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,
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–
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
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’,
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.
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
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,
The arts are a space for imagining an alternative.
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,
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.