#LeaderImage – Exploring, analysing and challenging attitudes towards gender and leadership in images of politicians in the digital age

I am co-convening a session at the Association for Art Historians annual conference in April 2018. See the Call for Papers below:

During the 2017 UK General Election campaign, Theresa May presented herself as ‘strong and stable’ to try and convince the public she was a suitable Prime Minister. May’s inference of physically masculine attributes was an attempt to instil confidence. Her actions are reflected in themes discussed in Wendy Brown’s Manhood and Politics: A Feminist Reading of Political Theory.

In response to a culture whereby masculinity equates good leadership, digitally literate individuals are increasingly manipulating images of politicians to convey opinions on projected gender identities. For example, in 2017, supporters of Jeremy Corbyn Photo-shopped his head onto the muscular body of James Bond, while doubters superimposed his face onto ‘weak and wobbly’ jelly. Using screen grabs, captions, memes or, like these examples, Photoshop, some individuals feel liberated to create an online war of pictures, informed by ideas regarding gender and leadership, in the run up to elections and referendums.

The session convenors use observations on manipulated images disseminated during the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum to initiate a global summit on attitudes towards gender and leadership in political imagery – the purpose being to stimulate debate on boundaries in online spaces, for such images are impacting elections and perpetuating regressive and dangerous gender norms. Contributions on how the interplay between gender and leadership manifests online in any region are welcome. Papers on how technology can disrupt entrenched ideologies regarding this interplay are also encouraged, as are papers that examine historical links between digitally manipulated images and other political art.

With this session, we hope to evaluate freedom vs. censorship in online spaces and to explore the art historian’s role, purpose and alliances in an image-saturated post-truth world. Therefore, we encourage potential contributors to think broadly about how images like those mentioned above, and the processes of their creation and presentation, relate to historical specialisms in various fields.

How to submit a paper:

To offer a paper please email your paper proposals direct to the session convenor(s).

Fern Insh, Courtauld Institute of Art, fern.insh@courtauld.ac.uk

Kevin Guyan, Researcher, Equality Challenge Unit, kevin.guyan@ecu.ac.uk

You need to provide a title and abstract (250 words maximum) for a 25-minute paper (unless otherwise specified), your name and institutional affiliation (if any). Please make sure the title is concise and reflects the contents of the paper because the title is what appears online, in social media and in the printed programme. You should receive an acknowledgement of receipt of your submission within two weeks.

Deadline for submissions: 6 November 2017


Gender and #GE2017

Let’s leave machismo politics in the past

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale was angry when she spoke in the Scottish Parliament yesterday on the effects of austerity on those already hit hardest. Speaking specifically on the family cap (a two-child limit for tax credits) and the rape clause (which requires women who have given birth to a child as a result of rape to sign a declaration and provide evidence in order gain an exemption), the debate reminded us that women are often the worst victims of Conservative politics.

Yesterday’s Holyrood debate brought into the spotlight one way in which gender and politics intersect, and raised questions over the role of gender in the ongoing local and general election campaigns.

This is not about female leaders or male leaders, leaders who identify as heterosexual or leaders who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual. It’s about the gendered effects of political decisions and how the performance of gender can be used for good or for bad.

In April 2017, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon spoke at the United Nations and explained:

‘The Government I lead is committed to tackling violence against women, closing the gender pay gap, and ensuring more women work in careers that have traditionally been seen as careers for men like engineering. We also want to encourage more men to work in careers that have often been seen as the preserve of women like childcare and teaching’.

This intelligent discussion of gender issues highlighted the need to tackle issues most specific to women (such as domestic violence and the gender pay gap) as well as themes that impact both women and men.

Although the SNP look likely to do well in local elections this month and retain most of the seats won in the 2015 general election (95% of all Scottish constituencies), competition will come from Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Conservatives. Yet, Sturgeon’s discussion of gender at the UN differs radically from the imagery emerging from the Scottish Conservatives.

Tory party strategists are unashamedly following two lines of attack: (i) the local and general elections are only about independence, to such an extent that some candidates make no mention of local issues in their leaflets (ii) Davidson is the only person strong enough to take the fight to the SNP.

Davidson’s already hard image has been cranked-up this month, putting herself forward as the only candidate with the strength and vigour to save the Union.

The latest poster campaign features Davidson staring coldly at the viewer, telling them ‘WE SAID NO WE MEANT IT’ (see above). In campaign literature, the Tories accuse the SNP of ‘running scared’ and becoming a ‘laughing stock’. These playground taunts eschew policies in place of a politics rooted in the age of toughness.

Davidson’s position is weakened when she finds herself a mouthpiece for Tory policies, such as Brexit and cuts to public services – standing tall and and talking tough is an easy fallback.

Even though politicians’ use and performance of gender differs, let’s keep speaking about gender throughout the 2017 elections.

However, at the same time, let’s leave the machismo politics of Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Conservatives in the past.

Outline of themes

Themes for a future study of men and masculinities in modern Scotland

Scotland currently lacks any meaningful analysis of what it means to be a man. Writing in 2010, commentator Gerry Hassan argued, ‘We urgently need to start a wide-ranging debate about Scottish men and masculinities, our behaviour, attitudes and assumptions. And we need men to contribute to this’.

Seven years on and this debate is yet to materialise.

So what themes should take precedence in this conversation? In this post I will sketch key issues to help further future discussion.


Like all countries, Scotland suffers from a national history that is too masculine. The mythological aura around figures like William Wallace (wrongly) and Robert Burns (rightly) is overwhelmingly one-sided and, in the process, misses out on many fascinating aspects of Scotland’s diverse history.

In more recent history, Scottish men have been labelled the ‘sick man of Europe’ or associated with the ‘hard man’ image. Regardless of any truth in these stereotypes, we need to consider the continued impact of these representations on men in modern Scotland.

Tennent'sThe twentieth century was undoubtedly a period of great change for gender relations. Yet, with the altered status of the male breadwinner and weakened link between employment and masculinity, men had to redefine themselves in ways that are often overlooked. Scant work has been done in this area: the Scottish masculinity in historical perspective workshops, organised by the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Gender History, as well as rigorous research by historians such as Lynn Abrams and Jeffrey Meek among others. However, given the impact of this history on the present day, much more attention is required.


Education is one of the key issues in Scotland today and presents a number of challenges for Nicola Sturgeon’s government.

When we break things down by gender, some important differences are apparent. In secondary school education, 65.9% of female school leavers achieved one or more qualifications at SCQF level 6 (a Higher) or above compared to 54.7% of male school leavers. This trend continues in higher education: female students constitute more than half of the country’s university population (56%).

The gender politics among men is often overlooked, yet it is an integral element of how power and gender operate.

Women face a number of specific issues in education, several of which are outlined in Engender Scotland’s 2016 Gender Matters in Education roundtable report. Importantly, as the report notes, many of these problems relate to the ‘performance of masculinities’ in the classroom and thus highlight the need to also consider men’s actions and behaviours in educational settings.

Interactions with others / interactions among men

Men do not live in a vacuum but engage in everyday encounters with others. Men need to think about their actions, their impact upon others and their responsibility to act in an appropriate and respectful manner. Sadly, some men (as well as women) fail to watch what they say, particularly in the world of social media. Twitter too often descends into a hate-filled environment where people feel emboldened to dish-out misogynistic, as well as racist, abuse.

Men should acknowledge that, in some instances, there is a need for women-only networks that provide a space that differs from other political environments. A perfect example of this is Women for Independence, one of the most successful campaign groups to emerge from the 2014 referendum. The group encouraged many women to become involved in the Yes movement and helped engage people in politics who might have otherwise been deterred. Men are welcome to champion the group’s work while also understanding the need for such a group to exist in the first place.

Yet, when thinking about everyday encounters we must also remain mindful that men are not a monolithic concept. Within this broad camp exists many overlapping and intersectional identities along the lines of class, age, race and ethnicity, sexuality and other factors. The gender politics among men is often overlooked, yet it is an integral element of how power and gender operate.


The most rigorous studies of men and masculinities emerge from the pioneering scholarship of feminist and queer theorists who first analysed gender as a power structure that shaped people’s everyday lives. Furthermore, theory can help uncover the pervasiveness of normative masculine identities, too often hidden in plain sight.

Locating masculinities in the past is a problematic exercise as some forms of masculine identity (for example, those who were ‘white’, ‘heterosexual’ and ‘able-bodied’) went ‘unmarked’ and therefore seemed normative or commonsensical to actors at the time.

American sociologist Michael Kimmel has written extensively on this subject and argues that the normalcy of non-marginal masculinities rendered men’s gendered actions ‘invisible to themselves’ (‘Invisible Masculinity’. Society 30, no. 6 (September 1993): 5). For understandings of gender to move forward we need to shine a light on these ‘invisible’ identities.

These themes offer a rough outline of potential paths to explore further – I welcome additional suggestions.

Masculinities and an independent Scotland

Thinking about men as gendered offers alternative ways to frame Scottish independence

I spent four years researching the effects of planners’ masculinities on the rebuilding of Britain after the devastation of the Second World War. Scotland is not emerging from a conflict but it does feel as if it is on the cusp of a monumental change that requires us to consider the influences that shape the planning of an independent nation.

Since completing this research and moving from Dublin to London to work for an equalities organisation, I now find myself asking what can I do (in any small way) to counteract the political nightmares that have surfaced in recent years.

I plan to use this website as a space to develop ideas broadly related to masculinities and how they intersect with contemporary Scottish politics. By exploring these intersections, I will also examine identities, equalities, culture and education.

The term ‘masculinities’ may seem like an uncommon expression. What I mean by this is how men understand and present themselves in everyday life as something both constructed and gendered. The study of identities is not a zero-sum game and it is a mistake to explore gender, race or sexuality without also unpacking the constructs of ‘male’, ‘white’ and ‘heterosexual’. Examining masculinities does not diminish the significance of women or other marginalised groups but instead underscores the historical and contemporary powers of gender more broadly.

My motivation for writing comes from the feeling that something big is about to happen in Scotland. Rumblings around a second referendum on Scotland’s constitutional relationship to the United Kingdom have continued to deepen since June’s vote to leave the European Union. Corporate interests are positioning themselves ahead of a second vote, with the The Constitutional Research Council ready to bankroll credible unionist groups.

Over the weekend, London Mayor Sadiq Khan – one of UK Labour’s most popular figures – shared a poorly worded speech that compared Scottish nationalism and the SNP to those who ‘divide us on the basis of our background, race or religion’.

Examining masculinities underscores the historical and contemporary powers of gender more broadly.

This simply is not true and highlights an underlying ignorance about what has happened in Scotland in the past decade and is continuing to happen. Furthermore, it shows that among some in the Labour Party the animosity towards the idea of an independent Scotland has not ebbed.

At the same time, Scotland needs to look inwards and ensure that independence always remains a ‘means’ rather than an ‘end in itself’. ‘Independence means independence’ is a meaningless tautology and will get us nowhere, any future departure from the UK needs to be underpinned by a form of politics that places equality, opportunity and fairness at its core.

I cannot sit back and do nothing.

This website will therefore present commentary on subjects such as politics, equalities and education through the prism of men and masculinities, while also examining independence as a transition rather than an end-point.