Gendering GE2017: Video Highlights

What were the gender politics at play in the 2017 UK General Election? The CHASE Gender, Sexuality & Violence Research Network held a seminar on the 24th May 2017 at Somerset House to discuss campaign rhetoric and the politics of identity a few days after the Manchester Attack. Ash Sarkar (Novara Media) gave a talk on security, racism and Brexit; followed by Dr Declan Gilmore-Kavanagh (University of Kent) who discussed Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn’s camp and effeminate masculinities.

Gendering GE2017: Kitten Heel Security and ‘Unelectable’ Masculinity

IMG_23846:30-8:00pm, Room F44 (First Floor), New Wing, Somerset House, 24/5/17

What are the gender politics at play in the 2017 UK General Election? Is Jeremy Corbyn considered ‘unelectable’ because of a perceived deficit of masculinity? Is Theresa May more of a ‘statesman’? What does it mean for our ideas of leadership, strength and order to be so indebted to militaristic and patriarchal notions of masculinity – even when the incumbent leader is a woman? “Strength”, “stability” and “control” are terms that have considerable electoral cachet at times of crisis, projecting the fantasy of a bounded and distinct national polity. The conservative imagination has historically pictured unmanliness and queerness as threatening a chaotic collapse of the social order.

Hegemonic masculinity is ultimately about control – the ability to exert control over those who are supposedly unable to do so themselves (women, LGBTQ+ identities, other races) – a kind of ‘benign’ custodianship that keeps structural inequalities of sexism, homophobia and racism in place. How might such social norms and concepts of power be unpicked? How can we – as feminists, pacifists, queer thinkers and Ordinary Working Families™ – think against such a political landscape? And how might an alternative language reform how politics is done?

The Conservative Party’s fashioning of Corbyn as an apocalyptic danger to the UK’s military defences and economy (while insisting on Theresa May’s ‘strength’, ‘stability’ and her eagerness to declare ‘war’), is rooted in the representation of Corbyn as emasculated and “feeble”. When Michael Fallon described Corbyn as “gutless” and a “risk to national security”, what his implications for conceptions of masculinity and the nation? How does this kind of rhetoric feed into our experiences of the War on Terror, Brexit and British identity? To engage with such questions is to think through the legacy of colonialism that has fundamentally shaped the gendered ideas valued and voted for in British electoral politics. That notions of power are embedded in such histories has implications for the left as well as the right.

Is the idea of having a mainstream non-macho party leader simply inconceivable for the electorate? What is at stake in the circulation and reproduction of strength/weakness metaphors and the gender norms they touch on? What are the psychoanalytic implications of the language of security and vulnerability? What are the deeper politics at play in phantasies of ‘herbivorous mutton-headed mugwumps’? How might the (faux?) feminism of Theresa May, alongside self-interested attacks on Corbyn’s masculinity, point us towards a complication of the gender binary? And how might the left engage better with feminist critiques to de-masculinise deeply embedded fantasies of violence and power?

For our fifth GSV seminar, we will have short papers by Ash Sarkar (Novara Media) and Dr Declan Gilmore-Kavanagh (University of Kent), followed by a group discussion. Please book (free) tickets on eventbrite as space will be limited. The seminar’s reading list is below:

Core Readings

Further Readings

Trans* Manifestos: Thinking Against Essentialised Binaries

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6:30-8:00pm, Room F44 (First Floor), New Wing, Somerset House, 26/4/17

‘Trans*’ supposes transition, where is that transition from and to? Changing gender does not mean changing body. If you want to change body, you should. You should be allowed to tear out its sides, the sides of the law, the walls of the language, the surface of liquid. If you want to change your gender, you can. I think. There’s more of an ideological shift involved though. What do you actually mean by gender. What is wrong. The liminal is not the attic space, the bit of left out/limbo/between. No. It’s the through space refusing mobility. […] The narratives imposed upon the ‘trans* community’ are as damaging as abject (trans*) phobia because that is exactly what they are. […] We are not in transition. We are in occupation. Internalize any one narration. Make it work. It won’t.

– Verity Spott, from Trans* Manifestos (Shit Valley, 2016)

There is a long history of imagining gender as a fixed binary between masculinity and femininity, as a line that cannot be crossed. Strands of feminist thought, too, have been grounded in biological essentialism. Recently, writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie suggested trans women are not “real women”. Last month the presenter of BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour programme, Dame Jenni Murray, writing in The Sunday Times claimed that hormones and surgery do not make trans women “real women”. She told trans women: ‘Be trans, be proud — but don’t call yourself a “real woman”’. What is a “real woman”? Are all women’s and men’s experiences the same? What are the stakes of trying to hold on to an idea of gender essentialism within certain branches of feminism?

The presence of transphobia within feminist discourse has brought into focus the multi-directionality of patriarchal oppression. As gender non-conforming performance artist Alok Vaid-Menon recently observed:

cis feminism refuses to acknowledge, validate, and center forms of patriarchal violence that run contrary to the gender binary of cis man against cis woman. But what my experiences as a gender non-conforming person have shown me is that cis men can be deeply misogynist and violent to each other, to men who they perceive as feminine, and to trans and gender non-conforming people.

In societies where masculine ideals of domination, competitiveness and self-sufficiency operate to police cis men, how might a trans-inclusive feminism move beyond norms of hegemonic masculinity? And how might a trans-inclusive perspective approach the causes and consequences of cis men’s attempts to straighten out feminine identifications?

Verity Spott’s Trans* Manifestos (Shit Valley, 2016) suggest that the through space, the ‘transition’ supposed by ‘Trans*’, can be permanently occupied. That narratives of transition are constraints that assume a binary, a from and to. How might we radically re-navigate historical notions of what gender is assumed to “be”, in a way that is urgent for feminist and queer politics today?

In our fourth GSV seminar we will be joined by poet and musician Verity Spott. The seminar is open to all, and refreshments will be provided. Please book (free) tickets on eventbrite. The seminar’s reading list is below:

Core Readings

 

Further Readings

 

Female Militancy: Feminist and Post-Colonial Readings of Violence

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6:30-8:00pm, Room F44 (First Floor), New Wing, Somerset House, 30/3/17

In 2015, the Bethnal Green schoolgirls Shamima Begum, Amira Abase, and Kadiza Sultana left the UK to join IS in Syria, and in so doing captured the attention of the British media. In these accounts, the girls are passive victims, and their actions are the result of naivety, vulnerability, manipulation, misguidedness, or brainwashing. According to The Daily Mail, they were ‘lured’ to Syria; fell under the ‘spell of Islamists’, and had ‘poisoned minds’; in The Guardian, they are cast as ‘vulnerable children’; and The Telegraph ran the headline ‘Why teenage girls can’t see beyond Isil’s ‘cute kittens and Nutella’ ploy’ in which the girls were described as ‘gullible and guileless’.

It seems within the (racialised) logics of militarism and patriarchy, women can only be helpless victims. The figure of the female militant, however, has provoked such anxiety precisely because it threatens not just to deviate from gender norms, but also undermine the logic on which both militarism and patriarchy rest: men protecting ‘damsels in distress’. In fact, for centuries British colonialism was (and to this day still is) justified under the rhetoric of ‘saving brown women from brown men’. So ingrained is this logic that a 2016 change in UK law to allow women to serve on the front line was met with dismay. Kate Medina, a soldier in the British Army, insisted: ‘[w]e are physically different to men. It is a biological fact … women will be put in greater danger than their male colleagues purely because of their biology. Concerns have also been expressed by senior military figures that male soldiers would need to ‘look after’ their female colleagues … Are we really ready to see our daughters gang raped, tortured and decapitated live on the Internet by Isis fighters? Because that is exactly what will happen’ (The Telegraph, 8/7/2016).

The difficulty in accommodating the figure of the female militant into gender norms and militarist fantasies has historically fuelled an image of such a woman as mad, hysterical, nonsensical, sexually excessive, cannibalistic, devious, wicked, witch-like. A recent study of the figure of the female terrorist by Amanda Third found that ‘dominant representations of femininity are constituted in and through a discursive impossibility of evidence’. The lack of evidence to support terrorist studies’ not insignificant literature on the female terrorist derives, according to Third, from the reproduced preconception that women are unknowable and elusive, and female terrorists even more so. This has been the case from militant suffragettes to Ulrike Meinhof, Patty Hearst, Leila Khaled and Mairéad Farrell in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. How might we read between the lines or against the grain of how these women are pictured in the conservative imagination? How might a feminist approach to these questions undo the logics of patriarchy, militarism and heteronormativity that cast female violence as doubly deviant? How might these politics play out in a context like Palestine – or other sites of colonial conflict?

In our third GSV seminar, we will be joined by Dr Henrietta Stanford (The Courtauld Institute of Art), who will discuss her work on psychoanalysis, art, and the gender politics of the Red Army Faction. The seminar is open to all, and refreshments will be provided. Please book (free) tickets on eventbrite. The seminar’s reading list is below:

Core Readings

Further Readings

  • Adriana Cavarero, ‘When the Bomb is a Woman’s Body’, Horrorism: Naming Contemporary Violence (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), pp.97-105.
  • Jasbir Puar, ‘Introduction: Homonationalism and Biopolitics’, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007) pp.1-36.
  • Judith Butler, Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), pp.1-11.
  • Karen Beckman, ‘Terrorism, Feminism, Sisters, and Twins: Building Relations in the Wake of the World Trade Center Attacks’, Grey Room, No. 7 (Spring 2002), pp.25–29. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1262583?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Image: Colman Doyle, A woman IRA volunteer on active service in West Belfast with an AR18 assault rifle, c.1970s (detail).

Seeing Red: Menstrual Politics and Protest

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6:30-8:00pm, Room F44 (First Floor), New Wing, Somerset House, 23/2/17

In November 2015, Irish women began tweeting the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, details of their periods. As part of the (on-going) campaign to legalise abortion, they sought to make public a bodily process that has – for centuries – been veiled in a cloak of shame. The link between taboos around menstruation and attempts to control women’s reproductive rights was not lost on activists. Gráinne Maguire tweeted: “Since we know how much the Irish state cares about our reproductive parts-I call my womb Ireland’s littlest embassy ;-)”, while Tara Flynn added: “There’ll be shrieks of “undignified!” at tweeting @EndaKennyTD about periods. Know what’s undignified? Lack of bodily autonomy”. Others, like Saundra Stephen, played on the association between mensuration and female rage: “I’m bleeding! @EndaKennyTD Bleedin outraged that Irish women in the 21st Century don’t have the right to chose”. What does it mean, to take something – like menstruation – so associated with shame, and refuse to keep it private? How might this put pressure on gender and sexuality norms – particularly the idealised role of women as (domestic-bound) mothers?

In 1971 American artist Judy Chiago produced a photolithograph, Red Flag, which depicts her removing a used tampon from her vagina. At the time the work was first exhibited, some visitors assumed it to be a ‘blooded penis’ – Chicago responded that such confusion was “testament to the damage done to our perceptual powers”. The provocative piece aimed to confront the practice of ‘menstrual denial’. Recently on display in Feminist Avant-Garde at London’s The Photographer’s Gallery, the Gender, Sexuality & Violence (GSV) Research Network uploaded a photo of the artwork to Facebook – which was removed by the social media network for ‘violating community standards’. A subsequent post by us explaining the censorship was also removed. What are these ‘community standards’? What power structures and norms might they represent? Is posting a photograph of a used tampon on Facebook merely exploiting its shock factor, or is it a way of contributing to changing attitudes towards the female body (and women’s autonomy)?

In the second GSV seminar, we will be joined by artists Helena Walsh and Ingrid Berthon-Moine to talk about their engagement with the politics of menstruation and protest. The event is open to all, and refreshments will be provided. Due to limited space, please register for (free) tickets here.

 

Primary Material

  • LABOUR (Michelle Browne, Amanda Coogan, Pauline Cummins, Chrissie Cadman, Ann Maria Healy, Áine O’Dwyer, Áine Phillips, Anne Quail, Elvira Santamaria Torres, Helena Walsh), The LAB (Dublin, 2012), video, https://vimeo.com/65753614.

 

Core Readings

 

Further Reading

On Wounding and Winding Up (Fintan Walsh)

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I’m no expert in Trump Studies, and I expect neither are you. But I take this invitation to suggest that maybe it’s time we all need to upskill, and find ways to understand the unwieldy object of study which has crashed through our disciplinary fields.

Let’s start with some questions which today’s topic threw up for me: If we agree that masculinity is an embodied social text, which upholds and steers broader ideologies, how and where do we analyze it? What are its verbal dimensions, its behavioural codes, its emotional and affective registers? Whose bodies do we look at to discern it, and which institutions, places, practices and cultures do we observe to see it represented and enacted? Is it always obvious and legible, or does it creep, like a shadow or an orange haze, across bodies and crowds? At what point does Trump’s masculinity emerge as the most vivid and important reference point for thinking about Trump time, as distinct from that of his Presidential predecessors, or indeed other people of influence? Is Trump’s time in office really the time of Trump, or not ours too: there is one of him and millions of us, as the women’s marches around the world so vividly conveyed last weekend. In what sense is the man Donald Trump’s masculinity the most fundamental point of consideration, as opposed to a concentration of norms involving Trump, his staff, the Republican party, the history of American politics and the triumph of corporate culture? How does this model square with supporters of Trump: do they already share and endorse his masculine conventions, mimic them under compulsion or persuasion, or is it possible to support Trump and not identify with or perpetuate any of his actions or beliefs, or live untouched by their affects?

We begin with more questions than answers, but that’s not to say we can’t make some claims with a degree of conviction. There have been recurring patterns in Trump’s performance of masculinity, which add up to a picture of abusive, entitled and misogynistic behavior, what many commentators, including Jacqueline Rose, have described as evidence of toxicity. [i] We might base this on Trump’s referring to former beauty queen Alicia Machado as ‘Miss Piggy’, his bragging of sexual assault (‘grab them by the pussy’), his prowling around Hillary Clinton during televised debates, his promises to punish women for having abortions, describing his own daughter Ivanka as ‘a piece of ass’, whipping up violence where he congregates. We could go on.

Less obvious, or at least visible, is how masculinity, especially white masculinity, has been aligned with woundedness in the time of Trump. Observing the alt-right studded Trump team, bolstered by wealth, and the President’s sprawling empire, like St. Thomas we might doubt the existence of these wounds at all, without any material evidence. But one of the key ways in which Trump has defended his attacks and plans, is by suggesting they were superficial and/or self-defensive – reactionary symptoms of old hurts, the kind his supporters could identify with. Alongside displays of macho bravado, and often wearing his trademark baseball cap with a suit, throughout his Presidential campaign Trump has presented himself to be wounded as a white man, a business man, a straight man, as someone who is not aligned with the so-called liberal media elite.

Trump is aware of his enemy’s wounds too, but only so he can mock or downplay them in public, while exacerbating them in another real sense. This imagery coloured his crude imitation of disabled reporter Serge Kovaleski, and Twitter assault on then Fox anchor Megyn Kelly following a Republican debate – ‘blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.’[ii] Wounds were on display in the blood-soaked metaphors of Trump’s curdling inaugural speech, in which he proclaimed that he would stop ‘American carnage.’ [iii] The swamp that he promises to drain is itself a capacious metaphor for the national wound, largely incurred by democrats, minorities, and global political enemies. And the geo-political borders Trump intends to erect demarcate the US as an already violated entity, vulnerable to further invasion; a hard protectionist line when taken to its extreme conjures images of the country as one of the few healthy bodies bobbing in afflicted seas. As in hero narratives, Trump claims to share – rather than inflict – the wounds that only he can heal.

One of the clearest assertions of this decisive construction came in Trump’s televised reconciliatory interview with Kelly, prior to winning the election. In a broadly upbeat exchange, Kelly quite suddenly asks Trump about his emotional life. ‘Has it happened that somebody has done something to you … to wound you?’ she asks.’ ‘It is something that I could certainly think about and come back with an answer,’ Trump replies. Kelly’s direct, deadpan delivery makes it unclear as to whether or not she believes that Trump carries known hurt, or whether she’s suggesting this might be something he needs to think about. He follows up: ‘When I’m wounded I go after people hard, ok, and I try and unwound myself …I’m a counterpuncher.’ ‘But you are so powerful,’ Kelly responds, urging Trump to consider how his behavior might influence his supporters. ‘I don’t view myself as that,’ he replies, ‘I view myself as a person that, like everybody else, is fighting for survival… and I view myself right now as somewhat of a messenger.’ [iv]

The reality of Trump’s personally felt wounds is less important than his capacity to allow the language and symbolism of woundedness to seep into the public imagination, in a move that Clinton – or arguably any other female figure – could not do without appearing too weak or too feminine. For the wound itself has been long understood as a feminized and feminizing phenomenon, rooted in misogynistic and gynophobic fantasies of women’s bodies as polluting. Accordingly, it has often been invoked to describe the sundering open of the otherwise presumed bounded male body politic.

These metaphors are pervasive, but are strikingly tracked in Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies, a psychoanalytic interpretation of the violence of the proto-fascist German Freikorps as they fought the revolutionary German working class, based on the language and imagery contained in the troops’ diary entries and writings. The Freikorpsman’s body is described as solid and sealed, while certain women (and communists) appear as wet and formless, liquid and dirty, primed to infect.[v] And feminizing America in a similarly contagious manner was how some conservative commentators recounted the effect of democratic governance, which Trump was needed to remedy. As Fox News’s Andrea Tantaros stated: ‘The Left has tried to culturally feminize this country in a way that is disgusting. And you see blue-collar voters — men — this is like their last vestige, their last hope is Donald Trump to get their masculinity back.’ [vi]

Sounding wounded cries was a way for the Trump campaign to tune into the frequency of what was strategically framed as ‘disenfranchised’ America – largely incorporating white and working class communities – and to blame the minority demographics who supported Clinton for toppling them from entitled privilege. In so doing, Trump effectively co-opted the language of woundedness typically associated with minority communities, and used it for his own purposes. It’s a subtle but powerful and not wholly original approach to flip rhetoric in this manner, rubbing wound against wound.

It is in reimagining not only the subject of wounding but the chronology of hurt that injury and nostalgia for the past are powerfully connected: in order to feel wounded, we have to not only identify with a violation but a time – however fuzzy or fictive – before this happened; when America was great, for instance. Don Draper knows the value of this semantic link in the first season of Mad Men, when pitching an ad for a Kodak Carousel slide projector, by describing it as a ‘time machine’ that allows us to revisit the past and its yearned for emotions. ‘Nostalgia,’ he says, means ‘the pain from an old wound,’ [vii] and the carousel allows us to return and tend to it. Like Trump, Draper also knows that accurate definitions don’t really matter: the ability to manipulate fantasy and feeling is what counts, especially if selling a dud.

If Trump’s wounds are largely figurative, those of the people who voted for him, and he now serves, are not necessarily so, and if they can be cared for at all remains unclear. One of the key features of neoliberal capitalism in overdrive, and an economic system that never alters without imploding, is the production of woundedness as a given. We have heard this so often after the global crash of 2007, that the people – especially the poorest – must bear the burden of the banking fallout, to effectively carry injury as norm. But unlike anthropological, religious of theatrical models of sacrifice, this woundedness is not simply for a better world but rather for its own sake, as there is nothing we can do individually to change it – a deeply perverted relation in which the economic swallows the political and embeds a kind of habitual masochism as norm.

But the phantasmagoria and psychic texture of woundedness has been much more important than any physical injury in Trump’s approach so far. Indeed, Trump has fiercely defended his health, his not-so-little hands, his STAMINA. And one of the strengths of the campaign spin was its capacity to maintain a distinction between claims to psychic/social/economic wounding and any sense of debilitating physical traits. This is a discursive tactic, but also one anchored in Trump’s capacity to oscillate between registers, tones, personalities and platforms, so that a clear picture always evades view.

This issue of oscillation introduces another complicated but crucial aspect of masculinity in the time of Trump. What’s most stable about Trump’s masculinity is perhaps his wealth and drive, but everything else is incoherent and unpredictable, always on the brink of slipping into caricature. As Rebecca Solnit put it in the LRB: ‘Trump is patriarchy unbuttoned, paunchy, in a baggy suit, with his hair oozing and his lips flapping and his face squinching into clownish expressions of mockery and rage and self-congratulation.’[viii]

Hyperbolic masculinity becomes hysterical when it’s revved up beyond containment, spluttering and splintering within its own pressurised shell. This risk is always present with Trump, when he flits between comic and serious, juvenile and authoritarian, wounded and wounding, the bits not quite all fitting together. We could detect a similar tendency, perhaps inadvertently, in the hollowed out s/m militarism of Michael Flatley’s Irish dancing troupe at the inauguration party. But elasticity, resilience and reinvention are so heavily built into Trump’s image and self-presentation, as they are with the most successful entertainers and entrepreneurs, that as yet this rarely does any harm.

In co-opting the language of injury and woundedness, Trump and his administration have also run with two other ideas which we thought primarily belonged to the left: that identity is performative, and that theatre can shape the world. Will Davies suggests that Trump’s closest artistic inspiration is the Dadaist performance artist, [ix] who scrambles logic with his sometimes entertaining, sometimes shocking unintelligibility.

While we might do well to trace how the languages and practices of woundedness, performativity, and theatricality are co-opted in this way, more complex is that they don’t always bear any direct or obvious connection to the administration’s central social and political beliefs, but rather seem to distract from them. For this reason, I don’t think that the current political climate in the US can be effectively understood or challenged by focusing on issues of gender or victimization alone. And as Trump’s first week in office has revealed, chaos takes on a life of its own, with its causes and effects eventually difficult to isolate.

But troubling Trump can happen when artists, commentators, and the public persist in winding up the already wound up leader, until he starts to crank and flip like a clock-work toy on the cusp of exploding. It has become obvious that despite his outward-oriented aggression, for instance, Trump’s thin skin can’t deal very well with being prodded by external criticism. We have seen ample evidence of this across social media and news, as well as targeted efforts to deliberately wind up Trump, by those who seem alert to the fragility of his masculine performance, often locating his wounds in the festering gap between narcissism and public opinion, bodily impotence and state power.

We can think of well documented takedowns by Meryl Streep, Robert DeNiro and Alec Baldwin on Saturday Night Live which seem to really cut. When newly elected Vice President Mike Pence was booed at Hamilton in November 2016, Trump bellowed on Twitter ‘The theater must always be a safe and special space,’[x] oblivious to widespread contrary beliefs that it should be anything but. This scolding was followed by another user’s retort: ‘We’re gonna build a fourth wall, folks, and make the Brechtians pay for it.’ Witty, yes, but also astute in capturing a sense that what we are facing is a challenge to how art and artists can be political, when the subject of derision seems to accommodate its own critique and undoing. But winding down might be another important response too, such as when artists withdraw or shut down their work, enacting in part what Marcuse called ‘the Great Refusal.’[xi] An element of this can be detected in the decline of numerous performers to appear at Trump’s inauguration, or artists’ outspoken attack on his administration. It may damage in other ways too, if the withdrawal of NEA funding goes ahead.

In his acceptance speech on election night, a slightly bewildered Trump took to the stage, and again invoked the language of the wound, but this time attempting to close over all those he had so aggressively stoked. He thanked Clinton for her service to the country, and voiced his aspirations for ‘binding the wounds of division’. [xii] Returning to this evening’s appeal to consider feminist and queer responses to masculinity in the time of Trump, we might not only pay attention to the circulation of wounds and hopes for or claims to their healing, but also to strategies of winding up and winding down masculinity’s pernicious strains, to make them seem more dangerous than the sores on whose surfaces they were purportedly modelled to protect. And we might even wind back our attention and participation, to tend directly to more local and immediate concerns, while waiting – hoping – for the tightly-wrought mechanism to dismantle under self-inflicted strain, by its own terms, in its own time.

– Fintan Walsh (Birkbeck College, University of London). This paper was delivered at opening of Masculinity in the Time of Trump seminar, The Courtauld Institute of Art, 26 January 2017.

Notes

[i] Jacqueline Rose, ‘Donald Trump’s victory is a disaster for modern masculinity,’ The Guardian, 15 November 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/15/trump-disaster-modern-masculinity-sexual-nostalgian-oppressive-men-women

[ii] @realDonaldTrump, Twitter, 18 August 2015.

[iii] Trump’s inauguration speech, 20 January 2017.

[iv] Fox News, 17 May 2016.

[v] Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, 1: Women, Floods, Bodies, History, trans. Stephen Conway in collaboration with Erica Carer and Chris Turner (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987 [1977]), p. 394.

[vi] Fox News, 22 December 2016.

[vii] Don Draper, ‘The Wheel,’ Mad Men, episode 13, 2007.

[viii] Rebecca Solnit, ‘From Lying to Leering,’ London Review of Books [LRB],19 January 2017, http://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n02/rebecca-solnit/from-lying-to-leering

[ix] Will Davies, ‘Trump and the Charisma of Unreason,’ PERC, 2 March 2016, http://www.perc.org.uk/project_posts/trump-and-the-charisma-of-unreason/

[x] @realDonaldTrump, Twitter, 19 November 2016.

[xi] Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964). Marcuse describes art’s capacity for refusal in the following terms: ‘Whether ritualized or not, art contains the rationality of negation. In its advanced positions, it is the Great Refusal-the protest against that which is. The modes in which man and things are made to appear, to sing and sound and speak, are modes of refuting, breaking, and recreating their factual existence,’ p. 64.

[xii] Trump’s victory speech, 9 November 2016.

Masculinity in the Time of Trump (Report)

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The first Gender, Sexuality & Violence (GSV) seminar was dedicated to thinking through a feminist response to the politics of victimhood and wounding that characterises much of Donald Trump’s rhetoric and support. What is this wound, exactly? Trump’s inauguration speech was clear: he reasserted the narrative that America has lost a golden age of military might, economic prosperity and employment, and national pride. His bellicose and jingoistic performance told of ‘rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation … This American carnage stops right here and stops right now’. Like the strongman of a Hollywood blockbuster, he promised to ‘eradicate completely [Islamic terrorism] from the face of the Earth’; to heal and restore the nation: ‘[w]e must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries … I will fight for you with every breath in my body … There should be no fear – we are protected’.

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Trump’s message clearly resonated throughout the US, where disillusionment with the failure of the War on Terror and the effects of neoliberalism fostered a desire to return to a time when they felt safe, secure, protected, and strong. The psychoanalytic implications are all too familiar: one reaction to feelings of loss is to lash out in a violent assertion of strong selfhood that is meant to banish the ‘Other’. The Other – any identity that constitutes as an outsider – is considered a threat in this scenario. Through the logic of competition, the Other is cast as the enemy that will either kill or be killed. For Trump the Other is represented by non-Western nations and ‘Islamic terrorism’, which have ‘ravaged’ America. Strong, firm walls and the eradication of the Other is his answer.

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The trouble with this kind of militaristic thinking is it always runs into trouble when it comes to war itself. The disillusionment with the War on Terror is in part due to the fact that the Other (“terrorism”) could not be eradicated. The threatening Other seems to return again and again, somehow perpetually resistant to foreign intervention, occupation, control and the ‘ravaging’ of their resources (like oil). The difficulty of reducing other nations and bodies to obedient, silent spectral forms is frustrating. The desire for a time when everything seemed simple, safe and ‘orderly’ certainly resonates for many who feel out of control and under threat.

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Trauma is also about time, as psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell argues in Mad Men and Medusas (2000): those in a traumatic state of ‘hysteria’ feel their wounds in a perpetual present, and are unable to create a linear narrative of events that involves accepting the loss they have experienced is irreparable, that their position in relation to others has changed permanently. Mitchell reasons that we must come to terms with change, otherwise people will be imprisoned in the perpetuating cycle of feeling threatened and lashing out in response. Perhaps this analysis can shed some light on the backlash feminist activism has been met with time and time again.

For some, like psychologist James Dobson writing in his book Straight Talk to Men and Their Wives (1980), feminism was seen as a ‘concerted attack on ‘maleness’’, by calling into question ‘everything traditionally masculine’ and tampering with ‘time-honored roles of protector and protected’. This spelt not just a crisis for gender, but also national security: for the sake of the nation, a ‘call to arms’ and a reassertion of the ‘Judeo-Christian concept of masculinity’ was needed. It seems hard to dispute that similar thinking lies behind Trump’s rhetoric and part of his appeal. Tellingly, journalist Piers Morgan responded to the Woman’s March with: ‘I’m planning a ‘Men’s March’ to protest at the creeping global emasculation of my gender by rabid feminists’.

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If feminist activism is perceived as an emasculating attack time and time again, met by an assertion of defensive masculinity, where does that leave us in the struggle for gender equality? Gender norms go to the core of the constitution of most people’s identity: written into their desires (conforming to specific gender roles in order to be loved), and fears (the terror of being abandoned by a community for deviating from its norms). These terrors and pleasures make the task we have, as feminist thinkers, huge. The first GSV seminar intended to provide a space to consider some of these difficult questions.

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The seminar began with three papers. Dr Fintan Walsh (Birkbeck) spoke ‘On Wounding and Winding Up’ Trump. Walsh recounted certain patterns in Trump’s often abusive, entitled and misogynistic performance of masculinity – from calling Alicia Machado ‘Miss Piggy’, to his bragging about sexual assault. Less obvious – explained Walsh – was how white masculinity aligned with woundedness in Trump’s discourse. Trump has suggested he is defending the hurt of his supporters through his shows of bravado. But, as Walsh recalled, Trump demonstrates keen awareness of his enemy’s wounds in order to mock and weaponise them, as with his retort to journalist Megyn Kelly about ‘blood coming out of her wherever’.

Where Trump talked of draining the swamp, in Walsh’s argument, the swamp represented a national wound. Its watery borders frame the US as an already ‘violated’ entity – hence the appeal to stronger borders that also evokes the idealised image of the country as a sealed body. In fact, the language of wounding specifically came up on the campaign trail. Kelly asked Trump in an interview last year, ‘[h]as it happened that somebody has done something … to wound you?’ – to which he replied, ‘[w]hen I am wounded, I go after people hard … And I try to unwound myself’.

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Walsh analysed the historical association between wounds and femininity, and contemporary claims by conservative commentators that the last Democrat administration had ‘feminised’ America – leading to a desire to re-assert manliness. But Walsh also reminded us how Trump has co-opted the language of woundedness from minority communities for his own purposes – rubbing wound against wound. Feelings of injury lead to nostalgia for the past, identification with the violation and yearning for a time when America was supposedly ‘great’. As Mad Men’s Don Draper would have it, ‘nostalgia means the pain from an old wound’. Accurate definitions don’t really matter in this scene of fantasy and feeling.

Sadly, Walsh acknowledged, the wounds of the people who voted for Trump are unlikely to be cared for by his administration. Neoliberalism is a system where the production of woundedness is a given: it is the norm that the poorest must carry the fall out. The language of austerity is about justifying the status quo, not about imagining a better world. Masochism, then, is rendered normative.

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Turning back to Trump, Walsh considered the complexities of his masculine performance. Trump is fiercely defensive of his health, stamina and hands. While he’s prepared to engage with the discourse of wounding, he is at pains to distance his own body from it. There are certainly some tensions in the way Trump relates to conventional ideas of masculinity: he might live up to the stereotype through his wealth and drive, but everything else about his masculinity is unpredictable. Walsh explained: patriarchal masculinity becomes hysterical when revved up beyond containment. Trump seems to flit between juvenility and authoritarianism.

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What seems to be going on with Trump, Walsh pointed out, is the co-option of ideas from the Left: not only the language of injury and woundedness, but also the notion of identity as performative and the belief that theatre can shape the world. As Walsh elaborated, there’s something almost Dada-like about Trump. So how can the Left respond? Walsh brought his paper to a close by considering practices of troubling Trump – the public winding him up to the point of flipping. Despite the outward aggression, Trump is thin skinned when it comes to criticism. Trump’s masculine performance, in fact, seems very fragile. Denouncements from celebrities and the booing of Mike Pence at the theatre really hurt/wounded Trump – as his Twitter feed demonstrates.

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Walsh concluded, we’re facing a challenge: how can art be political when facing a subject like Trump? We need to pay attention to the circulation of wounds, but we should also wind up those who perform Trumpian masculinity to make it seem more dangerous than the sores it has been fostered to protect.

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Walsh’s paper was followed by a contribution from Edwin Coomasaru (The Courtauld Institute of Art) on ‘Containment and Contagion: Re-thinking Trump’s Wall/Wound’. Analysing Trump’s inauguration speech through a reading of Hollywood zombie-apocalypse blockbuster World War Z (2013), Coomasaru considered the anxieties around disease and the desire for solid, impenetrable walls to protect against ‘contamination’. In both the film and Trump’s logic the threat must be contained and ‘eradicated’. Like zombies, the Other is imagined as murderous in intent and yet somehow not ‘alive’ – justifying the removal of life from those perceived to be outside the nation/Self.

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Analysing the politics of race and sexuality of the War on Terror, Coomasaru speculated on the possibility of an alternative response to feeling under threat by ‘contagion’. Following philosopher Judith Butler’s thinking in Precarious Life (2004), he asked if it was possible to think subjectivity beyond a binary, to see wounds as testament to the indelible links between Self and Other, and to recognise the ultimate impossibility of fully eradicating or disavowing the Other. In response Walsh raised the question: what might this mean for the Left’s response to Trump, when the balance of power is so unequal?

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Eleanor Careless’ (University of Sussex) paper ‘Masculinity in a State of Undress’ considered the semantics of undress in feminist political theory and critiques of Trump. Her paper noted the theoretical tendency to deploy the metaphor of undress in the discussion of patriarchal structures as both an opportunity for emancipatory openings and a potential catalyst for masculinist backlash. Tracing the historical understandings of ‘undress’ back to the eighteenth century, Careless argued that the state of undress has long been a gendered state: highly sexualized, if the subject of undress is feminine, and no more than indication of informality, if the subject is masculine. Moreover, there is an etymological relationship between undress and disarray – array being an archaic word that signifies both ‘order’ and ‘dress’. We also ‘dress’ a wound.

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To undress, then, is to undo the very order of things; and, as Careless explained, to expose a wound – to render vulnerable and ‘feminine’. So why, asked Careless, are cartoonists and satirists so bent on undressing Trump? Careless examined certain examples of this trend: the artist collective INDECLINE’s nude statues of Trump exhibited in public spaces last year, artist Illma Gore’s 2016 nude painting of Trump, and the website undresstrump.com (which allows you to remove layers of clothing, finally exposing Trump’s naked form beneath). Acknowledging the apparent contradiction between Trump’s uncontained, hyper-masculinity and the politics of wall-building and containment, Careless concluded with the question: do these attempts to ‘undress’ Trump reproduce gendered understandings of power, or (following Judith Butler’s theory of mourning) is there a way to mourn, and therefore accept, the loss of ‘fully-dressed’ masculinity?

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The final paper, given by Alex Coupe (Goldsmiths), explored strategies of performing masculinity by politicians – performances that are often riven with tension and contradiction. Analysing a clip of UK Prime Minister David Cameron speaking at the 2015 Conservative Party conference, Coupe explained that Cameron was trying to appeal to a sense of woundedness that many felt in response to the politics of austerity, while also asserting himself as the masculine custodian of social order and guarantor of liberal individualism (‘[k]eeping our head as Labour lose theirs’).

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The trouble is, explained Coupe, that very social order – neoliberalism – caused the wounding in the first place. Cameron’s self-styled image of masculine control was undressed by the very systems of governance he presided over, rendering an impression of him as helpless (rumours of Cameron having sex with a pig at university and the TV show Black Mirror’s 2011 story about a Prime Minister having sex with a pig for national duty both play into this image). The sense of helplessness precipitated by the breakdown of the neoliberal order seemed, in the conservative mind, to deepen a sense that politics was “post-truth” and its performance “post sincere”.

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If there is a tension between Cameron’s performance of masculine custodianship and the image of him as trapped by the status quo he is meant to manage – what might this bring to bear on the way we think about Trump? While Trump aligns himself with macho masculinity and against what he perceives to be a pacified and effeminised liberal elite, he (and we) are also so aware that his political subjectivity is performative. Rather than reading as ‘natural’, Coupe pointed out, Trump’s unconvincing comb over and self-conscious strategy of assuming a comedic character mark his masculinity as explicitly laboured. It is in this sense of charisma and virtuosity that Trump is able to demonstrate the male fantasy of autonomous self-fashioning. But does this contradictory public identity undermine his efforts, or make him impervious to satire? How might we respond, as feminists, to his self-styling as martyr and strongman, so full of irony and jest?