Feminist Curiosity: Taking a critical view of wars and violence


Posted by Colette Harris

Cynthia Enloe, that superb analyst of gender and international conflict, constantly reminds us of the importance of using a feminist curiosity. She defines this as a kind of curiosity that refuses to be lazy about the uncritical acceptance of ‘naturalised’ expressions – ‘peace activists’, ‘child soldiers’, or ‘occupation authorities’, for instance – and instead insists on taking them to pieces to examine how they work. By this she means examining the work they do in concealing hegemonic power relations.

I use hegemonic here in the Gramscian sense of naturalised and thus concealed power in the form of ideology created by elites for the very purpose of preventing the rest of us from even having this kind of curiosity in the first place, let alone doing anything with it. A feminist curiosity then can be interpreted as one that takes women’s lives seriously, not because women merit greater attention than men but rather because the significant amount of political manoeuvring that goes on to make them seem unimportant suggests something crucial is being concealed here that we need to examine in order to understand the functioning of politics more generally. [1]

A feminist curiosity can further be of use in examining and unpacking the power system enshrined in that political category termed ‘gender’, in which male/female symbolises an intrinsic relationship of inequality. Here, I want to move the discussion beyond personal relationships to the issue of masculinism – that is, to a way of doing/thinking/conceptualising/articulating infused with an outlook resulting from a hegemonic view of the world deriving from privileging traits associated with middle-class white masculinity, while those associated with femininity are correspondingly devalued.

 Commonly associated traits include:

Masculine = strong, prudent, responsible, objective, and willing to fight, rational and a strategic, global thinker

Feminine = weak, emotional, irrational, passive, nurturing, needing protection from violence, localised thinking, limited to domestic horizons

In this way masculinism supports multiple hierarchisations of human society – including racism as well as sexism. [2]
Indeed, masculinism has long been used to devalue men of the global south, portrayed as effeminate or hypermasculine, both negative terms used in comparison with the ideal white middle-class European male, as well as lower-class white men. [3]

It has further been shown that masculinist language is routinely used by those encouraging involvement in violence. This ranges from Carol Cohn’s [4] and Myriam Miedzian‘s [5] studies of rhetoric used at the top levels of the US government including by presidents, to my own studies of men on the ground being incited to participate in violence in African and Asian wars.

Masculinism is further intrinsically involved in the language of militarism, with phrases that practically cry out for dissection, such as ‘collateral damage’, ‘friendly fire’ and ‘failed states’. Thus, the effects of the binary divisions discussed above go far beyond the meanings ascribed to male and female bodies and the resulting power inequalities, to the way gender ‘functions as a symbolic system: our ideas about gender permeate and shape our ideas about … politics, weapons, and warfare’.

The work of Enloe, Cohn and many others shows us the importance of exercising our own curiosity as we watch on our television sets, read in our newspapers or listen on the wireless to accounts by journalists, politicians and analysts presenting issues around violent conflict. We need to apply such curiosity to documentaries such as John Pilger’s latest (The war you don’t see [6]) in which he interviews the heads of the BBC and ITV news services, as well as well-known print journalists, about why they had not been more curious about the stories governments were telling them about their reasons for invading Iraq.

We need to apply our curiosity in fact to every war story we hear and similarly ask why it is being reported in this way, who benefits from its being reported like this, whether it matters if we allow ourselves to be hoodwinked and how we can prevent this.

One way we can do this is to cultivate tools for applying our feminist curiosity through studying the works of the above authors and others who apply a similar curiosity to their own political analyses. We need to understand that not only is it important to be critical about what is said but also about the very criteria selected for analysis. True curiosity will find us burrowing deep beneath the surface to tease out the links that have been obscured perhaps deliberately in order to prevent our understanding them.

Many of Enloe’s lectures are available on Youtube. I particularly recommend her ‘Women and Men in the Iraq War: What Can Feminist Curiosity Reveal?’ even for those of you not from the United States as it tells us so much we hadn’t even thought of about militarism and the costs of war both in human and economic terms. While on the surface Enloe mainly focuses on women, careful listening will reveal the fact that what she is actually doing is to pull apart the platitudes that hide from us what the politicians and other elites don’t want us to know about the mechanisms by which they deliberately manipulate the public into supporting their wars, while quietly ensuring the costs are born by individuals and their families.

Other videos available on YouTube and elsewhere help us cultivate if not a feminist curiosity then at least a highly critical political one. The documentaries of Adam Curtis and John Pilger, the lectures of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, all of these help us cultivate our curiosity in useful directions that can help us understand more about the militarism and war culture in which our nations and with them we ourselves are embedded.

Cynthia Enloe (2004) The curious feminist, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

 Cynthia Enloe (2007) Globalization and militarism: feminists make the link, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield

Kimberly Hutchings (2008) Cognitive short cuts, in Jane Parpart and Marysia Zalewski (eds), Rethinking the Man Question: Sex, Gender and Violence in International Relations, London: Zed, 23-46.

Charlotte Hooper (1998) Masculinist Practices and Gender Politics: The Operation of Multiple Masculinities in International Relations, in Marysia Zalewski and Jane Parpart (eds), The “Man“ Question in International Relations, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 28-53.

Mrinalini Sinha (1997) Colonial Masculinity: The ‘manly Englishman’ and the ‘effeminate Bengali‘ in the late nineteenth century, New Delhi: Kali for Women.

E.g. Carol Cohn (1993),Wars, Wimps, and Women: Talking gender and thinking war, in Gendering War Talk, Miriam Cooke and Angela Woollacott (editors) Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993, pp. 225-246.

Myriam Miedzian (1992) Boys will be boys: breaking the link between masculinity and violence, London: Virago.

Broadcast in the UK on ITV1 on 14th December 2010, it is now available in segments at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7y3wuRjwMCQ&feature=related. Pilger’s The invisible government is also well worth watching http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c-uq7O1RqQQ&feature=related


One response to “Feminist Curiosity: Taking a critical view of wars and violence

  1. I share your admiration of Enloe and her analysis and criticism of power relations. There’s still so much theoretical and practical work yet to be done when it comes to GBV and Enloe paved the way for extensive discussion. Is this a section of a thesis? Sounds great and the full work must have gotten some excellent marks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s