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When the Cool Uncle Becomes the Creepy Uncle

#MeToo isn't the only reason Joe Biden is being seen in a new light.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Not that long ago, “Uncle Joe Biden” was a term of endearment rather than an epithet. “Since 2008, Biden’s reputation as a wise elder has evaporated into the reputation of a cool uncle,” Philip Bump, writing for The Atlantic, wrote in 2014. Two years later, New York Magazine called him “America’s honorary cool uncle.” Most famously, Uncle Joe is one of The Onion’s most enduring obsessions, with dozens of parodies featuring Biden in a bomber jacket, smoking in a Winger t-shirt, drinking a brown-bagged tall boy in cut-off jeans, waking up naked in the morgue, cleaning up a trashed White House, and, of course, washing his Trans Am while shirtless.

But the cool uncle has become, practically overnight, the creepy uncle. On one level, the driving reason for this is no mystery. Within the past week, two women have accused the former vice president of unwanted touching: Lucy Flores said he kissed the back of her head at a campaign event in 2014, and Amy Lappos said he “put his hand around my neck and pulled me in to rub noses with me” at a fundraiser in 2009. These accusations, coming in the #MeToo era, have prompted a reevaluation of Biden’s history of showing physical affection toward women and girls.

There’s another reason, though, that Biden’s reputation has turned for the worse. Once Barack Obama’s avuncular sidekick, he has his eyes on the presidency now. That has led to greater scrutiny of his past, but more importantly, it has caused people to see him in a new, less forgiving light. The uncle is cool precisely because he has no responsibility. If he’s in charge, what once made him cool now makes him look, well, creepy.

We always knew Biden was handsy. There is extensive video evidence of it. Even his solemn constitutional duties provided an opportunity to touch women, as in 2015 when he rested his hands on the shoulders of Stephanie Carter while her husband, Ashton, was sworn in as secretary of defense—and then whispered closely in her ear. (Carter recently defended Biden’s behavior that day.) He did something similar in two other swearing-in ceremonies earlier that year, but with young girls. He put his hand on the hip of Senator Cory Gardner’s daughter, and he gripped the upper arm of Senator Chris Coons’s daughter and kissed her on the head. In both cases, he whispered closely in their ear. It’s kind of his thing.

This is when the idea that Biden might be creepy first took hold. “What are we going to do about Creepy Uncle Joe Biden?” asked The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri, though she answered the question with fictional humor. Conservatives took it more seriously, though perhaps with partisan motivations. “Not sure why a creep like @VP is not shunned by civil society,” tweeted Republican strategist Stuart Stevens. “He was extremely attentive. Particularly to underage girls,” The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway wrote after the Coons incident. “And, well, it’s not that big of a deal, I guess, but it got kind of creepy.”

And yet, the adjective didn’t quite stick. Democrats certainly had their own partisan reasons for wanting Biden to remain cool rather than creepy, and conservatives might say that the so-called “liberal media” did too. But this was also before #MeToo, which truly does put a new perspective on Biden’s behavior. There is a difference in degree between his actions and that of most other men who have been publicly accused, but Biden’s behavior, which some have explained away as the ingrained habit of an old-fashioned but fundamentally well-meaning man, clearly crosses a line. Women should not have to accept unwanted touching as normal. As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently advised of men, “Join the straight-arm club…. Just pretend you have a cold and I have a cold.” On Wednesday, even Biden acknowledged the inappropriateness of his behavior and vowed to change going forward.

But there’s more going on here that’s specific to Biden, rather than simply resulting from a cultural shift. And I think the clue here is found in the “creepy uncle” label. In my book Creepiness, I argued that our experience of creepiness reflects our perception of a desire that is enigmatic or out of place. The burning question we have for a creepy person is, “What are you getting out of this?” The classic example of the man who compulsively hits on women who are obviously not interested in him is helpful here. He must be able to recognize that his methods are ineffective, yet he persists. There must be something that he is getting out of the very act of asking women out. But it’s unclear what it would be. Does he somehow “get off” on the very rejection itself?

But why should creepiness be so often associated with uncles? It’s widespread enough to be a common trope on TV, where the uncle usually has an apparent (though ambiguous) sexual interest in his nieces and nephews. The creepy uncle is a little too forthcoming with the uninvited back rub, a little too complimentary of the new bathing suit, a little too interested in your new boyfriend or girlfriend. This trope reflects the tragic reality that uncles do sometimes abuse their younger relatives. But the vast majority of child abuse—80 percent of all cases—is perpetrated by a parent, versus just 6 percent for all other relatives combined. Some other factor, specific to uncles, must be at work.

It helps to contrast the creepy uncle with the more common trope of the cool uncle, which reflects the fact that an uncle is in a kind of “sweet spot” from the perspective of their nieces and nephews. The cool uncle is an adult—with adult privileges and authority—but unlike most adults, he is obligated to be interested in you and attentive to your needs. Yet crucially, he is not a parent. Hence, he can offer a lot of things that parents can’t or won’t, ranging from honest advice to R-rated movies. The cool uncle has just enough adulthood and just enough authority, but not too much. And this means he represents a safe space for interacting with the adult world without the fear of parental discipline or judgment.

Problems arise, however, when we start to ask exactly what it is that the cool uncle is getting out of the arrangement. Why does he want to hang out with kids who aren’t even his? Is it all out of the goodness of his heart, or does he have a sinister agenda? When we start asking these questions, the uncle’s ambiguous place becomes problematic. The very factors that made the cool uncle such an appealing figure multiply the creepiness of the creepy uncle.

Biden is currently experiencing this hard transition from cool uncle to creepy uncle. His role as vice president was structurally similar to being Obama’s cool uncle—and by extension, all of America’s cool uncle. Biden, an older man with hard-won life experience, was showing Obama the ropes. But the job of the vice president does not carry great responsibility or authority. Biden himself acknowledged this dynamic, with some disappointment. “I’m not comfortable with Goofy Uncle Joe,” he told CNBC’s John Harwood in 2016. “But one of the things that’s important to know—and one of the reasons why, when I first got asked about this job I said no—is there is no inherent power in being vice president.”

Even if the limitations of the vice presidency frustrated him, it set up a situation where Biden’s behavior toward women seemed to many like a personal foible than a serious problem. After all, one thing that makes the cool uncle so cool is that he flouts the stuffy parental rules! Yet with Biden seriously considering a run for president, the entire atmosphere has changed. Suddenly his own desires are the focus of attention, rather than his supportive role for Obama (and the nation as a whole). Hence, under today’s microscope, Biden’s handsiness appears less innocent than before. Similarly, his legislative record was overlooked when he was just Obama’s elder, wiser wingman, but lately has faced heavy criticism. Things that seemed appealing about the cool uncle look a lot more questionable when he is seeking full custody.