A Feminist Analysis of Nuclear Weapons: Part 1 - Hegemonic Masculinity

Nuclear weapons represent more than just weaponry in international discourse; they are a symbolic pawn in a game of global politics.  They serve the purpose of signifying identity through modernity and separating the ‘advanced’ nuclear-possessing nations from non-possessor nations deemed antediluvian through a gendered and orientalist Western discourse. (1) Such discourse relies heavily on a global hierarchy influenced by the objectification and sexualization of nuclear weapons.  A certain hegemonic masculinity is prescribed and encouraged to constitute and justify the United State’s ‘rightful’ place as a rational, responsible global protector.  With the application of feminist theory, both US identity and narratives can be complicated through the contextualization of nuclear policy.  

The idea of gender itself is a social construct and something that is relational.  It maintains a hierarchy proving oppressive to all, ultimately pointing to a need for transformation.  This series will notice the way in which gendered thinking, language, and metaphors are used in nuclear policy development, and how society values these traits.  This is an attempt to make gender visible in international politics, and examine how it effects systemic inequality. 

Anne Tickner notes that most feminists who look at “global politics share a normative and empirical concern that the international arena is gender hierarchical, and that this gender hierarchy is reflected and reproduced in IR.” (2) Normatively, the concern is that this hierarchy is unjust and must be changed.  Empirically, any political (IR and security) theory that doesn’t address this hierarchy is incomplete, and restricts the range of imaginable policy options.  Ultimately, a gender lens is necessary to better understand global politics, see reality more clearly, and promote beneficial systemic changes.

This series’ investigation corresponds to the normative goal of bridging feminist theory with political theories in order to reveal gendered hierarchies and see how they effect policy and politics.  This moves the idea of global security beyond a widely understood promise of protection from physical violence and towards a security which attempts to understand the hidden political structures that privilege a narrow idea of security.

Part 1: Hegemonic Masculinity

Hegemonic masculinity is used as a tool to preserve an unequal global hierarchy.  Though varied by context, specific brands of masculinity are privileged “in most contemporary patriarchal societies for being recognized as legitimate and socially valuable forms of militarized manhood.” (3) Fully embracing its role as global protector, the US defense intelligence has long utilized hegemonic masculine ideals, such as strength, aggression, and virility, to maintain dominance in an international hierarchy.  Masculinity has become deeply entrenched within nuclear discourse, and a further analysis of this rhetoric provides insight into the motivations behind state power.  The scrutiny of defensive and competitive determination to possess nuclear weapons reveals the way in which alternative narratives about security are silenced. The hegemonic masculine narrative this series will focus on is utilized by US defense intellectuals and politicians to achieve a particular agenda: the maintenance of the US’s global superpower status.  

Phallus and Force

Nuclear weapons have a long generated imagery of competitive male sexuality.  Those using and theorizing about nuclear weapons exploit phallic imagery, which conveniently suggests sexual domination and enemy emasculation in addition to the promise of ultimate destruction. (4) Political power, in term of weaponry and military might, becomes equated with sexual potency.  These parallels, both within the defense community and within greater society, act to minimize the actual cost and consequences of nuclear weapons.  When their ‘potency’ is used to represent something other than the potential for killing humans, like a punchline to a joke, the capacity for mass death is immediately downplayed.  This disconnected discourse is used to shape the construction of national security.  The sexual domination represented by nuclear weapons becomes associated with prestige and power in global politics. (5) This affiliation directly effects policy expectations and state relationships.  

Domination becomes an easily justifiable preemptive form of self-defense.

The favored ideology behind which defense policy is theorized is one of realism, which favors an understanding of state affairs based on power optimization.  A realist perspective argues that all states are ultimately seeking power.  Many states are drawn towards nuclear technology in the belief that maintaining both power and security requires the means to dominate militarily, something which can be fundamentally achieved with nuclear weapons.  With this principle, the ability to guarantee security rests upon the potential to physically destroy other countries and negotiate relationships through the threat or exercise of force and violence.  Domination becomes an easily justifiable preemptive form of self-defense.  As such, nuclear weapon possession produces social consent for increasing levels of violence.  Aggression, an act or emotion culturally coded as masculine, is legitimized and once again nuclear weapons are seen to provide a sense of virility which individuals can identify with.  Hegemonic masculinity, then, is institutionalized by equating manliness with the willingness to use force. (7)

The Consequences of Hegemonic Masculinity

Masculine rhetoric within the defense community welcomes a host of consequences, the most obvious of which being that ideas, concerns, or feelings coded as feminine are silenced.  The introduction of ‘feminine’ ideas, like any emotional reaction to human destruction, are immediately dismissed.  Because gender serves as a fundamental level of identity, the rejection of feminine ideas with regards to nuclear weapons can be seen as a challenge to an individual’s sense of identity and validity in the conversation.  Therefore, when ‘feminized’ ideas are spoken they are difficult to hear or be taken seriously by those listening.  The preferred style of speaking becomes disconnected, and requires distance from the reality of nuclear weapons.  

This seeming ‘objective’ style of speaking is certainly not without emotion, however it is performed with emotions considered properly ‘masculine’ and therefore passable within security discourse.  These masculine emotions, like feelings of competition, aggression, or manly pride are “invisibly folded into ‘self-evident’ so-called realist paradigms and analyses.” (8) ‘Feminine’ emotions are labelled in opposition to the norm and excluded.  This reifies fixed boundaries and determines what is not just acceptable to discuss but the manner in which it should be discussed. 

The expression of ideas and thoughts coded as feminine acts to place oneself opposite of valorized traits, effectively self-categorizing as a ‘wimp’.
— Carol Cohn

What then gets left out of this gender discourse are “human bodies and their vulnerability, human lives and their subjectivity - all of which are marked as feminine in the binary dichotomies of gender discourse.” (9) Or, in other words, the construction of both nuclear and national security narratives silence different perspectives.  Simply put, this hinders the ability to form a complete and well rounded view of nuclear weapons and by extension foreign policy or national security.  As Carol Cohn so aptly notes, gender discourse acts as “a ‘preemptive deterrent’ to certain kinds of thought.” (10) It is a self-censor within the US defense intelligence, because the expression of ideas and thoughts coded as feminine acts to place oneself opposite of valorized traits, effectively self-categorizing as a ‘wimp’.  Due to this literal silencing of alternative narratives, any focus on the loss of human life or the true destructive capability of nuclear weapons is considered off limits and simultaneously delegitimized as insufficiently masculine.  This type of censure prevents any serious thoughts from being allocated to the devastating impact of nuclear weapons, and keeps defense intelligence safely tucked away from reality in a world of imagination and symbolism.  

The dissection of this line of gender discourse is critical as its employment as an organizing tool for society and culture shapes human experience and understanding of identity.  Ultimately, being manly isn’t simply being manly, but it’s to possess a higher position of value and power.  Contrasted at the opposite end is “a subordinated femininity that is a necessary ‘other’ to the powerful, hegemonic masculinity.” (11) The delegitimization of femininity works to construct masculinity as the definitively authoritative discourse, something which is backed by the “coercive power of the state”.

A rethinking of nuclear weapons policy is a consequence of taking feminist theory seriously.

A rethinking of nuclear weapons policy is a consequence of taking feminist theory seriously.  It requires a serious look at the hierarchical structures that act as bolsters to US confidence and oppressors to other nations, and seeks to understand how gendered ideologies and hegemonic masculinity reproduces these hierarchies. The associations between the possession of nuclear weapons and encouragement of a hegemonic masculinity culture within the US defense community obscures alternative ways of thinking about security and interferes with diplomacy and disarmament.  When the goal of security and international relations becomes peaceful coexistence rather than “weaponized power optimization”, security will no longer rest on threats of violence and disarmament can become politically palatable. (12)

References and Further Reading:

1, 6.  Cohn C and Ruddick S, ‘A Feminist Ethical Perspective on Weapons of Mass Destruction’ (2003) Consortium on Gender, Security, and Human Rights

2, 3, 11.  Tickner J and Sjoberg J, Feminism and International Relations (Routledge 2011)

4.  Cohn C, 'Sex And Death In The Rational World Of Defense Intellectuals' (1987) 12 Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society

5, 12.  Nordstrom J and Hill F, ‘A Gender Perspective’ Nuclear Disorder or Cooperative Security?: U.S. Weapons of Terror, the Global Proliferation Crisis, and Paths to Peace, (Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy 2006)

7, 8, 9, 10. Cohn C, ‘Wars, Wimps, and Women: Talking Gender and Thinking War’ Gendering War Talk (Princeton University Press 1993) 


Marissa Conway is the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief for FFP.  Follow her on Twitter: @marissakconway