Strong Men and Iron Women - Is Female Leadership the Answer to Toxic Masculinity?
Heidi Siegmund Cuda revisits her 'Strongmen' interview with Ruth Ben-Ghiat, given the rise of figures such as Giorgia Meloni, Liz Truss and Marjorie Taylor Greene
Heidi Siegmund Cuda revisits her Strongmen interview with Ruth Ben-Ghiat and offers updates on political leaders doubling down on lawlessness, encouraging the Byline Supplement team to ask our viewers to consider if more women ruled, what that would look like, and if they are seeing lawless masculinity in their own communities
We are approaching three years since the coronavirus pandemic upended the world as we knew it. It almost seems like a fading dream, but for many who lost family or suffer long-term health consequences, it remains a nightmare.
Reflecting back, one thing stands out – the countries with the best coronavirus responses were led by women. Examples of true leadership in a crisis could be found in Iceland, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Taiwan, and New Zealand – all countries run by women at a time when the virus was raging.
Alternately, countries in 2020 led by so-called ‘strongmen’ - the US, Brazil, and Russia – led to the worst coronavirus outcomes globally. Their science denialism took a massive human toll and in the case of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, likely helped expedite their reelection fails.
In the UK, while people obeyed lockdown orders – observing the public health restrictions that prohibited most gatherings – photos emerged of Boris Johnson and other conservatives drinking and partying in what became known as Partygate. The scandal ultimately led to Johnson’s departure as Prime Minister.
In the interview I wrote for Byline Times two years ago with Ruth Ben-Ghiat, the historian of Italian fascism documented the fallout of World War I – where an entire “class of men who were damaged, many were killed… created this huge crisis in masculinity. So fascist rulers came up during this period of unrest and instability.”
One hundred years later, we again have a lawless masculinity taking root –as male fears and insecurities are exploited by authoritarians. In Florida, Governor Ron deSantis just announced ‘law and order’ legislation – a fascist trope – after spending last year making headlines by attacking the LGBTQ+ community with his ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law. Hitler did the same in Berlin in the 1930s – terrorizing the gay community and burning books about gender fluidity.
Although media personality Andrew Tate was just arrested on charges of human trafficking, he spent years marketing to young men an ‘ultra masculinity’, referring to himself as “absolutely sexist” and “absolutely a misogynist”. The well documented “incel” movement – short for ‘involuntary celibate’ – is rife with an online community of lawless masculinity and exploitation. What it looks like offline, is what Americans saw on January 6, 2021 – an insurrection of seething militant rage.
As Ben-Ghiat wrote in an essay on lawless masculinity, “Illiberal political solutions tend to take hold when increased gender equity and emancipation spark anxieties about male authority and status. A conquest-without-consequences masculinity, posing as a ‘return to traditional values’, tracks with authoritarianism’s rise and parallels the discarding of the rule of law and accountability in politics.”
As I noted in a recent Byline Supplement report, Trump Unmasked: A Guide to Becoming a Demagogue, these toxic tropes follow a fascist format, with sexual anxiety being among one of the common themes.
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In a recent Trump video, he promised to cut funding for any schools that “promote gender ideology or other inappropriate racial, sexual, or political content”.
If viewed through the “Strongmen” prism, the rhetoric is straight from a hundred-year-old playbook and is illustrative of Ben-Ghiat’s thesis.
Since we published the original article, Ben-Ghiat told Byline Supplement
“On the masculinity theme, we see the obsession of Republicans now with that – from Tucker Carlson's fascist film about Nazi-style bodies to Josh Hawley writing a book on masculinity.”
In addition, Ben-Ghiat brought her expertise in front of the January 6 Committee, where she was interviewed multiple times and explained why strongmen do not want to leave office – often to hide their corruption – and how their personality cults allow them to remain relevant to followers.
Another example of this is Italy’s former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, who, as Ben-Ghiat noted in our original report, has remained in the DNA of Italian politics – even after criminal convictions removed him from power.
“Well, now we have Giorgia Meloni, a neo-fascist, as Prime Minister, and she got her start in the Berlusconi years in his center-right governments that normalized neofascism,” said Ben-Ghiat.
In her book, Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, Ben-Ghiat warned of the potential of the ‘strongwoman’ who would carry out the authoritarian mission.
The shortest-serving prime minister in the history of the United Kingdom – Liz Truss – may indicate that at least in the United Kingdom, the country may have had their fill of the Iron Woman archetype.
In America, Trump sycophants such as Kari Lake – a failed candidate with media experience who lurks in the party DNA – and Marjorie Taylor Greene – a QAnon spewing congresswoman – are being floated as potential vice president picks. These extremist fringe players reveal just how far the window of discourse has moved since Trump’s presidency – a presidency now being called into question with the indictment of Charles McGonigal, a former New York counterintelligence FBI official charged with taking money from a Russian oligarch under sanctions.
Even with their outsized role in media, however, Lake and Greene represent an extremist minority and the overall image of the women leader globally is of the grace (and dance moves) of Finland Prime Minister Sanna Marin or the competency of Jacinda Ardern, whose resignation announcement was mourned throughout the world.
One of the things that has haunted me since my first interview with Ben-Ghiat is when she explained that once a country gets a thirst for authoritarianism, it is difficult to quench. She said it was remarkable in America that citizens voted Trump out, but that the 70 million people who voted for him in 2020 continue to be marks for the next ‘strongman.’
The question for our readers is, are you seeing the impacts of lawless masculinity in your own countries, and if so, do you think that could be solved with more women in leadership roles?
Do vote on our poll above and discuss further below.