Stepping down from power is not in the playbook of manly-man leadership, which has no chapter called retreat, de-escalate or let go. It appears certain that chest pumping Putin won’t step down, having already set in motion constitutional amendments, which allow him to run for office in 2024 and beyond. Former German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder refuses to resign from seats on Russian energy boards connecting Germany and Russia, and of course Trump notoriously has had some issues with holding onto power. When fragile egos wrap themselves inside a blanket of toxic masculinity, the result is chaos and destruction. It’s time for a new playbook, which include lessons on stepping down.
The former Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, promoted the stereotype of leaders as man/strong, woman/fragile in 1988 when he coined the phrase ‘girlie men’ goading weak politicians with this homophobic and sexist insult. In a 2018 interview he said, “I called them girlie men because they weren’t willing to take risks. They were afraid of everything.” Sigh. It takes courage to soften the armor and admit bad choices. A punch is one type of strength, listening and nurturing are a different sort. These essential feminine values get warped in a he-man’s world.
The girlie girl trope conflates girliness with vein, frilly weakness, and materialistic, vapid fragility. Doris Day played the architype of the white, cis-gendered, one-dimensional character bathed in pale pink. But feminists are rebelling. In a New York magazine article, Yael Kohen asks, “[W]hat’s wrong with girly, anyway? Rolling our eyes at pink feels like another way of treating female culture on the whole as a niche interest, somehow secondary to male culture — a.k.a. the mainstream.” Marginalized populations are rightfully reclaiming the feminine. In the popular series Pose, Black and trans bodies proudly take on feminine characteristics with flopped wrists and high heel struts. Girly girl leaders boldly wear fuchsia and step up, down or around with teeth barred.
Some examples of girlie girl step downs: German Chancellor Angela Merkel rode out on top after holding power for 16 years. She voluntarily let go of the reins, and in the year she stepped down, a Pew Research Center survey reported “…all-time high ratings of the German leader in most of the 16 advanced economies surveyed.” Often called the ‘crisis Chancellor,’ she was decisive but also had a dancer’s skills to adapt, change and shift positions.
Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress and to seek the Democratic nomination for President, ran a campaign based on a feminine slogan with a punch, “Unbought and Unbossed.” She left Washington when she had enough saying, “I’d like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts.” Both women knew when the time was right and left with grace.
To be sure, women struggle just as much as men to remove the glitter and step away. Experts speculate that Elizabeth I, died in office from blood poisoning brought on by her heavy use of lead based makeup. Vanity gone awry. The ego, especially for stars, succumbs to the deliciousness of power. Cher started with the Farewell tour and followed with the Never Can Say Goodbye Tour, Do you Believe Tour? and the Here We Go Again Tour. Grace Kelly slipped away from her Hollywood star only because she got to be a princess. Doesn’t count. If Putin is thinking about a girlie girl move, it shouldn’t be to become king.
The process of child birth is the ultimate act of letting go, providing women the chance to indulge in the divine feminine. However, ageing bodies also allow everyone to practice the fundamentals: the spring recedes, the walk slows down, the joints creak. As a professional dancer at the age of 70, I am immersed in daily lessons.
When a spinal injury hit at 35, I declared no more arabesques. At 45, the relevé (a rise on the feet) left my repertory due to hardware in my metatarsals. At 60 a torn meniscus dictated no more jumps, and at 70 gravity appears to be winning. These losses are not without struggle. Can I just demand the arabesque? Does I can’t translate to life? What is the line between narcissistic pampering, self-care and acceptance? If I look back with discernment, letting go of the unnecessary was essential to the attainment of the next skill.
These struggles shift priorities. If the arabesque remained important, could the spirit of upward motion suffice? My raison d’etre for dancing was performing fancy slides in and out of the floor in partnership with and defiance of gravity, so losing the feeling of flight felt like cutting off an arm or leg. I was forced to recognize a different body. That’s the thing, letting go allows something else to happen. Letting go isn’t the lack of power, it is essential to empowerment.
Every dancer knows that stepping down is a requirement for stepping up. The manly-man leaders probably never danced, definitely too frilly for them, but the practice would be useful. More importantly, we need to select leaders who follow a girlie girl playbook in the future.
Jan Erkert is a professor and Head of the Department of Dance at the University of Illinois and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.