Why Politics Cannot Get Rid of Male Dominance
Images have power and they function as important means of communication. They convey values and norms and have the potential to influence our views and attitudes, therefore they have to be considered as complex socio-political sources. Thus, the use of visual representations has always been common to depict power positions and differences in society, but also to make them recognisable. For example, one might think of opulent monuments and paintings from antiquity. However, as soon as research starts to investigate topics such as the stereotype, which by definition has arisen from a power imbalance, reproduction is inevitably and its future recognition as true is possible. But it is precisely at this moment – when stereotypes are understood as social constructs – that they can be questioned or even deconstructed and possibly changed. In order to understand the significance of images depicting unequivocal male dominance – in the context of this essay in the field of Politics (of Images) – we need to be aware of the stereotypes on which our perceptions are based and how these are created.
Male dominance can be seen as an expression of a constructed image of masculinity, which in turn is reflected in stereotypes. Sociologist Andreas Stückler postulates that the “entire public sphere (business, politics and science, etc.) is traditionally male-dominated and, together with its career, performance and especially competition ideologies, constitutes a basic androcentric social structure […]”.1 The androcentric structure can be recognised in the picture above, which shows four Members of Parliament (MPs) surrounding the German Minister of Health Jens Spahn in the German Bundestag. Spahn, as the head of the group, is sitting centrally in the upper back row and the four MPs are sitting in the row in front of him having one arm around the corner of the back of their chairs, sitting in a casual manner, slightly facing the center; one of them is resting his fist on his chin.
This way of sitting allows them to remain in mutual interaction, whereby they would need to turn back to communicate with Spahn face-to-face. Due to their casual sitting posture and their open jackets, the viewer gets a rather informal impression of them. In contrast to the four MPs, Spahn’s erect posture appears formal, which means that his clothes also are falling straight. His upper body is facing forward, with his right upper arm also resting on his backrest and his head turning to the left, as he seems to be addressing the two MPs sitting there. The formation, the seating arrangement and also the conversational posture of the politicians reveal a clear hierarchy within this group in the Bundestag.
The German Bundestag is often considered a place of reverence and respect, where laws are being passed, and the most important matters of the Federal Republic are being negotiated. In contrast to the charged significance of the place, the German politicians are already in a casual sitting posture in a seemingly safe relaxed mood within their “Men’s Club”.
Pierre Bourdieu characterised the libido dominandi of male domination as a man’s desire “to dominate other men, and secondarily, as an instrument of symbolic struggle, women”2 as well. The fields in which so-called masculinity takes place are above all politics and the economy, therefore the Bundestag can be seen as a “Men’s Club”.3 To explain the phenomenon of the operation of libido dominandi within male domination in sociological terms, Bourdieu draws on his concept of habitus, which he uses to describe how male dominance as a hierarchy construction has been created and solidified through incorporated social norms and values based on gender classification and class. Through the incorporation of classifications, patterns and structures are institutionalised and continue to be reproduced especially in those fields “that contribute decisively to the reproduction of male domination [such as] the state as public patriarchy”.4 Following Bourdieu’s Thesis and comparing the imbalance of women working in the field of politics and economy the Bundestag is still a place where men form the majority in numbers but also in votes, which might further lead to decisions made upon gender.
Although studies confirm that gender images and their visual frequency in the media have been changing for some years 5 and gender roles have been strongly questioned for several years; gender stereotypes are still valid. Through the selection in the (mostly male-dominated) reporting, a media reality continues to be constructed which on the one hand manifests an imbalance of power through gender differences and on the other hand perpetuates the concept of gender binary.
The basis of the CDU’s policy is the Christian understanding of the human being and his/her responsibility before God. The fundamental values of freedom, solidarity and justice are derived from this basic assumption. The German chancellor publicly represents her faith affiliation through the praying gesture in the Bundestag. Solidarity is needed, charity and common sense, so that the numbers do not continue to rise. Angela Merkel’s red blazer however does not symbolize the Christmas spirit, it symbolizes urgency.
Walter Lippmann referred to stereotypes as pictures in our heads in his work public opinion.6 With regard to media images that depict gender constructs, this would mean that the representation in the (media) image always transports an image that is created in our heads and that its reception of the meaningful depicted ensures a mental fixing and acceptance of what is transported. Stereotypes categorize and attribute – “Gender stereotypes [are] accordingly based on categorization according to gender and sexual orientation as well as attribution”.7 In relation to the picture shown above, the MPs in the Bundestag comply with their male stereotype: The men seem to be self-confident in their roles as decision makers of the Republic and according to Bourdieu’s male dominance the symbolic order within the public patriarchy is recognizable here. This androcentric space is a space where performance, career and hierarchy count. The chosen image is, of course, only a snapshot of a moment and can certainly not be representative for all zones of political governance. However, it represents a moment that stereotypically depicts what has not yet been possible to develop nor change in contexts of society and culture.
Erving Goffman conducted studies on the topic of Gender in Advertisements in 1976 and 1979, analysing advertisements and showing how gender and status differences are created through their visual representation. With his studies, Goffman was able to “make people aware of visual procedures of hierarchisation and gender stereotyping and direct scientific interest towards physicality and interaction rituals”.
Looking at the picture in which Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi seem to be looking amused and a little too interested at the kneeling woman diagonally in front of them in her skirt, while she is in the process of pulling the sheet of paper out from under Stephen Harper’s feet, without the latter making any effort to help. Barack Obama seems to be making a gesture of reassurance to Sarkozy and due to his facial expression, he does not seem particularly emphatic with their reaction. A pictorial stereotyping of both male and female actors becomes visually clear. In this male space shown, the men stand above the woman and some of them are smiling at her. But overall, the portrayal of the scene does not seem favourable to Sarkozy and Berlusconi. Where femininity is constructed, masculinity is always constructed at the same time. It becomes clear that Bourdieu has hit a point with his thesis and that Andreas Stückler also seems to be right when he says that the “essentially androcentric basic social structure […] is accompanied from the outset by a subordination and undervaluation of women and ‘femininity’ that is both material-structural and cultural-symbolic”.9 On one hand both politicians certainly seem to act unconsciously but on the other hand they seem very confident in joking about the kneeling woman who is working in that particular moment. This type of acting is a perpetuation of hierarchical structures incorporated and thus subconscious. Looking at the protagonists shown in the picture there can be identified two types of masculinity: The dominated and the dominating. Sarkozy and Berlusconi try to dominate the woman by laughing at her but being dominated by Obama as he seems to stand mentally above them, seeming to exhort them to decency and represents the winner of the scene above.
The construction of masculinity that takes place here is particularly evident in both pictures in the social interaction not only between the sexes but also in the purely male group. This is as well a sign that social structures are -as Bourdieu says- incorporated as Habitus and therefore always transported during interaction either between men and women or just between men. Social interaction is expressed, among other things, in language and actions, as well as gestures and facial expressions. “In this respect, masculinity is always an expression of masculine practice, which is also related to the body even if it is not explicitly exercised as a body-oriented practice”.10
Written by Jenna Seedorf
1. Stückler, Andreas. “Geschlecht-Konkurrenz-Androzentrismus, Gleichstellung und ‘Spitzenfrauen’ im Lichte gegenwärtiger Transformationen hegemonialer Männlichkeit”. In Spitzenfrauen, edited byAnnette Knaut and Julia Heidler, 139-155. Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien GmbH, 2017.
2. Pierre Bourdieu, “Die männliche Herrschaft” in Ein alltägliches Spiel. Geschlechterkonstruktion in der sozialen Praxis, ed. Irene Dölling, and Beate Krais (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1997), 203.
4. Irene Dölling, “Männliche Herrschaft (domination masculine)” in Bourdieu-Handbuch, ed. Gerhard Fröhlich, and Boike Rehbein (Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler, 2014), 176.
5. Signoretti, Nicoletta, A Study of Gender Advertisements. A Statistical Measuring of the Prevalence of Genders’ Patterns in the Images of Print Advertisements (Proceedings 1, no. 9: 947, 2017), 8.
6. Walter Lippmann (1922), Public Opinion (New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997), 18.
7. Tanja Maier and Martina Thiele, “Theoretische Perspektiven auf mediale Geschlechterbilder”, in Handbuch Visuelle Kommunikationsforschung, ed. Katharina Lobinger (Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien GmbH, 2019), 407.
8. Ibid, 409.
9. Andreas Stückler, Geschlecht-Konkurrenz-Androzentrismus, 139.
10. Holger Brandes, Hegemoniale Männlichkeit und männlicher Habitus Thesen zu Connell und Bourdieu, (Diskussionspapier zur 3. AIM-Gender-Tagung 2004), 1, accessed December 27, 2020.
In all fairness and admitting that all above is correct, still AKK was the main person since she was inaugurated…