Gender and populism have been extensively theorized separately, but there has not been sufficient study of the way that gender undergirds populism, strengthening its diverse manifestations. Focusing on the cases of Vladimir Putin and Recep T. Erdoğan, we argue that their political performance allows them to project a right-wing populism that hides much of its political program in an ostentatious masculine posturing that has the virtue of being relatively malleable. This political masculinity allows them to position themselves at different points in time as outsiders yet insiders, bad boys yet good fathers. In their early years Putin and Erdogan established themselves as transgressive outsiders who developed a profile of power by building up their masculine, working-class biographies. As their power became consolidated, they turned to a more paternal role, fostering a conservative gender order while attacking the masculinity of their opponents and casting them as outsiders. In this way over the years they have combined political performances that have both breached the conventional gender norms and also upheld and reinforced them. The result is a Janus-faced masculinity of outsiders-yet-insiders, bad-boys-yet-good-fathers, which establishes that the leader is both the same as other men and also different from them, standing above the citizenry, mediating and fostering a conservative political order. Understanding this gender performance also helps to explain the paradox of “electoral authoritarianism” (Levitsky and Way Journal of Democracy, 13(2), 51–65, 2002; Schedler 2006), demonstrating how performed political masculinity can support and connect the cult of a popularly elected leader with conservative social and political gender norms.
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One could, of course, also point to a number of other leaders (Silvio Berlusconi, Viktor Orban, Jarosław Kaczyński, Rodrigo Duterte, Nicolas Maduro, and Narendra Modi to name a few), but then the discussion would become extremely unwieldy. Also, it deserves to be mentioned that there is a rich literature on Putin’s masculine performances (Goscilo 2011, 2012; Cassiday and Johnson 2010; Kolonitskii 2004; Ryabov and Ryabova 2011, 2014; Sperling 2012, 2014; Gorham 2012; Foxall 2013; Wood 2011, 2016), and a small amount of research on Erdogan’s masculinity (Korkman and Açıksöz 2013; Eksi 2016; Turk 2014).
Vladimir Zhirinovsky from the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and Gennady Zyuganov from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) are also, in fact, much more populist than Putin. See, for example, Zyuganov (2007) on the country being run by a “BOB, i.e., bureaucrats, oligarchs and bandits.” Marlene Laruelle (2009) has done excellent work on the three quasi-opposition parties in Russia as having, in fact, two kinds of populist narratives, “protest” populism, which distinguishes the people from the elite, and what she calls “identity” populism, which contrasts the people and foreigners (broadly speaking) (p. 85).
The literature on Russian conservative ideology and so-called biopower (the politics of issues relating to population, the family, and gender) is enormous, including especially Sperling 2014; Stella and Nartova 2015; Makarychev 2018; Makarychev and Yatsyk 2017; Riabov and Riabova 2014; Rotkirch et al. 2007.
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The authors would like to thank Kathrin Zippel, Berna Turam, Fatma Müge Göçek, Rochelle Ruthchild, and the Theory and Society Editors and reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions.
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Eksi, B., Wood, E.A. Right-wing populism as gendered performance: Janus-faced masculinity in the leadership of Vladimir Putin and Recep T. Erdogan. Theor Soc 48, 733–751 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11186-019-09363-3
- Electoral authoritarianism
- Gender ideology
- Gendered public performance
- Political leadership
- Political masculinity