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.

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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

Masculinity in the Time of Trump: A Feminist Response to Wounding and Victimhood


6:30-8:00pm, Room F44 (First Floor), New Wing, Somerset House, 26/1/17

With the election of Donald Trump, a number of voices cried that ‘identity politics’ was to blame. Identity politics – supposedly the preserve of those other than white, male or heterosexual (as though these were not identities) – was supposedly “the” problem. A sense of victimhood wasn’t far away: Simon Jenkins, writing in The Guardian, was quick to respond. “In America, as in Europe, older, white men are the only group that liberals can abuse and exclude with impunity”, he proclaimed. “In choosing “pale, stale males” (PSMs) for ritual contempt, identity politics has found a target … Were someone such as I to take offence, demand redress or “protected space”, I would be bidden to shut up, get a life and not be so sensitive”. And yet, the sense of ‘persecuted white / heterosexual / male’ didn’t just appear after the US election. In the first seminar for the Gender, Sexuality & Violence Research Network, we will discuss the way patriarchy and militarism has historically employed the “wounded martyr” image as justification for acts of violence and shows of “strength”. Reflecting on Judith Butler’s Precarious Life (2004), we will consider how specific moments of wounding – 9/11, the failure of the War on Terror, the failure of the neoliberal order (recession, wage stagnation, labour precarisation) – produced a response of anger, feelings of victimhood, and a desire for a performance of masculine (military) strength: Donald Trump. How is this trajectory rooted in the idea of the political itself, in what Wendy Brown has called “the historical relationship between constructions of manhood and constructions of politics”? What psychoanalytic investments might there be in fantasies of “taking back control”? How might we think through and respond to recent political events as feminists, pacifists, and queer studies scholars in 2017?

The discussion will be initiated by short papers from Dr Fintan Walsh (Birkbeck, University of London) and the Research Network’s committee members.

Open to all. Refreshments will be provided.

Core Reading

Recommended Reading 

Image: Martin Rowson, 2016.

Launch at Sussex University

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We launched the Research Network at CHASE Encounters, Sussex University. We spoke briefly about the election of Donald Trump and the aims of the group. Thanks to everyone for the huge response, it seems many people feel there is a real, urgent need for the project. We are currently working on our schedule for 2017, and will keep you posted!