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5 July 2018

The Brexiteers represent the four faces of toxic masculinity

Why describe Britain’s ongoing payments as a “divorce bill” rather than as “maintenance payments”?

By James millar

“Another day, another drama, drama,” as Taylor Swift so memorably sang at Wembley stadium last weekend.

She wasn’t referring to Brexit (though she did make some barbed comments about multiculturalism that suggested she’s no Brexiteer, as some have suggested).

But she might as well have been, as we slog through another week that sees male MPs like Boris Johnson, Alan Duncan and Jacob Rees-Mogg cock-fighting all over the news.

There will, of course, be lady leavers like Andrea Leadsom and Penny Mordaunt round the cabinet table at Fridays away-day. But it’s the men who are busy slapping each other down and expected to slap their winkies on the cabinet table if they don’t get their way. 

For Brexit is a masculine process. Or at least it promotes a narrow and damaging version of masculinity.

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Consider the men of Brexit: Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, David Davis and Michael Gove. A cheater, a drinker, a fibber and a zealot.

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These were the characters who dominated the Brexit debate in 2016 and have continued to do so in the two years since.

There is not a role model among them. No wonder researchers are increasingly pondering what Brexit means for masculinity.

The Brexit referendum was won and lost by men. Three-quarters of TV coverage featured men, and nearly all press coverage focused on men too.

The folk who received the most exposure were Johnson, Farage, Davis and Gove, plus the then prime minister David Cameron. The latter stood out from the rest, was a bit more new man. He lost the referendum.

As to the others…. Boris is a well-known philanderer. Farage is pictured with a pint more often than with his family (in fact if you Google search “Nigel Farage family” you’ll get photos of him with Ukip colleagues. Or holding a pint. Which is a bit sad really). David Davis was in the SAS (at weekends). Although there’s nothing to suggest Gove has cheated on wife Sarah Vine (though apparently she doesn’t trust him alone in a room with a pretty lady), he was quick to betray his friend Boris when the Tory party leadership was up for grabs.

They represent a narrow masculinity that prizes ruthlessness, promiscuity, boozing and fighting.

We may have hoped that sort of image was out of date. Yet in the years since the referendum we’ve seen the same men prosper and the same parameters for debate.

There may now be a female Prime Minister but no-one believes Theresa May is in charge in any meaningful way and any “femininity” she shows is painted as failure.

Perhaps we should blame the format. A referendum – with a binary choice and a clear winner and loser appeals to the competitive element of masculinity. But the mindset has stuck. These days if Westminster is up, Brussels must be down. And vice versa.

And the language is masculine.

Brussels wants to “punish” the UK, we are told.

If no trade deal can be agreed between the EU and Britain then there will be a “hard” Brexit. Men are meant to be hard.

Even describing Brexit as a divorce is highly charged, as if in any couple splitting up there must be a winner and a loser. Why describe Britain’s ongoing payments as a “divorce bill” rather than as “maintenance payments”?

This atmosphere and attitude, that Brexit is being done by men for men, has been noted by academics feasting on every angle of the complex process of leaving the EU. Many have understandably and importantly looked at how Brexit will affect women with domestic violence, maternity rights and economic downturn all areas where women could lose out.

But some are beginning to think about where men who are not willy-wavers (and if you think Brexit’s not phallo-centric then wonder why Johnson, Davis and Liam Fox have been dubbed “The Three Musketeers”) fit into the current climate.

In a recent blog, University of Warwick academic Columba Achilleos-Sarll wrote: “The referendum campaign and Brexit have ushered in a new hypermasculinity”.

Professor Roberta Guerrina of the University of Surrey has made a similar warning – that “gender is being performed” by the key players and that “business production remains more valued than reproduction” in the Brexit negotiations.

Of course maternity rights impact women more than men, but it takes two to make a baby. Men who want to be involved parents – which, according to the polls, is most men these days – are unlikely to get a better deal.

There is no-one even asking “what about paternity rights?” in among the Brexit hoo-ha. Anyone who did would be dismissed, after all such concerns are soft whereas where Jaguar are going to source the widgets for their cars (sports cars being associated with men) or what’s going to happen to fishermen (fishing disputes can lead to cod wars and war is for men!) are hard issues worthy of discussion.

There are more fathers than there are fishermen, so paternity rights should be part of the Brexit discussion.

Masculinity becomes toxic when it is too narrowly defined, when it excludes variance. That’s when it becomes a trigger for dangerous behaviour and poor mental health.

Brexit is the political manifestation of toxic masculinity. It harks back to a time that didn’t really exist, it is defined by a certain sort of man who appears to value their ego over their family, and left unchallenged it is damaging.

We need a wider and more curious selection of voices doing and discussing Brexit.

But when it comes to changing attitudes and gender stereotypes men have always enjoyed one huge advantage – they have agency.

If men want to embrace a different sort of masculinity they only have to do so.

When it comes to the sort of out-of-date and dead-end masculinity promoted by the big beasts of Brexit men should heed the words of Taylor Swift again, and shake it off.