Wed 29 September 2021

As part of her Why Masculinity Matters series, Hardeep Matharu speaks to cultural commentator and writer Peter York about why ideas of toxic masculinity seem to be more relevant in politics than ever.

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“There’s a lot of international examples of machismo and macho men saying ‘this is the way I’m going to do it – you’re either with me or against me’,” the MP Amber Rudd said last week. “In my experience, women tend to want to build consensus.”

Rudd was speaking about the “whiff of sexism” she believes has accompanied Eurosceptic MPs’ willingness to back Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, having rejected Theresa May’s. 

“There are certain behaviours that particularly men in politics want to see, that women don’t do much, and that Boris did adopt, which has given the ERG [European Research Group] members a lot of confidence,” she said. 

Chucked out of the Conservative Party by Johnson after voting for a law blocking a ‘no deal’ Brexit crash-out, Rudd said she believed that this move itself was an example of the type of “aggressive behaviour” lauded by the Prime Minister’s uncompromising supporters who are attracted to his “machismo”.

The rise of the era of hardline strong men, supposedly fulfilling masculine ideals, is clear to see around the world – from a half-naked Putin on horseback to the arrogance of Modi, Erdogan’s aggression and the motorcycling Duterte. But, while politics has always been seen as a man’s world, how is masculinity in politics manifesting today?

For the cultural commentator and journalist Peter York – known for his coining of the term ‘Sloane Ranger’ to describe upper-middle class Londoners in the 1980s – toxic masculinity is being talked about more now than 30 years ago because more fearful and lost men are flocking towards it. 

“One of the things that is so obvious in the Brexit debate and the Trump debate and the idea of the ‘left behinds’, which I don’t entirely buy, is that in the glory of the 1950s and 60s – and it started falling apart in the 70s – was the idea that things were getting better generally, that inequalities were lessening and that it was quite good if you were male, white and straight,” York tells me. “That would make up for a very modest achievement in life. The world would tell you that you’d inherited the earth – and you absolutely hadn’t. 

“But at least you weren’t a woman… There were quite a lot of ‘at least I’m not’ as sources of status. Now that there is greater inequality and the forward march of progress for all seems to have stopped, it’s made people go sour and toxic masculinity’s part of that.”

York says he has observed the “nasty cyber rabbit holes full of people who are going on about being persecuted because they are men”, which he dismisses as ridiculous. “Nothing of the type happens, but they’ve been told that they’re being persecuted because they’re men. That is the popular rhetoric.” 

“If you live in a low information world, you sort of buy some of that,” he adds. “If your expectations have gone sour, which includes having had a certain status by virtue of being a bloke, an implied inheritance of having a job and at least being the major wage earner, if all this is being wound up for you by seeing smart comedians who are women or brown or brown women, you go into quite a spluttery mood.”

York believes that leaders such as Johnson and Donald Trump like to present themselves as “alpha males” and cater to, and reinforce, notions of toxic masculinity – which is part of a “cluster of fears” that has contributed to their rise. “It is a real contributor to political inflections,” he says.

Clearly, some have credited a not insignificant amount of Donald Trump’s appeal with the sense that he is restoring American masculinity and defending it against the march of women’s rights.

The infidelities, affairs and degrading behaviour of both he and Johnson towards women have been well documented. 

In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, a tape of Trump bragging about sexually groping women – “Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything” – was released, followed by a number of allegations made by women of sexual misconduct by Trump. A new book All the President’s Women adds another 43 allegations to that list. 

Meanwhile, recent revelations regarding Johnson include police being called late at night in June, when the Conservative leadership race was in full swing, to the home of his partner Carrie Symonds, who had been screaming at Johnson to “get off me” and “get out of my flat”. Then, last month, a female journalist claimed Johnson had squeezed her thigh without permission under a table when they worked together at The Spectator. He has denied this.

Such scandal “doesn’t make a bit of difference” to them and causes little damage, York acknowledges. 

“The more we learn about Boris, the more Trump-like he becomes and his base shrugs if off with ‘it’s just what blokes do’,” he says. “The idea is that Trump and Boris are actually alpha males and their slightly ludicrous sex drive tells you they are winners and they were both, in rather different ways, told they were winners as children because they had dads who believed in them being winners.”

While many will see through the projection of these masculine traits by leaders looking for populist gain, for some, they will resonate – feeding the very damaging masculinity, festering in everyday life, which needs to be tackled, not promoted.

Are we talking about masculinity enough? I ask York.  

“We’re talking about it. But the people who should be talking about it, who are trapped in the idea of what it is to be a man and maintain one’s status as a man, aren’t talking about it and they’re precisely the people who should be talking about it – those who can’t articulate this stuff.”


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