Why is the Far-Right so hostile to Gender? How does it understand Masculinity?

Guest post by Nick Galasso of Oxfam America

The resurgence of far-right populism, from Brazil to Europe to India and the US, presents a challenge to NGOs unforeseen even a few years ago. The common thread of ethno-nationalism, coupled with calls to revive traditional gender roles and values, is making it harder to protect refugees and ethnic minorities, advance gender justice, and tackle climate change.

Even education isn’t immune to the far-right threat. In 2018, Hungary’s Viktor Orban directed his government to meddle in the country’s higher learning institutions and ban gender studies. The government’s official statement said that, “people are born either male or female… and we do not consider it acceptable for us to talk about socially-constructed genders, rather than biological sexes.”

Why would a national leader (even an illiberal authoritarian like Orban) take such an extraordinary step? Because gender studies threatens the far-right’s core convictions about the naturalness of the so-called traditional family. The threat is palpable to the far-right because the traditional, heteronormative family is understood as the basis of all social and political institutions, especially the nation-state itself. The fixation on this threat to the traditional family allows the far-right to pivot toward xenophobia, immigration control, and challenging the rights of those not among the ethnic majority.

For social justice NGOs, the far-right’s war on what it labels “gender ideology” threatens a broad agenda: at stake are advances made to legalize same-sex marriage, achieve gender wage parity, access contraception and abortion services, balance care work with greater feminization of the economy, and end discrimination against LGBTQI persons. Importantly, challenging the far-right’s war on gender is equally central to advancing racial justice, ensuring the rights of refugees and migrants, and promoting inclusive and sustainable societies.    

Masculinities and the Rhetoric of the Far-Right

Despite the far-right’s war on gender, it appeals to the public rely significantly on gender tropes. In particular, its language for recruiting supporters and promoting agendas swirls with allegories about masculinity – and what it ‘means to be a man.’

Creative Commons. Credit: Anthony Crider

Developed by scholar and activist Alan Greig identifies three broad narratives drawing on masculinity in the far-right’s rhetoric: Dangerous Men: Far-Right uses of Racialized Masculinities; Male exclusion: Far-Right uses of Crisis Masculinities; and, the Misogynistic Masculinities of the Everyday. You can read a much deeper description of these in Alan’s new paper.   

Narratives relying on Dangerous Men invoke racialized tropes about predatory male foreigners used to mobilize fear and strengthen ethno-nationalism. Donald Trump executed this flawlessly when announcing his candidacy for president. Referring to Mexican migrants, he said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.

Racialized masculinities fixate on borders, border-control, cultural boundaries and exclusions that are seen as necessary to keep the nation safe from the barbarous Other.

Narratives centering on Male Exclusion originated in the so-called “men’s rights” movement in the 1980s and 1990s. The core of this narrative is that changing social norms, globalization, and workforce feminization are responsible for men’s abuse, disempowerment, and exclusion.

But these tropes reserve a special scorn for feminism for its supposed gender specific injuries to men.

Feminism is not only a crisis for men, these narratives suggest, it is an existential crisis for society. While the barbarous masculinities of the ethnic “minority” pose a threat to the nation-family from outside, feminism is the more sinister internal poison. Feminism diminishes the vaulted status of men comprising the ethnic majority by challenging the established social and racial hierarchy. Doing so undermines the sanctity of the traditional heteronormative family, and therefore weakens the foundation of the social order underpinning the nation-state.

Creative Commons. Credit: Anthony Crider

Lastly, misogynistic masculinities refer to the increasing personal attacks on women and the LGBTQI community in the “manosphere” – the collection of websites, forums, and blogs focused on men’s wounds, fighting feminism, and normalizing misogynistic views.

Though the alt-right’s white nationalist rhetoric was always imbued with idealized notions of the patriarchal family structure, the manosphere seems to be shifting their discourse on women and feminism to more extreme positions.

In this cesspool of the internet, women are regularly deemed absurd, spiteful, and secretly desiring men to dominate them. We find these narratives also in the public declarations of misogyny by far-right politicians like Trump – who calls women “fat pigs”, “dogs”, and “slobs.”

How Should NGOs Challenge the Far Right?

There are a number of steps NGOs can take. They entail confronting far-right tropes and appeals within the range of issues we work on. This includes combatting nationalism and xenophobia in work with migrants and marginalized persons, but also identifying and challenging such narratives within the terrains of care work, sexual and reproductive rights, and gender-based violence.

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12 Responses to “Why is the Far-Right so hostile to Gender? How does it understand Masculinity?”
  1. Johnny

    This argument felt quite incoherent to read. Preference for ‘hetero-normative’ family structures is conflated with misogyny and described as the uniting value that provides a semblance of coherence to all far-right hate-policies. The far-right are described as promoting misogyny as a masculine ideal. But they also use fear/hatred of misogyny as the tool to justify xenophobia. Do they promote misogyny or promote opposition to misogyny? I think you are right to say that they do both, but then it cannot be the uniting value underpinning all other practices and policies. Surely hatred of the ‘other’ is the uniting value. Hetero-normative is normative because of its widespread presence and acceptance as a norm. It is not in and of itself ‘bad’. For many people, it is a very ‘good’, positive and altruistic way of life. Mis-appropriation of norms by the far-right allows the identification on an ‘other’ (outside the norm) that they strive to create hatred for. The norm is simply a tool not a foundation. When it comes to xenophobia, the far-right happily mis-appropriates the norm of Western liberal values to create an ‘other’, ie – the far-right stokes hatred and fear of an ‘other’ which are those migrants or refugees who have very conservative views on gender, women, family etc. The coherent feature is hatred of the ‘other’.
    There is a danger in seeing an appropriated norm as foundational, as that norm becomes equated with the far-right movement, and positive, altruistic people who happen to hold to that norm face increasing prejudice from those who claim to be progressive.

    • Nick Galasso

      Thanks for comments. Good observation on how we find the far-right both deploying misogyny and disavowing it as antithetical to their own country’s values. I think you’re right in that hatred of the other is the core value. Indeed, when looked across country contexts, ethno-nationalism seems to be the fundamental organizing principle. While there are significant practices of misogyny exercised by the far-right, it seems also true that misogyny can be selectively deployed in the interests of attracting supporters.

    • Anon

      They display internalized misandry towards men whose beliefs and backgrounds are different.

      Wait till the West is run by the far-right. Women, minorities, LGBTQ, and dissidents will be executed (Women and LBTQ women while the men will be converted) and deported out of the West.

  2. Interesting discussion, and thanks for the blog on this important and thorough paper (which has come complex nuances to be sure)! The basic argument is about the ‘use of’ masculinities and gender ideologies by the ‘far-right’ (for want of a better word, as it gets a bit complex in international comparative perspective). Xenophobia indeed appears as a uniting principle here, but a particularly patriarchal gender ideology underlies it. This is partly evident in Greig’s analysis of the far-right’s attachment to ‘the traditional family’ – which is about ‘our’ tradition and serves both to restore ‘traditional’ male supremacy (by mobilising disgruntled and emasculated ‘crises masculinities’) and to stoke xenophobia (through peddling hate-speech about dangerous masculinities and men from alien places). Such apparent contradictions are commonplace in the politics of gender (and politics generally). Gender is always intersectional with race and other forms of ‘othering’ and these intersections are highly profitable to manipulate by oppressive movements, parties and regimes (incl. increasingly in the USA and the UK regrettably).

  3. Michael Borum

    Thanks, Nick! Well-articulated, as always. I think I, and possibly many others, would benefit from hearing more about the possible ways NGOs can combat this in our work. Not necessarily prescriptions, but illustrative examples. We also need to be brave enough to call out this behavior for what it is and to challenge these men’s assumptions about what they apparently consider their birthright.

    Patriarchy harms–damages–everyone. It harms women the most, followed by children (girls, then boys), gender non-conforming and LGBTQIA folks, AND MEN of all persuasions (speaking in strictly gender-based terms, since it also harms anyone outside the contextual ideal, including racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, people with disabilities, older people, etc.). This harm is rooted in misogyny and the requirement that men and masculinity hold a dominant position in all aspects of life. Anything not masculine is weak and therefore associated with the feminine. But this comes at a significant spiritual and emotional cost to patriarchal men, even those who wouldn’t define themselves as “patriarchal.”

    It’s no wonder to me that so many men in the “manosphere” (and plenty outside of it) fail to see themselves in the feminist movement. (This includes members of my own family.) They perceive it as inherently exclusive of men and masculinity–because they often see the world in zero-sum terms–but it is not. How can we help men on the far right understand that their pain is not caused by feminism or women or queer people or people of color or immigrants, but by patriarchy itself? (As a gay man, it took me many years to understand the source of my own childhood and adolescent pain as a much larger system and not just the people in my life. The constant pressure to conform to a certain part of the masculine spectrum, and the fear of the penalties of non-conformity, for me and for those close to me, was harmful on many levels.) And patriarchy and masculinity aren’t the inverse of feminism–it’s our entire way of life: scarcity thinking, environmental destruction and degradation, out-of-control capitalism, devaluation of care work, disposable everything, exploitation (of all kinds) for the benefit of a relative few (again, scarcity thinking), an obsession with sports and competition (zero sum game mentality), etc.

    Patriarchy has failed men spectacularly, while also rewarding them beyond imagination. But what do they ultimately have to show for it? If, for example, mothers get legal custody of children in a divorce almost as a rule, it is not “women” or “feminism” that are to blame. Even good, caring, loving fathers have to live with heartbreaking custody settlements, not because of feminism, but because of patriarchy. Care work and child-rearing are not seen as masculine pursuits. Men’s rights movements–which largely happened following the rise in divorce rates and custody battles where men were usually the “loser”–are trying to double-down on a system that has failed them and–by design–places no value in their well-being. In patriarchy, as on the field of battle, you are expendable. They would be better-served to target the system that fails to see fathers as caregivers, but instead misogyny demands they blame women.

    And we should remember that large numbers of women are captive to this system, as well, and equally seek to sustain it. They want a seat at the table, but they aren’t necessarily looking to change the rules. This is why intersectional feminism is so important as we tackle these daunting social problems.

    • Nick Galasso

      Hi Michael! Thanks for the thoughtful comments to the blog. Your initial prompt about illustrative examples is a great question (for which I don’t have great answers). In the report Alan researched and wrote for us, one of his key steers is to rethink our economic justice work so that it more explicitly addresses questions of race and gender. I think this relates to what you say about patriarchy harming everyone, men included. One intervention may simply focus on interfacing with to men that feel economically sidelined and who are susceptible to far-right calls to blame migrants and the empowerment of women and minorities. Such interventions that demonstrate how the patriarchal economic system is structured to harm everyone could be useful for helping men build solidarity with women, migrants and all the Others the far-right wants to exclude.

  4. The term “gender ideology” (and indeed “gender”) bares some unpacking. Because it is not just the far right that is hostile to gender, but also many feminists on the left, and all across the political spectrum (with good reason I think).

    When people talk about “socially-constructed genders” they are talking about two very different ideas:

    One is ‘gender’ as a set of stereotypes, social norms and constraints which societies apply to people because of their sex.

    The other is the idea that “man ” and “woman” are themselves socially constructed categories (‘genders’) , rather than biological sexes. And that what makes someone a man or a woman (or both or neither) is that they have an innate feeling of gender identity (and that this is expressed by conformity to social stereotypes of masculinity or femininity, for example in dress, mannerisms and other aspects of appearance).

    Both these ideas are now called ‘feminist’ (although not all feminists agree with the second one. Many would call it sexism).

    It is the second idea that is increasingly taught in gender studies courses and has been accepted as the unassailable official truth across most international development NGOs and their funders, with any disagreement vilified as offensive and a sign of bigotry.

    Imposing the idea that “gender identity” should override the reality of sex threatens women’s rights and child safeguarding. More broadly it is authoritarian in itself; forcing people to pretend to believe something they don’t

    In practice many people within NGOs (and even more amongst their stakeholders) continue to believe that being male or female is a biological reality. Most who work in the sector are afraid to speak up, because they are likely to be called “transphobes” and bigots for saying so clearly. There are few who will stand up on them, for the principles of evidence, freedom of speech and women’s rights (as I have discovered to my cost).

    The fact that I, and many feminists, and most ordinary people around the world agree with Victor Orban that “people are born either male or female” does not mean we have to agree with him on almost anything else. Recognising that families matter does not mean having to constrain people to traditional roles.

    Protecting the rights of lesbian, gay and bisexual people also depends on recognising that sex is real. Heterosexual men who self-identify as women (and as lesbians) are championed by gender ideology, while actual lesbians are derided as ‘genital fetishists’ for saying that male people are not a part of their dating pool.

    By failing to have a grown up discussion about how to protect transgender people’s human rights without having to pretend that sex is not real and important, NGOs are handing far-right populists a gift.

    Populists will sound like they are listening to ordinary people’s concerns, while progressive NGOs tie themselves in knots and incomprehensible language because they refuse to defend a basic truth which is critical to women’s sex based rights, and to child safeguarding.

      • Yes I think its a paradox.
        Development orgs increasingly say they are focused on empowering women and girls, and on listening and responding to, and being lead by local partners.
        And then go and redefine ‘man’ and ‘woman’ from the top with no consultation (or coherence) because it has become fashionable to pretend that sex doesn’t matter.

    • Charles

      Two Questions
      “being male or female is a biological reality” — what is it that determines this biological reality of being male or female?

      And why is *that* so important that it warrants cleaving humanity into two ‘fundamental’ groups?

  5. Iain

    Lots to unpack here. I agree with a lot of the arguments on toxic masculinity and the attacks on “the other”. I also think that this needs to be seen in the light of economic changes and the impact of austerity, especially in the employment rates and rights for unskilled and semi skilled men.
    But I go with Maya in worrying about the way that “the other” can seem to be women who do not adhere to wider analysis such as TWAW and so get bundled up in attacks on people like Orban. This risks division where fundamental agreement probably exists on a large number of things, from access to health care, equality before the law, an end to workplace harassment and so on.