How leaders like Boris Johnson took toxic masculinity in politics to terrifying new heights

Lourdes Walsh
Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar's meeting on Thursday sparked optimism: PA

From Churchill to Putin, Thatcher to Merkel, masculine traits have long been perceived as evidence of competent leadership; we like our politicians to be strong, assertive and unwavering in the face of discord and conflict. It is a cultural norm that pervades not only those in power, but which also infiltrates the psyche of our society, most notably among men.

The harmful ways in which the patriarchy constrains men is thought to be a dominant factor behind a rise in male suicides. During 2018, the number of people who died by suicide in the UK rose by almost 12 per cent, with men three times more likely to die by suicide than women.

The gendered expectations which promote emotional repression and stigma are nowhere more visible than in our current prime minister’s misogynistic language and behaviours. Boris Johnson unashamedly referred to a peer as a “girly swot” recently, though not for the first time. Not only do his words highlight his sexist views, they also amplify the competitive alpha dominance and the social expectation on men to assert aggression as often as possible.

Even as new campaigns such as the NHS’s Every Mind Matters aim to promote the idea that poor mental health, in all its camouflaged manifestations, is to be understood and treated, the overt display of machismo fuels a culture of stoicism and self-reliance. This, in turn, deters men from reaching out for professional help, leaving them floundering in a world mired in stereotypes and gender conformity.

Mockery as medicine is beginning to be phased out. We have a greater awareness of language and its impact. No longer are phrases like “man up”, “boys don’t cry” and “boys will be boys” acceptable in our playgrounds. Our future society will undoubtedly be better off for it. But as children shun the codes of colours and language, toys and aspirations while peers and leaders scoff at political correctness and human rights, for the grown men struggling now, navigating this world is desolate and isolating.

For generations, the toxic belief that work and lifestyle should be split along gender lines has informed the social norms men must practise in order to be identified as “male”. This division has been countered by moves towards equality, from proportional representation in traditionally perceived “male professions” to increased paternity leave. Disentangling ourselves from the perceived weakness of collaboration has proven benefits, emotionally and economically. With the dismantling of the patriarchy, so too are men liberated.

For Johnson though, it seems the notion of political co-operation is still viewed as a deficiency, a sacrifice of his own manhood. The idea of collaboration is treated with disdain and requesting a reprieve in the Brexit negotiations in the form of an extension has Johnson baulking, even if it costs him his job. This self-destructive stance is synonymous with toxic masculinity, the male ego, at once fragile and immovable.

A no-deal Brexit looks reckless but repeated warnings of economic crises are ignored. Concession and compromise are shunned and risk-taking is heroic, as long as men are the ones taking the risks. The white and wealthy, historically, hold little liability. Yet from this viewpoint the strong and stable look stunted and insecure.

Public debate could lead us to believe that political discourse is entirely polarised – Leave or Remain, red or blue, workers and shirkers – but, as with gender, politics is nuanced.

Online communities would have us believe that to eschew popular views is to shout into an abyss, our socio-political bubbles impenetrable. But there is rarely a binary distinction, as evidenced by Labour Leavers and defecting Tory Remainers. By subscribing to a black-and-white mindset, we fail to understand each other, we fail to recognise views different to our own and we are more prone to miseducation, ignorance and political impotence.

The rapid cultural shift towards acceptance and understanding that gender is a social construct, particularly among millennials and the following Generation Z, will undoubtedly change how future society reacts to leaders, their understanding of manhood and all its inherent toxicity.

In the 2017 general election, more than half of 18 to 24-year-olds voted cast their ballot in the highest youth turnout in 25 years, overwhelmingly calling for a Labour government. When Jeremy Corbyn met with Sinn Fein in the 1980s and 1990s, saying, “I want to see peace through dialogue”, he was vilified as a terrorist sympathiser, a traitor rather than a progressive who was willing to listen and understand the views of others. Again, grace and humanity – attributes typically viewed as “female” – invoke contempt when coming from a man.

Corbyn is often derided as too soft-spoken, weak or mentally unfit, it seems when attacking the capabilities of leaders in pursuit of status, even mental health is an easy target. The statistics show that it’s a jibe that can have tragic consequences.

Following almost a decade of austerity, the atrophied political landscape is desperate for regeneration. In the 2017 general election, young people spoke. Loudly. It is imperative that when the campaign trail next gears up, they hold our leaders accountable and let them know that the politics of machismo, characterised by violent threats and derision of the vulnerable, has no place. For all men.

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