Performance, Persona, and Politics: How gendered stereotypes are used to foment political legitimacy

Politics concerns itself with the distribution of resources, rights, and liberties as well as who controls their distribution. As such, politics is about power, as the ability of individuals to decide how things are governed is determined by their power to enforce decisions. To cultivate the necessary authority and power to enforce decisions political legitimacy is required. Political legitimacy shapes who has power and how they can use it, which in turn has a tangible impact on our lives via political power’s ability to dictate what we can do, who we can associate with, and how we view the world around us. The same applies in the opposite direction. For individuals to fight for their rights they must have a grasp of how to gain power and how to cultivate political legitimacy, leveraging their environments and contexts to gain the necessary momentum to secure their wellbeing. With that, this article seeks to explore how individuals have sought to foment political legitimacy through the use of gendered stereotypes to gain political power.

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To understand how gendered stereotypes function it is necessary to know how gender is constructed and deployed in social settings. Touching on the work of Scott, gender refers to perceived differences between the sexes. As such, gender serves as a fluid social construct, changing as people’s perceptions of perceived differences between the sexes change. Perceptions of gender are ingrained at a very young age, as children begin to learn perceived differences and imitate them based on their surroundings. These ideas of gender are ingrained deeply through social interaction and unique cultural symbols, identities, and power dynamics. However, that is not to say these perceptions cannot be undone, Galinsky et al. show that traditionally gendered household responsibilities and roles have started to become more evenly distributed, breaking some traditional gender norms. Butler elaborates further on the construction of gender in arguing that it is constructed through repetitive performances, that these performances are stylized imitations of dominant conventions, that this performance is both of the individual and part of an act predating the individual’s performance. This indicates that gender is a two way street, that ideas of gender both influence and are influenced by individuals. Adding to this argument Butler concludes that gender is only real in the context in which is performed. That the performance/construction of gendered identities or norms is influenced by what the individual has perceived from society, which in turn becomes part of the greater act of constructing gendered identities and influences others’ performances. It is a reflexive set of interactions that go on to form how people perceive the differences between the sexes. Adding to this, the influence of other factors in the construction of identity should be considered, as they too shape the construction of gendered identities and the performances people portray. This leads us to how gendered stereotypes are formed. They are fixed socially constructed identities that originate from the performances of gender and the cultural symbols we see in society but are also informed by performances of race and class. As such, their perpetuation comes from the repetition and propagation of performances that reinforce stereotypes. Ideas of gender are socially constructed and firmly rooted in different normative contexts through the performances, cultural symbols, and power dynamics we see day to day. Gendered stereotypes, as such, are fixed identities based on these performances, cultural symbols, and power dynamics.

Political legitimacy is the public’s acceptance of power based on their perception of what is “correct”, which is in turn informed by various context dependent social stimuli, cultural symbols, and power dynamics. Unwinding this, it is useful to start with the premise that political legitimacy refers to the acceptability of political power. That is to say, whether or not a group or entity is politically legitimate is dependent on whether the collective they are ruling over deem their authority and actions to be acceptable. Whether an individual considers something to be acceptable or not is determined by their ethical values and a range of social stimuli. An individual’s ethical perspectives are grounded in their previous experience, influencing what they consider to be correct. That is not to say that individuals have no sense of agency and cannot decide for themselves what is “right” or “wrong”, only that what they think to be “right” and “wrong” be grounded in how they choose to react to a set of formative experiences and teachings. Following this line of analysis and adopting an existentialist ontology, the traditional notion of the self does not exist. Instead, individuality can be observed through the way in which people react to the circumstances they are confronted with. Taking this forward, an individual’s ethical perspectives exist in a constant state of flux; being informed by a set of previous experiences but also influenced and changed by each new set of stimuli. In doing so, the formation of morality and ethical perspectives becomes similar to the construction of gender as discussed by Butler; in the sense that gender and morality are context dependent and can be seen through performance in reaction to different stimuli. Moreover, an individual’s performance of morality informs or helps construct the sense of morality of other people, in turn affecting their performance. To that degree, each performance is playing a part in a larger act that preceded and influenced how they view the world, drawing another parallel to Butler’s ideas. Drawing further similarities between the formation gender and morality it stands to reason that individual ethical perspectives are also informed by the same cultural symbols and power dynamics as discussed by Scott. The way in which people from different classes and backgrounds behave and form their ethical codes will be influenced by the performances they are exposed to, leading them to behave and act differently. Therefore, the capacity to foment political legitimacy is based on an individual or entity’s ability to frame actions in a way that aligns with different individuals’ idea of what is “correct”, making them seem more acceptable by playing to social conventions and cultural symbols.

Ideas of gender are socially constructed and firmly rooted in different normative contexts through the performances, cultural symbols, and power dynamics we see day to day

Joining these concepts together we begin to see how gendered stereotypes can be exploited to foment political legitimacy. Political legitimacy having a foundation in the public’s conception of what is “correct” creates the opportunity for individuals or entities to use gendered stereotypes to frame events in a way that appeals to the public, making them seem more acceptable. To gain support it is necessary to have a claim to be doing what is “correct” or to be best suited towards doing the “correct” thing. As previously established, what the public deem to be “correct” is informed by a set of performances of ethical behaviours, cultural symbols, displays of power, and other social norms. These factors have a prescriptive element in that they play a role in informing individuals of the way things are. As individuals use these factors to gain a sense of meaning they apply them to the outside world, prescribing meaning and qualities even if the factors they are using are misinformed. Moreover, the prescriptive element of these factors carries a degree of fixity, in that through the prescription of factors comes expectation. In prescribing the way something should be arises an expectation of how it should behave, creating a fixed idea of how things are and should be. These static representations can include gendered stereotypes. This means that both the individual and the public’s conceptions of gender can be fraught with gendered stereotypes carrying expectations of the way in which people do and should behave. Whether something conforms to a stereotype leads to individuals being more likely to accept it because it fits in with their expectations. From there it becomes easier to be thought of as acceptable because you do not have to try and convince individuals that their perception of the world is incorrect. Therefore, the capacity to frame things in a way that makes an individual seem more acceptable can be dependent on their ability to use gendered stereotypes to their advantage. Following this, they would need to portray themselves as the most able to do to what the public considers to be “correct” through the strategic use of stereotypes, either supplanting themselves with a positive stereotype or using a negative stereotype against their opposition.

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The effective leveraging of gendered stereotypes can be observed in Latin America where female politicians frame themselves through the lens of motherhood. Where female politicians across the globe frequently encounter structural barriers and cultural expectations based on the prominence of gendered stereotypes, female politicians in Latin America have been able to draw on a history of political activism and motherhood. Exploring the foundations of the Latin American conception of motherhood and the gendered stereotype corresponding to mothers uncovers Marianismo, the binary to Machismo. Having roots in Catholicism and colonialism it teaches that women are semi-divine, morally superior, and stronger than men. When stepping into the political spotlight some have chosen to present themselves as mothers of the nation, pushing a gendered stereotype that promotes them as exalted individuals who can care and nurture society, striving towards a greater good. In what Francheset et al. coin to be the ‘Traditional Supermadre’ there is a direct appeal to a maternal stereotype, constructing a performance that portrays them to be identified as self-sacrificing and drawn towards politics because of their maternal qualities. The fomentation of political legitimacy can be seen through the example of Josefina Vazquez Mota. Vazquez sought to gain power through combining her image as a nurturing caretaker with her party’s ‘get-tough’ approach to drug trafficking in the context of an increasingly violent and fatiguing drug war. She did so by linking to public perceptions of women as cleaners, seeking to legitimize traditional responsibilities while positioning herself as ready to fight corruption. Vasquez can also be seen doing this through interviews where she melds traditional notions of the Latin American woman’s responsibility with her political work, outlining her professional achievements with her domestic work, appealing to working and professional women in conjunction to those with traditional conceptions of household roles. The ‘Traditional Supermadre’ seeks to use their skills as mothers and nurturers to help find political solutions to the nation’s suffering. Their ability to appeal to maternity and the Latin American maternal gender stereotype has enabled them to convey a performance that portrays them as being suited towards the pursuit of the public’s conception of what is “correct”; tackling corruption and violence within their communities through with their moral superiority and previous experience. Through this they have been able seen by parts of the public suited towards the public “good” and acceptable, affording them a degree of political legitimacy in the process.

Donald Trump serves as another example of the exploitation of gendered stereotypes to foment political legitimacy through the multiple masculine performances he portrays in his speeches. Unlike the ‘Traditional Supermadre’, Trump changes which gendered stereotypes he uses depending on the context he is confronted with, advancing a different persona to meet the needs of the situation. In deploying these different masculine personas Trump exercises varying types of power and control over people and events, positioning himself as the best suited towards the challenges faced by the nation. For example, Trump makes use of a classic white standard of masculinity; this type of masculinity embodies features of the white cinematic heroes of Hollywood’s early years but exaggerated to the level of a caricature. In doing so Trump portrays himself as being consistently strong, a fighter, the embodiment of success, branding himself with positive masculine qualities that position him in a favourable light. While using this strategy Trump’s approach is twofold. In the same breath as portraying himself as a paragon of strength he makes sure to subordinate whomever he is facing. His opponents are cast in the opposite light; they are portrayed as inept losers. When confronted with another context Trump uses a similar strategy but changes the masculine stereotype he deploys for that situation. This can be seen when he deploys the persona of the masculine protector. This positions him as the one able to protect the country from “outside threats”, an aggressive unmoveable figure that will be able to deal with the “menaces from abroad”, defending the United States against terrorism and restoring the law. In doing so he again presents himself as the best suited towards the role of serving the country while using other groups as scapegoats to propel him further, alienating them and subordinating them as individuals incapable of presenting the same values or emotions. Trump has made the most of the shift from neo-liberal to neo-conservative masculinity in American discourse, entering politics at a time where his ethnocentric and security focused views garner far more support. In entering politics at this time he has been able to use different masculinities in varying contexts to reflect the emotions of people disaffected with neo-liberalism and globalisation. Through this he has positioned himself in part of the public’s eye as the most able to meet the nation’s needs by promoting himself and subordinating others. Through this he has been able to convince part of the public that he is best suited towards his role and therefore acceptable, gaining political legitimacy.

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Invoking gendered stereotypes to gain political legitimacy is not always in the long-term interest of the individual using them. The rise of female leadership in the context of Brexit can be seen as an example of this. Brexit can be framed as the backlash from the working class that was caused by the elite’s promotion of austerity and economic globalization causing greater inequality and social fissures in the aftermath of the great recession. The elites who caused these crises are typically privately educated upper-class men with very similar, if not identical, backgrounds. In the context of this meltdown and the rise of Theresa May we see the invocation of gendered stereotypes and the gaining of political legitimacy but at the cost of approaching a glass cliff. The glass cliff is grounded in the idea that women and minorities disproportionately reach positions of power during times of crisis and volatility. Theresa May’s rise to power highly resembles this phenomena. Brexit and the great recession can be interpreted as situations bred from irresponsible male leadership. This would lead some to believe that the solution to the problem to be the gendered stereotype of the ethical, risk averse, responsible, and testosterone free woman. May, in seeking to gain the Conservative Party leadership and consolidate her power through a snap-election presented herself as such. In presenting herself as this type of figure during a time of crises she was able to position herself as the remedy to the nation’s woes. Her risk-averse testosterone free ways were far more palatable to the public, presenting her as acceptable in the eyes of the public and bestowing her with political legitimacy. However, despite using the right gender stereotype for the right situation May has found herself facing the glass cliff, rendering whatever political legitimacy she fomented short-lived, owing to the inability to create positive outcomes in such a volatile situation. In entering during a time of crisis May unknowingly made herself a scapegoat for everything that would go wrong moving forward. Her rise to power in being temporarily aided by gendered stereotypes contributed to her overpromising and under-delivering on a regular basis. This is in part owing to the fact that the persona she put forward was a fixed gendered stereotype. A stereotype, though socially constructed, has very little basis in reality and the way in which people behave, as such the expectations built on these stereotypes cannot be fulfilled. In gaining political power through a gendered stereotype May was able to temporarily gain political legitimacy, however, that stereotype has become her downfall and resulted in her losing her legitimacy quite quickly in the following months.

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In analyzing examples of gendered stereotypes being used with the goal of achieving political legitimacy this article has found that they are frequently used but that their success depends heavily on context. The ‘Traditional Supermadres’ have succeeded by presenting themselves through the lens of Latin American maternity and sticking to it, using it to advance themselves. Trump, on the other succeeded by adopting different masculinities to further his position and subordinate his enemies. Adjacent to this is Theresa May. While May initially succeeded and garnered political legitimacy by promoting the most useful gendered stereotype at the right time, it came at the cost of facing the glass cliff. The glass cliff presents a situation where gendered stereotypes fail to foment political legitimacy, as initial success is doomed to fail by unreasonable expectations and the inability to act. With that, the context in which May invoked the gendered stereotype led to her loss of political legitimacy. This article has been limited by its broad scope. Though it has covered the theoretical foundations of gender, gendered stereotypes, and political legitimacy with select examples, the evidence provided is far too broad to provide any definitive conclusions. The contexts in which these social phenomena arise go back hundreds of years and span various disciplines. For example, the ‘Traditional Supermadres’ being able to make the most of their maternal identities is directly influenced by colonialism and the economics, politics, and geography of the time. As such, this topic spans multiple books and articles worth of literature. From that, it would be useful to analyse how the use of gendered stereotypes for political gain have shaped stereotypes and political capital over time, informing us of how the two interact will provide further insight into how to effectively cultivate political legitimacy.

Anita Sudonim is a 3rd year International Development student at KCL


DISCLAIMER: The opinions and views expressed in this opinion piece belong to the author and are independent of the Department of Political Economy and KCL Politics Society.


Image Credits:

Agence France-Presse/Getty Images


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