#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.

#ScotRef and the politics of indifference

Those who claim to be ‘outside of politics’ need to be called-out for what they really are: supporters of the status quo.

I spent last weekend with family in Aberdeen and found it hard to contain my frustration while watching news coverage of the public’s response to Nicola Sturgeon’s letter to Theresa May requesting a Section 30 order.

Typical vox pops on the question of a second independence referendum included:

‘Ach. I’m no interested in politics.’

‘I don’t like speaking about politics, it just creates confrontation and division.’

‘I don’t want another referendum, it’s too soon – I don’t have the time’.

Following my initial confusion over what exactly these people did in the 2014 independence referendum that occupied so much of their time (this random sample did not look as if they had spent evenings knocking on doors and delivering leaflets), it became clear that one of the great challenges facing the independence movement does not come from the official opposition but from the politics of indifference.

The views shared in these vox pops masquerade as being ‘above’ or ‘outside’ of politics but, in fact, only help to safeguard the status quo.

Historian and activist Howard Zinn wrote, ‘you can’t be neutral on a speeding train’. Politics in the UK and US in the past two years, perhaps more so than in the previous half century, fits the description of a ‘speeding train’. Neutrality is not an option – you must pick a side or find yourself complicit in the status quo.

Tacit support for the status quo, and the belief that whatever happens will not directly impinge upon your life, only comes from a place of privilege.

For those who bought their house at a bargain rate from Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s or were born at the right time to enjoy a final salary pension, the dire situation of politics in 2017 may not appear to pose a direct threat.

But what about everyone else? Failure to act in a situation in which others are at risk, even when you find yourself in a safe position, is still a failure. Even worse, it is selfish.

Ahead of the next independence referendum, staying outside of politics is no longer an option. Sides must be taken, with those claiming political indifference called out by their real name: supporters of the status quo.

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.