Deal or No Deal? The Hypermasculinity of the ‘Businessperson as Leader’ Rhetoric

HandshakeTheresa May and other ministers have repeatedly claimed that no deal is better than a bad deal. Columba Achilleos-Sarll, a PhD candidate at the University of Warwick, argues that the discourse of both the referendum campaign and subsequent Brexit debates have been hypermasculine in nature. She points out that this has a number of undesirable consequences, such as reinforcing gendered stereotypes about successful political leadership and foreign policy.

The referendum campaign and Brexit have ushered in a new hypermasculinity. During the campaign and in the post-referendum debates, brokering a deal with the European Union has been constructed both conceptually and theoretically as a business-to-business transaction – akin to making a deal with the UK’s biggest investor. Theresa May has repeatedly claimed that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, arguing that we need an agreement “that gets us the right deal abroad for ordinary people at home”. Her words are subconsciously designed to project a ‘businessperson as leader’ motif; which reflect a linguistic gendered order that is believed will increase the public’s confidence in the ability of the government to get the best deal for the UK.

While studies of the EU referendum, and explanations for the Brexit vote, have focused on the role of immigration and socioeconomic class structures, there has been little examination of the role played by gendered discourses in framing the referendum debate, and which are now constructing the discourse around a Brexit deal. Gendered discourses are being enacted vis-à-vis the language of a Brexit deal, through this business rhetoric and the hypermasculine values it signifies, reproducing particular power relations, prejudices and myths about the content of a Brexit deal, as well as the UK’s ability to achieve a good deal with the EU.

White, male elites dominated the referendum campaign. A Loughborough University study analysing the six-week campaign period found that men occupied 85% of the press and 75% of television coverage respectively, with the media showcasing David Cameron, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, David Davis and Nigel Farage most frequently. This created a linguistic register that was “manufactured not only by a generic male-dominated political elite but in this case quite literally by men who happen to have gone to the same elite schools and have been competing with each other since adolescence” (Hozic and True 2017). By monopolising the debate, peripheral voices were ignored and marginalised, producing a particular type of discourse that subsumed complex issues – shaped by ideas of race and gender – under the rhetoric of “deal-making” and a “hard” Brexit. According to Hozic and True (2017) “Brexit is the product of gendered intra-elite conflict that has been simmering in Britain for decades”.

Characteristics associated with ‘manliness’ and ‘power’ have been, and continue to be, those most valued and commonly deployed in the arena of foreign policy, which relies on the defence of state sovereignty and the national interest. ‘Hegemonic masculinities’, which are constantly being produced and reproduced within particular contexts and in response to social and political change, work by privileging particular masculine identities within society above alternative – or ‘weaker’ –  versions of masculinity. Examples include: the sportsman, the breadwinner and the businessman. In the case of Brexit, the businessperson as leader motif provides a salient example – embodied by hegemonic white males during the campaign to hegemonic white females after the Brexit vote.

This motif reveals a social category, or ideal type, through which the discourse of a Brexit deal is being performed. Operating within the public sphere, business represents a hypermasculine domain, where, according to Hooper (2001), “competitive individualism, reason and self-control” are idealised. In fact, “in virtue of the cultural, political, and economic dominance of the institutions of multinational business, the masculinity formed in their matrix is in a strong position to claim hegemony in the gender order of the societies they dominate”. A successful businessman, according to the discourse, equates to a successful leader: the election of Donald Trump being the contemporary case in point. The discourse surrounding the forthcoming Brexit negotiations embodies this business-like-rhetoric, revealing a gendering of the elusive ‘Brexit deal’ – which normalises an ideal-type hypermasculinity. Indeed, as political theorist Ashis Nandy (1988) has argued, “hypermasculinity [has] de-emphasised speculation, intellection and caritas as feminine, and justified a limited cultural role for women – and femininity – by holding that the softer side of human nature [is] irrelevant to the public sphere”.

The emphasis on deal-making is problematic for several reasons. To begin with, the deployment of business rhetoric in conjunction with militarist language (“negotiating [and] pursuing a hard Brexit” to get “Britain firing in all areas again”) linguistically valorises traits usually associated with masculinity: strength, militarism, power, autonomy, resilience, competence and whiteness. Deploying this language simultaneously frees the Brexit deal – and its ‘Action Heroes’ – from any association with what would be considered ‘feminine’ roles or values (nurturing a relationship with the EU based on compassion, listening, intellection and emotional responsiveness). In other words, a hypothetical (but potentially ethical) Brexit premised on dialogue, equality, empathy and care.

Secondly, it leaves the gendered consequences of economic, security and defence policies unaddressed, which begs the question: In whose interests will a deal be brokered? And, for whom will this be a good deal? Moreover, it subsumes gender under discussions about women’s employment rights, thus relegating women’s issues to the domain of social policy and ‘low’ politics. In turn, the role of “feminised migration” – that is, migration encouraged by neoliberal exploitation – upon which the UK relies, often leaves predominantly migrant women working in the care services, reinforcing the sexual division of labour, yet is excluded from discussions around a Brexit deal.

The continued use of this ‘deal-making’ motif, and the corresponding emphasis on a ‘no deal’ scenario, grossly simplifies the complex and multilayered negotiations that will characterise any Brexit ‘deal’, which will inevitably be gendered and racialised, and which will be sure to have (unintended) consequences. This will likely marginalise important voices, especially those of women, minority groups and the most vulnerable in society. Indeed, gendered and racialised cultures and processes, shrouded in masculinist and militarist politics – with security, migration and monetary policy elevated above, and separated from, human rights and equality – reinforces the masculinised deal-making rhetoric that allows it to blindside the public and retain broad mass approval from a predominantly white citizenry. And this is why, when we approach the Brexit negotiations, we are better off without the ‘deal or no deal’ discourse promoted by these business leaders-cum-politicians.


Columba Achilleos-Sarll is an ESRC PhD candidate at the University of Warwick. Her research is located at the intersections between feminism, postcolonial theory, UK foreign policy and the women, peace and security (WPS) agenda.


NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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