Essay: Macho Man

Why does Donald Trump shuffle his way through Macho Man and YMCA to the cult-like adulation of his supporters? Why isn’t he dancing shirtless to Village People anthems at his rallies? Why is he such a terrible dancer? 

If fascism is theatre, as French filmmaker Jean Genet observed, then we must ask who fascism elevates to centre stage and who is deemed unworthy of being seen. 

A glistening lesson came last week when video emerged of the Egyptian Police Academy’s graduation ceremony showing bare and barrel-chested cadets on display for Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, the ex-army chief who is now Egypt’s president and who Trump calls “my favourite dictator.”

As tempting as it was to comically imagine the Police Academy video set to any number of Pet Shops Boys songs, to replace the Egyptian flags with rainbow pride flags, and to connect the parade of shirtless muscle men on floats to shirtless muscle men on Pride Parade floats, there is nothing funny about a country where men parade shirtless for Sisi whose regime arrests and imprisons fully-clothed women for selfies and videos on TikTok.

The more clothes Egyptian men remove, the more they expect to be celebrated for virility and praised for their pecs and six-eight packs - whether they are police cadets, comedians or football stars. They are not slut-shamed. They are certainly not criminalized.

The celebrity on the left is the cardiologist turned satirist Bassem Youssef, who is often referred to as the “Egyptian Jon Stewart.” He posted those pictures to show progress he had made on a vegetarian diet and of course expected - and received - praise. When I posted his pictures - which he posted on Twitter i.e. were publicly available - and said I was happy that Egyptian male celebrities could post pictures of their bodies online without being slut-shamed or criminalized and that I hoped Egyptian female celebrities could be afforded that same privilege some day, he whined that he did not like the way I was using his pictures to make a point, deliberately ignoring his own history of using pictures of those he skewered in his satire. 

That is one of our “allies.”

The man on the right is also an “ally” who has spoken out on the importance of women’s rights. The now legendary Mohamed Salah whose success at Liverpool Football Club has elevated him into an Arab as well as Muslim role model, may have come in second as a write-in candidate in Egypt’s 2018 presidential election. 

This same Arab and Muslim role model whose picture under the shower is one of countless thirst traps he posts on social media, again to much praise and adulation (e.g. Salah on the beach with sand on his recently waxed chest and sand strategically placed on his shorts around the groin) is married to a woman who wears hijab, a form of clothing usually associated with modesty for women. When you point that out to people, many respond with a lecture about what they say are Islamic dictates for how men and women should dress, in full denial of the following.  

Egyptian women are criminalized, slut-shamed and punished in the name of “morality” whether they are in “revealing” clothes or hijab. Actress Rania Youssef faced jail in 2019 for "inciting debauchery" by wearing a dress that J Lo might snub as “too modest.” She had to beg forgiveness on television for her “mistake.”.

In the name of “morality” and safeguarding “Egyptian family values,” the Egyptian regime has arrested and jailed at least 9 young, mostly working class women for singing, dancing, and posting selfies on Tik-Tok, again fully clothed and some in hijab.

The homoerotic display of graduates of the Egyptian Police Academy took place in a viciously homophobic country where a 2017 crackdown against the LGBTQ community targeted mostly gay men after rainbow flags were flown at a concert in Cairo for Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila, whose lead singer is gay. In a 2013 survey, Pew Research Centre found that, in answer to the question “Should society accept homosexuality?” only 3% of Egyptians answered “Yes,” and 95% answered “No.”

Those same bare and barrel-chested police cadets on display for our fascist fuck of a dictator are the same who are paid to entrap, arrest and torture LGBTQ people in Egypt.

The preening hypermasculinity comes at a time in Egypt when an unprecedented number of women are exposing sexual assault. Sisi’s regime is trying to terrorize women into silence, whether via the arrests witnesses in support of a gang rape victim or imprisonment of the TikTok women.

Patriarchy--in this case the Egyptian regime--reserves its moral crusades for queer people and women, especially the daughters of the working class, but not the sons of the wealthy who rape and sexually assault, nor the police who bare their barrel chests for Sisi.

Patriarchy is adept at these paradoxes: see Vladimir Putin’s shirtless photographs in Russia, where homophobia and misogyny are tentacles of patriarchy, where the Church and State worked together to decriminalize domestic violence--the beating of women in their homes by their husbands and fathers-- and which bans distribution of "propaganda" that promotes "nontraditional sexual relationships” to minors, which has been used to outlaw Pride demonstrations and pro-LGBTQ publications and organizations.

Patriarchy’s message is clear: “we” dictate when and how your bodies can be displayed because patriarchy owns your bodies. And that same patriarchy also dictates which bodies are worthy of adulation and display.

Enter fascism, stage right.

Trump is a fascist misogynist and homophobic white supremacist who calls Sisi “my favourite dictator” and is BFFs with Putin. If he could, he would be dancing topless.

You know Trump would be shirtless in his rallies, dancing to Macho Man if it weren’t for the fact that fascist patriarchy has determined which type of male body is conventionally attractive and powerful and therefore suitable to display. And ironically for Trump, his is not it. It is Putin’s, and it was Mussolini’s in his time.

“Mussolini Working With Peasants In 1940: The dictator Benito MUSSOLINI, shirtless, reaps wheat with peasants in the 1940's. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)”

Whether Mussolini or the genocidal Nazi obsession with the “perfect body,” fascist patriarchy is a cruel mistress (pun fully intended).

Fat is a fascist issue.

Take, for a modern reminder, La Legión, an elite infantry regiment of the Spanish military, founded almost a century ago, and nicknamed the Bridegrooms of Death. La Legión is known for their toughness, distinctive pastel and button-bustingly tight uniforms.

Modeled on the French Foreign Legion and at one time closely associated with its best known member, Francisco Franco, during the Spanish Civil War and subsequent dictatorship, today’s soldiers of La Legión were recently put on a diet amid fears they were becoming obsese.

As I said, fat is a fascist issue.

In her 1975 essay Fascinating Fascism, Susan Sontag reminds us that the fascist aesthetic is one of “physical perfection.”

“Painters and sculptors under the Nazis often depicted the nude, but they were forbidden to show any bodily imperfections. Their nudes look like pictures in male health magazines: pinups which are both sanctimoniously asexual and (in a technical sense) pornographic, for they have the perfection of a fantasy,” she wrote.

Which is why, absent his inability to display “physical perfection,” Trump instead displays not just toxic but uber and dangerous masculinity; a form that effectively bullied his medical team into letting him endanger both those around him and himself after he tested positive and was hospitalized for COVID19. If you can’t signal the “perfect body” that fascism celebrates, then you signal the infallibility of the warrior. 

You dictate “Don’t let it dominate you!” to a country where the pandemic has killed more than 200,000 people. You talk aboutCOVID19 as if it were a terrorist attack or an invading army and not a pandemic. Because if you can’t take off your shirt and signal hypermasculinity that way, you signal it with the language of war and invincibility. 

And you make sure that when you do dance to signal “Fuck all those weaklings who died of a virus that I vanquished” you make sure you’re a terrible dancer otherwise the fascist lens you impose on everything will see you as “gay.”

Whether feminine or femme, disabled or fat, fascist patriarchy has no room on its stage for you.


Mona Eltahawy is a feminist author, commentator and disruptor of patriarchy. Her first book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution (2015) targeted patriarchy in the Middle East and North Africa and her second The Seven Necessary Sins For Women and Girls (2019) took her disruption worldwide. Her commentary has appeared in media around the world and she makes video essays and writes a newsletter as FEMINIST GIANT.  

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