The machismo misconception

When I think of political patriarchs, I tend to turn away from Australia towards Latin America. Patriarchal masculinity has a long and colourful relationship with politics in that region. Of all of Latin America’s dictators in the twentieth century, Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the Dominican Republic between 1930 and 1961, epitomised the image of a virile, macho patriarch. Twentieth-century historians and biographers were especially drawn to his outrageous personal excesses. A military man by training, Trujillo bedecked himself in epithets and immaculate costumes; even in the Caribbean heat he would wear velvet, gloves and tricorn hats. Trujillo was also notorious for his brutality—murdering enemies, engineering massacres in the name of eugenics—and for his voracious sexual appetite. Historians have noted, not without a tinge of admiration, that no woman in the DR was beyond his grasping, pussy-grabbing hands.

Of course, writers in the twentieth century—he was assassinated in 1961—didn’t use that word: pussy-grabbing. But during the time I was researching Trujillo and the havoc his legacy continues to wreak on Dominican masculinity for my PhD, Donald Trump was elected President of the USA, and suddenly that word, that comparison, seemed relevant. Writing about Trujillo, I had wondered how a macho, strongman figure comes to power in a nation. In the US and around the world, we were watching it unfold.

But what we are also watching unfold—still—is a disturbing dilemma for those writing about figures like Trump and Trujillo. Namely, how can we represent and accurately describe these powerful, offensive machos without contributing to their own myth or falling into their own style of politics? Since Trump’s election, journalists everywhere have struggled with how and what they report about Trump, a President who consistently turns to the personal—for example, attacking rivals on Twitter—to distract from the concrete policies and ideologies that his administration continues, however chaotically, to implement. The temptation to engage with this egomaniac on a personal level is completely understandable. But when critics and political analysts turn excessively to the personal, we are letting that same excessive person (in this case, Trump) set the agenda. 

 

In words I definitely didn’t use in my thesis, the logic goes like this: droopy dick, drooping dictatorship.

For example, critics have gleefully taken up the image of Trump’s ‘small hands’ to rile the President. The insinuation that he has a small penis gets to Trump because, as a journalist who enjoys using the insult has written, ‘like so many bullies, Trump has skin of gossamer’. But more specifically, it gets to Trump because this hypermasculine idea—that his penis size is a sign of his fitness as a man and as a leader—is important to him. Why should it be important to us? Why are we talking about the President of the United States’ dick at all? He sets that agenda. And when we take it up, he also sets us back.

The link between penis and power also played an important role in maintaining Trujillo’s mythic aura. The idea that Trujillo could rape or seduce any woman, even the wives and daughters of his inner circle, was an important tool in his repertoire of fear, masculine domination and humiliation. Those critics who have then sought to humiliate Trujillo via his virility—the Dominican equivalent of the ‘small hands’ meme—inadvertently feed into the same masculine game. For example, in his novel about Trujillo, The Feast of the Goat, Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa paints a portrait of the dictator, on the day he is assassinated, as a pathetic old man suffering from a leaking bladder and erectile dysfunction. But in giving so much attention to the dictator’s personal motivations rather than the regime’s authoritarian structures, Vargas Llosa actually fortifies this link between masculine phallic prowess and political power. In words I definitely didn’t use in my thesis, the logic goes like this: droopy dick, drooping dictatorship.

In my PhD, I was interested in how buying into personal fascination with ‘great men’ of history—their bodies and their biographies—often ignores the social, cultural and political structures that facilitate and maintain their power. Put another way: when we are overly fascinated by the faces of power, we often overlook power’s more fundamental and more pernicious facelessness. When it comes to masculinity and more specifically to misogyny, it’s tempting to home in on those who most obviously embody the values we reject. But in focusing on individual patriarchal figures, especially the most flamboyant or egregious examples, what do we miss about the patriarchal structures that underpin them? When we look to dictators as the embodiment of authoritarianism, we may miss the authoritarian tendencies of our own democratically-elected politicians and the ensuing degradation, however incremental, of our democratic systems.

It is perhaps a stretch to call Tony Abbott Australia’s Trump or Trujillo. Nevertheless, Abbott as Prime Minister became a magnet for left-wing derision and disgust, particularly because of how he personally embodies much of the machismo and sexism of the far right. His excessive macho personality is sometimes distracting, sometimes hilarious and almost always appalling. But more importantly, the government that Abbott headed was hardcore, right-wing and profoundly ideological. 

This was the government that implemented the highly secretive Operation Sovereign Borders, a military-led policy involving turn-backs of boats carrying asylum seekers. They embraced militarised language to talk about people seeking asylum, comparing boat arrivals to a wartime emergency, and continued temporary protection policies that have devastating consequences for those languishing in limbo in detention onshore, offshore and in the community. This government also revived the campaign against the Racial Discrimination Act, targeting minorities, and especially migrants, their descendants and Indigenous Australians.

This same government attacked the poor and marginalised and sucked up to the rich, with devastating consequences for low-income earners, students and the environment. Their first budget slashed billions from aid, education and health. They proposed making job-seekers wait six months to receive Centrelink support, and making Australians pay for doctor’s visits. Wannabe homeowners should just, Treasurer Joe Hockey suggested, “get a good job that pays good money”. Those who already had the good money—giant mining companies—were appeased through the repeal of the carbon and mining taxes. In fact, Abbott’s cabinet not only contributed to our cataclysmic environmental emergency but were caught laughing about it on mic at a Pacific Islands summit on the issue. 

All this is to say that Abbott’s was a deeply ideological (if ineffectual) government, whose bevy of besuited ideologues—Morrison, Brandis, Dutton, Hockey—promoted hardcore policies apparently founded in contempt for anyone who did not resemble their own demographic, including their own female colleagues. Despite being an ensemble show, however, it was Abbott who attracted a particular, personal fascination as a public figure. 

 

The budgie-smuggling, lycra-clad sportsman is barely capable of repressing the violent, physical energy brimming within him.

It was and is hard to resist a personal reading of Abbott’s political agenda, when he so consistently personalised the issues. As PM, Abbott wore his macho heart on his sleeve—or should that be his shirtfront? Whether threatening to physically confront Vladimir Putin while hosting him for the G20 summit, looking like he was this close to punching a journalist, or the reports that he did punch a wall next to a woman’s head while they were both at uni, the budgie-smuggling, lycra-clad sportsman is barely capable of repressing the violent, physical energy brimming within him.

Abbott also appears unable to resist sexualising any woman he comes across, whether colleagues, random strangers or his own daughters. When a pensioner who was also a sex worker called a talkback radio show on which he was a guest, Abbott gave a sleazy wink. When endorsing a colleague on the election campaign, he talked about her ‘sex appeal’. When running for PM, he paraded his daughters around in virginal white and held their hands, and in the past he had discussed their attractiveness—and their virginity—with the media. And of course, as opposition leader, Abbott directed a barrage of sexism and innuendo across the House towards then-PM Julia Gillard, igniting her famous misogyny speech.

There are so many enraging and downright loopy moments from Abbott’s time in parliament, we could get lost in the labyrinth. When he was filmed chomping into a raw onion, did he repent? No, he did it again—and once again for good measure. Tony ‘the Mad Monk’ Abbott has proved a captivating figure in Australian politics because of the logic, or lack of logic, behind his impulsive behaviours. In a profile on Abbott in The Monthly, Louis Nowra wrote memorably that ‘between his belfry-bat ears is a coil of such saturnine weirdness that no one, not even his closest friends, would want to unravel it.’ Junkee was more concise: ‘He was a deeply weird unit’. 

But weird, I’m arguing, is the key word. In his personal presentation and style—his ostentatious machismo, constant slips of the tongue and personal eccentricities—Abbott actually represents an outlier among Australian conservative politicians. In this time of growing populism and demagoguery, the hardcore right-wingers in our parliament are likelier to present as studies in banality than as overt authoritarian patriarchs. Trujillo proudly declared himself ‘Father of the New Fatherland’. Australian politicians, in contrast, tilt towards a specific and more garden-variety model of patriarchal power: the daggy dad. The deliberate deployment of a muted, banal masculinity in Australian politics seeks both to humanise conservative politicians’ personas and to lull—or bore—the public into complacency. 

Peter Dutton, Scott Morrison, Eric Abetz, George Brandis—they may as well be exchanging wigs and glasses back stage. What changes physically is the positioning of bald spots, style of spectacles and size of eyebrows; the message they often embody is ‘nothing to see here’. This personal interchangeability can in fact offer an opportunity in how we think about entrenched structures of power in Australia. The monotony of faces in our parliament, I would argue, reflects something about Australia’s conservatism, its resistance to change and its deeply patriarchal culture. Apparently banal exteriors in fact mask extreme ideological policies that protect big banks and mines, persecute refugees, trash Indigenous cultures and control women’s bodies, and leap at the chance to strip people of civil rights and declare military emergencies in the name of security. Indeed, the whole concept of business as usual, nothing to see here and nothing to change, goes to the very core of conservatism—conserving societal structures as they are, because they suit those whose power they enable and maintain. 

Conservative rule in Australia is not an authoritarian dictatorship. And yet many recent political developments have anti-democratic leanings that should alarm us out of our slumber. These include, to name just a few examples, federal police raids on journalists who investigated threats to civil rights and allegations of war crimes by Australian soldiers; Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton suggesting that climate protestors should have their welfare cut and be subject to mandatory jail sentences; and the indefinite incarceration of those seeking asylum, the violation of their human rights, and the militarisation and secrecy surrounding any policy concerning them. 

As a side note, it is worth pointing out that Dutton formed his career as a policeman when Joh Bjelke-Petersen was premier of Queensland. Under Bjelke-Petersen’s ‘repressive’ leadership, academic Shirleene Robinson has written, ‘Queensland was not democratic’. Riddled with police corruption, anti-democratic protest laws, censorship and discrimination, this era offers ‘a cautionary tale’ for our democracy, according to Robinson. Dutton, on the other hand, seems proud to call them his ‘formative years’. The point is not that authoritarian tendencies are unique to Dutton. Rather, his formation within a broader culture reveals the historical roots of authoritarianism in Australia—a country that popularly views its democracy as solid, inevitable, plodding. 

 

The daggy dad is Abbott’s appeal not only to normalcy but to a lack of scrutiny. That’s just dad being dad, pottering around in the background. Don’t mind dad.

It is telling, then, that politicians often appeal to this complacency and sense of the ordinary in order to defuse the spark of scandal. When Abbott made his ‘sex appeal’ gaffe (I believe that’s what you call workplace sexual harassment when it’s by the PM) he turned to a classic defence. In an interview in the aftermath, he once again utilised his daughters: ‘As the kids suggested to me,’ he explained, ‘I had a dad moment. A daggy dad moment’. Whereas Trujillo exploited his sexuality to trade in notions of male honour and patriarchal authority, Abbott aimed to regain trust by desexualising his persona. Having overstepped the mark—creepy, inappropriately personal—the daggy dad is Abbott’s appeal not only to normalcy but to a lack of scrutiny. That’s just dad being dad, pottering around in the background. Don’t mind dad.

This is important because the daggy dad so far appears to be current PM Scott Morrison’s official persona. Touring drought-stricken NSW after his May 2019 re-election, for example, Morrison traded the Akubra that politicians traditionally wear in the country, in favour of a faded baseball cap that clashed inappropriately—dare I say, daggily—with his outfit. Morrison talks about his mortgage, his desire to have a normal life for his daughters, his love of rugby league. As Brigid Delaney in The Guardian has pointed out, Morrison’s ascent involved the dumping of ‘two of our most urbane, stylish and sophisticated politicians — Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop … their urbanity representing a toxic trait to be used against them’. Ordinary is in.

Mimicking the dynamics of Paul Keating’s replacement by John Howard, the urban(e) is once again trumped by the suburban. This appears to strategically counter the ‘great man’ theory that says history is shaped by powerful, charismatic (male) individuals and which Trump, Abbott, Trujillo and many others seem to embody. Despite their differences, these figures shared an overblown, extraordinary performance of masculinity in the public sphere. In contrast, Morrison’s prerogative is to style himself as a regular, suburban man struggling with a mortgage like anyone else—despite his prime ministerial salary, elite education and history of prominent jobs in the public eye. Like his tracksuit-wearing predecessor Howard, Morrison’s political strategy seems to be to blend into the background, to be intentionally unremarkable.

It is still a distraction, though, and one that trades in personal, emotional responses to a paternal archetype. Morrison’s persona dresses up deeply patriarchal, violent and neoliberal ideology in benevolence. I’m daggy and therefore harmless, not worth monitoring. But I’m still a dad (not a ‘father’ or a ‘patriarch’) and therefore an authority figure (I’ve got this under control). Packed into this image is some notion of paternalistic ‘tough love’—a leader who is willing to make difficult choices for the good of those who don’t know better, a ‘compassionate conservative’.

The lie is given to this ‘daggy-dad-in-chief’ image, however, when he responds to the concerns of actual children in Australia. When, in 2018, their scientifically informed school strike could no longer be ignored, Morrison scolded climate-conscious children and told them to get back to class, telling Parliament that ‘what we want is more learning and less activism in schools’. Morrison is in good company: authoritarians often suppress students, the young and freedom of political expression, too. For the 2019 school strike for climate, his tack was to perform concern for young people’s mental health while simultaneously aggravating it; Morrison gaslighted them over ‘needless anxiety’ about the climate crisis, encouraging instead ‘a proper context and perspective’. To do so, he drew—like old mate Tony—on his approach to parenting his own daughters as Australia’s father-in-chief: ‘I want children growing up in Australia to feel positive about their future … the worst thing I would impose on any child is needless anxiety’. 

And yet, weeks before, Morrison’s government tore away Australian-born Tharnicaa and Kopika, daughters of Sri Lankan asylum seekers Priya and Nades, from their community and supporters. First they were ripped from their Queensland home in a pre-dawn raid; then the family languished for months in onshore detention without proper medical attention. After courts intervened to prevent their deportation back to Sri Lanka, they were imprisoned in an offshore island prison, an insanely costly venture, where they remain isolated and terrified. Footage circulated of the distressed and extremely anxious children aboard the deportation flight they were forced onto at night. 

 

When we pull back from the personal in understanding politics, the scaffolding becomes more visible. 

These examples, just two of many, reveal the hollowness of Morrison’s tough daddy/compassionate conservative persona. It is true that Morrison has often inherited rather than designed these policies and approaches. But that is, in fact, the point. Morrison is just one figure currently at the helm of many continuing Australian policies that threaten our democratic principles, policies supported and sustained not only by the Liberals but by Labor, too. Abbott distracted the public through his enraging and eccentric machismo—an excess of personality. Morrison tries to lull us to sleep with his banal paternalism—almost no personality at all. But what in fact changes? When we pull back from the personal in understanding politics, the scaffolding becomes more visible. 

But the drag towards the personal in politics is strong. I saw it on display from the audience of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival earlier this year, when I attended a panel comprised of brave women who had suffered years of torment under Australian government’s detention regime. They were speaking out about the particular suffering and humiliations faced by women under Australia’s patriarchal ‘tough love’ policy towards asylum seekers, including sexual violence, denial of abortions and the harming of their children. 

Saba Vasefi—writer, performer, PhD candidate, and former detainee—slammed all sides of politics. For Vasefi, those on the left who participate in refugee activism as an end in itself do much harm in perpetuating the marginalisation and silencing of those seeking asylum. (And let’s not forget Labor’s central role in mandatory and offshore detention policies). Translator and academic Omid Tofighian has elsewhere drawn attention to the ways Australia’s insidious ‘border-industrial complex’ works as a system in which ‘all citizens become complicit in different ways’. Instead of fixating on particular politicians or parties, Vasefi encouraged us to centre those seeking asylum and reform the system by engaging with their concerns.

Then came the first question from the audience, which I have since concluded should always, like the first pancake in a batch, be discarded as a flop. The question wasn’t a question but a rant that ended in a climax: ‘And we all know that Peter Dutton is the real problem!’

As the world tilts towards authoritarianism, and our own government increasingly targets protesters, students, the poor, refugees and the freedom of expression of all, Vasefi’s advice is pertinent. We must keep our eye on the interconnectedness of systems of power, rather than fixate excessively on the personalities within them, whether they style themselves as tough-talking macho strongmen or as benevolent daggy dads. On one side of the coin, a single person is the problem. On the other side, a single person is the solution. And this is the kind of thinking that authoritarian leaders love.

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