By Sharmila Parmanand

Abstract: Many compelling arguments have been made against authoritarian approaches during pandemics and in favor of democratic engagements and collective civic efforts. I contribute to the conversation on the politics of public health emergencies by using a feminist lens to examine the performance of masculinity through several national leaders’ responses to COVID-19 and suggest the ways in which this may structure the public conversation and the possibilities for action. Masculinity in this case is not meant as essentialist or possessive. It is performative, or something speakers enact or do, often with consistency and repetition, and not something they inherently ‘are’. Masculinist political performances provide a framework for interaction between leaders and their publics in terms of mobilising support for specific projects, constructing heroes and villains, and influencing how people think and act in a pandemic. Populist leaders such as United States President Donald Trump, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who are known for their bravado, coarse language, and aggressive political styles, responded to initial reports about COVID-19 with confidence and denialism.

Their responses evolved as death tolls rose and public pressure mounted. Trump and Duterte have since adjusted their rhetoric and implemented stronger measures to address COVID, with Trump seeking to reverse them shortly after enacting them. I also look at the differences and shifts in the kind of masculinities they perform. In particular, I look at their feminisation of critics and medical experts, through accusations of cowardice and hysteria; ritualistic performance of male strength through public gestures such as handshakes and disavowing masks; deployment of war metaphors to describe the pandemic and how this has enabled a militarised lockdown in the Philippines and the vilification of foreign enemies (China and immigrants) in the US; cooptation of the language of freedom to reject public health measures; and the process by which they represent and construct their audiences. These are contrasted with more caring, transparent and technocratic approaches of other leaders.

Keywords: populism, masculinity, COVID, Duterte, Bolsonaro, Trump

Sharmila Parmanand is a PhD candidate in Multi-Disciplinary Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge and a Gates Scholar. She is currently working on a critical inquiry into anti-trafficking discourses and interventions in the Philippines. She has a master’s in Gender and Development from the University of Melbourne on an Australian Leadership Award scholarship, and her thesis examined the effect of microcredit on female borrowers’ household relations in the Philippines. She was previously a lecturer at the University of Vermont and Ateneo de Manila University. –