Skip to main content Accessibility help

Populist stories of honest men and proud mothers: A visual narrative analysis

  • Katja Freistein (a1) and Frank Gadinger (a1)


This article proposes the methodological framework of visual narrative analysis through the study of images and narratives. We are interested in the appeal of political storytelling. In applying an approach of layered interpretation, we study images and slogans to consider the more complex underlying narratives in their political and cultural context. Our exploratory case studies draw on material from right-wing populist parties, namely election campaign posters from Germany and the UK as material for the analysis. We find that narratives operate with a ‘fantasmatic logic’, which adds fantasy to politics, to depoliticise and camouflage their radical intent and gain approval by making consent desirable. We identify two exemplary narratives (honest men under threat; proud mothers) that entrench traditional gender roles in accordance with patriarchy and nationalism. Theoretically, our approach contributes to debates in IR on cultural underpinnings in international politics and the construction of collective identities through shared/divided narratives. Visual narrative analysis provides a promising methodological tool for analysing visual representations in their productive relationship with text. This perspective foregrounds the power of political storytelling through fantasmatic appeal and fosters a better understanding of the global rise of populism.


Corresponding author

*Corresponding author. Email:


Hide All

2 See Berger, John, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin Books, 2008); Mitchell, W. J. T., What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2005); Moxey, Keith, ‘Visual studies and the iconic turn’, Journal of Visual Culture, 7:2 (2008), pp. 131–46.

3 See Hansen, Lene, ‘How images make world politics: International icons and the case of Abu Ghraib’, Review of International Studies, 41:2 (2015), pp. 263–88; Heck, Axel and Schlag, Gabi, ‘Securitizing images: The female body and the war in Afghanistan’, European Journal of International Relations, 19:4 (2013), pp. 891913.

4 See Koschorke, Albrecht, Fact and Fiction: Elements of a General Theory of Narrative (Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 2018), pp. 81–5.

5 On the different roles of images, see Bleiker, Roland, ‘Mapping visual global politics’, in Bleiker, Roland (ed.), Visual Global Politics (London: Routledge, 2018), pp. 129. More specifically, see also Rebecca Adler-Nissen, Katrine Emilie Andersen, and Lene Hansen, ‘Images, emotions, and international politics: The death of Alan Kurdi’, Review of International Studies, First View (2019), available at: {}.

6 See, for example, Devetak, Richard, ‘After the event: Don DeLillo's White Noise and September 11 narratives’, Review of International Studies, 35:4 (2009), pp. 795815; Johnson, Heather, ‘Narrating entanglements: Rethinking the local/global divide in ethnographic migration research’, International Political Sociology, 10:4 (2016), pp. 383–97; Oppermann, Kai and Spencer, Alexander, ‘Narrating success and failure: Congressional debates on the “Iran Nuclear Deal”’, European Journal of International Relations, 24:2 (2018), pp. 268–92; Ravecca, Paulo and Dauphinee, Elizabeth, ‘Narrative and the possibilities for scholarship’, International Political Sociology, 12:2 (2018), pp. 125–38.

7 See, for example, Bleiker, Roland, ‘The aesthetic turn in international political theory’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 30:3 (2001), pp. 509–33; Hansen, Lene, ‘Theorizing the image for security studies: Visual securitization and the Muhamad Cartoon Crisis’, European Journal of International Relations, 17:1 (2011), pp. 5174.

8 Interesting approaches include those of Bleiker, ‘Mapping visual global politics’; Bleiker, Roland et al. , ‘The visual dehumanisation of refugees’, Australian Journal of Political Science, 48:4 (2013), pp. 398416; Galai, Yoav, ‘Narratives of redemption: the international meaning of afforestation in the Israeli Negev’, International Political Sociology, 11:3 (2017), pp. 273–91; Hansen, ‘How images make world politics’; Heck and Schlag, ‘Securitizing images’; Campbell, David, ‘Geopolitics and visuality: Sighting the Darfur conflict’, Political Geography, 26:4 (2007), pp. 357–82.

9 The idea of ‘layering’ is in line with John Berger's Ways of Seeing premise that in our ‘ways of seeing’, we are not just looking – we are reading the language of images by exploring their layers of meaning.

10 Koschorke, Fact and Fiction, p. 197.

11 This also concerns the selection of our exploratory cases (see more below), which builds on insights gained during the analysis about the importance of gender in (right-wing populist) political storytelling. The exemplary nature of our case studies resonates with insights into interpretive work and the nature of ‘cases’ in this logic, which follows a different notion of ‘rigorous’; see Yanow, Dvora, ‘Neither rigorous nor objective? Interrogating criteria for knowledge claims in interpretive science’, in Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine and Yanow, Dvora (eds), Interpretation and Method: Empirical Research and the Interpretive Turn (Armonk-London: M. E. Sharpe, 2006), pp. 6788; see also Jackson, Patrick Thaddeus, The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations (2nd edn, Milton Park-New York: Routledge, 2016).

12 Such a perspective follows the need of pluralist methods for visual global politics; see Bleiker, Roland, ‘Pluralist methods for visual global politics’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 43:3 (2015), pp. 872–90.

13 See, for example, Yanow, Dvora, How Does a Policy Mean? Interpreting Policy and Organizational Actions (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1996); Hopf, Ted, Social Construction of International Politics: Identities & Foreign Policies, Moscow 1955 & 1999 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002).

14 Mudde, Following Cas, ‘The populist zeitgeist’, Government and Opposition, 39:4 (2004), pp. 541–63, we understand populism as a ‘thin-centred ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups’ of ‘the pure people’ versus the ‘corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people (p. 543). Although the normative criterion between ‘good’ leftist and ‘bad’ right-wing populism remains often vague, a major difference lies in the nativist concept of the nation in right-wing populism, combined with chauvinistic and racist notions of ‘the people’. Thus, right-wing populists aim at denigrating powerless groups of population and minorities (for example, Muslims, migrants) as culprits of the bad situation of the people, whereas left-wing populists’ moral target of criticism are primarily capitalist forces such as banks, which hold powerful positions. See Wodak, Ruth, The Politics of Fear: What Right-Wing Discourses Mean (London: Sage, 2015), p. 2.

15 See, for a similar perspective, Browning, Christopher S., ‘Brexit populism and fantasies of fulfilment’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 32:3 (2019), pp. 222–44.

16 See, for example, Hozić, Aida A. and True, Jacqui, ‘Brexit as a scandal: Gender and global Trumpism’, Review of International Political Economy, 24:2 (2017), pp. 270–87.

17 These discussions are reflected in research on populism in general – as a possible means for reviving democracy (see, for example, Mouffe, Chantal, For a Left Populism (London: Verso, 2018)) – and right-wing populism in particular – mainly as a danger to democracy (see, for example, Müller, Jan-Werner, What is Populism? (London: Penguin Books, 2017)).

18 We follow recent studies on the performative dimension of populist language. See, for example, Wodak, The Politics of Fear; Moffitt, Benjamin, The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016).

19 Canovan, Margaret, ‘Trust the people! Populism and the two faces of democracy’, Political Studies, 47:1 (1999), pp. 216.

20 See, for example, Doty, Roxanne, Imperial Encounters: The Politics of Representation in North-South Relations (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996); Krebs, Ronald, Narrative and the Making of US National Security (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

21 See Yanow and Schwartz-Shea (eds), Interpretation and Method; Bevir, Mark and Rhodes, R. A. W. (eds), Routledge Handbook of Interpretive Political Science (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016).

22 Similar to Enloe, Cynthia, ‘Flick of the skirt: A feminist challenge to IR's coherent narrative’, International Political Sociology, 10:4 (2016), pp. 320–31.

23 See, for example, Ackerly, Brooke and True, Jacqui, ‘Reflexivity in practice: Power and ethics in feminist research on international relations’, International Studies Review, 10 (2008), pp. 581600; Tidy, Joanna, ‘Fatherhood, gender, and interventions in the geopolitical: Analyzing paternal peace, masculinities, and war’, International Political Sociology, 12:1 (2018), pp. 218.

24 See, for example, Bal, Mieke, Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009); Fisher, Walter R., Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value, and Action (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987); Koschorke, Fact and Fiction.

25 Bueger, Christian and Gadinger, Frank, International Practice Theory (2nd edn, Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

26 Hülsse, Rainer, ‘Imagine the EU: The metaphorical construction of a supra-nationalist identity’, Journal of International Relations and Development, 9:4 (2006), pp. 396421.

27 Devetak, ‘After the event’.

28 Galai, ‘Narratives of redemption’.

29 Dany, Charlotte and Freistein, Katja, ‘Global governance and the myth of civil society participation’, in de Guevara, Berit Bliesemann (ed.), Myths and Narrative in International Politics (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2017), pp. 229–48.

30 Jarvis, Lee and Holland, Jack, ‘“We (for)got him”: Remembering and forgetting in the narration of Bin Laden's death’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 42:2 (2014), pp. 425–47.

31 Eder, Klaus, ‘Europe's borders: The narrative construction of the boundaries of Europe’, European Journal of Social Theory, 9:2 (2006), pp. 255–71.

32 Bruner, Jerome, ‘The narrative construction of reality’, Critical Inquiry, 18:1 (1991), pp. 121 (p. 4).

33 Fisher, Human Communication as Narration, p. 24.

34 Miskimmon, Alister, O'Loughlin, Ben, and Roselle, Laura, Strategic Narratives: Communication Power and the New World Order (London: Routledge, 2013).

35 Somers, Margaret R., ‘The narrative constitution of identity: A relational and network approach’, Theory and Society, 23:5 (1994), pp. 605–49 (p. 616).

36 Patterson, Molly and Monroe, Kristen Renwick, ‘Narrative in political science’, Annual Review of Political Science, 1:1 (1998), pp. 315–31 (p. 316).

37 Czarniawska, Barbara, Narratives in Social Science Research (Los Angeles: Sage, 2004), p. 11.

38 Galai, ‘Narratives of redemption’, p. 276.

40 Eder, ‘Europe's borders’.

41 Krebs, Narrative and the Making of US National Security.

42 Polkinghorne, Donald, Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences (Albany: State University Press, 1988), p. 19.

43 Somers, ‘The narrative constitution of identity’, p. 616.

44 Similarly, Wodak, Ruth E., ‘Saying the unsayable: Denying The Holocaust in media debates in Austria and the UK’, in Kopytowska, Monika (ed.), Contemporary Discourses of Hate and Radicalism across Space and Genres (Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2017), pp. 1339.

45 Sheeran, Paul, Literature and International Relations: Stories in the Art of Diplomacy (Milton Park, NY: Routledge, 2007).

46 See Khoury, Nadim, ‘Plotting stories after war: Toward a methodology for negotiating identity’, European Journal of International Relations, 24:2 (2018), pp. 367–90.

47 Koschorke, Fact and Fiction, p. 196.

48 Oppermann and Spencer, ‘Narrating success and failure’, p. 275.

49 Stone, Deborah, Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002), pp. 138–45.

50 Wagenaar, Hendrik, Meaning in Action: Interpretation and Dialogue in Policy Analysis (Armonk and London: M. E. Sharpe, 2011), pp. 210–16.

51 See, most explicitly, Glynos, Jason and Howarth, David, Logics of Critical Explanation in Social and Political Theory (London and New York: Routledge, 2007).

52 Ibid., p. 146.

53 Ibid., p. 151.

54 Ibid., p. 147.

55 Snigdha Poonam, ‘Modi's message was simple: Hindus first’, Foreign Policy, available at: {} accessed 30 July 2019.

56 Glynos and Howarth, Logics of Critical Explanation in Social and Political Theory, p. 130.

57 Mayer, Frederick W., Narrative Politics: Stories and Collective Action (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 7.

58 Ibid., p. 138. Similarly, Adler-Nissen, Andersen, and Hansen, ‘Images, emotions, and international politics’ on ‘emotional bundling’.

59 Bleiker, Roland and Hutchinson, Emma, ‘Fear no more: Emotions and world politics’, Review of International Studies, 34:S1 (2008), pp. 115–35 (p. 123).

60 The emotional or affective turn in IR shares many assumptions of narrative-oriented research. What is described above as the legitimising function of narratives in processes of collective sense-making and stabilising of identity is also emphasised in research approaches on emotions, which suggest that feelings are an active component of identity and community building; see, for example, Koschut, Simon, ‘Emotional (security) communities: The significance of emotion norms in inter-allied conflict management’, Review of International Studies, 40:3 (2014), pp. 533–58.

61 Bleiker and Hutchison, ‘Fear no more’, p. 123.

62 Similarly, Howarth, David, Glynos, Jason, and Griggs, Steven, ‘Discourse, explanation and critique', Critical Policy Studies, 10:1 (2016), pp. 99104.

63 Glynos and Howarth, Logics of Critical Explanation in Social and Political Theory, p. 147.

64 Bleiker and Hutchison, ‘Fear no more’.

65 See, for example, Hansen, ‘How images make world politics’.

66 See, for example, Yanow, How Does a Policy Mean?; Stone, Policy Paradox; Hülsse, ‘Imagine the EU’.

67 Bredekamp, Horst, Der Bildakt (Berlin: Wagenbach, 2015).

68 From such a point of view, they can be seen as ‘mini-narratives’ that yield insight not into what the speaker ‘means’, but into what a cultural community considers as acceptable interpretations, Bal, Narratology, p. 35.

69 Stone, Policy Paradox, p. 155.

70 Yanow, How Does a Policy Mean?, p. 132

71 Ibid., p. 133.

72 Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark, ‘The metaphorical logic of rape’, Metaphor and Symbolic Activity, 2:1 (1987), pp. 72–9 (p. 72).

73 Yanow, How Does a Policy Mean?, p. 133.

74 Shenhav, Shaul, ‘Political narratives and political reality’, International Political Science Review, 27:3 (2006), p. 246.

75 Ravecca and Dauphinee, ‘Narrative and the possibilities for scholarship’, p. 126.

76 Lisle, Debbie, ‘Learning how to see’, in Guillaume, Xavier and Bilgin, Pinar (eds), Handbook of International Political Sociology (London: Taylor and Francis, 2016), pp. 299308.

77 See, for example, Heck and Schlag, ‘Securitizing images’.

78 See, for example, Panofsky, Erwin, Meaning in the Visual Arts (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970).

79 For a more discourse-oriented account, see, for example, Hansen, ‘How images make world politics’.

80 Heck and Schlag, ‘Securitizing images’, p. 899.

81 See, for example, Holtz-Bacha, Christina and Johansson, Bengt (eds), Election Posters Around the Globe: Political Campaigning in the Public Sphere (Wiesbaden: Springer, 2017); Seidman, Steven A., ‘Studying election campaign posters and propaganda: What can we learn?’, International Journal of Instructional Media, 35:4 (2008), pp. 413–29.

82 For the difficulty of drawing general conclusions about the role of gender in populist discourse, see Abi-Hassan, Sahar, ‘Populism and gender’, in Kaltwasser, Cristóbal Rovira, Taggart, Paul, Espejo, Paulina Ochoa, and Ostiguy, Pierre (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Populism (Oxford: Oxford University Press (2017), pp. 438–49.

83 Similar to Ravecca and Dauphinee, ‘Narrative and the possibilities for scholarship’.

84 Similar to Bleiker et al., ‘The visual dehumanisation of refugees’ talking about ‘visual dehumanization’ of refugees in boats.

85 Daniel Boffey, ‘Brexit Britain: “Foreign boats catch fish in our water and then ship it back to us”’, The Guardian (22 May 2016). Without this contextual knowledge, the image would not clearly situate Tony in a right-wing populist campaign, but could also be seen differently.

86 Both authors as well as the audiences of earlier presentations have been divided in their intuitive feelings for Tony (generally, men seem to have more sympathy for him than women), which further underlines the ambivalence of the image.

87 See Hochschild, Arlie Russell, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (New York: The New Press, 2016).

88 Moffitt, The Global Rise of Populism, p. 45.

89 Müller, Jan-Werner, What is Populism? (London: Penguin Books, 2017), pp. 34.

90 Moffitt, The Global Rise of Populism, p. 43.

91 Also discussed in Reid, Chris, England's Sea Fisheries: The Commercial Sea Fisheries of England and Wales since 1300, ed. Starkey, David John, Ashcroft, Neil, and Reid, Chris (London: Chatham, 2000).

92 Similarly, on soldiers, see Tidy, ‘Fatherhood, gender, and interventions in the geopolitical’.

93 See Taggart, Paul, Populism (New York: Open University Press, 2000).

94 Ibid., p. 96.

95 Ben Quinn, ‘Kipper rules Boris Johnson blamed on EU are actually British, says Brussels’, The Guardian (18 July 2019).

96 See many interesting examples in Christopher Kissane, ‘Historical nonsense underpins UK's Brexit floundering: From Hastings to Dunkirk a past that blinds Britain to reality has been peddled’, Irish Times (17 September 2018).

97 See Gary Younge, ‘Britain's imperial fantasies have given us Brexit’, The Guardian (3 February 2018).

98 O'Toole, Fintan, Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain (London: Head of Zeus, 2018).

99 See Wodak, The Politics of Fear.

100 See O'Toole, Heroic Failure.

101 For the male role of ‘saviour’ in right-wing populism, see Wodak, The Politics of Fear, ch. 6.

102 Similarly Moffit, The Global Rise of Populism, p. 127.

103 Diehl, Paula, ‘Twisting representation’, in de la Torre, Carlos (ed.), Handbook of Populism (London: Routledge, 2018), pp. 129–43.

104 Rather than damaging Trump's image, his lack of professionalism, as shown by his misspelled tweets or personal attacks on adversaries, instead enhanced this non-politician persona; ‘bad manners’ can be strategically used to perform ordinariness, Moffitt, The Global Rise of Populism, p. 57.

105 With regard to the gendered dimension, motherhood in politics has no unitary meaning. For instance, childless female politicians like Angela Merkel or Theresa May have had to prove that they were able to lead a country in spite of not having borne children – one of Merkel's nicknames ‘Mutti’ (Mummy) was used mockingly but also lovingly, depending on the audience, demonstrating that womanhood is not easily separated from motherhood in the public eye. Childless male politicians rarely face the same scrutiny.

106 In the German context, this has evokes vague associations with the NS ideology of motherhood, where birthing as many children as possible was seen as a political service provided by women. The birth of more than four children, during the NS time, would be rewarded by a ‘mother's cross’ (called ‘rabbit medal’ by the population), particularly since wartime efforts would demand children who could become soldiers. Women bearing children, in this understanding, would provide resources for the right cause – ‘Germany’.

107 For the ‘universalized storyline’ of ‘peaceful’ women, see Tidy, ‘Fatherhood, gender, and interventions in the geopolitical’, p. 3.

108 See, for instance, the recent Special Issue edited by Brent Steele and Homolar, Alexandra, ‘Ontological Insecurities and the Politics of Contemporary Populism’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 32:3 (2019); Sandra Destradi and Johannes Plagemann, ‘Populism and International Relations: (Un)predictability, personalisation, and the reinforcement of existing trends in world politics’, Review of International Studies, First View (18 June 2019), available at: {}.


Populist stories of honest men and proud mothers: A visual narrative analysis

  • Katja Freistein (a1) and Frank Gadinger (a1)


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed