Category Archives: Gender and Sexuality

Media Representation & Islamophobia

In my RBA I plan to analyze the comic series Ms. Marvel and its lead, Kamala Khan, as a response to Islamophobia in media representation post-9/11. By examining the creation of the image of the Muslim male as a terrorist and therefore a dangerous “other”, I hope to determine the importance of media representation and how or why it is effective in supporting a specific national image. Furthermore, I plan to establish how Kamala Khan is a response to this rhetoric and in what ways her story and character reinforces or subverts it, particularly as a possible response to assimilation pressures and the erasure of hyphenated identities.




RBA Planning: Masculinity and Homophobia in Cold War America

For my RBA, I plan to examine the relationship between the evolving ideals of masculinity and increased homophobia in Cold War America. I am interested in looking at how the manifestation of homophobia in policy and in the military was influenced by perceptions of masculinity in a consensus culture. Here is my map, which is more of brainstorm than an outline (I will need to cut down or prioritize importance)



Masculinity and Homophobia in Cold War America

I am investigating the relationship between the evolving definition of masculinity and the ubiquitous homophobia in Cold War America. This topic is relevant because homophobia is still a very serious problem and it is important to look at its causes to try and find solutions.

Previous scholarship on masculinity and homosexuality in the Cold War has discussed the trends toward the domestication of masculinity and the homosexualization of politics, but has not connected this evolution of masculinity to the homophobia of this period. Most scholarship on this topic has looked at the domestication of masculinity as a product of consumer culture and government propaganda of the period. Men were told to become fathers, and to own a house in the suburbs and become consumers rather than producers. Robert Corber in Homosexuality in Cold War America: Resistance and the Crisis of Masculinity looks at how this new ideal of masculinity was received in American society, especially at the backlash found in film noir. This book focuses on “gay male resistance to the homosexualization” of left-wing political activity during the Cold War and how this resistance fueled the gay rights movement that quickly became a mass movement. In Manhood and American Political Culture in the Cold War, Cuordileone examines the definition of manhood during the Cold War and the effects of gender and manhood on the political climate of the time. Cuordileone mentions the relationship between anxiety regarding the nuclear threat and communism and the anxiety regarding homosexuals. Both of these texts look at the changing definitions of masculinity in this era but do not investigate the relationship between manhood and homophobia. In my RBA, I hope to investigate and make connections between these two trends: domestication of the virile masculinity of the Cold War and the rampant homophobia of the Lavender Scare.

The Pueblo Incident

In his article “Cold War Pop Culture and the Image of U.S. Foreign Policy: The Perspective of the Original Star Trek Series”, Nicholas Evan Sarantakes outlines the various instances in which the science fiction classic Star Trek used allegories to explore, support, or condemn the issues of the day. For instance, the Star Trek episode “The Enterprise Incident” references the incident involving the USS Pueblo. On January 23, 1968, the crew of the USS Pueblo was captured by North Korean forces and accused of espionage. While the outside world waited to learn the fates of the captured seamen, Gene Roddenberry, the show’s creator, decided to proceed with filming an episode of Star Trek based off of the event. Both the writer, D.C. Fontana, and Roddenberry realized that the story’s origin lacked subtlety; Roddenberry went so far as to refer to the episode as “The Pueblo Incident”, while Fontana assumed the television network, NBC, would be unhappy with the story. Changes were made to the initial script, Sarantakes writes, as “sensitivity to public sentiment demanded such a move”.

In the episode, Captain Kirk orders his ship into enemy territory in order to steal cloaking technology that the Romulans have developed. Taken hostage aboard the Romulan vessel, Kirk proceeds to fake his own death with Spock’s help then goes undercover as a Romulan to search for the cloaking device. Although Kirk is successful in retrieving the device, Spock is captured and put on trial, where he claims that as his duty as a Starfleet officer is “to protect the security of the Federation”, the course of action that he and Kirk pursued was justified. Sarantakes states that “the theme of the episode is that efforts to preserve international peace and stability, even actions such as theft, deception, and espionage that would be unacceptable in some other context, were legitimate because they served the moral and ethical purpose of prevent large-scale death and suffering”. This episode therefore also upholds the moral right of the actions of the USS Pueblo crew.

The speculative nature of both the science fiction and fantasy genres allows writers to explore the extremes of the possibilities of our actions and the potential consequences of our beliefs. Furthermore, science fiction and fantasy has mass appeal; the use of storytelling captures a large audience that might not be engaged through other means, while relatable characters can provide a foundation through which the reader might gain a new perspective. Through science fiction and fantasy, we can effectively analyze the risks or rewards a certain path might bring. For example, The Sultana’s Dream, first published in 1905, was written by Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain as a response to gender roles in Indian society. It presents a feminist utopian vision of a futuristic India governed by women: the men are now the ones forced to observe purdah while the women run the community. Through the lens of a science fiction short story, Hussain imagines how a society in which gender roles are reversed might function; furthermore, she examines common beliefs of how gender should be performed.

“The American people know marriage is not something to be messed with.”

“They really truly want to equate homosexual marriage with heterosexual marriage. The sad reality is that it’s never going to be the same. The American people know marriage is not something to be messed with.”

This quote from Sandy Rios demonstrates George W. Bush’s George W. Bush successful use of containment rhetoric to tie LGBT rights, specifically that of marriage equality, to terrorism, thus placing the LGBT movement into the clearly defined category of other and thus un-American. By using interconnected rhetoric to equate anything un-American with terrorism, President Bush was able to force his own beliefs of what was morally right and what should be considered American on the general populace and therefore heighten anti-gay sentiment. The use of this rhetorical approach is frightening, as it appears to have led to an increase in homophobia in the early 2000s, as evidenced by the statistics mentioned by Lugo that show a decline in support for same-sex civil unions from 49 percent of the poll participants in May 2003 to only 34 percent in January 2004.

Scapegoating and sexuality since 9/11

          In “G.W. Bush Administration Narratives of Threat and Containment”, Lugo explores the categorizations of Americans after the 9/11 through the lens of sexual orientation. Discussing how the fear of being spied on led to a strict codification of Americans depending on their sexual orientation, Lugo shows how the gay and lesbian communities were excluded, and portrayed as devils within the nation. Seen as “domestic terrorists”, these Americans seemed to pose a threat to the American stability and wellness, and therefore would lead to the collapse of the entire country. This ideology goes beyond simply blaming homosexual Americans for problems abroad, as Lugo mentions that at that time, the mass was convinced that sanctioning homosexual behavior caused deaths in Uganda. While this seem absurd to us now, this belief clearly points out that paranoia deprives America of the ability to think clearly.

          This passage about deaths in Uganda is in my opinion very important and thought provoking, as it provides a clear example of lack of logic in the rhetoric of containment, but also because it illustrates how most Americans at that time made assumptions without proofs. Are the lesbian and gay communities endangering national and global security? If so, in what ways? Although te first question was widely answered by a “yes”, the second seems to have never been asked.

Mad Men & Deviance from the American Ideal

In Mad Men, a TV drama set in the 1960s, the fear of the “other” is demonstrated in the season one episode “Marriage of Figaro”, as seen in this linked post. Francine Hanson and Betty Draper are confused as they gossip about Helen Bishop, a new neighbor, who has been seen walking around the neighborhood, instead of using the routine form of transportation by car. The group of neighborhood housewives later question Helen and further exclude her when her answers prove unsatisfactory. Already a symbol of nonconformity through her role as a divorced single mother in the suburbs, Helen’s lack of conventional transportation further embodies her status as other, alienating her from her neighbors, a condition that is only intensified by her masculine clothing choices and need to seek work outside the home. Helen’s deviance from the “American way of life” as described by Elaine May in Homeward Bound threatens Betty’s upholding of the standard way of life and opens the door to questions about her unhappiness with the choices that she has made.

Iron Man: Weapons of Mass Protection

In recent years, America has adopted a national rhetoric of containment, creating a close resemblance to its culture during the Cold War. Since the 9/11 Attacks, terrorism has become the new communism, taking on the role of an evil, unpredictable force that threatens peace in America.

One instance of this Cold War ideology in today’s popular culture is the 2008 movie Iron Man. For those who haven’t seen it, Iron Man follows the American technological mastermind Tony Stark as he develops a robotic super suit. While the entire film is rife with examples of the Cold War mindset, I will focus this post on a single scene in which Stark demonstrates his Jericho Missile to the United States Army.

The scene begins with Stark’s pre-demonstration speech, in which he states that the missile will make its user both feared and respected. He claims that the best weapon is “the weapon you only have to fire once,” because “that’s how dad did it” and “that’s how America does it.”

In these opening lines, Stark establishes a militaristic “us versus them” mindset. He appeals to the Army officers by stating that the missile will allow America to visibly demonstrate its superiority to its enemies, keeping them in constant distress. Furthermore, he connects the missile to American tradition, speaking of it as an embodiment of American values.

Before firing the missile, Stark remarks that “the bad guys won’t even want to come out of their caves.” In other words, this military technology very literally keeps the faceless enemies contained within their hiding spaces. Stark keeps the identity of the enemies limited to the simple term “bad guys,” which enforces the idea that they are inherently evil – similar to the black-and-white view of communism during the Cold War.

Next, the camera cuts to the demonstration of the missile, showing a fully automated, camouflaged weapon system. Not only is the weapon hi-tech, but it also lies hidden within the terrain, reflecting the popularity of covert and unconventional warfare. As the missile approaches its target, it scatters into many smaller missiles, demonstrating that it is far from regular military technology. Again, this highlights America’s resolve to build stronger, more complex weaponry to assert its superiority over the threatening enemy.

After the missile strikes its target, Stark raises his arms at his sides, making the position of a cross. In this symbolic pose, Stark elicits an image of divinity related to his technological superweapon – not at all dissimilar to the divinity associated with the atomic bomb during the early Cold War.

From start to finish, the scene consists entirely of uniformed military men, aside from Tony Stark in his sharp, black suit. Thus, the men serve as a symbol of American might and protection. This all-male scene highlights a different aspect of American Cold War culture: the glorification of strong uniformed men. While feminism has made significant strides in the 21st century, Iron Man demonstrates the concurrent reinforcement of traditional gender roles in much of popular media.

In both words and pictures, this scene showcases the movie’s saturation with Cold War values. Through glorification of futuristic military technology and traditional gender roles, Iron Man serves as one among many examples of the reemergence of containment culture today.

Salt: A Reemergence of Containment Culture

Salt is a fictional 2010 Hollywood film set in present-day society about Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie), a CIA operative accused of being a Russian sleeper agent involved in a plot to kill the Russian President and start a nuclear war. Throughout the convoluted plot of this movie, the audience is forced to question the true identity of Salt and whether or not she can be trusted. However, the ending of the movie is ambiguous.

Link to poster:

Link to trailer: Salt Trailer

This film revisits the paranoia felt during the Cold War about Soviet spies and soldiers hiding in American society. Salt is supposedly part of a program that trained hundreds of children to infiltrate the US and be ready to utilize their training whenever called upon. During the Cold War, the American government and media encouraged citizens to be vigilant, which led to spying and constant scrutiny. Americans were afraid of people that seemed different in any way and were worried about Soviet infiltrators. This sentiment and culture reemerged after 9/11 when citizens were constantly fearful of future terrorist attacks and scared of Muslims and foreigners/immigrants in general. This paranoia is quite evident in the movie. The audience questions the true identity of all the main characters. 

The movie also taps into ideas about gender norms similar to those seen in the Cold War era. Salt is a seemingly “domestic” woman. She has a loving husband with whom she just had her two-year wedding anniversary. However, she wears suits to her CIA job and is actually highly trained and powerful. This deviance from the norm highlights another reason for why Salt was so feared in the movie. Salt’s character, with or without Soviet training is very “masculine.” In fact, the movie was initially supposed to have a male lead, to be played by Tom Cruise.

CNN Declassified: A Female Spy’s Perspective

The premiere episode of CNN’s 2016 documentary series, “Declassified: Untold Stories of American Spies,” delves deep into the experience of Martha Peterson, the first ever female spy to be sent to the Soviet Union. Viewers are able to trace her journey as an undercover agent, beginning with her intensive training in Washington D.C. and her pivotal work in Moscow as a mediator in the clandestine correspondence between the CIA and anti-Soviet Russian official Aleksandr Ogorodnik (Codename: TRIGON), before finally concluding with her ultimate capture and deportation by the KGB police.

Link to video summary:

In one sense, this documentary expounds upon the Cold War’s characteristic moods of uncertainty and apprehension against the backdrop of the polarization of the US and Soviet Union. As seen through the delineation of the dangers the espionage missions entailed, every move Peterson made had to be carefully calculated, for even the slightest deviance from the set procedure of the mission could jeopardize its success. The high-stakes nature of this mission only naturally mirrored the intensity of tension between the two players in this binary conflict. Furthermore, this documentary elucidates an interesting facet of the Cold War experience from the very outset through Peterson’s anomalous experience. Peterson’s story is so fascinating considering that women during this time period were avoided as top recruits for espionage missions because of their label as being “not quite reliable” in comparison to men. Playing such an indispensable role in the process of retrieving information during the TRIGON mission gave Peterson an experience that ran diametrically opposed to the commonplace ideal of male heroism in the midst of the Cold War climate. Interestingly enough, according to the explanation provided by a former CIA official, the decision to even include a woman as part of this plan was to use the prevalent societal acceptance of “male chauvinism” against Soviet Russia, who would not suspect that a female agent was working in their midst.

Though not necessarily an exact fit for the sphere of popular culture, this CNN series seems to prove its potential to captivate the attention of the American viewer, given that rare behind-the-scenes insights into a spy’s work are being presented through the disclosure of first-hand experiences.


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