Do we have to be so macho?

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This will be a hard piece to write well, I am sure by the end of it I will not be entirely happy with all the contents, but I think it’s worth trying. Part of the reason I suspect I will fail is that I am conflicted about assigning gender to some of the behaviours I want to talk about. The traits of Machismo are not confined to one gender but they are treated differently in different genders and I think I would be naïve if I tried to claim that machismo is not a gendered concept. I don’t want to talk necessarily about men and women, but about traditional definitions of masculine and feminine behaviours, and the stifling dominance of extreme masculinity in political culture.

Our politics – at every level – is becoming increasingly macho. This is not solely down to the continuing male domination of politics. This is a very real and linked issue, but it is not simply the make-up of politics that must change but also the culture. Women in politics are required to be just as tough, just as domineering and just as fierce and full of bravado as their male counterparts. They are equally, perhaps even more unlikely, to have the freedom to explore better ways of engaging politically with opponents and allies.

Politicians must be seen as strong leaders – so the truism tells us. But who defines what strength and leadership are? It seems that it is defined by those who came before, and defined on their terms, however much this model is failing us. Is it strong for Osborne to stand so resolute in the face to so much overwhelming evidence against his actions on the economy? Commentators and the Tories would have you believe it is so. Personally, I think it would be stronger to stand up against what he has always believed would work as the evidence show him it doesn’t. Blind faith can be a source of strength to an individual, but for me, it is not evidence of strength of character.

Clearly David Cameron and his team disagree. He’s been ridiculed often enough for his bullying and braying behaviour at PMQs – frequently seen to be belittling people from Labour and his own party – not just women, but anyone he feels superior to. Angela Eagle, Dennis Skinner, Nadine Dorries and Steve Rotheram all spring to mind as people he has found it politically useful to make the butt of his aggressive, bullying, macho humour. But they are sticking with this as a tactic, this week calling out Ed Miliband for his lack of “butch” because he brings coffee to a meeting. Clearly this behaviour cannot be seen as natural but is a deliberate and calculating ploy to present the Prime Minister in as macho a light as possible. David Cameron has a very narrow world view if he genuinely believes getting someone else a beverage diminishes your masculinity. But both he and his advisors are so convinced that it is essential that he is seen as the masculine leader. They are playing the classic “mommy problem” game – seeking to ensure his alpha male status in increasingly bizarre ways.

Are they right? Certainly everything in our political culture tells them they are. As someone long immersed in that culture I can tell you this worship of the macho runs very deep.

Women are neither immune to it nor spared its sharp end. However, when women to play the game, they have the added dimension of being seen as shrewish. The difference in the way we talk about and regard female politicians from their male counterparts is extraordinary. Hazel Blears, Harriet Harman, Nadine Dorries, Baroness Warsi are all people who elicit a fair amount of disagreement from people across the political spectrum. They receive far more opprobrium then male counterparts with views their opponents find equally distasteful. All have been described as shrewish, shrill and hysterical. None are above criticism. But all have that criticism frequently genderised as if to question their right to play on macho turf.

As times have got harder, our political discussions have become harder too; more brittle and abrasive and less illuminating. Some of this is openly sexist, like the ways in which the rights of female potential rape victims have been subjugated by a macho culture of political support for their accused attacker. The male-dominated macho hierarchy of the struggles for equality has never felt so brutally exposed. I’ve never felt so bitter about it.

But most of it is not sexist, but simply playing to the continued cultural mood music. Political discussion must be polarised. It is not enough to have two knowledgeable experts discuss a topic in a way that illuminates, there must be confrontation. For something to work in the media, almost by definition it must produce more heat than light. I can’t think of a more macho stance to go into an interview with – for example – than “why is this lying bastard lying to me?” a quote from Louis Heron, but a style of journalism championed on the BBC’s Newsnight and Today Programme.

Everyone in politics and political journalism has got where they are by learning and playing by the rules. Some may challenge the politics but they never challenge the paradigm in which those politics are played out. Wouldn’t it be good if we did? Politics is failing us. We are not using this macho paradigm to solve the vital problems that face our country and our world. But instead of addressing this root cause of our failure we retreat ever further into this broken macho culture. There has to be a better way.

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