Hypermasculinity and the Rise of Fascism

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, hypermasculinity has three distinct hallmarks — the perception of violence as manly, the glorification and sensationalization of danger, and disrespect towards women and perceived femininity. Fascism is a little more difficult to define, but most agree that it describes a right-wing ideology that pedestalizes nationalism, militarism, authoritarianism, and natural social hierarchies. In any case, fascism has been inextricably tied to hypermasculinity from its beginnings in ’30s Italy to its modern-day resurgence in Putin’s Russia and beyond. Understanding the reasons for this connection might give us a clue on how best to defeat the rise of hypermasculinity and fascism in our own time.

The most obvious overlap between hypermasculinity and fascism is their shared lionization of violent men. Vladimir Putin paints himself as a macho leader by circulating shirtless photos of himself while hunting — a contrast to his feminine (and therefore negative) characterization of Ukraine and the West. Putin is not unique among authoritarians for embracing this toxic hypermasculinity, nor the misogyny and homophobia that go hand-in-hand with it. Long before Putin’s time, Benito Mussolini, one of the foundational developers of fascism, had photographs taken of him threshing wheat, also shirtless. This obsessive militarism and the anti-minority rhetoric that goes with it — along with the portrayal of alternatives as weak — allow tyrannical leaders to redirect attention from the inner workings of their regimes onto a common cause, deflecting responsibility for popular grievances onto a supposed foe.

Fascism has been described as reactionary from its very conception, and this has consistently manifested in an anti-minority stance. This is because fascism does not intend to present revolutionary ideas; instead, it relies on the notion that its policies are simply a return to a traditional way of life. Fascist states are more centralized and nationalistic than any of their predecessors, but their prejudices against minorities were (and are) nothing new. In fact, they were advertised as a return to a better — and in a modern context, simpler — time. Alfred Rosenberg, a convicted Nazi, called for “the emancipation of women from the women’s emancipation movement,” seeking to subjugate women in the name of returning to a supposed natural order of things. Similarly, the current Russian state’s embrace of authoritarianism came about in no small part as a reaction to the weak perception of democracy adopted in Russia during the ’90s. In this way, fascist states adopt hypermasculinity and other prejudices as a form of pushback against progressive thought — especially when people experience widespread economic hardship or government neglect, it often works.

Like any modern conservative populist movement, fascism has a complicated relationship with the establishment. It is outwardly very much anti-elite — but, in Mussolini’s own words, fascism is “a merger of state and corporate power.” More often, their aversion to the elite manifests as a rejection of intellectualism — an institution often at odds with the conservative, hypermasculine caricatures embraced by fascism. Historically, this has led to targeted killings of the educated, as seen in Cambodia and fascist Spain, but also to generally crass conduct by fascist leaders. This pointedly obscene behavior gives fascists and other authoritarian populists a way to connect with the disenfranchised voter, portraying them as an outsider to the political scene regardless of where their funding and policies flow from. For example, Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines from 2016 to 2022, was known for frequently joking about rape, championing the extrajudicial murders of drug addicts (who he, in a similar vein to Hitler’s rhetoric against Jews, characterized as less than human), and glorifying excessive violence — all of which won him the Filipino presidency for six years.

Hypermasculinity isn’t just a favorite tool of fascists. It is a mindset that helps enable them to seize power, to begin with. In an era when fascism and authoritarianism are making a resurgence, it may be that the best way to preserve democracy is by confronting hypermasculinity and its associated prejudices at their source. In this time of worldwide hardship, spreading awareness so people can identify hypermasculinity and its dangers might just be the best chance we have to prevent Putin’s Russia from being replicated in every nation — including our own.