Transgressing and Upholding Western Notions of Masculinity in Terrorism

In this weeks reading Terrorist transgressions: exploring the gendered representations of the terrorist, Sue Malvern and Gabriel Koureas approach the complex subject of how historical visual language about terrorists are formed through a process that relies on gender stereotypes. They then go on to discuss how the construction of western notions on terrorism often rely on this language to reinforce beliefs about the culture of those who are considered terrorists. However, their most poignant critique is about how those stereotypes become problematic when the subject does not fit the expected notion of their gender. In particular, women who are considered violent or terroristic are often portrayed in a more masculine light as a way to reinforce the cultural acceptability of masculine violence. This is repeatedly demonstrated through the spectacle of terrorism in which is based upon a set of symbols that draws from western conflict history, especially from the French Revolution and onward. These symbols include those of “heroes, martyrs, and avengers” and tend to be employed as a means to incite fear into western subjects. Part of the reason this coopting of western symbols is effective in disrupting western society is that it uses the idealized western notion of masculine violence, a man who lays down his life for a higher cause, against the western subject. The response to this kind of violence is the tendency to emasculate the terrorist to show that their form of masculinity is inferior and that the subject can be broken by the superior masculine violence of the west. This sort of logic is illustrated by the images of the atrocities committed by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib, where they performed, or had the prisoners perform sexually demeaning acts upon each other. They also had the prisoners stripped naked both before and after their murder as a means to dehumanize them. The tragedy of Abu Ghraib points to a specific intersection of gender and violence as it has to do with men, but does not speak to the problematic construction of femininity which is constructed in opposition to western notions of violence. Because western society has constructed femininity in as opposing violence, it lacks the visual and intellectual tools to deal with women who commit acts of violence, particularly political violence because the act resides in a contemplative realm which is doubly masculine (both politics and violence). Thus when a woman commits acts of terror or violence against a state, they are portrayed as losing their feminine quality and instead fall into the tropes of mythical monstrous women. This means that not only is political violence committed by women considered to be a transgression of their femininity but the quality of the violence is inherently more despicable or “excessive”. The authors point to the visual construction of violent females as monstrous by alluding to the historical images of violent feminine characters such as: “Ulysses’ fear of the siren, the Sphinx who demands the forfeit of male lives, Kali dancing on the corpses of slain men, Samson robbed of his strength by Delilah, Judith’s beheading of Holofernes, Salome and the head of John the Baptist”. All of these images are classic western iconographies which point toward the possibility that within the classic feminine character resides the possibility of deceit, seduction, and consumption of male power. Thus the notion of the female terrorist falls within such western iconographies that imply them as a paramount example of the monstrous transgression against both femininity and the stability of (male) western power.

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