Musings On Political Machismo

There is something old-world, reminiscent of the times of emperors and their fiats, in the way in which several democratically elected political leaders are feted, fetishized, and fawned upon by the public. While such hero-worship might amuse or dismay us; developing this cult of personality has become a vital part of leadership.

For the most part, politics today is not about principles; it is widely perceived to be a dirty game, seen as an entry route to a select status, that carries with it power, money, sex; a way of achieving La Dolce Vita.


But, it works differently for men and women. There is duplicity, in the way in which male and female leaderships are assessed. Male political leaders are judged more by their performance in terms of economy, legislation, international relations, their misdemeanors are more likely to be overlooked, and their ‘machismo’ is consciously projected in the media, as a crucial part of their identity.


Female political leaders, on the other hand, are often held to the superficial criterion of their appearance; the colour of their dress, the type of their shoe, the kind of jewellery they wear, the amount of cleavage on show, and so on.


For example, when the ‘New Labour’ came to power in the UK in 1997, the media routinely referred, to the women MPs and ministers as ‘Blair Babes’. More recently in 2009, the British tabloid press published pictures of the ‘most beautiful’ women politicians from around the world “Beauties from 30 countries from Israel to Afghanistan and Angola to New Zealand have won votes in the online poll. But not a single UK politician has made the grade”, running them alongside close-ups of female British parliamentarians, lamenting wryly that none of them made the list. The Chilean leader Camila Vallejo has recently been described in the Guardian as “an eloquent and attractive young woman”.


The dichotomy which still associates women with ‘softness’ and men with ‘hardness’ play out detrimentally in many ways in the political arena. Studies find that the exact same behaviours, in positions of power, are perceived differently depending on whether performed by men or women: assertive men are seen as ‘leader-like’, assertive women are seen as ‘aggressive’.


These norms are very current. British PM Cameron recently apologised (after first refusing to do so) for his sexist remarks to women MPs whom he referred to with the words ‘Calm down, dear’. The idea is that women, when they make demands in public or stand up for what they believe in, are being shrill, hysteric and aggravated. The ‘dear’ simply needs to calm down and be more lady-like!


Numerous men rise through the ranks from ordinary professions, amass wealth and connexions, and eventually gain a prominent role in national politics. Women, on the other hand, rarely rise in a similar fashion. They are under-represented in politics, the world over. Historically, the ‘public’ sphere of politics was contrasted with the ‘private’ sphere of the household, so it was seen as entirely ‘natural’ that men govern the affairs of the state, and women take charge of the microcosm of the home.


It isn’t difficult to see that if half the population was denied education and the vote throughout long periods of human history, their realm of expertise would be reduced to the indoor matters of the household, with its attendant concerns of cooking, cleaning, child-rearing and so on.


Women’s entry into politics raises the familiar issues relating to stereotypes, and more substantive ones too. In many countries, these relate to modifying the procedures of parliamentary functioning; such as the practice of all-night debates on bills which might have worked for old-style men of wealth and power, but is simply not acceptable for a modern parliamentarian (male or female) who has child-care responsibilities. Further, it is arguable what kind of scrutiny, laws might have, when debated last-minute by sleep-deprived politicians!


Very few women can navigate the treacherous political domain to become political leaders successfully, unless they have a strong backing in the form of illustrious family connexions or powerful mentors and/or lovers who stand by them. There are exceptions – Margaret Thatcher, or more recently, Sarah Palin – but in such cases, they are associated with radical politics (usually right-wing) and have to deny that their gender obstructed them politically in any way (they never take up a feminist cause); walking a curious tightrope, they paradoxically position themselves as both exceptions and ideals (‘I did it in spite of being a woman’ and ‘if I can do it, so can any woman’).


While female politicians are applauded for their style, as much as for substance, male political leaders do not face that choice between style and substance. The world will let them get about their business, unless they grossly step out of line. And sometimes, they do.


Male political leaders can be frivolous and/or sleazy, and they often are. The association of male politicians, with glamorous women – often much younger than them – models, actors, subordinates, and in some cases, prostitutes – works to enhance their charm and sex appeal.


The current Spanish PM Zapatero is clearly an exception (as obvious from his statement in the Time magazine: “I’m not just anti-machismo, I’m a feminist”), and it is far more common, to find the likes of Bill Clinton, who, though he faced a lot of flak for the Lewinsky affair, was not acting anomalously for a male leader. Likewise, Nicholas Sarkozy’s relationship with Carla Bruni was widely seen to add elegance to his political image.


Regardless, of how many legal cases are pending against him (including one for having paid for sex with an underage prostitute), the number of ‘bunga-bunga’ parties he hosts, or the charges about paying intermediaries to procure women for him, Silvio Berlusconi remains the longest serving post second world war Italian PM. He is routinely quoted bragging about his sexual prowess in the most crass terms.


Moreover, a bizarre culture of sexual celebrity comes into play as women themselves start fetishizing powerful men in politics. Take the case of Vladimir Putin. Projected as quite a macho superman, he is shown shooting tigers and discovering archeological artefacts under water (this latter was admitted to be a setup, the relics were planted in water for him to don his wetsuit and carry them out). Bare-chested pictures of him abound on the internet, whether he is riding a horse or undergoing a medical examination.


Last year, for Putin’s birthday, there were the ‘calendar wars’ in which a group of female journalism students of the Moscow State University students posed in lingerie for an erotic calendar with lines like “You put out forest fires, but I’m still burning” and “How about a third time?” (the other group responded with images in which their mouths were taped and the captions ran “Who killed Anna Politkovskaya?” and “When will they free Mikhail Khodorkovsky?”) And, this year, there are reports that in the village of Bolshaya Yelnia, a woman called Svetlana Frolova (who calls herself Mother Fotina) leads a sect that teaches its followers, that Putin is the reincarnation of St. Paul the Apostle.


The flip side of male machismo in the political sphere is the marianismo for women. Women political leaders in any democracy, cannot remotely flaunt their sexual prowess in the manner of men, and survive. Instead, from the German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Bengal Chief Minister Mamta Bannerjee, whether single or not, they are often extra-careful to maintain a ‘pure’ image of being (relatively) unsexed.


Nonetheless, when they are parodied or ridiculed for their political stance; on any issue in the media, there is a distinct element of sexual innuendo; pertaining to their gender as women (numerous such gendered satires about Sonia Gandhi circulated online recently during the anti-corruption issue in India).


Don’t women politicians have their sex scandals? Well, an article in the New Yorker this June, carried details of some such. But, as one commentator put it, they found a handful of – sometimes not very ‘scandalous’ – scandals, and that too after looking at 3 continents over a period of 200 years!

Nitasha Kaul is a Kashmiri novelist, poet, academic, artist and economist who lives in London. Her debut novel Residue (Rupa/Rainlight, 2014) was earlier shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. Aside from fiction and poetry, she comments in the media and has written in edited collections, journals and newspapers on the themes of identity, culture, economy, gender, social theory, technology, democracy, Bhutan and Kashmir. She has a joint doctorate in Economics and Philosophy, is the author of the book 'Imagining Economics Otherwise: encounters with identity/difference' (Routledge, 2007), and has previously taught Economics, Politics, and Creative Writing in the UK and in Bhutan. She has travelled to over 55 countries across 4 continents documenting the strangeness of the everyday and the otherness of the present. More at

Be first to comment