There is a theory that women are only able to assume positions of power if they’re hyper masculine. Where a man, providing he had charisma, the right connections and experience etc… to climb to a leadership role could project some degree of empathy, self-deference or other socially ‘feminine’ traits, a woman must be ‘more masculine than the men’, to compensate for her (assumed) innate feminine weakness and lack of authority.
Certainly this kind of phenomenon is observable for other traits, where empirical reality serves social assumptions; Conservatives can do almost whatever they like with the economy and are still more trusted with it, whatever Labour suggest about public services is the ideal policy. Democrat Presidents are lambasted for being weak and threatening national security if they are seen to compromise with adversaries – Kennedy over Cuba, Obama on Iran, while Republican leaders are given a much freer hand to agree deals – Reagan with the Soviet Union, Nixon on China.
Our Hollywood Hero
And so we come to Prime Minister Theresa May. The Hollywood hero of Prime Ministers. Wearing always an impregnable expression of superiority, permanently aloof, disparaging of others, never divulging more than a cursory answer, never compromising and never for a moment publicly displaying doubt or thoughtfulness. And just as they do with the latest strong, silent alpha male of the movies, the public have fallen in love with her.
Watching her interview with Andrew Marr last Sunday, I half expected it to end with “frankly my dears, I couldn’t give a damn.” And yet, at the end, under the spell of her alpha authority, Marr parroted out “we’ve covered a lot of ground”. Ground such as letting May assure us of the dehumanising and self-evident untruth that “there are many complex reasons why people [nurses in full-time employment] go to food banks”. There is one reason; abject, working poverty as a direct result of government policy of the last seven years.
She said absolutely nothing of substance and didn’t even attempt to answer his questions. More ground had been covered at the end of the Somme offensive.
A masterful act
There are those who believe that May is projecting her strong silence as an act, both to fulfil the social expectations I considered above, and to approach EU negotiations from a position of strength, so even minor concessions appear significant and worthy. Yet more consider it also merely a campaigning strategy to win the election, which appears to be working very well.
But were this an act, a facade and a calculated decision, we’d be able to compare the Theresa May of today with the Theresa May of a few weeks ago, or 12 months ago, or 7 years ago, when she first became a minister, or even earlier in her career as a shadow secretary. Yet no comparison appears, because she’s been the same woman throughout, with the same personality and the same fundamental beliefs about her own power and how to get what she wants in the world. Remember the way she had one of the lowest profiles of any home secretary while briefing mercilessly against her enemies, the way she conducted her leadership campaign; making short, measured speeches to the right people and letting her opposition destroy themselves, the way she took the High Court to appeal when it tried to block her prerogative power, the way she just won’t let grammar schools go, no matter that every published researcher and 97% of school head teachers oppose them. Our alpha female. Our Hollywood hero.
Consider the actual Hollywood heroes, actors, professionals at putting on a mask and becoming a character for us to fall in love with. How often do they really perform this transformation for us, the viewing public? In a role such as James Bond, where the same on screen character has been played by multiple actors over the years, even if they were all digitally altered to look and sound like the exact same fictitious human, each Bond would be recognisably different. And not only that, but each actor who has played Bond has played him in recognisably the same way they’ve played all their other major roles, and indeed play their public life. The wise-cracking, jovial Bond of Roger Moore is a character in the same mould as Simon Templar, who he played in The Saint for seven years. Daniel Craig’s darkly brooding Bond could walk right into the shoes of Craig’s character in his breakthrough film, Layer Cake and continue his performance.
The psychology of decision making
Consider also the efficacy of May’s alpha leadership. Aided by the total no-show of opposition in Parliament, and uncritical, verbatim reporting in the media, May doesn’t need to say anything complicated that might potentially engage our neocortex – that highly advanced part of our brain that sets us apart from every other creature on earth in deliberative evaluation – and can instead bypass it, talking directly to the limbic cortex and associated lizard-like, ancient, emotion and instinct driven parts of our brain.
Think of how poorly people make decisions when influenced by peer pressure, or under stress, or when angry or upset, or in love. That’s the limbic cortex doing the work. And remember how committed we are to those decisions, how irresistible they are. Think how good it would feel to stop reasoning and just feel that the strong, silent, decisive, headmistresses in charge of us is right for five more years.
Not convinced that this is how the human mind operates? That it can be short-circuited through emotional manipulation by those you trust? James Morris of Edelman consultancy told Nick Robinson on Radio 4’s Political Thinking just what happened when lifelong Labour voters, who voted Remain 12 months ago, were shown the video of Theresa May on the steps of downing street accusing European leaders of trying to undermine our democracy;
“The remain group responded to that by saying it sounds scary. Then we asked ‘so what does that make you think about who to vote for?’ And it made them think, we want Theresa May, because when things look scary you want strength.”
The original article that prompted May to stand in front of Downing Street and declare war on the Continent was published in a relatively minor, German language only, print only paper. It drew attention to the fact that May wants all negotiations to be conducted in secret for two years, that she still believes that a trade deal can be arranged in parallel despite the fact that earlier in the week EU leaders agreed unanimously, in less than 15 minutes, that this was not going to be possible, and that Brexit secretary David Davis would happily refuse to pay any final settlement to the EU, but still expects preferential access to European markets after we leave.
The first is grossly undemocratic, and further points towards to the latent authoritarianism of May’s personality, and the latter two should make us question our leaders’ sanity. Much like President Trump in the days and weeks following his poorly attended inauguration ceremony, they refuse to accept objective realities that contradict their own internal realities.
Instead, the words of our strong, silent, presidential, alpha, aloof, stubborn, xenophobic, adversarial Prime Minister are unquestioningly accepted as the real truth. A crisis not cynically manufactured, for May would rather keep the record of all meetings completely secret, but certainly cynically exploited to massage her ego, win a little more power in the upcoming election, and silence even more domestic dissent against her authoritarian leadership. Identify the enemy and the troops will recruit themselves.
There must also be something of the “the left play on a higher difficulty setting” about this (a popular sentiment on the New Statesman podcast, but one I generally approach with ambivalence). I don’t think it’s unrealistic to postulate that were this a Labour government, having completely ignored the rapidly mounting problems in public services for the last 15 months, woefully unprepared for EU exit talks, attempting to override Parliament with Royal Prerogative, attempting to conduct negotiations in total secrecy, and insulting our partners in Europe at every meeting, so-called ‘popular opinion’ (ie that opinion of the majority of the editors and content creators of the various forms of mainstream media) would be snapping at their heels. “Trying to pull the wool over our eyes!”, “What Brexit are you going for exactly, dear leader?!”, “The omnishambles government!”, “democracy hijacked!”, “Crazed Corbyn believes Brussels is out to get him!” would be the newspaper headlines.
But the strong, silent, Conservative, alpha-female leader is one our lizard brains can’t help but trust, defer to, and fall in love with.
It’s no act from Mrs May. behind it all isn’t a brilliantly astute, coldly calculating genuine statesman we should trust to lead us through the next five years, but rather a narcissistic, power-hungry, rather dim woman that we should be very afraid of indeed.