Sovereign Masculinity

Just finished a terrific book on issues relating to gender and American culture, particularly in relation to the so-called’ ‘war on terror’: Sovereign Masculinity: Gender Lessons from the War on Terror, by Bonnie Mann (Oxford UP, 2014). Mann offers a very convincing reading of the role of gender, especially as it functions as an underpinning discourse in American foreign policy and notions of the American state, in a book that ranges widely – starting with perspectives on the nature of gender rooted particularly in the work of Simone de Beauvoir and including readings of a number of films, including The Hurt Locker. It’s hard to do it justice in a brief review-ette, but I’d really recommend this for anyone seeking to dig into some of the underlying institutionalised discourses that play a huge part in shaping American policies, as well as the way they’re manifested in films.

sovereign masculinity cover

Mann begins with a very useful way of characterising the status of gender more generally, something that fits with the way I’ve recently being trying to put this in a chapter I’m writing for a collection about indie films by women filmmakers. What she stresses is what she, as a feminist philosopher, terms the ‘ontological weight’ of gender (as what I’d see as a social construct): an approach that avoids reducing gender to some notion of fixed biological essence while also seeing it as much more substantial, in its daily impact on our lives, that any construct that can easily be wished away.

The way this works in American culture, Mann suggests, involves a process of reassertion of national/sovereign masculinity through the denigration of women and all that is associated with them – including various forms of macho foreign policy posing. One of her central examples is the treatment of prisoners in the likes of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, a process of sexualised shaming against which the constructed edifice of American/male power is articulated. If GW Bush represents one cartoon version of this – cowboy-style moronic direct action – Mann finds different aspects of the same syndrome in the positioning of Obama as more rational ‘father’ figure (and rampant deployer of murderous drones).

A book of real substance and depth, combined with a strong sense of outrage against the impact such discursive framings have upon the world.


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