Brexit reeks of toxic masculinity
Bare-chested displays of wartime bravado are unlikely to win the day in a second referendum
Nate, recently introduced at the Edinburgh festival, is the thick, swaggering, toxically masculine alter-ego of a brilliant US comedian, Natalie Palamides. Audiences gawped as the diminutive but lavishly male Nate, adorned with a bandana, moustache and scrawled-on chest hair, entered on a motorbike to the sound of Bad to the Bone from Terminator 2, then, to prove prodigious virility, smashed up various props, chopped wood, got his dick (prosthetic, she’s not a magician) out, and persuaded a male audience member to wrestle, bare-chested.
For those who can’t get to the real thing, there’s always – and now more than ever – Boris Johnson.
Shagging, of course (his wife is said to be divorcing him on grounds of adultery). Swaggering, reliably. Sometimes, pictures show, in a bandana. With proofs of masculinity featuring, as well as a broken Foreign Office, the devastation of an entire country. If Johnson is not, yet, man enough to live-wrestle, like Palamides, he revealed his affection for this sport in an extended introduction to his latest attack on Theresa May’s Brexit plans. “So it’s ding ding!” he begins, Nateishly. “Seconds out!”
Even the untutored will get the idea: the crisis engulfing Johnson’s career is grave enough to require the activation of new and untested combat metaphors, alongside his traditional second world war repertoire.
“And we begin the final round of that international slug fest, the Brexit negotiations,” Johnson says. “Out of their corners come Dominic Raab and Michel Barnier, shrugging their shoulders and beating their chests.”
It’s a while before we return to more familiar Johnsoniana, such as his pre-used “we have gone into battle with the white flag fluttering over our leading tank”; the sort of deranged language that, though it would plainly be regarded as disturbing in any civilian workplace, has been heard so often, from so many, since Brexit’s notables began vociferating in 2016, as to come to sound, in these negotiations, unremarkable.
Not all Brexiters, obviously. It should be stressed that large numbers of EU-averse individuals, male and female, are capable of discussing the EU without ever mentioning blood, lions or colonies (Nigel Farage, Johnson); turds (Johnson); flags (Farage, Johnson); tanks (Johnson); the war/The Great Escape (Johnson, Farage); punishment beatings (Johnson); the “enemy” (Philip Hammond, David Davis’s team); and from Brexit’s more scholarly tendency, Napoleon (Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg); Agincourt (Rees-Mogg); vassal state (Johnson, Rees Mogg).
As demonstrated by Brexit’s leading sufferers, toxic masculinity’s obsession with winning may be accompanied by leaden declarations of insouciance (Liam Fox, Farage, Davis), by absence of human feeling (all the above-named), by hypersexualised behaviour (ReesMogg’s top hat) and, possibly, by imputations of effeminacy. Johnson refers in his latest attack to the “twanging of leotards” by EU staff, a choice of words that presumably reflects some association, in the great shagger’s mind, between ballet, emasculation and losing – the greatest fear to beset any Nate-minded politician.
Did Brexit always have to become, like the current White House, another vehicle for hypermasculine displaying? Not least of the many compelling arguments for a people’s vote on a final deal is the chance to see what might happen if the preceding discussion were held in civil or, at least, non-toxically masculine language. How would it be, that debate, minus “slug fests” and “cudgels”, but with the addition of younger voices, of informed ones and in particular of more women, 56% of whom support remain (against 51% of men)? A Loughborough University study found that men enjoyed 85% of the press, and 75% of the television referendum coverage.
Probably, given the demagogic opportunities, the referendum was always going to be dominated by the political world’s most unspeakable Nates. We need to have a new one despite – and ideally without – them.