„Male states“: What hypermasculinity has to do with the war in Ukraine

Trip to Tyva, August 1-3, 2017 | http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/55308/photos

Cornelia Ulbert

Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, there has been much talk of a “turning point”, of the failure of diplomacy and the end of trusting relations with Russia. In the horror that Russian President Putin is waging a war of aggression against his neighbouring country, the reflex to now want to strengthen one's own defences is understandable. It would be wrong, however, if in this situation we were merely to fall back into old patterns of thought and action of “spheres of influence”, “balance of power” or unregulated military build-up.

If we want to draw lessons from the current situation for a different, more peaceful future, then it is essential to look at how it could happen, that the Ukraine and “the West” is held in such low esteem, not only by President Putin but also by many inside and outside Russia. The answer is to be found in the instrumentalization of gender stereotypes. These are based on a binary gender system of “male” and “female”, which are in a hierarchical relationship to each other. At the same time, heterosexuality becomes the social norm, and all other forms of sexual orientation or sexual identity are rejected as “abnormal”.

Gender stereotypes define power relations

We know that processes of identity formation do not only rest on self-attribution. “Identity“ is closely entwined with the construction of social categories and roles, which creates social pressure. Therefore, the attribution of identities takes place within certain power structures and establishes specific power relations at the same time. This social practice of gender hierarchies is culturally embedded in symbolically assigning “the male” to the public sphere and “the female” to the private sphere. Thereby the male is an acting subject, thinking rationally and being productive for society. The female, however, is an object that must be protected, acting emotionally and being in charge of reproducing. By attributing gender-coded characteristics, a gender hierarchy between „male” and “female” is established, clearly privileging male characteristics over female ones. Thus, over the centuries, patriarchal notions of male superiority over women (and other gender identities) have developed, by implication also legitimizing power imbalances between heterosexual men and “the others”.

Gender norms as instruments of building political authority

There is nothing new about using gender stereotypes to depreciate political opponents and consolidate one’s own claim to power. Particularly striking examples of a „hypermasculine“ appearance are provided by the former US president Trump, Brazil’s president Bolsonaro or Turkey’s president Erdogan. However, also among EU member states political parties resort to gender stereotyping in their political strategies.

As Valerie Sperling already pointed out in a highly acclaimed book in 2015, in Russia under Vladimir Putin heteronormative concepts of “traditional” masculinity and femininity have been used systematically as instruments in the struggle for political legitimacy for over two decades now (Sperling 2015).

In this struggle, Putin emerged as the undisputed leader of a resurgent Russian empire. The strategy to employ gender norms purposefully for underpinning one’s own claim to leadership and for defaming the political opponent, is successful because normative ideas of gender roles are widely accepted in society. Frequently, these are also justified on religious grounds, be it with recourse to “traditional” Christian (the Catholic Church in Poland or the Russian-Orthodox Church in Russia) or Islamic values (Turkey). In recent years, this was accompanied by a curtailment of women’s rights and/or sexual minorities (LGBTQI*) in the countries cited.

“Male states“ in international politics and the war in Ukraine

Especially since the 1990s, feminist researchers have pointed out, how strongly international politics is characterised by hierarchies and a dominance of values and behaviours that are considered “masculine”. Russia under Vladimir Putin’s long-standing reign is another historical case in which very specific ideas of masculinity go hand in hand with ideas about one's own nation. As some scholars argue, a declining number of Russian citizens consider themselves as being part of Europe. Instead, they think of themselves as a unique Eurasian civilization that is superior to the European civilization of “Gayropa”. As a result, the “decadent West“ is accused to destroy the “normal” gender order through “the legalization of same-sex marriage, the growing influence of feminism and the destruction of the traditional family unit” (ibid.).

Political commentators in Russia regard this degeneration as almost integral part of a development towards a Western-style liberal democracy. Accordingly, it is not surprising that the Ukrainian democracy movement, which formed with the protests on the Maidan from the end of 2013 onwards, was regarded by the Russian side as a danger to the “Russian identity” of Ukraine. This narrative was already used to justify the annexation of the Crimea in 2014 and since then also the support for the separatist movements in Eastern Ukraine (Romanets 2017). The macho personality cult of Putin is a part and a result of a hypermasculine national identity of Russia (Sperling 2016).

Reducing (gender) inequalities as goal of a feminist (foreign) policy

How can politics, and thus also foreign policy, react to this potency of gender stereotypes? Peace and conflict studies show: Preventing violence requires reducing inequalities and the injustice associated therewith. Inequalities are fed by deep-rooted power imbalances at the political, social, legal and economic levels. Especially feminist approaches look at power imbalances which are due to gender, sexuality, religion, ethnic decent or nationality.

The current war in Ukraine demonstrates the necessity to develop and implement new foreign and security policy approaches. A return to the power politics of the 19th century or even the first half of the 20th century is not a guarantee for securing peace in the long term and resolving conflicts without violence. It seems to be relatively uncontested that we should be able to effectively counter warlike aggression. Due to the high death toll, however, the instruments used cannot be military only or primarily.

Therefore, we should have the courage to embrace new concepts and try a change of perspectives. Feminist foreign policy with its focus on social justice and gender equity can facilitate this change, thereby opening our view to power imbalances in society. Strengthening women's rights and their representation in political (decision-making) processes is the goal of feminist foreign policy, as is improving their access to resources and placing their realities at the centre of political problem-solving. Recent research has shown the detrimental impact of gender inequalities in numerous areas such as political stability and governance, security, economy, health, education, but also in social progress and even environmental protection (Hudson/Bowen/Nielsen 2020).

With respect to violent conflicts, however, it is not enough to merely show how behaviour characterized as typically “male” leads to the acceptance of violence as a means of interpersonal or interstate interaction. It is important to work towards ensuring that gender stereotypes are not constantly reproduced - such as through the stylisation of women as “victims”, which the current reporting on refugees from Ukraine virtually invites. Ultimately, the aim must be to overcome thinking and judging in binary categories of “male” and “female” and to question the patriarchal structures that establish hierarchical relationships not only between genders but also between social groups and states.

Sources cited:

Hudson, Valerie M./Bowen Donna Lee/Nielsen Perpetua Lynne 2020: The First Political Order: How Sex Shapes Governance and National Security Worldwide, New York.

Romanets, Maryna 2017: Virtual Warfare: Masculinity, Sexuality, and Propaganda in the Russio-Ukrainian War, in: East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies, IV: 1, 159-177.

Sperling, Valerie 2015: Sex, Politics and Putin: Political Legitimacy in Russia, Oxford.

Sperling, Valerie 2016: Putin’s Macho Personality Cult, in: Communist and Post-Communist Studies, 49: 1, 13-23.


Dr. Cornelia Ulbert

Room: LS 119
Phone: +49 (0)203-379-4422
E-Mail: cornelia.ulbert[at]uni-due.de
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