Saturday, July 18, 2009

Talk Dirty to Me!

I was roped into watching Transformers 2 today (and how!). It really wasn't a movie I was interested in watching. It isn't that I didn't enjoy it, in a "yeah well, whatever" kind of way, but it didn't really surprise me... it was all pretty predictable stuff. (Also predictably, my mum and a friend's mum slept through much of it.)


One of the first thoughts I had watching it was: this is the military's wet-dream... not to mention a lot of other kinds of wet-dreams. But the whole sleek, benign, "deceptive" machines turning into killing machines? Oh yea! That's military sexy. And Optimus Prime = "Army of One" fantasy, perhaps? And so I was reminded of an article I was introduced to years ago, when I was interning with a nuclear non-proliferation feminist NGO in NYC, called Reaching Critical Will. Or maybe it was something I read for my "War, Weapons and Arms Control" class at Oberlin.

The piece by Kathleen Sullivan is called Sexualizing Technology and is a feminist analysis of the language used by the military, specifically with reference to nuclear weapons. I'm pasting the article below... it really is worth a read. The highlighted parts are the ones I was specifically thinking of during the movie. It's actually kind of funny... on a theoretical level, not when it gets manifest in reality. But really, is there anything a penis can't destroy?

And also, would an analysis of race in the movie be too obvious? I really don't have the energy (and the interest, perhaps) in doing it... but there's a lot of interesting stuff going on there. I'm thinking specifically of Leo, Mikaela (setting aside the stuff about racial ambiguity, I have to say, I did like her plump, pouty lips), and the poor Jordanian air force dudes... it doesn't take much for brown folks to die in movies, does it? Or in reality too, actually...

Oh, and did they really say "President Obama" in the movie?! Is that ok? Legal even?

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Sexualising Technology, or how we’ve come to love the bomb

In Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) the Nazi scientist who understands the creation of an atomic weapon and the military men who deploy it have learnt how to transmute their fear into a sexual desire for the bomb. Kubrick’s apocalyptic film noir portrays the men of science and the military as sexually turned on by a nuclear attack. The erect warheads and the cascading mushroom clouds are perceived to signify male penetration and ejaculation. But the fetishization of nuclear weapons is not only the stuff of fiction. The connection between sex and atomic science has a very long history. The use of sexually explicit, often violent language to describe the scientific method long proceeded the development of nuclear bombs. When Francis Bacon, the seventeenth century philosopher who is widely recognised as the father of modern science, described the "interrogation" of a female nature as that which must be "bound into service", "put in constraint" and made a "slave", he was laying the ground work for a sexualized lexicon that continues to characterise the language of so-called defense intellectuals and much of modern science and technology.

Indian scientist and social activist, Vandana Shiva maintains that “[the development of] modern science was a consciously gendered, patriarchal activity. As nature came to be seen more like a woman to be raped, gender too was recreated. Science as a male venture, based on the subjugation of female nature and female sex provided support for the polarisation of gender” (1989: 17). Thus, modern science has cemented a dualistic rationality that still persists and continues to be effectively used as a tool for controlling and repressing the autonomy of women.

The language developed by nuclear defense intellectuals is a sexualized lexicon which degrades the female/nature half of the male/culture binary. There are several examples of the sexualizing of nuclear technology, where on the one hand, nuclear bombs are represented as the virile son of ‘hard’ science, and on the other, nuclear power is the sexy love-child of technocratic culture. With regards to nuclear-philia, perhaps the most bizarre example of the perceived feminine sexiness of nuclear bombs has to be the Bikini bathing suit.

In 1946, the beginning of an era which lauded the presence of the ‘blonde bombshell’, the French designer, Louis Reard, named his two-piece bathingsuit the Bikini (Ruthven 1993: 63). The famous, and at the time shocking, swimming costume was named after the Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific, which the US government commandeered from its inhabitants. Bikini was the site of early atmospheric nuclear tests including the hydrogen bomb test, code named ‘Bravo’. Bravo was the largest nuclear bomb ever exploded by the US. It literally vaporized three of the twenty-three islands in the atoll system and spread radioactive debris across nearly 50,000 square miles. Ken Ruthven, an Australian cultural theorist, highlights the sexualizing of nuclear technology when he asks, "who knows what gang-bang fantasies lurk subliminally in the subtitle of W. C. Anderson’s book on those Marshall Islands tests: ‘12,000 Men and One Bikini’?" (1993: 63). Today, Bikini is still heavily contaminated with radiation. And yet many people may never recognize the connection between nuclear technology and seductive swimwear.

Thirty years after bikini bathing suits hit the fashion industry, an advertisement for nuclear energy by the Crouse Group of companies featured an illustration of a young, white woman in a see-through night gown. Next to her is the question in bold lettering, "Why is a beautiful woman like a nuclear power plant?" The answer, in small print, is given as follows. “In order to remain beautiful she must take good care of herself. . . . She schedules her rest regularly. . . . When she is not feeling well she sees her doctor. . . she never lets herself get out of shape. . . She is as trim now as she was ten years ago. . . . In other words, she is a perfect example of preventative maintenance.” (Nuclear News Buyers Guide, February 1976, quoted in Caputi 1988: 507).

Here, the nuclear industry accomplishes two tasks simultaneously. The advertisement attempts to placate public fears by implying that there is no reason to worry because the experts are in control and they will take care of the community dependent on nuclear power. It also serves to reinforce male-defined gender roles for women. The woman, like a nuclear reactor, must be perfectly maintained by male-defined science. Her ‘preventative maintenance’requires that she be slim, white and beautiful; and that she waits around all day in her see-through negligee, willing to be ‘fixed’at any moment. In this way, nuclear power is rendered ‘sexy’. It will, like this woman, give the public what it wants because it only exists to serve. The sexualizing of nuclear technology — testing grounds represented as provocative bathing suits and nuclear reactors represented as alluring women — serves to reassure the public regarding issues of safety and to keep women in their rightful, unreconstructed place. After all, who could be afraid of a sexy bomb and a pretty, white reactor? The question remains: how can women empower themselves to break out of the male-defined gender-trap, when even weapons of mass destruction are used to remind them of their place in male-defined culture?


Specific to the sexualization of nuclear technology read in its manufactured connection to the female gender, is the work of Carol Cohn. Cohn’s (1987) case study of US defense intellectuals has brought a critical spotlight to bear on the sexualizing of the language of nuclear technology and its resulting imagery. Cohn describes the work of a defense intellectual as “[formulating] what they call ‘rational’systems for dealing with the problems created by nuclear weapons: how to manage the arms race; how to deter the use of nuclear weapons; how to fight a nuclear war if deterrence fails[.] In short, they create the theory that informs and legitimates American nuclear strategic practice” (Cohn 1987: 688).

Cohn spent a year as a participant observer "immersed in the world of defense intellectuals" in order to pursue her persistent question: how could these men (and they were exclusively men save the administrative staff) think this way? (1987: 688). After learning to speak and understand their ‘specialized language’, which she refers to as ‘techno-strategic speak’, Cohn found that her own ‘rationalizations’ were changing. "Soon, I could no longer cling to the comfort of studying an external and objectified ‘them’. I had to confront a new question: How can I think this way? How can any of us?” (1987: 688). There are two central aspects of Cohn’s research. Firstly, that images of sex and death dominate the rationalization of defense-intellectual-speak; and secondly, that inherent to the technology being sexualized is the glorification of male procreation and reproduction. Illustrated here is a modern Baconian notion of male pregnancy and birth; that is, men giving birth to nuclear bombs.

Cohn was surprised at the overt nature of the sexual innuendo in the description of nuclear bombs that she found among defense strategists. In her research she notes that, “American military dependence on nuclear weapons was explained as ‘irresistible, because you get more bang for the buck.’ Another lecturer solemnly and scientifically announced ‘to disarm is to get rid of all your stuff.’ (This may, in turn, explain why they see serious talk of nuclear disarmament as perfectly resistible, not to mention foolish. If disarmament is emasculation, how could any real man even consider it?) A professor’s explanation of why the MX missile is to be placed in the silos of the newest Minuteman missiles, instead of replacing the older, less accurate ones, was ‘because they’re in the nicest hole — you’re not going to take the nicest missile and put it in a crummy hole.’ Other lectures were filled with discussion of vertical erector launchers, thrust-to-weight ratios, soft lay downs, deep penetration, and the comparative advantages of protracted/versus spasm attacks — or what one military adviser to the National Security Council has called ‘releasing 70 to 80 percent of our megatonnage in one orgasmic whump.’ There was serious concern about the need to harden our missiles and the need to ‘face it, the Russians are a little harder than we are.’”(1987: 693).

Cohn was furthermore privy to strange, ritualistic (and again, overtly sexual) gestures towards nuclear bombs such as, "patting the missile". In touching actual nuclear weapons, or weapons systems, the men of the nuclear fraternity seem to derive some sort of sexual pleasure. Their sycophantic gesticulation of missile patting summoned great excitement among the defense intellectuals. One claimed that "the only real reason for deploying Cruise and Pershing II missiles in western Europe was ‘so that our allies can pat them’" (1987:695). Having heard that Cohn was in the near vicinity of a B-1 bomber, one of her colleagues "enviously" said to her "I hear you got to pat a B-1" (1987: 695). Thus, defense intellectuals will discuss, with ‘breathless eagerness’, their exciting adventures in patting missiles, yet they will only refer to human death as ‘collateral damage’. These defense strategists appear to love sexualizing their weapons, their technology, their ‘thrust to weight ratios’, but they appear equally unwilling to articulate the outcome of the destructive power of nuclear weapons. They are interested in their creations but they altogether skip the human and earth-scale details that their creations will bring.

Along with the fetishization of nuclear technology, the development of nuclear weapons is rife with metaphors about birth. The first atomic bomb constructed at Los Alamos was called “Oppenheimer’s baby” (1987: 700).

“The hydrogen bomb was called ‘Teller’s baby’(1987: 700). Later, Teller would send a telegram to Los Alamos from Enewetak to signal the successful test of another hydrogen bomb. The telegram read: ‘It’s a boy’(1987: 701). After witnessing the Trinity Test, Laurence wrote that [t]he big boom came about a hundred seconds after the great flash — the first cry of a new-born world. . . . They clapped their hands as they leaped from the ground — earthbound man symbolising the birth of a new force” (1946: 10).

Through their visions of male technological procreation, the men of the Manhattan Project as well as today’s defense intellectuals hark back to the beginnings of modern science. Like Francis Bacon and Victor Frankenstein, the practice of the masculine-birth of technology is fathered in science. Caputi states that Shelley “conceived the exemplary monster of technological myth to be purely fathered (from dead flesh) and utterly unmothered” (1988: 511). Cohn points to the outcome of male-birth in science. “The nuclear scientists gave birth to male progeny with the ultimate power of violent domination over female nature” (1987: 701).

Beyond violence against ‘female nature’, there seems to be a normative acceptance of violence in US society, that archetypal nuclear nation, which appears to condone the iconography of atomic symbols. The mushroom cloud, symbolizing a nuclear explosion, has won its place among major cultural icons (Caputi 1993). The words: ‘atomic’, ‘nuke’, ‘mutants’, ‘meltdown’ and ‘ballistic’ show up in an array of cultural contexts (Chaloupka 1992). The predominance of nuclear imagery in US popular culture reveals a general acceptance of it. It is as if people from the US live under the rule of a nuclear mythology. Mushroom clouds, radiation signs, phallic caricature bombs, and other symbols of pending nuclear doom have been elevated to a cult status (Hilgartner 1982, Weart 1988). As the glamorized reversals of their true nature, these symbols are perceived as ‘cool’ and ‘sexy’, and as such, ‘nukes’and ‘mutants’ have won their place in culture.

Kathleen Sullivan

References cited:
Caputi, Jane. (1988) ‘Seeing Elephants: The Myths of Pallotechnology’, Feminist Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3: 487-521.
Caputi, Jane. (1993) Gossips, Gorgons & Crones: The Fates of the Earth. Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Company.
Chaloupka, William. (1992) Knowing Nukes: The Politics and Culture of the Atom. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Cohn, Carol. (1987) ‘Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 12, No. 4: 687-718.
Hilgartner, Stephen et al. (1982) Nukespeak: The Selling of Nuclear Technology in America. New York: Penguin Books.
Ruthven, Ken. (1993) Nuclear Criticism. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.
Shiva, Vandana. (1989) Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development. London: Zed Books.
Weart, Spencer R. (1988) Nuclear Fear: A History of Images. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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