Brexit reeks of toxic mas­culin­ity

Bare-chested dis­plays of wartime bravado are un­likely to win the day in a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum

The Guardian Weekly - - Comment & Debate - Cather­ine Ben­nett

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.

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