The Duck of Minerva

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Dan Drezner on Gender ….

September 14, 2009

I am overdue on a journal contribution I need to finish today (hopefully, the editors don’t read this blog), but couldn’t pass this one up …

Referencing an article in The Daily Telegraph called “Men Lose Their Minds When Speaking to Pretty Women,” Dan Drezner writes a blog entry on Foreign Policy, “The Trouble with Dames in World Politics,” where he, among other things, blames the Cuban Missile Crisis on Jackie Kennedy, expresses concern that Michelle Obama might be the next Helen of Troy, muses about Angelina Jolie’s relative success as a celebrity activist, and wonders what a country ruled by Salma Hayak would look like.

Alright. I know this is supposed to be funny. If I didn’t, I’d have the blog tag “humor” in Drezner’s labels to guide me. But …

Though I appreciate the effort, this is not funny. Some would call me a spoilsport, and not up for a good joke. That might be also true, but isn’t the reason I don’t find this funny.

“Mainstream” IR engages gender issues rarely if at all, and when it does, it usually does so fairly trivially. I’m not a regular reader of the Foreign Policy Blog, but back searches say that this is one of the few times issues of gender have been mentioned on the blog (other than the runner-gender “scandal,” which, had I had time, I would have weighed in on) and the only time that I can find in the archive that the IR theorists on the blog have mentioned gender issues at all.

In a joke?

Three reasons why this is not funny:

1) It trivializes gender-based work in IR.

Even Dan admits in the post (somewhere in the discussion about Angelina Jolie, gender, and celebrity activism) that there is something to be learned from thinking about gender and IR (Dan, if you’re reading this, FYI, I have a Ph.D. Candidate at Virginia Tech, Sandra Via, who is currently writing her dissertation on the very question you find interesting, about gender tropes/effectiveness of celebrity diplomacy). If there is something to be learned from studying gender and IR (certainly, about Angelina Jolie, but about most everything in international politics), then this is not the way to encourage/develop the field and those research programs, which are already struggling for resources and legitimacy.

I cannot tell you how many times I have been told that my publication record was excellent, and I’d be perfect for a job if I just studied something “respectable” or “serious,” or that I would be included in some honor or some governing body if I just “got over that gender phase” and did “real political science.” I’ve landed on my feet thanks to some great people who disagree, but I can tell you that’s the prevailing attitude towards gender-based work that I’ve encountered.

(Likely unwittingly on Dan’s part), only acknowledging gender studies in IR as a joke contributes to IR’s unwillingness to take gender (and people who study gender) seriously. While communication/miscommunication is a two-way street (most effectively demonstrated in the debate between Ann Tickner and Bob Keohane in International Studies Quarterly a decade ago), and several recent conversations (like the Feminist special issue of the journal Security Studies published this summer) have been promising, most people still study IR as if it were gender-neutral, which it is not. Its unfortunate that the position of gender studies in IR remains so marginal that something like this matters, but given the high-profile nature of this post compared to the relative exclusion of gender studies from this sort of high-profile outlet ….

2) Agency

As one of the comments to Dan’s post mentions, even the story that Dan’s post tells isn’t the “trouble with dames” (which in itself is a gender-subordinating discourse), its the trouble with men … assuming all the parameters of the discussion hold (which, if I had more time, I’d get into), men being distracted by women isn’t women’s doing, right? Women don’t seem to be assigned a lot of agency in their successes in global politics (which I’ve written about a lot before), but seem to be assigned plenty of agency in men’s transgressions and failures (which I’ve also written a lot about before).

My personal favorite was always in Byman and Pollack’s “Let Us Now Praise Great Men,” where one of two women mentioned in the article, a Czarina, matters in history: because if she wouldn’t have died, Fredrick the Great wouldn’t have achieved his full greatness …

Women matter, and have agency, in important ways in global politics – as leaders, as soldiers, as peacemakers, as seamstresses, as housewives, as prostitutes, as business executives, etc.; and where women matter (and even where they do not seem to), gender matters in the shaping of expectations associated with jobs and leadership positions, they way people in those positions are treated, and the way that they treat each other. Again, likely unwittingly, Dan’s post replicates traditional assumptions that women are at once without agency and to blame for men’s mistakes.

3) Privileging Sex in IR.

Sex (the act) matters in IR. Gender matters in IR. Women matter in IR. But women and gender don’t matter exclusively as they relate to sex (the act). By taking the joke off an article that discusses the influence of attractive women, and then joking about the influence of attractive women in IR, Dan (likely unwittingly, again), reinforces a third traditional notion about women/gender in politics: that women’s role centers around sex and sexuality. While certainly there is an overlap, there are many areas and ways in which gender matters (for example, in the security arena), where the exclusive focus is not women’s attractiveness/sexuality. That work gets less attention because it is less (pardon the double entendre) “sexy,” but matters just as much.

I’d write in a lot more detail if I had more time, but wanted to get some “food for thought” out there ….

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Laura Sjoberg is British Academy Global Professor of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway University of London and Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. Her research addresses issues of gender and security, with foci on politically violent women, feminist war theorizing, sexuality in global politics, and political methodology. She teaches, consults, and lectures on gender in global politics, and on international security. Her work has been published in more than 50 books and journals in political science, law, gender studies, international relations, and geography.