Hypermasculinity, Misogyny, Homophobia: The Toxic Triad of Authoritarian Gender Politics
Ruth Ben-Ghiat explores the interconnected nature of these three destructive ideologies present in authoritarian movements.
Published:November 9, 2023
Published with the generous permission of Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Read all of her outstanding writing in her Lucid newsletter.
By Ruth Ben-Ghiat
The strongman would be nothing without bodies to orchestrate and control. He needs crowds to acclaim his successes, propagandists and lawyers to cover up his corruption, military and security personnel to fight his domestic and international wars, and mothers to birth all of the above. He needs men to internalize and perform his brand of brutal machismo, and women to serve as trophies and as assets who validate their submission by the system.
He also needs enemy bodies to lock up, persecute, and use for his fear-mongering. Women and LGBTQ individuals have always been as much the strongman's enemies as the political opposition, prosecutors, and the press. For a century, the gender politics of authoritarianism has relied on the toxic triad of hypermasculinity, misogyny, and homophobia, which have worked together to devastating effect.
Hypermasculinity might be seen as the connective tissue of the authoritarian playbook. In strongman states, the idealization of the man who takes what he wants and gets away with everything is central to personality cults and and also justifies the use of violence, corruption and other tools of illiberal rule.
Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was the first to use his body to give his corrupt and violent dictatorship an aura of glamour and competency (here by threshing wheat in the New Town of Sabaudia created by his "drain the swamp" initiative). Russian President Vladimir Putin picked up this tradition, making his body an integral part of his identity as defender of Russia’s pride and and strength. This image of him fishing during a 2007 vacation in southern Siberia expresses the personality cult canon of being an "everyman" doing everyday things but also a man above all other men who is uniquely qualified to be the nation's hero and savior.
Kremlin-issued photo of Putin fishing in Siberia, 2007.
Yet this is only half the story. The charisma of the strongman also resides in his willingness to be vulnerable. His victimhood at the hands of enemies who are not his alone but enemies of all of us is integral to his appeal. Trump is only the latest authoritarian to build a formidable victim profile. "They're coming after you...and I'm just standing in their way," Trump tells his faithful, who come to feel protective of him. In the right circumstances, some can act to avenge him, as happened on Jan. 6, 2021 in the US and Jan. 8, 2023 in Brazil.
The body can also serve as the vessel of this vulnerability. Former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who had ongoing health issues from having been stabbed during his 2018 presidential campaign, often released video or still images of himself in the hospital. In this way a man known for rape jokes and praising torturers showed a relatable side while reminding people of his persecution by his enemies.
Brazilian President’s Office-issued photo of Bolsonaro in the hospital, 2019.
As men are elevated, women must be disempowered. There are correlations between the appeal of strongmen and moments when men feel their status is threatened due to changes in gender roles and distributions of economic and social power.
When Mussolini characterized Fascism as a "revolution of reaction" he captured an ongoing dynamic of backlash against gender equity. Today's far-right politicians and their followers would not disagree with Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg’s 1930 call for “the emancipation of women from the women’s emancipation movement," the "tradwife" phenomenon being one expression.
The attempt to end abortion rights, which is a staple of authoritarian states and parties, is the most obvious sign of the push to restrict women’s' bodily autonomy. From Fascist Italy forward it has also opened the door to criminalizing women and monitoring their physical mobility, as the Republican desire for laws against women traveling out of state for abortions show. Rollbacks of reproductive rights are also an important way that illiberal politicians get support from extremist religious institutions.
More broadly, misogyny informs policy as strongman states seek to reverse shifts in social norms that threaten the satisfaction of “natural” male desires. Misogyny connects to violence and corruption when government and society are reshaped to allow men to act on those desires with impunity.
The presidency of Trump, himself a serial sexual assaulter, warrants attention given he is the likely 2024 GOP candidate. In 2019, the Department of Justice’s Office of Violence Against Women changed the definition of domestic violence on its website, limiting it to physical acts of harm. The DOJ no longer considered “sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person,” as “felony or misdemeanor crimes.”
Trump also sent a message by appointing men who had been accused of sexual harassment or domestic abuse (Steve Bannon and Trump’s first Labor Secretary, Andy Puzder) and by coming to the defense of Alabama politician Roy Moore (accused of child molestation and sexual assault), then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh (accused of sexual assault) and others. Authoritarians need lawless people as partners, and protecting those accused of crimes against women is a staple of strongmen and their governments.
So is homophobia, which is a main throughline of authoritarian regimes both left and right. Far-right regimes that uphold White racial privilege repress gays, but so do Communist states. Anti-colonial regimes such as those of Mobutu Sese Seko or Idi Amin, which rejected White racial supremacy, were no better in this area. Even strongmen who gave women greater educational and economic rights, such as Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, or demonstrate an apparent commitment to female economic empowerment, such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia today, persecute LGBTQ individuals.
Hypermasculinity sets the stage for homophobia by decreeing that all other models of manhood and gender identity are dangerous because they damage the family (and civilization itself!) and lead to social anarchy. The Kremlin has been particularly effective at stoking homophobia by linking LGBTQ people to fears of moral corruption, public order, and the safety of children. Silencing and punishing those who engage in “nontraditional sexual relations,” as a Putin law terms them, has been central to authoritarian claims of defending the country and upholding “tradition.” Similar talking points are present in Viktor Orban's Hungary, Giorgia Meloni's Italy, and among GOP politicians.
Authoritarian biopolitics is not just about encouraging the right elements of the population to procreate, but also about removing the wrong elements from the public sphere, by silencing them, locking them up, or worse. What the Hungarian lesbian activist and children's book author Dorottya Rédai describes in 2022 as the “emotionally and psychologically devastating impact” of being “treated as an enemy” has been part of LGBTQ life under authoritarianism for a century.
Mussolini's policies are less well known than those of the Nazis. Policing “deviant” and demographically “unproductive” individuals was the flip side of his “Battle for Babies,” designed to increase Italy’s birth rate. In the 1930s, the Fascists increasingly imprisoned gays, often for years, to isolate them from the rest of society. From 1938-1940, San Domino, on the Tremiti islands in the Adriatic, functioned as a gay penal colony. There, you could be openly queer, but only because you were a prisoner, with no running water, electricity or toilet facilities.
Almost a century later, Orban’s party and government have gone after LGBTQ individuals with vigor, associating homosexuality with pedophilia and seeking to manipulate parents’ fears about what their children are exposed to outside the home. A 2021 law outlawed any depiction or discussion of LGBTQ identities and sexual orientations in schools, television, and advertising. It followed a 2018 ban on gender studies in higher education and the end of legal recognition of transgender and intersex people in 2020.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and other U.S. politicians have imported this playbook and built on ample domestic precedent in framing the necessity of "containing" LGBTQ influence. DeSantis' "Don't Say Gay" Bill limits K-3 classroom discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation and allows parents to potentially sue schools or teachers that engage these topics.
Former Vice President Mike Pence was in attendance at Orban’s 2021 Demographic Summit, where the “LGBTQ lobby” was frequently denounced, as were other GOP luminaries who seek to target LGBTQ individuals on a large scale. Already a huge wave of bills aims to take away protections for gay and transgender youth, restrict their activities and movements, and silence discussion of LGBTQ topics in schools, all under the cover of “parents’ rights" agendas.
The history of authoritarian gender politics and the devastation it brings to individuals and families teaches us that the time to protest and mobilize against misogyny and homophobia is now, while we still have the right to do so. And it teaches the importance of supporting models of leadership distant from the strongman’s destructive and brutal vision of power.
References: Alfred Rosenberg, 1930, in George Mosse, Nazi Culture, 40.
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