Aviators Make Biden an All-American Badass
Foreign Policy , March 24, 2023
In February, as I walked past a drugstore display rack, a greeting card caught my eye. On a bright blue background, a stylized image of black aviator sunglasses sat above the phrase, “COME ON, MAN!!” in white, with the E represented as three red stripes. It was Joe Biden in a graphical nutshell.
The stripes, lifted from Biden’s campaign logos, evoke the American flag. His catchphrase, repeated throughout his debates with Donald Trump, is an Everyman expression of incredulity. The shades are Biden’s signature accessory, the embodiment of American swagger. Aviators are for bad boys who want to do good.
Biden and his team have gone to great pains to make the iconic lenses a central element of his personal brand. The first photo posted on his vice presidential Instagram account in 2014 was a close-up of Ray-Ban Aviators posed on his desk. His 2020 campaign created a “Team Joe Aviators” Instagram filter to let supporters put the glasses on their own photos. For the 80-year-old president, whose age makes even partisan Democrats nervous, the sunglasses offer a reminder that classics go in and out of fashion but never disappear.
Aviator sunglasses date back to the 1930s, when the U.S. Army Air Corps commissioned them for pilots. (Contrary to popular belief, the first versions were made by American Optical, founded in 1833 and still in business, not Ray-Ban.) The slightly curved, teardrop shape blocks peripheral glare. The sunglasses became iconic in World War II, when they were worn by soldiers and sailors as well as airmen. After the war, civilians adopted the style, which was in plentiful supply thanks to military surplus stores.
Aviators remain permanently imbued with the aura of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was photographed wearing them as he waded ashore the island of Leyte in 1944, fulfilling his promise to return in victory to the Philippines. In surveys in the 1980s, Ray-Ban found that “macho” and “American” were the words most often associated with its Aviator shades. Those associations haven’t changed much in the intervening years.
“The aviator has a butch quality that few other sunglasses can match,” Financial Times style columnist Nicholas Foulkes wrote in 2002. Women wear the style, but it has a particularly masculine appeal. Suggesting that the sunglasses’ enduring popularity stemmed from their U.S. sensibility, Foulkes quoted a London optician who declared that “aviators meant the very essence of America.”
That essence is closely related to a constant projection of confidence. In mirrored form, aviators intimidate. But they can also reassure. Something about these sunglasses, style journalist Teo van den Broeke wrote in a 2020 column for British GQ, “speaks of mastery and dependability.” Top Gun’s Maverick breaks rules but triumphs in the end. MacArthur did return. Sure, these guys boast, but they aren’t just talk. They get the job done. That’s the image—of America and of himself—that Biden wants us to see in his eyes.
With the swagger comes sex appeal. “[N]o man has ever worn a pair of aviators and looked anything other than sex on a plate,” van den Broeke enthused, pronouncing the aviator-wearing Biden his “personal #ManCrushMonday.” Big enough to cover aging eyes yet graceful enough not to seem like deliberate camouflage, the style offers the suggestion of eternal youth.
Much of the style’s allure emanates from its original purpose. From the days of biplanes and silk scarves, the aviator—a more glamorous term than pilot—has been an archetype of masculine glamour. Whether in a biplane or an F-22, the aviator combines youth, daring, grace, bravery, technical mastery, and forward-looking modernity. World War I aces, historian Robert Wohl writes in his book A Passion for Wings, “exemplified more purely than any other figure of their time what it meant to be a man.” Unlike the grunts in the trenches, they were the masters of their fates, of their machines, of the air itself.
For Biden, the sunglasses also represent loyalty and persistence. He says he has worn Ray-Ban Aviators since his teenage years, regardless of current fashion. During the Obama years, aviator shades weren’t exactly on trend. A 2008 article in Biden’s hometown paper, hopefully titled “Joe Cool,” twitted the vice presidential candidate for “a look that was super-hip when Maverick and Iceman were roaming the deck of an aircraft carrier in ‘Top Gun’ in 1986.” The veep was a throwback. At a 2010 rally, President Barack Obama said, “Joe looks cool in those glasses, too, doesn’t he?” It wasn’t clear whether he was complimenting his vice president or teasing him.
In Vanity Fair in August 2020, Erin Vanderhoof skewered Biden as insufficiently radical, writing that the glasses “stand in as a symbol for why so many young people feel disillusioned by the candidate. Six decades ago, Biden picked an accessory and he has stuck with it ever since … . It seems to reflect his approach to ideas like bipartisanship and respect for norms.”
But that continuity—including the promise of respect for norms—appealed to much of the electorate, which wasn’t ready to write off the United States as an irredeemably awful country or make a virtue of demonizing their fellow citizens. Like Trump’s MAGA hats, Biden’s sunglasses hark back to the triumphs of the 20th century but without the sense of loss. Aviators suggest an America that is feisty, nonconformist, powerful, competent, and ultimately good. Like the classic lenses, that vision of the country goes in and out of fashion but never disappears.
Now Biden’s look is back in style. Late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel got a laugh last year when he introduced the president: “Our very special guest tonight is to aviator sunglasses what Tom Cruise is to aviator sunglasses.” Maverick was once again at the top of the box office, as cocky as ever in his signature shades.
Biden isn’t Joe Cool. He’s the guy at the bar, the talkative uncle at Thanksgiving, the fan yelling, “C’mon, man!” at the referee. He was born the year MacArthur escaped the Philippines for Australia. He’s older than the oldest baby boomer. But he wears aviator shades for the simple reason that he wants to look like a badass.
This article appears in the Spring 2023 print issue of Foreign Policy magazine.