Discourse and the Geopolitics of Gender: Feminist Refusal Meets Enmity
By Rodrigo Borba, Kira Hall and Mie Hiramoto (Co-Editors of Gender and Language) 30 January 2020
Social media has facilitated the rise of a new transnational feminism that refuses to accept silence surrounding violence against women. Often associated with the #MeToo movement, this form of feminist refusal continues to evolve as small-scale grassroots movements are transformed into global icons through the internet’s participatory power. A recent example is fueled by a protest song that speaks out against rape culture and victim shaming. Titled Un violador en tu camino (“A Rapist in Your Path”; sometimes translated as “The Rapist is You”), the song was first performed by the feminist collective Las Tesis in Chile’s capital city of Santiago on November 25, 2019, also International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Videos taken at the performance quickly went viral, spreading across national boundaries. Within days, similar performances emerged in locations across the globe —Zócalo square in Mexico City, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Turkish parliament, the steps of Madrid’s Reina Sofia Museum, San Francisco, Bogotá, Montreal, New Delhi, Thessaloniki, Porto Alegre, and Istanbul.
The protest became a worldwide sensation due to the visceral character of the lyrics and body movements used to show dissent. One verse expresses the insistency with which institutions—the police, the judiciary, the government—systematically abuse women’s rights: “The rapist is you. The cops, the judges, the state, the president.” Another verse calls out the patriarchy for blaming the victims of sexual violence instead of the perpetrators: “The fault wasn’t mine. Not where I was, not what I wore. The rapist is you.” The lyrics, the rhythm, and most especially, the choreographed embodiment of affective reactions to the experience of gender oppression resonated with women worldwide. The speed and intensity with which this semiotic assemblage traveled across national lines is testimony to the fact that gender inequality, exclusion, and violence are a shared burden faced by women globally. However, each group of women performing the chant after its Chilean debut also modified it to speak back to local particularities. For example, on January 2020, a group of women brought the peformance to Manhattan Criminal Court to protest the violent actions of film producer Harvey Weinstein, but sang the song in English. The success of digitally driven protests like this one resides in the power of mimetic action to both reproduce and transform. Solidarity often arises from the first relation, political change from the second.
The presupposed and creative sides of performativity—a focus of research in language, gender, and sexuality since Judith Butler (1990) first adapted the concept to theorize gender—also sheds light on the geopolitics of gender, the theme of the upcoming 2020 IGALA 11 conference in London. As described in IGALA’s Call for Papers, the term geopolitics draws attention to the diverse range of cultural, linguistic, and geographical contexts that mold gender relations—contexts that are inevitably inflected by historical processes of coloniality, globalization, migration, nationalism, transnationalism, and modernity. Because these same contexts also mold the academic analysis of gender relations, the term additionally compels us as researchers to reflect on our own geopolitical positionality. The term thus brings to the fore methodological and epistemological diversity as well as the broader dynamics of knowledge creation and dissemination in our field.
A geopolitical discursive analysis of our opening example might track the ways that the message and body movements of the Chilean feminists traveled transnationally as local performers adapted the lyrics and choreography to their own contexts. In addition, although the performance of Un violador en tu camino in Santiago is often discussed by commentators as a baptismal event, it too emerged, like all performance, from a complex of intertextual connections located in diverse spacetimes. Movements such as #MeToo undoubtedly served as inspiration for the protest, but so too did the Argentine protest #NiUnaMenos (Not One [Woman] Less), the Italian protest #NonUnaDiMeno (Not One [Woman] Less), and the Brazilian protest #EleNão (Not Him). Beyond these, a broader set of protests served as additional models—for instance, protests directed against the right-wing Chilean president Sebastián Piñera and long-standing inequalities produced by neoliberalism.
Perhaps most critically, Un violador en tu camino and its global amplification emerged in a context in which gender has been turned into the enemy of many nations. In his recent book A Road To Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, American historian Timothy Snyder (2018) shares his views on how gender became the enemy. He points to Russia’s cultivation of moral panic around so-called Western ideals of gender equity and sexual freedom during the last decade. Through a rhetoric that condemned symbols of Western influence, government officials were able to justify anti-democratic actions. The State-controlled Russian media, for example, characterized protesters against Vladimir Putin’s 2012 controversial reelection as sponsored by Western feminists and gay lobbyists who planned to overtake the globe. It was during this period, according to Snyder, that the fear of a sodomite neoliberal revolution emerged on the global stage. Now, in 2020, populist far-right politicians everywhere have exploited this fear to stir hatred against democratic institutions. The transformative power of mimesis may also be regressive, of course.
A compelling example of this regression for analysts of language and gender is the way the meaning of the term gender has been transformed in these neo-nationalist discourses through its incorporation into the collocation gender ideology (see Corredor, 2019). In such discourses, "gender ideology" is used as a negative descriptor for the progressive agenda that has increasingly come to challenge systems of gender oppression. The term’s semantics spread globally with the help of leading institutions known for pro-Christian, anti-choice, and anti-LGBT sentiments—Citizen Go, Ordo Iuris, World Congress of Families, Tradição, Família e Propriedade. With assistance from ultraconservative political regimes, such organizations sneakily transformed their prejudice, bigotry, and sexual resentment into geopolitical matters. That is, by rewriting the feminist concept of gender as ideological, they transformed gender into a repulsion that reinforces national borders even as it travels transnationally. Roman Kuhar and David Paternotte (2017) have labeled this brand of resignification the “anti-gender” movement. Through its varied instantiations, gender has come to take a central role in what Achille Mbembe (2017) calls the politics of enmity. According to the Cameroonian philosopher, our current age of mediatized twenty-first century politics has made the spectacle of “having an enemy” obligatory to the process of subject formation. In a world that obscures the line between fact and fiction, anti-progressive policies and practices easily capitalize on fabulations about internal and external threats to mobilize neo-nationalism and de-democratization.
As Ruth Wodak (2015) cogently shows in her analysis of European far-right political discourse, the politics of enmity usually works through the discursive and embodied instantiation of fear. Such discourses have forged a global moral crusade that attempts to strengthen “modern” ideals that include the nuclear family and the nation. As we saw in the case of Un violador en tu camino, these discourses reiterate formulae, contents, slogans, and tropes that travel transnationally yet are adapted locally. In Colombia, the peace referendum of 2016 was rejected on the grounds that negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) would lead to a flexibilization of gender norms. In the United States, a billionaire became President by directing comedic insults to women’s bodies. In Brazil, the far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro succeeded due to his vitriolic speeches against women and homosexuals. In fact, Bolsonaro even singled out the fight against “gender ideology” as a political platform in his inauguration speech. In France, Spain, Slovenia, Poland, and Italy, self-identified guardians of “good morals” (e.g., Strazarji, Sentinelle in Piedi, les Sentinelles) have publicly demonstrated their dissatisfaction with progressive laws on same-sex marriage and abortion. In Hungary, a right-wing government removed gender studies from the list of approved master’s programs.
In this moment of rising anti-gender animus across the globe, what is the role of language and gender as a field? Certainly, there is no simple solution to the threats posed by gender systems that uphold the Resentful Angry White Man as a celebrated figure of personhood. But by attending to the way language intersects with the geopolitics of gender, even at the level of sound, gesture, or lexeme, we may discover new avenues for understanding the semiotic mechanisms used by anti-gender movements to silence the feminist protests they necessitate. Such attention may also give us ideas about the semiotic mechanisms that we ourselves could deploy to stand against the continued disenfranchisement of female, trans, and queer individuals.
The feminist refusal of the neoliberal upsurge of conservative discourses on gender, as epitomized by the Chilean performers and the protests they inspired, points to the importance of solidarity as an analytic lens with which to understand the geopolitics of enmity we outlined briefly above. The dynamics of repetition, transformation, and intertextuality that underlie both anti-gender and feminist discourses provide political avenues for investigating how discourses capitalizing on The Enemy may be challenged. In 1992, Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell-Ginet famously enouraged language and gender scholars to “Think Practically and Look Locally.” We suggest that researchers invested in effective political change can likewise benefit from turning their attention to people’s day-to-day transnational practices of solidarity.
We find inspiration in the Chilean performers who showed a hostile world that feminism remains a force to be reckoned with. The viralization of Un violador en tu camino into a global phenomenon through the interdisursive dynamics of repetition and localization provides a strong example of why research on language, gender, and sexuality continues to matter. Five decades ago, the field’s Founding Mothers convincingly established that language is a medium of patriarchal oppression. In this dawning of a new transnational feminism, let us pay tribute to these scholars again, confronting masculinist rhetoric by finding new ways to understand its performative power.
Butler, Judith (1990). Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge.
Corredor, Elizabeth. (2019). “Unpacking ‘gender ideology’ and the global right’s anti-gender countermovement”. Signs 44(3):613-638.
Eckert, Penelope, & Sally McConnell-Ginet (1992). “Think Practically and Look Locally: Language and Gender as Community-Based Practice.” Annual Review of Anthropology 21: 461–90.
Kuhar, Roman, & David Paternotte, eds. (2017). Anti-Gender Campaigns in Europe.
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Mbembe, Achille (2017). Políticas da inimizade. Lisboa: Antígona.
Snyder, Timothy (2018). The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. New York: Tim Duggan Books.
Wodak, Ruth (2015). The Politics of Fear: What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean. Los Angeles: SAGE.