Perceptions matter, especially in geopolitics. I am researching how the recent incidents in Crimea are being narrated in US media. I am particularly interested in how gendered language brings to mind values attributed to superior masculine qualities in contrast to weaker feminine ones and how these are put on both Barack Obama and Vladimir Pution. Below are a few quotes that paint an interesting picture:
“People are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil…They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates.” ~ Sarah Palin
“Putin is calling the shots. It is the logical consequence of Obama’s radical-left background, the central belief of which is American muscle in the service of morality is a bad thing.…it’s clear that America, with Obama as commander-in-chief, is being scoffed at and humiliated” ~ Ed Coft
“Obama has more flexibility now. On a world stage with Putin, he defiantly folded like a cheap chair. Flexible or weak-kneed?” ~ David Rabinovitz
“If this were a tennis match, it would be the umpire shouting, ‘Advantage Putin!’ He seems to be running circles around this administration….“I don’t take [the president’s] insecurities and inabilities to make decisions, I don’t see that as something that damns all of America” ~ Rand Paul
“Our current foreign policy is a joke, and everyone knows it — especially Putin. He’s sitting in Moscow laughing, waiting for our president to make his next mistake” ~ New York Post
“He’s not alpha dog enough…His rhetoric isn’t tough enough”” NBC journalist Chuck Todd
“Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted a shot of Russian President Putin petting a leopard, next to a posed portrait of Obama with a poodle.“We have different values and allies,” the caption said” ~ Daily News
“We should definitely do sanctions. And we have to show some strength. I mean, Putin has eaten Obama’s lunch, therefore our lunch, for a long period of time,” he said. “And I just hope that Obama, who’s not looking too good, doesn’t do something very foolish and very stupid to show his manhood. I just hope that doesn’t happen.” ~ Donald Trump
“And let’s face it, Obama, whether deservedly or not, does have a — I’ll say it crudely — but a manhood problem in the Middle East. Is he tough enough to stand up to somebody like Assad or somebody like Putin? I think a lot of the rap is unfair, but certainly in the Middle East there is an assumption that he’s not tough enough.” ~ David Brooks
“If you knew literally nothing about the last five years, you might hear this chatter about “manhood” and “alpha males” and assume that President Obama was a pacifist, reluctant to use military force under any circumstances. But given what we know about what actually happened over the last five years, the scuttlebutt is just bizarre” ~ The Salon
“Matt Damon is expressing his disdain for Barack Obama’s presidency again, this time saying that the President doesn’t have any “balls.”” ~ National Review
“…Russia’s actions are emblematic of the “era of permissiveness the U.S. has created around the world.”” ~ MSNBC
“Nothing is wrong with an American president spreading goodwill and eating good sushi, but the photo-op nature of the trip risks contributing to a perception that Obama’s Asian policy, and his foreign policy in general, is similarly itinerant. He’s seeing the sights, getting some good pics and moving along — more tourist than architect of world affairs.”~ Hoover Institution
“This is just a mismatch. It’s not a manhood problem, it’s just that one man is tough and the other man doesn’t want to wield the power of the United States” ~ Fox News
“This is not a manhood issue with Obama. This is an issue of a complete absence of strategic thinking. It’s not a question of the heart. It’s a question of the head. This administration, this president does not have a strategic idea in their head” ~ Fox News
“NBC’s Meet the Press has made it a regular habit to complain about how some world leaders don’t seem to do what Barack Obama says he wants them to do” ~ Fair.org
Politics and Gender Stereotypes
The above articles and opinions feed into traditional, western gender stereotypes. In Micro-aggressions in everyday life, Derald Wing Sue writes that men, so the stereotype goes, are expected to be logical, independent, aggressive, and fearless, while women are illogical, submissive, unaggressive, passive, fearful, affectionate, conforming, and concerned with domestic affairs.
Barack Obama has been criticised for being ‘flexible’, ‘open-minded’ and lacking in ‘toughness’. Some worry that this will weaken America’s image and position in the international arena or at the very least, see it humiliated in front of its allies that expect a certain type of persona/image. In contrast, Putin is tough, laughing at Obama and occasionally wrestles with bears.
Politics – simply put as the study and practice of distribution of power and resources in a given context – has been and continues to be an area where men and their supposed superior capacity to lead objectively and reason dispassionately predominate. Despite the fact that women are actively participating and taking on leadership roles in politics, politics remains largely a man’s world. In her article Women are never front-runners, Gloria Steinem speaks to the notion that prejudicial attitudes, beliefs and stereotypes have created a sex barrier that continue to prevent women from reaching top leadership roles. A double standard can also be glimpsed, where qualities of assertiveness are valued as an attribute of leadership in men but are seen as ‘bitchy’ or ‘pushy’ in women. Other examples are: he’s good at details, she’s picky; he follows through, she doesn’t know when to quit; he’s confident, she’s conceited; he stands firm, she’s hard. Micro-aggressions – brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership – such as these have been argued to be the face of a modern, more subtle sexism.
In such an environment, women are very much aware that they need to conform to masculine roles and behavior standards in order to be taken serious. Female politicians, a prime example being Hillary Clinton, tend to be wary of showing too much emotion or off being perceived as socially sensitive in fear of being perceived as ‘weak’ or ‘too emotional’ in a rough and tumble political arena that is thought to require clearheaded, rational decision making.
All of this is not new and has been widely debated and discussed in popular media as much as in academia. What attracts, however, less attention and is by far more controversial is the idea that I would like to introduce here and which I believe ought to be a key talking point amongst men.
The Gendered State?
In the book Gendering Global Conflict, the author makes the case that the social and political atmosphere of the international arena is fundamentally gendered. Gender, in this context, is understood not as being synonymous with women, as if often the case, but as a socially constructed relationship of inequality… a property held by or read onto people, states and other objects in global politics….Gendering, the author writes, is about the distribution of power and regard based on perceived association with sex-based characteristics.
A state or a state actor can therefore be labeled or perceived to be or embody feminine or masculine qualities based upon particular actions taken. In The Remasculinization of America: Gender and the Vietnam War, for example, we find a discussion on how the Vietnam war and America’s bitter defeat to a ‘lesser people/civilization’ negatively influenced self-identity and led to subsequent attempts to recover a masculine type identity that was perceived as lost or battered.
Asking what assumptions about gender are necessary to make particular statements, policies or actions meaningful lead one to appreciate how masculinities bring about a very particular view of the world and way of analyzing it. Unfortunately this can be quite difficult to do, given that gender is difficult to see when masculinities dominate but are normalized to appear gender neutral – global politics is often seen as a gender-neutral field where differently gendered actors/units can be seen engaging with one another but never as a gendered structure in and of itself.
Note: Think of structure as the arrangement or the ordering, of the parts of a (global political) system…Political structures shape political processes.
Lacking a self-critical lens, it is very easy for men to tend to believe that their behavior, believes and the organizational structure that they operate within represent that of a universal human experience or standard; natural, inherent or as the only cat in town. That this is not the case and that politics, political structures and behaviours are inherently gendered is a hard sell.
And yet, there are ways to tell that gender is a structural feature of global politics. In Gendering Global Conflict , the author suggests a few helpful tips. Gender is a key part of international structure if advantage and disadvantage, exploitation and control, action and emotion, meaning and identity, are patterned through and in terms of a distinction between male and female, masculine and feminine….[and] If units in the international system have their interactions, competitions, and relationships governed and ordered by perceived associations with gender-based characteristics….in a gender-hierarchical international structure, units have their labor, allowed behaviors, locations in physical space, and power distributed on the basis of perceived gender characteristics. This occurs within a system of constructed symbols and images that explain, express, reinforce, and sometimes contest these gendered divisions. Gendered representations help produce gendered components of state and national identity such as notions of honor, shame, chivalry, and protection.
It is argued that gender functions in how political leaders are chosen, how state governments work and organize themselves, how militaries function, how economic benefit is distributed and how states define their identities. Whether we look at competition in war, trade or sport, winners tend to affirm their masculinity while losers stand demasculinized. This is a feature of (hetero)patriarchal systems, which tend to ridicule or cast aside the feminine. Policy options such as empathy, positive-sum collaboration, care, or empowerment are thus often missing; dominance, zero-sum competition and Realpolitik are pervasive and reasoned logic trumps.
A gendered state – so what?
Appreciating that we are operating within a gendered political system is important in many ways: to understand that the administration of Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin are basing their rules of engagement upon an idealized and masculine way of knowing and acting; to understand that they are doing so because they are part and parcel of a system that evaluates and invalidates interactions, competitions and relationships based on the ‘right kind of’ gender characteristics; to understand that political rhetoric and media coverage based on notions of toughness, manhood and perceptions of being in control, is a constituent part of this system; to evaluate how masculine ideals of power, control, competition and independence may lead to and structure economic systems (see also), social support networks and attitudes towards the poor, the impetus for war, drug/crime policy (see also), policing, our education system, health care, religious practices or attitudes about who should or should not enter into marriage; to imagine how alternate forms of masculinity – enlightened masculinity? – as well as non-western, non-patriarchal, or ‘feminine’ paradigms may offer alternatives to a system that by no means is inherently the norm; and to, as Michel Foucault attempted throughout his career, bring about an historical investigation into the events that have led us to constitute ourselves and to recognize ourselves as subjects of what we are doing, thinking, saying.