Performing Gender in View of the Outbreak

COVID-19-related research has veritably exploded over the past several months—not only in the fields of infectiology and virology, but also in the humanities, the social sciences, and academic disciplines concerned with art. What’s more, multiple projects dealing with gender-specific issues in the context of SARS-CoV-2 have also been initiated. However, the question as to just how the gender-specific imbalances brought to light by the current crisis are being commented on, legitimised, or in fact papered over by those in positions of political responsibility has received no research attention thus far. This question is of central significance not least because certain gender role clichés that many had viewed as things of the past are now experiencing a resurgence in terms of their presence while also being reconfigured amidst the ongoing pandemic. This is the starting point for the project “Performing Gender in View of the Outbreak”, which theatre and cultural studies scholar Silke Felber has been pursuing since March 2021 at the mdw’s Department of Cultural Management and Gender Studies. Her research project looks at the example of Austria and the performances of its political representatives before the backdrop of COVID-19 and queries the gender-related concepts of identity being communicated in this context. This project is being funded by a grant obtained via the “Urgent Funding SARS-CoV-2” call of the Austrian Science Fund (FWS), which is supporting selected research projects that use the example of SARS-CoV-2 to address the causes and effects of epidemics and pandemics.

Performing Gender in View of the Outbreak focuses on the intense and conspicuously male-dominated media presence of the Austrian Federal Government in the context of the current public health and economic crisis. One of the reasons why women’s underrepresentation as protagonists in politics and in the media is especially problematic is that the current pandemic is having a far stronger impact on women than it is on men. It is a fact that the decline in employment caused by COVID-19 has been concentrated in areas of the economy that are of greater importance to the employment of women. What’s more, women are simultaneously being hit harder than men by the dual burden of doing one’s job and fulfilling care obligations in a home office situation as well as in cases where their employment is in so-called “essential” sectors. In addition to gender-specific differences, the pandemic has also shone a light on inequality-generating categories such as class, education, ethnicity, and nation. Socially disadvantaged individuals are being impacted more strongly than others by this crisis: with their financial situations threatening to deteriorate, they also run a considerably higher risk of falling seriously ill or dying if they contract COVID-19 themselves. This pandemic thus highlights how inequalities operate in a fashion that is never one-dimensional but much rather results from the interplay between various categories and factors. Starting from these observations, Performing Gender in View of the Outbreak devotes itself to two interlaced questions: To what extent are political protagonists addressing or ignoring gender-specific issues, and what conceptions of gender are being (re)constructed in this context? Starting from the hypothesis that the Austrian Federal Government’s public performances amidst this pandemic-related crisis have encouraged the re-traditionalisation of specific gender roles and stereotypes, this project subjects the relevant appearances by its members to dramaturgical and discourse-analytical investigation.

Initial analyses undertaken as part of this Urgent Funding project found that the Austrian Federal Government’s staging of the crisis is clearly oriented on male-connoted concepts of task-based competence and instrumentality. In this regard, one thing that particularly stands out is the employment of sport metaphors—which, in the Austrian context, has been prominent and downright inflationary. The metaphor of the marathon, for instance, calls upon a rhetoric of competition favoured by politicians as far back as antiquity—rhetoric that undergirds individual and masculine dominance while also conjuring up a collectively operating autochthonous masculinity. Something similar can be observed in the symptomatic referral to narratives of the Resurrection and the Apocalypse practised above all by Sebastian Kurz, a politician who stands out for his use of eschatological rhetoric oscillating between fear and hope. This rhetoric calls forth figurations of the saviour and the father figure while at the same time underpinning or even encouraging women’s banishment to old, passive social roles. This specific performance reinforces the suppression of those problematic gender-specific issues that are growing more and more palpable in the current crisis. Female politicians’ lack of visibility within the crisis management context is matched by the dominance of the role they are being accorded within the discourse on the COVID-19 crisis. Particularly during the initial lockdown in early 2020, the public speeches conveyed via the media stylised women as “everyday heroes” and “the backbone of our system”, frequently with recourse to passé terms like “social cohesion” and “solidarity”. But precisely this results in a perfidious reproduction of paternalistic stereotypes that, as a matter of course, associate women with motherhood and (unpaid) care work. The behavioural expectations communicated via such strategies demand and encourage women’s assumption of traditional roles. At the same time, the ostensible boosting of women’s value in this discourse facilitates the staging of anti-toxic masculinity and supports the publicly appearing protagonists in behaving as if they were free of sexist tendencies.

The project Performing Gender in View of the Outbreak is transdisciplinary in nature and cooperates with international partners from the fields of theatre, media, literary, and linguistic studies as well as with experts from the fields of political science and law. Further information can be found at

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