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What is the relationship between gender, sexuality and how we think about power? How might much older cultural ideas have haunted the 2017 General Election campaign, from its party-political adverts to grassroots memes? Having had three months to reflect, and with parliament recently returned from recess, now is a good opportunity to look back with some perspective.

In reproducing such rhetoric – even without realising it – whatever political party you support, you are tapping into a much longer cultural history.

At the heart of the contest was, of course, ‘strong and stable’ – the Conservatives’ mantra. But their rhetoric of ‘order versus chaos’ was also adopted by Labour supporters, who mocked Theresa May for her ‘weak and wobbly’ performance. While the manifestos, policies and visions of the future couldn’t have been more different – how might have gender and sexuality also entered the debate?

An Athlete Wrestling with a Python

An Athlete Wrestling with a Python

1877, bronze by Frederic Leighton (1830–1896), image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported), photo credit: Tate

For centuries, patriarchy cultivated a myth of chivalric masculinity: man as the 'selfless' shepherd for those who supposedly could not exhibit their own 'self-control', such as women, LGBTQ+ people, those deemed 'foreign' and non-humans. It was imagined to be the duty of the former to rule, and the latter – deemed 'chaotic by nature' – to be ruled. Frederic Leighton’s sculpture An Athlete Wrestling with a Python (1877) is a good example of how these concepts registered in art. It was made in the buildup to the First Boer War (1880–1881), when Britain began annexing parts of the South African Republic. The life-size, hulking, heavy, cold and sturdy bronze figure represented ideal warrior masculinity.

Art historians have speculated on Leighton’s sexuality, which was never made public. We can make queer readings of the work, but at the time most people would have associated male muscles with ideas of custodianship and control. The muscles symbolised discipline, strength, and tightly harnessed power. The snake, crushed in the statue’s arms, has long been associated with femininity, the devil, and homosexuality. Effeminate masculinity – the opposite of the athlete – was also seen to be both feminine and queer, even though they are distinct identities. Each was collapsed and cast as both ‘powerless’ and somehow also a ‘threat’ to the status quo.

Could we think of An Athlete Wrestling with a Python as somehow condensing the Conservative Party campaign into a single image? When their official Twitter account claimed that May would ‘take back control of our borders – vote to strengthen her hand’, were they implicitly invoking the muscular limbs of An Athlete Wrestling with a Python? The figure’s firm and impenetrable body could represent what many desired for the nation’s borders (also firm and impenetrable). Those who are cast as a threat to the nation are often ascribed liquid metaphors: whether it is a ‘tidal wave’ or ‘flood’ of migrants, or the claim by a UKIP counsellor that same-sex marriage legislation caused storms and floods in 2014.

When TV presenter Richard Hammond claimed that ‘ice cream is gay’ last year, one can only wonder if he was tapping into a longer historical imagination that pits the idea of the kind of man in An Athlete Wrestling with a Python against the mush and mud of all that threatens to drown the status quo: in the flood, the collapse of firm national and corporeal boundaries. Francis Danby’s painting The Deluge (c.1840) might give us a picture of the kind of Biblical apocalypse invoked by such rhetoric. Even the language of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Brexit taps into these material metaphors.

The Deluge

The Deluge exhibited 1840

Francis Danby (1793–1861)

So how did these ideas play out in the 2017 General Election? The Daily Mail went so far as to imply May’s ‘strong and stable’ credentials were indebted to her heterosexual relationship. Writing in the same newspaper, MP Boris Johnson claimed that Jeremy Corbyn would ‘have the authority of a wobbly pudding’. In a line cut from his article in The Sun (though still reported by them) he also claimed that Corbyn ‘shot blanks’ – an innuendo about his ‘failure’ of masculinity. Instead he went for criticism that Corbyn was ‘mutton-headed’ and a ‘herbivore’ – at a time when The Telegraph was publishing stories claiming that Corbyn’s ‘passive’ lack of power was down to his vegetarianism.

You can see how An Athlete Wrestling with a Python might haunt this rhetoric: Corbyn is the animal (the snake), unlike the muscular meat-eating male ideal. Academic Declan Kavanagh has argued that the idea that Corbyn was ‘unelectable’ or a ‘bad leader’, or a traitor when it came to foreign policy, was rooted in his perceived effeminate masculinity. Indeed, many of the attacks on Labour by the press and public seemed to return again and again to the notion, if implicit, that there was something feminine or queer about Corbyn which made him ill-suited for the role of ‘custodian’. He was either a terrorist, a fantasist, hysterical, or ‘chaos’. The collaging of his face onto the muscular bodies of male film stars was originally started during the 2015 Labour leadership election to make fun of his ‘failure’ of masculinity (the Daily Mail responded by publishing cartoons of Corbyn as a monkey).

By 2017 the very same images were taken up by supporters to spread a pro-Labour message on social media. They went viral, depicting Corbyn as a muscular hero: wielding a sword or guns (despite his anti-war politics). More so than any previous election, digital visual culture played a crucial role in shaping public perception. Corbyn was cast in some of these images as destroying a plague of zombies; metaphors of ill health, contagion, and disease have long been used in homophobic discourse to describe queerness. Meanwhile, in memes and the Guardian, Boris Johnson was framed as a beast, monster, hapless and ungentlemanly. Online, and in the press, May was portrayed as a witch, a monster, a child killer, a cannibal, an alien, a cold robot, a snake, a dragon, a toad, unstable, weak and wobbly, unwell, selfish or a computer virus.

While the Labour and Conservative campaigns couldn’t have been more different, many supporters of both seemed to share ideas of gender, sexuality and power when it came to their defences or attacks. Looking back to An Athlete Wrestling with a Python shows us perhaps how indebted we still are to centuries-old ideas of what being ‘strong and stable’ or ‘weak and wobbly’ means. In reproducing such rhetoric – even without realising it – whatever political party you support, you are tapping into a much longer cultural history. If strength is associated with the figure of the muscular, heterosexual male custodian (even when a woman is Prime Minister) – misogyny, homophobia and militarism will continue to dominate how we conceptualise power.

The arts are a space for imagining an alternative.

The Mud Soldier

The Mud Soldier

2017, mud & sand by Damian van der Velden, © the artist, photo credit: Edwin Coomasaru

The Mud Soldier (detail)

The Mud Soldier (detail)

2017, mud & sand by Damian van der Velden, © the artist, photo credit: Edwin Coomasaru

Take Damian van der Velden's The Mud Soldier (2017), for example, which was installed in London's Trafalgar Square over four days in July to mark the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele. Rather than a steely, impenetrable statue of a male warrior (like others in the square), Van der Velden used soil from the former battlefield to sculpt a life-size soldier slumped on the ground. Built around the figure was a metal frame that released showers of water to mimic rain. Over the course of the time it was displayed, the artwork transformed: from solid to a stream of slime, a liquid sludge that slowly washed away. Rather than a source of criticism, like Johnson's use of 'wobbly' as an insult, the material qualities presented a space to think through the traumatic consequences of nationalism and war. Not long after the 2017 general election, The Mud Soldier presents a very different scene to An Athlete Wrestling with a Python. It is high time we rethink our outdated associations between strength, power, gender and sexuality.

Edwin Coomasaru, PhD candidate at The Courtauld Institute of Art, co-founder of the CHASE Gender, Sexuality & Violence Research Network, and Director of the International New Media Gallery

Author's note: my thoughts on this subject are indebted to my conversations and collaboration with Eleanor Careless (University of Sussex) and Alex Coupe (Goldsmiths), to whom I extend my greatest thanks.