Gender And Post-Truth

Image via <a href="" target="_blank">Cart
Image via Carta Capital

So, “post-truth” was named word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. Quite a befitting term for the past 12 months which were highly inflamed by political events around the world, and another one of the many attempts at explaining the year, which range from the fragmentation of the left to the return of fascist nationalism, from the end of globalization to the appalling triumph of white supremacy, from the emancipation of unbridled hatred to the forcible implementation of neoliberal economic projects.

"Post-truth" sounds indeed like the expression that best defines the sense of disbelief with which we’ve witnessed the course of the somewhat surreal events of the year that has not yet ended. But there is an element that has been central to many political debates in 2016 which might help us see through this world of post-truth. This element is gender.

Those who never really left

Donald Trump's victory by the hands of the electoral colleges frustrated the possibility that the US would have a woman as president for the first time just a few months after the first woman president of Brazil was deposed from her second term, for which she had been elected by the popular vote. And despite the innumerable differences between one context and another, the discursive treatment offered to both in the media and in public debates was equally misogynistic.

The language stemming from the American elections and Brazilian impeachment processes reveals just how ingrained sexism still is in society. Or rather, how much it constitutes what we call society.

A Harvard University research confirmed that Clinton received more negative press than the other candidates, and much of that negativity was filled with misogyny. Trump himself called her a nasty woman, a term which was quickly resignified by feminists the world over. Such high levels of misogyny could also be verified, in Brazil, in anti-Rousseff speeches, especially through memes and media coverage about her that distilled the purest hatred or contempt for the female figure.

This apparent return of acceptability with regards to misogynistic language was not exclusively seen in politics, though. A Cambridge University Press study published around the Olympics reveals similar attitudes towards athletes. According to the report, the language about women in the sporting context is disproportionately concentrated in appearance, dress and personal lives, placing more emphasis on aesthetics (and gossip) than on athletics.

It is not like feminists didn’t know that, mind you. In sports, politics and elsewhere, the message seems to be virtually the same, all the time: women are well-accepted, or not, in different spaces, depending on a weird combination between the space and how femininity scripts fit into it. In sport, women are very well accepted as muses, but not so much as athletes. In politics, it is OK for women to be complements – but as we’ve seen, not so much agents.

The language produced around Dilma Rousseff's impeachment and Hillary Clintons’ defeat illustrates something that feminists have been saying for years: a hell of a lot of people still don’t want any changes in gender roles. And with so much information available, some suspicions about who does and who doesn’t want change can be confirmed.

The end is nigh

Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein, in their statements about Trump’s election, pointed out that the end of the world may really be quite close, seeing as Trump seems to believe that global warming is a fiction. There is consensus among the scientific community that sustainability is not a jargon but a necessity, and that if we do not slow down our emission of pollutants the effects will be irreversible and apocalyptic. Even corporate giants are already urging Trump to maintain the Paris climate agreement.

Global warming should not be in narrative disputes, because facts are facts. Alas we will have to wait and see what happens, but if the president of the largest superpower of the post-truth world operates in fantasy and his personal beliefs are worth more than proper knowledge, we are doomed.

It's all so childish.

And if the imminent end of the world by perpetual climate change is not scary enough, here’s another big risk of living in a world where Trump has so much power: those who share many of his fantasies are free to release their own weird fantasies into the world. If Trump – the chicano thrower, pussy grabber, climate change denier narcissist – is president, imagine what his fan club will feel entitled to do? You don´t need to: since the elections, more hate crimes have been committed than post 9/11, neo-Nazi graffiti is spreading and KKK groups have held parades in honor of the orange guy´s victory. What was once alarming is no longer: it is all happening.

We know full well that emancipating symbolic violence also emancipates material violence. And that these two types of violence are equally real. The symbolic objectification and annihilation of women are as real as their material consequences. We know that. It is as childish and stubborn not to accept this as it is not to accept that climate change is real. It's the facts. There should be no dispute.

Sexist vocabulary and the use of symbolic violence are old acquaintances of ours. Feminists and other activists have been saying, for years, that the people who chase, abuse and try to silence us exist beyond online trolling. It feels almost unbelievable that even after so many of our warnings, educational efforts, debates and initiatives, it is those who offend us for the sake of offending us, those who hurt us because they can, those who do not seem to have a trace of respect for human dignity who are best represented at the highest echelons of power.

It is possible to objectively analyze the ways with which Trump has revealed his misogyny, just as it is possible to trace material violence back to the words that reveal this misogyny. This post-truth conservative tsunami is not just a symbolic setback. The struggle has always been between those whose real life is threatened and those whose ideal life is threatened. The values and ideals that Trump represents are old acquaintances of ours too. Hello patriarchy, my old enemy. In your fantasies we want to dominate men, but in our reality it is you who insist in wanting us dominated. It is so obvious. It has always been. Can everyone see it now?


We can’t say we did not see this backlash coming, though. The build-up to the counterattack positing that feminist values are the source of all problems that afflict women was there to be seen. We knew of this preemptive strike against our achievements, we knew that something trying to interrupt advances for women even before they were reached was taking place. We knew that the exponential growth in feminist discourse over the past years was to be met with a vengeance. The backlash is coming fully into fruition with this reestablishment of alpha-male power.

Hegemonic masculinity, “first-ladyism” and white supremacy

The concept of hegemonic masculinity is part of a theory of gender order proposed by R.W. Connell, and it can be defined as any current configuration of practices that legitimize men’s dominant position and justify the subordination of women and other marginalized men. It is observable that, in Brazil and in the US, it is pundits who embody hegemonic masculinity traits as they are described by Connell those who are – once again – firmly seated in Thrones. Obviously, men like that never really were without power. But, discursively and materially, women have – once again – been removed from the Game.

For Connell, femininity is always organized as an adaptation to the power of men – thus no accepted femininity will ever be allowed to occupy the same positions of power that men can. The building of accepted femininities has been scrutinized time and again, most famously (and way before Connell) in Betty Friedan's classic The Feminine Mystique. We saw it happen before our very eyes in 2016 Brazil too: during what must have been one of the most politically charged months in the recent memory of my country, a brown top in magazine clothing ran a story on first lady Marcela Temer extolling her qualities as a beautiful, homely and demure girl. After two years of much misogyny towards Dilma Rousseff, as soon as she is to be impeached a new narrative of accepted femininity emerges, but one that happens to be as old as civilization itself.

Women in are accepted into politics, of course. It’s just that we prefer them as domestic queens and decorative objects that make male politicians look good, stupid.

This “first-ladyism” brought back the feminine mystique, illustrating Connell's theory and helping signal the backlash while at it. It is 2016 and the discourse of power has put women back into the place we´d barely left.

In the context of the US elections it was Donald Trump's daughter much more than his third wife who embodied this role, though, and in an even more conniving way with this idea of post-truth. Throughout her father’s campaign, Ivanka Trump positioned herself as a working mother, and thus captivated a slice of the population who saw in her "female empowerment" speech a sort of free pass to cast a vote for daddy machoest.

Jessica Valenti sees this as a result of the fact that mainstream understandings of feminism are now less about politics and more about the nebulous idea of "empowerment", and perhaps this helps explain the many white women who have chosen to vote for Trump – which is revolting, but not surprising, for this is how privileges works. If feminism is solely about personal empowerment, one is likely not to see much difference between Trump and Clinton, for the bodily autonomy of all women is probably not an issue that occupies one’s thoughts.

This particular result magnificently illustrates the urgent need for the practical application of another concept: intersectional feminism, the famous term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, which indicates that women experience oppression in varied configurations and with varying degrees of intensity, because cultural patterns of oppression are not only intertwined, but united and influenced by each other. Black and latina women voted overwhelmingly for Clinton, which puts a beat-up perspective well into perspective: it turns out to be very true that white women barely show any sorority towards our non-white sisters. The shame.

Now what?

Gender became quite the crucial aspect for 2016’s political analyses as misogyny became increasingly more explicitly evident. The discourses arising from the American elections and the impeachment process in Brazil provide abundant records of how attached to patriarchal values we still are.

It will be interesting to watch how the media will portray other female figures in politics from here on out. Angela Merkel, whose position as the almost accidental leader of a post-Brexit Atlantic Alliance, will put her in even more evidence – this has already started, and there was immense interest about (and much speculation around) her welcome wishes to a newly elected Trump. Merkel famously stated that cooperation between the US and Germany would foster as long as his administration is based on well-known Eastern values like democracy, freedom, respect for the Law and for the dignity of human beings regardless of their origin, color, religion, gender or sexuality. But here come Marine Le Pen and Frauke Petry, both sitting on the extreme right with its old patriarchal and white supremacists values. I wonder how differently the stories about them will be written.

As per Clinton, although she is a contested figure (even within feminism), it is pretty obvious that, as it was during her campaign, her post-defeat speech highlighted feminist concerns. In it, she thanked the young women who had faith in her saying that nothing had ever made her prouder than represent them.

In a world of post-truths and rampant misogyny, many feminist truths remain firmly in place. And as Clinton reminded girls in her final message: "…never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world." Women, this might be a setback. But the truth is, we are not going anywhere.


A version of this article was originally published in Portuguese in Carta Capital