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Political Masculinities in the Brexit Debate

By Dr Michael Higgins, University of Strathclyde

The relationship between gender and politics has been a key area of academic concern for a number of years. For reasons I will outline in a moment, the weight of critical attention has tended to be on the place of women and the representation of femininity. Policy scholars have examined whether the historical gender imbalance in elected representatives and in the composition of government is really changing to the extent that political institutions routinely claim. For their part, critical communications specialists have concentrated on the manner in which women politicians are portrayed in media and in public discourse, exposing a long-term structural disassociation between what Dorothy E. Smith refers to as discourses of “femininity” and the demands of power, as well as showing the capture of women politicians within a “double bind” that sets political and gender norms at odds with one another.

There is a sound basis for this focus on the place and representation of women in the political firmament. The continued dominance of male norms is compounding the marginalisation of women. I will go on to look at noteworthy performances of masculinity in a moment, but it is reasonable to say that acting out the everyday expectations of masculinity have simply passed as orderly political conduct; what me and Angela Smith refer to as the “banal masculinity” of everyday political talk and action. Moreover, successful political performance has been routinely judged on masculinised terms, balancing alpha male assertiveness with statesmanlike bearing. In this regard, politics can be justifiably considered an exemplar of hegemonic masculinity, meaning a reliance on establishment male norms and codes of “gentlemanly” behaviour.

However, in a recent article I pick up at the point where political performance departs from this hegemonic masculinity, and spills over into what can easily be characterised as testosterone-driven unseemliness. What I identify as a glut of indecorousness in male display is not accidental. In a scramble to exploit a shift towards populism, politicians have asserted their distance from a discredited political “establishment” by displaying what Moffitt describes as “bad behaviour”. Exaggerated performances of masculinity present a means of overstepping rather than confronting political norms. US President Donald Trump fronts what has become a cabaret of toxic masculinity with his boasts of “pussy grabbing”, but previous examples have included the likes of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi.

I began my article by acknowledging that, as might be expected given the value attached to unconventional behaviour, the prominence of toxic masculinity in the discussions over Brexit was a matter of public discussion. Columnists such as Catherine Bennett of UK newspaper The Guardian described the whole farrago as a "vehicle for hypermasculine displaying", and Marina Hyde used her column at the same paper to return repeatedly to the masculine posturing exhibited by many in the Brexit campaign.

The main targets for this criticism were now-Prime Minister Boris Johnson and long-term anti-EU MEP and party leader Nigel Farage. In the article, I argue that Farage has long been associated with “conviviality rituals” that emphasise certain forms of maleness. In particular, these have drawn on Farage’s love for pints of beer and enthusiasm for confrontation with opponents. These supposed qualities also figure in discussion and commentary around Farage, and often become entwined with nation-based myths. I highlight the example of a chair’s introduction to a speech by Farage in which an elaborate account is offered of Farage’s bloodied but unbowed escape from the wreck of a light aircraft (being used in a UK Independence Party publicity stunt), steeped in the imagery of the downed Battle of Britain pilot, cigarette in mouth, insouciant and unshaken.

It is this relationship between Brexit and particular masculine myths founded in the Second World War that the rest of the article explores in depth. Two come to prominence. There is, firstly, the use of the term “appeasement” to frame any willingness by the opposing “remainers” to compromise with the EU. The use of appeasement serves two purposes. The first is to position those willing to negotiate or conciliate with the EU as akin to the 1938 Chamberlain government in their cowardly and ill-fated compromise with Nazi Germany. The second and more subtle purpose is to mobilise a militaristic frame that legitimises expressions of male dominance. Secondly, and directing the descriptive toolbox to the perseverance of those determined to exit the EU at haste, the phrase “the Dunkirk spirit” is used to bedeck any retreat, misstep or compromise on the part of Brexiteers in the laurels of doughty British male heroism.

Of course, even as they stir at an implicitly gendered sense of national spirit, these claimed links with the endeavours of warfare evaporate with the slightest of scrutiny. The article concludes by examining the ridicule directed towards Brexit-supporting MP Mark Francois, when he responds to the expression of a set back by observing that “I was in the army and I wasn’t trained to lose”. The derision occasioned by this remark, including from Marina Hyde, has echoes of the scorn heaped upon similarly ill-judged claims to military language in the past, including in then-Defence Secretary Michael Portillo’s conference speech evocation of the SAS (an elite British army unit). The lesson we should take is that explicit claims to masculinised credentials from politicians often have a slightly preposterous air, conspicuously boastful and often materially contestable.

On the other hand, expressing the preposterous is not always an obstacle to political success, and in our analysis we should take care not to underestimate the role of even the most clownish masculine posturing in sustaining an “anti-political” demeanour for electoral profit. However, these forms of “bad behaviour” are only admissible as exaggerated forms of everyday political activity. It is on that basis that we should maintain a critical perspective on the progress of those deeper and slower-burning tropes that draw upon and sustain gendered attitudes and judgements in political culture.

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