Macho Men

Irma Erlingsdóttir, director of the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Iceland, thinks Reihan Salam's "The Death of Macho" overestimates the erosion of "male-archy" in Iceland.

Reihan Salam ("The Death of Macho," July/August 2009) has announced the demise of macho rule and offers many convincing global examples of the "monumental shift of power from men to women" as a result of the current economic crisis. Citing Iceland as a case in point, he maintains that the country’s voters "threw out" the all-male elite responsible for the financial catastrophe and "named" the world’s first openly lesbian leader, Johanna Sigurdardóttir, as their prime minister.

Although inspiring, this account of a gender revolution in Iceland is a bit idealized and premature. This is not to minimize the fact that a handful of Icelandic women have replaced men in real power positions, but the all-powerful male elite has certainly not been smashed.

Indeed, the good-ol’-boys network is still alive and clinging to power, even if it has suffered a few setbacks and casualties. It has even begun to fight back — in a characteristically male-chauvinistic way. To take just one example, a former prime minister and governor of the Central Bank recently likened Sigurdardóttir to an elf. Eva Joly, the Norwegian-born French magistrate — whom the Icelandic government enlisted to investigate white-collar crime in connection with the Icelandic banking collapse — has also been a systematic target of sexist attacks following her harsh criticisms of the "financial vikings" who brought Iceland to near bankruptcy. A lawyer representing these "vikings" wrote an article questioning her "professional fitness" under the self-revealing title "She Ain’t a Jol(l)y Good Fellow"!

Male-archy is not dead in Iceland or elsewhere. As Salam correctly points out, those in power will not give it up without an exhaustive fight. The crisis has exposed the bankruptcy of macho rule, but there is no guarantee that a new and better society will arise from its ruins. What is needed is a radical rethinking of gender equality in all spheres of society.

Irma Erlingsdóttir
Center for Women’s and Gender Studies
University of Iceland
Reykjavik, Iceland


Reihan Salam replies:

I thank Irma Erlingsdóttir for her insights on Iceland’s macho backlash. However, where she sees the "vikings" reasserting control, I see their distress as a recognition of the historic power shift taking place.

 Twitter: @joshuakeating

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