By Kelly Oliver
Women’s violence is given more media attention than men’s because of the connection between sex and violence in our cultural imaginary. Stereotypes of dangerous women as “femme fatales” and “black widow spiders”, and attractive women as “bombshells”, manifests a deep-seated fear of women’s sexuality as violent and women’s violence as sexual.
Women’s violence is given more media attention than men’s violence, not just because it is less prominent or because there are not as many women soldiers or militants than men. Rather, traditional stereotypes of women as “black widow spiders” or “femme fatales” who use their pretty smiles and their sex appeal to lure men to their deaths play into media representations of women’s involvement in recent military action. Because of the way that stereotypes of women’s sexuality as inherently dangerous and women’s violence as more threatening than men’s, the issue of women’s participation in the theatre of war is complex. Indeed, when military leaders or jihadists use women strategically as weapons, and when the media figures them as weapons because of their very presence in the theatre of war, women’s agency is difficult to locate. On the one hand, some conservatives blame women for their inherently violent natures, while some feminists blame male control of women for forcing them into these acts of war.
From the young American women soldiers involved in abuses of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, to captured American and British women Private Jessica Lynch and Seaman Lynn Turney, to Palestinian and Russian women suicide bombers, women are figured as dangerous, even more dangerous than men, especially because of the cultural association between sex and violence. On the one side, you have conservative commentators suggesting that the very presence of women in the theatre of war brings out sexual “whore house” behaviour and leads to violence. And on the other, you have feminist commentators arguing that these women are being used and manipulated by men. So, which is it? Are they pushed or do they jump, so to speak? How should we interpret women’s violence in the theatre of war? What is the status of women’s agency in situations where their roles are circumscribed by patriarchal stereotypes of femininity, female sexuality, and the association of sex and violence?
It is telling that while women soldiers’ deaths get little attention in the media or from the American public, the women’s involvement in abusive treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and at Guantanámo Bay prison in Cuba continue to haunt debates over acceptable interrogation techniques and American sentiments toward these “wars”. When the photographs from Abu Ghraib first became public, there was a flurry of outrage and accusation. These photographs of pretty young women giving thumbs up over dead bodies and naked prisoners stacked in piles or in sexual poses were considered “shocking” and mind-boggling; some considered the photographs themselves to be the real problem. Yet, at the same time, there was something strangely familiar about these photos. And, it is that combination of shock and familiarity that we must seek to understand. Remember, the smiling faces of Private Lyndie England and Sabrina Harmon, the poster girls of Abu Ghraib. One of the most famous images was of Private England, cigarette dangling from her mouth, holding the end of a leash around the neck of a naked Iraqi prisoner. And, Harmon was shown smiling giving the thumbs up signal over a dead body. The faces of the perpetrators suggest that they could be photographs in a high-school yearbook.
These “shocking” images, however, are not only familiar to us from a history of colonial violence associated with sex, but also they are familiar to us from a history of associations between women, sex and violence.
These “shocking” images, however, are not only familiar to us from a history of colonial violence associated with sex, but also they are familiar to us from a history of associations between women, sex and violence. Indeed, in some sense, the association between sex and violence trades on stereotypical images and myths of dangerous or threatening women upon which our culture was, and continues to be, built. Women have been associated with the downfall of man since Eve tempted Adam with forbidden fruit. From mythological characters such as Medusa and Jocasta, to Biblical figures such as Eve, Salome, Delilah or Judith, to contemporary Hollywood femme fatales, women’s sexuality has been imagined as dangerous; even more so because we imagine that women’s sexuality can be wielded as a weapon by women against men. Perhaps the most extreme example of this fantasy as it appears in recent military engagement is the seemingly intentional use of female sexuality as a top-secret “classified” interrogation technique in Guantanámo Bay prison, where reportedly women interrogators stripped off their uniforms, rubbed up against prisoners, and threatened them with fake menstrual blood in order to break them by making them feel unclean and therefore unworthy to pray.
The military’s “strategic” use of women both in Guantanámo and at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq have been described as techniques to “soften-up” prisoners. And a recent article published in the US military’s own journal Small Wars discusses the use of all female Marine units currently being used in Afghanistan to “wield the culture as a weapon” to “soften” interactions with local men and children. At the same time that women are being used to “soften-up” the enemy, women also are used to “soft-up” public perceptions of abuse and torture. Women are imagined as soft and vulnerable, but this seemingly is also what makes them so dangerous. Their seemingly innocent pretty smiles seduce and kill. The fantasy is that women’s bodies and female sexuality are in themselves dangerous. Age-old stereotypes play into the military’s use of women as strategic “weapons” because their very presence, particularly their sexuality, is imaged as dangerous and threatening. Again, it becomes difficult to discern women’s agency in these situations. Internet blogs and late night talk shows suggested that female interrogators performing the equivalent of a “lap dance” is titillating rather than abusive.
In Women as Weapons of War, I show how news media repeatedly describe women soldiers as “weapons”. Women warriors are not referred to as women with weapons or women carrying bombs, but their very bodies are imagined as dangerous. For example, a columnist for The New York Times said that “an example of the most astounding modern weapon in the Western arsenal” was named Claire with a machine gun in her arms and a flower in her helmet;1 after news broke about female interrogators at Guantanámo Bay prison, a Time magazine headline read “female sexuality used as a weapon”;2 and the London Times described Palestinian women suicide bombers as “secret weapons” and “human precision bombs”, “more deadly than the male”.3 An essayist for New York Times Magazine called women suicide bombers in Iraq one of “the extremists’ most lethal weapons” because insurgents “could use to advantage their traditional dress” to hide bombs.4 And in April of 2010, after two Chechen women blew themselves up at a subway station in Moscow, The New York Times and other mainstream media asked: “What Makes Chechen Women So Dangerous?”.5 Their answers echo the sentiment that there is something inherently dangerous about girls, about the lure of their smiles and ponytails, about their seeming innocence, that puts them above suspicion, and claims female suicide bombers are more deadly than males not only because women can enter crowded spaces inconspicuously but also because they inspire others.
On the other hand, their feminine wiles through which they use their beauty and innocence to commit violent acts, seemingly makes them more dangerous than men.
According to media reports, these so-called “Black Widows”, seeking revenge for Russian soldiers’ violence toward their families revive “a particular fear in the Russian capital, one that goes beyond the usual terrorism worries of a metropolis: the female bomber”, one that has become “a lurid obsession” in the Russian media since the 2002 hostage taking in a Moscow auditorium that involved several women captors. After using sleep-inducing gas, although most of the captors were male, “when [Russian] soldiers entered the auditorium they reportedly, as a first precaution, shot dead the Black Widows where they lay, lest they wake up and explode”.6 Women suicide bombers stir particular fears because “the women are indistinguishable on the street or in the subway – until they detonate their lads in the name of revenge”. According to a Los Angeles Times article “there was a pervasive fear of Muslim women who might be stalking the streets, indistinguishable until they detonated their explosives”.7 This so-called “pervasive fear” is of Muslim women who can pass themselves off as non-Muslim Russian women. These fears play off of stereotypes of women as inherently dangerous and as Muslim women as even more so.
Once again, stereotypes of women as inherently dangerous play into media and public perceptions of women’s violence. These reports in the popular press make it clear that women are considered more dangerous than their male counterparts. Because women and girls supposedly can pass themselves off as pretty, cute, and innocent, they are not as suspicious as men. On the other hand, their feminine wiles through which they use their beauty and innocence to commit violent acts, seemingly makes them more dangerous than men. Women’s violence is complicated by these stereotypes that colour the way we see women militants and women soldiers. In other words, their violent acts are interpreted in ways that are over-determined by cultural stereotypes that continue to associate sex and violence. The metaphor of attractive women as a “bombshells” makes explicit the deep cultural connection between women and violence. Their very bodies are imagined as bombs, and their sexual appeal is figured as dangerous.
Kelly Oliver is W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. She is the Author of fifteen scholarly books, including most recently Carceral Humanitarianism: The Logic of Refugee Detention (2017); Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from The Hunger Games to Campus Rape, which won a 2016 Choice Award. Also she has published three novels in The Jessica James, Cowgirl Philosopher Trilogy. To learn more, go to kellyoliverbooks.com.
1. Kristof, Nicholas D. (2003). “A Woman’s Place”. The New York Times. (Op Ed) April 5. A 31.
2. Dodds, Paisley. (2005). “Women used sex to get detainees to talk”. The Gazette. Montreal Que. Jan 28. A 15.
3. Jaber, Hala. (2003). “The avengers”. Sunday Times, London, Dec 7. p 1.
4. Rubin, Alissa. (2009). “How Baida Wanted to Die” in The New York Times Magazine, August 12.
5. Pape, Robert, et.al. (2010). “What Makes Chechen Women So Dangerous?” in The New York Times, op-ed. March 30.
6. Kramer, Andrew. (2010). “Russia’s Fear of Female Bombers Is Revived”. In The New York Times, March 29.
7. Stack, Megan and Sergei Loiko. (2010). “‘Black widows’ again stir fear in Moscow” in The Los Angeles Times. March 31.