Since the start of 2017, we have held monthly seminars at The Courtauld Institute of Art through the Gender, Sexuality & Violence Research Network. They were a space to think through the ways patriarchy, militarism, racism and hetero-normativity were enmeshed and interdependent. By the same token: it was also a forum to think feminist, pacifist, queer and anti-racist politics together – as well as paying attention to the tensions between them. Each of us are from different disciplines – literature, performance studies, art history – but the cultural imagination was a current that ran through all our discussions: whether it be about the metaphors of an election campaign or an online game that allowed you to undress Donald Trump. Huge thanks to our speakers: Fintan Walsh, Helena Walsh, Ingrid Berthon-Moine, Hen Stanford, Verity Spott, Ash Sarkar, and Declan Gilmore-Kavanagh.
Masculinity in the Time of Trump
Our first seminar, held a few days after Trump’s inauguration and the Women’s March in January, explored ‘Masculinity in the Time of Trump’. Reflecting on the racist, misogynistic ‘backlash’ that accompanied the rise of the US president we discussed masculinity and wounding – the way certain identities were constructed as threats in order to justify pre-emptive attacks. We considered walls and the War on Terror, the spectral re-animation of zombie-like enemies, and the anxiety of intimacy at the heart of fears about contagion. We talked about a loss of faith in ‘managerial masculinity’ in appeals for a ‘strongman’, but also how critiques of Trump based on trying to undress him – or render him ‘feminine’ – themselves perpetuated conservative ideas of gender.
Menstrual Politics and Protest
Our second seminar turned to the taboo on menstruation and its implication in restricted access to abortion rights in Northern Ireland and the Republic. Our decision to hold the event was sparked by Facebook removing an image of Judy Chicago’s 1971 artwork Red Flag from our page and threatening to ban us from the social network permanently. In being told we violated ‘community standards’, we asked: whose community, what standards? During the seminar we discussed the perceived ‘leaks’ and ‘spillages’ of the female body have been historically policed, to contain and confine its agency, autonomy and threat. We heard from artists working to undermine and explode the shame that imprisoned women’s bodies.
Our third seminar considered the politics of female militancy: how the figure of armed women both registered in and disrupted gender norms of the collective imagination. In the nineteenth and twentieth-century, women deemed too ‘wilful’ – whether they were demanding the vote or exhibiting independent agency – were ascribed characteristics of hysterical, mad, excessively sexual, contagious, corrupted, a tidal wave of apocalyptic destruction. But in a world with a clear division of gender essentialist norms – men as self-sacrificial soldiers and women as domestic-bound mothers birthing future fighters – the figure of the female militant also puts considerable stress on the conceptual foundations of patriarchal-militarism.
Our fourth seminar considered transgender politics, and what it meant to think gender – or other forms of identity – beyond a binary. Following the claims of Jenni Murray, BBC Women’s Hour presenter, that ‘trans women were not “real” women’, we reflected on transphobia within strands of feminism and society as a whole. The trouble with trying to erect a distinction between ‘real’ women and those who are supposedly not, is you quite quickly run out of explanations of what characterises a ‘real woman’: women are as heterogeneous and varied members of a nation. Nevertheless: we talked about the difficulty of using language – a language itself so loaded with assumptions about identify. Collapsing and totalising people into ‘us’ and ‘them’, and erecting supposedly irreconcilable borders and boundaries in between, is not only the logic of militarism – but also hetero-normativity and patriarchy.
Finally, our last seminar – held a couple of days after the Manchester Attack – considered the gender politics of the 2017 UK General Election alongside reflections on Brexit, British identity, racism and the War on Terror. The Conservatives cast Jeremy Corbyn an ‘unmanly’ threat to the nation – a ‘wobbly jelly’ ‘shooting blanks’. But his defenders, at times, fought back with similar ideas of gender and power – memes depicted Corbyn as muscular, sword-wielding; while May was denounced as mad, a witch, unwell, wobbly, a toad, a dragon, a serpent, an alien. It leaves us with a question: how does one think a feminist, pacifist, queer politics without recourse to patriarchal, militaristic and hetero-normative ideas of power? How might we re-examine, read between the lines, and radically alter our entire imaginative framework in the ever-urgent struggle for equality and social change?