What the Joe Biden Accusations Tell Us About the Divide Between Women’s Independence and Men’s Intention


What the Joe Biden Accusations Tell Us About the Divide Between Women’s Independence and Men’s Intention

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Former US Vice President Joe Biden is famous around the world, and not just for being President Barack Obama’s right-hand man and ultimate bro. Biden served as Delaware Senator for 36 years before joining Obama, and is something of a working-class hero. His straight-shooting, salt-of-the-earth attitude has endeared him to Americans of all political stripes. This maverick Grandpa Joe persona was immortalised following the shock of the 2016 elections, when the plain-spoken, irrepressible VP was turned into a conduit for resistance against president-elect Donald Trump. Social media was soon flooded with memes of Biden as the Democrat renegade who refuses to welcome the new administration without a fight. (Sample: “I took the Ts off the keyboards, they can only type ‘RUMP’!”)

Through his White House tenure, 76-year-old Biden, always standing behind the polished, charismatic President Obama, swiftly became USA’s sweet old uncle. His penchant for putting his foot in his mouth has cast him as an authentic, no-filter politician, and he’s known for enjoying PDA — frequently hugging Obama and other colleagues, clasping his supporters warmly, and in one case, rubbing noses with former Congressional aide Amy Lappos.

It’s this touchy-feely aspect of the larger-than-life Biden personality that has – a year before the next presidential election and after the #MeToo movement – become a sticking point. Lappos has since said that Biden’s behaviour, while not sexual, crossed a line of decency and respect. And three other women have come forward to echo Lappos’ sentiments, all of them saying that Biden, though not predatory, is invasive.

Biden served as Delaware Senator for 36 years before joining Obama, and is something of a working-class hero.

The New York Times points out that Biden is from a pre-MeToo era, and that women’s response to his tactile advances often depend on their own generation. Lucy Flores, 35, and Diane Denish, 70, had the same experience of Biden kissing them on the head, but their interpretations are vastly different. As they were getting ready to go onstage at a campaign event, Denish said, “Mr Biden just put his hands on my shoulders and leaned back and said, ‘Go get ‘em,’ a little peck on the head. I paid so little attention to it, but I’m of a different generation than Lucy Flores.”

Former White House advisor David Axelrod, who worked with the Obama administration, says, “I’m sure his intent was benign, but through the lens of today, it looks like something different.” And there’s little doubt that Axelrod was alluding to the high-profile sexual assault controversies that have plagued President Trump — from the infamous 2005 recording of him saying he grabs women “by the pussy”, to the twenty-three allegations of misconduct against him that have surfaced since his election. Notably, Trump also threw his support behind Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault by former classmate Christine Blasey Ford.

The highly publicised Kavanaugh hearing last September coincided with India’s wave of #MeToo exposés. A calm, believable Blasey Ford faced off against hostile Republican senators and a blustering, oft-nonsensical, defensive Kavanaugh. The scene of a lone, brave woman against an outpouring of disbelief and dismissal illustrated what was playing out hundreds of times on Indian social media. It also cemented the old-boys image of Trump’s Republican party.

As the USA’s 2020 presidential election looms closer, the scandal surrounding Biden takes on a new significance: He was accused of mishandling the Anita Hill case in 1991, as the Senate Judiciary Chair. Biden has since apologised. But combined with his track record of making women uncomfortable, will he be perceived as just another dinosaur who’s unfit to lead the modern Democrat party? Is the empathetic, handsy politician simply a relic from a more forgiving past — just like Obama calling a reporter “sweetie” was outdated, soft sexism?

Those who know Biden have leapt to his defence, with many women saying his equal-opportunity affection, far from making them uncomfortable, has been a source of support and encouragement. Still, NYT notes that “touching someone you know is one thing; touching complete strangers, as Mr Biden often does, is another.”

Even as Republicans rush to draw parallels between the allegations against Biden and Trump, there is an important distinction to be made between a sexual offender, and someone who habitually violates personal space. Clearly, Biden is no misogynist or criminal. Instead, he’s that older man we know so well, whose hugs are too long, and whose heart is on his sleeve.

What’s been made clear by the entire story surrounding touchy-feely Grandpa Joe, is that young women will no longer brush their discomfort aside, simply because it doesn’t fall under the definition of “harassment”. Only a couple of years ago, the idea of women calling out one of America’s most beloved leaders for being overly affectionate would have been unthinkable — and even now, pundits on both sides of the aisle are insisting, predictably, that this is #MeToo gone mad. But #MeToo, a movement that has only seen one of hundreds accused in jail, is first and foremost about acknowledging the value of women’s shared experiences. Could this debate over Joe Biden’s impropriety mark a turning point? At long last, is a woman’s right to autonomy more important than a man’s intention?