Brexit is lost in toxic masculinity. No wonder women are turning against it | Catherine Bennett

Bare-chested displays of wartime bravado are unlikely to win the day in the event of a second referendum

Nate, recently introduced at the Edinburgh festival, is the thick, swaggering, toxically masculine alter-ego of a brilliant US comedian, Natalie Palamides. Audiences gawped as the diminutive but lavishly male Nate, adorned with a bandana, moustache and scrawled-on chest hair, entered on a motorbike to the sound of Bad to the Bone from Terminator 2, then, to prove prodigious virility, smashed up various props, chopped wood, got his dick (prosthetic, shes not a magician) out, and persuaded a male audience member to wrestle, bare-chested.

Theres another chance, happily, to see Nate, when Palamidess show transfers to London, this autumn. Meanwhile, for those who cant get to the real thing, theres always and now more than ever BorisJohnson.

Shagging, of course. Swaggering, reliably. Sometimes, pictures show, in a bandana. With proofs of masculinity featuring, as well as a broken Foreign Office, the devastation if Johnson can get his paws on one of an entire country. If Johnson is not, yet, man enough to live-wrestle, like Palamides, he revealed his affection for this sport, pre marital announcements, in an extended introduction to his latest attack on Theresa Mays Brexit plans. So its ding ding! he begins, Nateishly. Seconds out!

Even the untutored will get the idea: the crisis engulfing Johnsons career is grave enough to require the activation of completely new and untested combat metaphors, alongside his traditional Second World War repertoire.

And we begin the final round of that international slug fest, the Brexit negotiations, Johnson continues. Out of their corners come Dominic Raab and Michel Barnier, shrugging their shoulders and beating their chests.

Its a while before we return to more familiar Johnsoniana, such as his pre-used we have gone intobattle with the white flag fluttering over our leading tank; the sort of deranged language that,though it would plainly be regarded as disturbing in any civilian workplace,has been heardso often, from so many, sinceBrexits notables began vociferating in 2016, as to come to sound, in these negotiations, unremarkable.

Not all Brexiters, obviously. It should be stressed that very large numbers of EU-averse individuals, male and female, are capable of discussing the EU without ever mentioning blood, lions or colonies (Farage, Johnson); turds (Johnson); flags (Farage, Johnson); tanks (Johnson); the war/The Great Escape (Johnson, Farage); punishment beatings (Johnson); the enemy (Hammond, David Daviss team); cudgels (Andrew Bridgen); and from Brexits more scholarly, Sealed Knot tendency, Napoleon (Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg); Agincourt (Rees-Mogg); vassal state (Johnson, Rees-Mogg).

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If nothing else, Rees-Mogg has demonstrated, quite usefully, that quaint diction and a close reading of 1066 and All That are far from incompatible with exhibitions of toxic masculinity, in the commonly understood sense of displays, by covertly insecure men, of extreme bravado, aggression and a disproportionate horror of humiliation (as they call compromise).

As demonstrated by Brexits leading sufferers, toxic masculinitysobsession with winning may be accompanied by leaden declarations of insouciance (Liam Fox, Farage, Davis), by a genuine or affected absence of human feeling (all the above-named), by hypersexualised behaviour (Rees-Moggs top hat) and, possibly, by imputations of effeminacy. Johnson refers in his latest attack to the twanging of leotards by EU staff, a choice of words that presumably reflects some association, in the great shaggers mind, between ballet, emasculation and losing possiblythe greatest fear to beset any Nate-minded politician. Loserlooms large, similarly, in theTrumplexicon.

Did Brexit always have to become, like the current White House, another vehicle for hypermasculine displaying? Certainly, once the debate had been characterised, with the lethal connivance of the BBC (another such platform), as a binary, Westminster-style standoff, as opposed to an exercise in public deliberation, itsdominance by bullies, specialists in confrontational flourishes, could have been more often recognised, and deplored. To their credit, Johnsons inflammatory rhetoric was condemned by MEPs. May had rewarded him with a job.

Thus normalised, the language of leading Brexiters has only become more immoderate since the allegedly cerebral Michael Gove began (long before he and Johnson launched their own, more risible hostilities) by comparing (in a Todayprogramme monologue) the UKs EU membership to the plight of a hostage, locked in the boot ofa car.

Diminishing hyperbole reserves now leave Today favourite Bernard Jenkin scrabbling, like Johnson, for ever more desperate analogies with which to convey the strange violenceof his feelings. Brexit averted, the backbencher writes, would be like deciding to abandon the Falkland Islands in 1982 without a fight. M Barniers negotiators have plainly evolved, since Fox calledthem gangsters, into something more closely resembling uniformed Argentinians.

Elsewhere, fellow alarmists talk up the potential for civil unrest with what, given the uneventfulness of Brexit demonstrations thus far, sounds suspiciously like longing. Just what other than their own predilections convinces Farage or Barry Gardiner that obstacles to Brexit would risk, respectively, angry riots or civil disobedience?

Not least of the many compellingarguments for a peoplesvote on a final deal is the chance to see what might happen if the preceding discussion were held in civil or, at least, non-toxically masculine language. How would it be, that debate, minus slug fests and cudgels, but with the additionof younger voices, of informed ones and in particular of more women, 56% of whom supportremain (against 51% of men)? A Loughborough University study found that men enjoyed 85% of the press, and 75% of the television referendum coverage, with starring roles for Gove, Johnson and Farage.

Probably, given the demagogic opportunities, the referendum was always going to be dominated, once they were indulged, by the political worlds most unspeakable Nates. Weneed to have a new one despite and ideally without them.

Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist

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