebrating her boyfriend’s successes on the gridiron — he just broke the record for most passes caught during the playoffs — have saturated the media. And so has the gossip.

Guess what? Last game they kissed! On camera! And within range of a hot mic, she uttered those fateful three words: “I love you.”

It doesn’t sound like the beginnings of a political drama. It sounds more like the ending to a romantic comedy, served up for audiences longing to escape to Hallmark towns where every day is Homecoming or Christmas Eve.

Kansas City Chiefs fans hold signs for Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce during an NFL game on Oct. 22, 2023. (Kara Durrette/Getty Images)

But political it nonetheless became. After the power couple became an item, cultural discourse grew ugly (and “gendered”): grumbling about the attention given to the woman in the box seats, snide asides about how little her teenybopper fans understood football.

The drama then turned into farce: Former President Donald Trump’s supporters have begun fretting that the union might be staged, a ploy intended to keep him from returning to the Oval Office. Maybe they’ve been crowned as celebrity royalty because their bond unites the powerful media kingdoms of music and sports — setting up the pair to sing President Joe Biden’s praises and pass him a game-changing reelection endorsement?

Republican families have been losing their daughters in droves.

I don’t want to dismiss those concerns entirely. However unlikely the conspiracy theory, those Trumpian fears reflect an important truth: Entertainers come about as close to nobility as Americans tolerate. (Trump himself warmed up the electorate by playing a leader on “The Apprentice.”) “TayTay” has amassed a generation-spanning legion of loyal fans, not all from Democratic families. Biden would benefit immensely if hordes of Swifties warmed to his job performance.

Still, voters mostly tune out entertainers who weigh in during election season. Swift herself tried intervening in one race, on behalf of a Tennessee Democrat running for Senate, but her endorsement fell on deaf ears.

So no, the best evidence for the GOP’s struggles with female voters cannot be found among conservative influencers grousing about Taylor Swift.

Clearer evidence of the political battle of the sexes, however, was circulating around the same time the Chiefs nailed down their Super Bowl berth. The Survey Center on American Life released a report analyzing political differences between young men and women, and what they discovered was a yawning divide.

Few will be surprised to hear that women lean toward Democrats while men lean toward the GOP. That Gender Gap has been around for generations, documented by extensive research (including work by my colleague, Tiffany Barnes). Just it’s getting bigger.

More surprising is who’s causing the gap to widen. The usual complaint is that many Republicans have become extremists, which might suggest boys drifted ideologically.

Not so. American girls have been swinging leftward fast.

Young men, like generations before them, mirror the leanings of their families. They pick up partisan loyalties from parents, much as children pick up religion — and although they’ll occasionally switch sides if something updates their preferences, that happens rarely.

But young women are dramatically more liberal than they used to be, much more liberal than men. Republican families have been losing their daughters in droves.

The chasm between young men and women is a global rift.

Why? Liberals focused on the U.S. scene blame the loss of abortion rights, noting (correctly) that abortion has helped Democrats win in unlikely places and assuming (perhaps faultily) that female voters are the reason.

Or they’ll pin the blame on Trump. Even before his 2016 presidential victory, he faced accusations of misogyny, and the conservative culture warriors following in his wake commonly exhibit hostile sexism.

Conservatives, meanwhile, want to blame biased university professors — noting (correctly) that college-educated women are most likely to wind up on the left and assuming (perhaps faultily) that they were still conservative by the time they first enrolled.

Those explanations are too parochial. The political battle of the sexes is not a U.S. story. The chasm between young men and women is a global rift. In some countries, women have shifted politically, while in others it’s men, but the gender gap widened across the post-industrial world.

It isn’t even primarily a political story. Yes, men and women differ in their political leanings, but that’s just a symptom. The disease pulling young people apart operates at a deeper level.

The world has undergone profound cultural changes — likely due to the rapid proliferation of communication devices. This uncontrolled experiment on the young has produced all sorts of side effects that we barely understand.

Generation Z takes fewer chances. They hang out less with friends, interact with fewer people. They’re more likely to report feeling lonely, anxious and depressed. Most of these pathologies are stronger among girls.

Young women are more likely than their elders to feel as though they’ve been disrespected by men. And, to isolate the most-stunning claim from the new study: 30% of young women identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or “something else.”

How could electronic devices have led to so much turmoil? One hypothesis is that they made it possible — even easy — for boys and girls to occupy drastically different cultural spaces. It’s not a gender “gap” to bridge, but a gender partition to tear down.

Considered that way, maybe it becomes clearer why the relentlessly public relationship between a rich athlete and a rich musician could have struck such a nerve. Their romance symbolically unites a stereotypically masculine sport with music celebrated for expressing feminine consciousness, inviting a diverse audience into the same cultural arena.

That’s about the closest thing to a ceasefire in the battle of the sexes that we’re likely to find.

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D. Stephen Voss
D. Stephen Voss

D. Stephen Voss is an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky, where he has worked since 1998. He earned his Ph.D. at Harvard University, specializing in quantitative analysis, and began his research career studying Southern and Kentucky politics. More broadly, his research focuses on the politics of race, ethnicity and culture.

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