Can Europe Make It?

Machismo on the move

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The shifting experience of masculinity is connected to the rise of populist politics in Finland.


Johanna Korhonen
7 January 2014

The rise of populist movements in several European countries is a phenomenon of interest to researchers and journalists alike. In every country, these movements are male-dominated. Their concerns vary from country to country but there is a lot in common, too: negative attitudes towards immigration and immigrants, hostility against "the old regime" and its elites, and the idea that society should be "liberated" from "alien influences".

But there is something else in common, too. In all of the countries in which populists have gained strong support they seem to emphasize "traditional family values". The dream scenario derives from the 1950s: Mum was a housewife and Dad was working; Mum cooked excellent home food and treated her husband with humility and unquestioning respect; Dad was the undisputed boss of the family and everybody was so happy. Of course this was not the whole truth at that time, either, but this image of domestic bliss now serves a very useful purpose in various political rhetorics.

Within such cultural retrospectives, the negative side never exists. In this nostalgic version there is never a single bottle of alcohol, no violence, no fear, no lack of money, no Dad on the edge of suicide, no exhausted Mum at her wits end with depression. In the Ideal Family of the populists' fantasies there is a Man and a Woman, everything is clear and everyone knows his/her role. Contrast the media of today crammed full of references to the sheer variety of gender roles and sexuality on offer, a polymorphous perversity which is a source of embarrassment, confusion and dismay to many people: they complain that they can have no more confidence in society if words like "marriage" can mean "anything at all", including same-sex couples. And if a person cannot trust in the basics of life, he first feels anxious and, shortly after that, furious.

In the spring of 2013 the leader of the True Finns party (the leading populist party in Finland, with about 20 per cent support in the Parliament), Mr. Timo Soini, took part in an anti-gay-demonstration is Paris. According to Soini, the demonstration (an element of which even turned violent) was not anti-gay but "for the defence of traditional marriage". Against what/whom? France was not in the process of banning traditional marriages: all it had done was to change its marriage laws to give equal recognition to same-sex marriages.

In Finland, Soini's action was received with widespread admiration in certain social media circles. He was praised for being, "a Real Man with Finnish values" as if marriage equality could never ever be a Finnish value.

It is not a coincidence that in a world which is rapidly changing, populists seem to gain support from among those voters who feel insecure when it comes to matters of gender and sexuality. For these people Mr. Soini is a Real Man: he knows how to be a tough guy.

In Finland, the supporters of the populist True Finns Party are mainly men. They have traditional values and are often very much against every type of change in society.

Researchers into populism often look for answers in the fields of the economy, employment, feelings of security and fear of the unknown.  But I do think that the question of gender should also be taken seriously in this body of research. What kind of impact does the change in gender roles have on a person's political behaviour? What kind of impact does the traditional gender binary, "Man" and "Woman", have on politics right now? Why do the populists seem to offer the most reliable recourse in the eyes of voters who feel insecure when it comes to issues of gender and sexuality?

The feeling of security is one of the most important factors/drivers in human life. Why do some of us feel secure, while others seem to suffer feelings of constant insecurity?

According to research conducted in Finland, those who vote for the populists seem rather more afraid of the future than those who vote for other parties. 56 % of the supporters of the True Finns are afraid of the collapse of their own personal income - they are afraid of being unemployed (as is about one third of the voters of other parties). Structural changes in the Finnish economy have been particularly harsh when it comes to traditional masculine means of employment. No more paper mills are built in Europe nowadays as the growing market is in Asia; and as a result a large number of industrial jobs - men's jobs - have been moved abroad. This has a deep impact on the identity of many men: if you were used to being respected as a professional man, it is certainly not easy to reconcile yourself to being a needlessly unemployed man sitting on an obligatory employment course together with some 20-year-old boys and girls.    

The government of Finland loves to project itself as an "innovative nation" with "highly educated and skilled people" with "strong international competitiveness". Okay, let's imagine a 50-year old unemployed man who for some years had earned his living in the metal industry, building parts for the paper industry. He built a house for his family but has now (following his divorce) moved to a block of flats without his family. His employer was "internationally competitive" and moved all the jobs to China. When this man listens to the Government’s upbeat rhetoric and looks at himself in the mirror, he probably does not see an "internationally competitive top specialist" but an ordinary Finnish man who no longer knows what his place in the world is meant to be.

About 40 per cent of all the marriages in Finland end in divorce. This too has a serious impact on people's, especially men's, feeling of security. Women often survive it better: after the divorce they tell their friends (and, if they are celebrities, women's magazines) about how "right” their decision was and how much the quality of their life has now improved. For men, the risks are higher.      

The media does not tell many of the stories of divorced men. The social media, on the contrary, is full of them. In Finland there is a well-known web site "" created by a far-right member of parliament, True Finn Jussi Halla-aho. Most of the discussion is about immigration, Islam, the status of the minority language (Swedish) in Finland, and in recent years, I have observed that there has also emerged increasingly strident criticism of social workers who, according to the writers, often show favouritism after divorce to the women when it comes to children. Men who feel powerless with respect to their children receive plenty of peer support from the internet - and after that, it is easy to become likeminded on other subjects, such as immigration or the "Muslim threat".

In there has been quite a lot of discussion about a phenomenon called the "Parental Alienation Syndrome", which means that after divorce, women will not allow their ex-husbands to meet their children. One of the best-known polemicists on this theme is a member of parliament for the True Finns, Ms. Juho Eerola.

At present, the True Finns Party is the most vocal spokesman for "traditional family values" and the husband's role as the boss of the family. In Finland this is problematic as gender equality is a basic and normative value for the majority of people. The problem for these ‘traditional men’ is that there are not enough women who would like to play the role of the ‘traditional wife’.

The structure of power between men and women has changed radically during the last 50 years. The consequences are mainly positive: equality, women's economic independence, better social security, better democracy. The negative consequences can be seen in certain phenomena, like hate speech on the internet. As a journalist and columnist I have received hundreds of hate mail messages in the last few years. They are often anonymous, but I know that most of this hate mail has come from men.

In April 2013 I conducted some interviews with men who have sent me hate mail. I had only one question: why do you send me letters like this? The interviewees were embarrassed and bothered: they had never considered that I might call back. I was interested in their motives, and there was one motive above all: these men feel they do not have any power (over women, or over anything else), and that makes them furious. They said that I have an obligation to at least know what they think about me (as a well-known female writer with whom these men do not agree).

These men are discomfited, uprooted, they are aggressive. And quite a few of them vote for the populist party or extremist movements. Their crisis has got something to do with their masculinity and their changing gender role. I think more research would be needed for a deeper understanding.


This article is part of an editorial partnership with Counterpoint, which was launched in November 2012. See the other excerpts from the Reluctant Radicals partnership.


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