Power Grabs, Pussy Grabs, or Both? What gender analysis can teach us about state war rhetoric during COVID-19

Caroline Hayes
Caroline is pursuing her master's degree at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where she concentrates on gender analysis, human security, and Middle East studies. She has worked with the U.S. Department of State and several international nonprofit organizations focused on gender and development.

Many public leaders have taken decisive action throughout the pandemic, proposing and implementing policies to control the spread of the virus and curb its negative effects. These state responses to the pandemic have varied immensely, as has their effectiveness. Though it is essential to examine the efficacy of policies implemented, we must scrutinize the way that they are packaged and justified, as well as the impact of political language surrounding COVID-19.

Across the globe, political leaders are not only using militarized terminology and metaphors, but also mobilizing armies and even replacing public health officials with military generals. Recently, media outlets and scholars began to identify this war rhetoric and its ineffectiveness in responding to one of the greatest public health crises of our time. I want to suggest that this analysis must go further – by applying a gender analysis to the militarized rhetoric and responses of state leaders, themes begin to emerge that reveal a backdrop of structural power dynamics and control.

Placing a gender lens alongside a critical linguistic analysis of war-framing gives us insight into how state leaders have used the rhetoric of militarized nationalism during COVID-19 to justify the consolidation of power, shield the powerful from responsibility, and (re)produce masculine domination in the name of national security.

I. WARTIME RHETORIC, NATIONALISM, AND CONTROL

Across borders, the pandemic has been consistently framed as a war that states are battling. In the U.S., Donald Trump referred to himself as a “wartime president”, while in the U.K., Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed every citizen was “directly enlisted” in the country’s fight against the virus. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro called it a fight against the “invisible enemy”.

We’ve begun to see increased attention paid in the media and academia to recognizing patterns of state and public health officials’ reliance on war metaphors. In a study conducted by four major institutions focused on public health, including Women in Global Health and Harvard Medical School, researchers analyzed statements and speeches about COVID-19 made by 20 political leaders (10 male, 10 female) around the world. They found that 17/20 of the included leaders specifically describe the pandemic using the terminology ‘war’, ‘battle’, ‘fighting’, or ‘enemy’.[i] In one example, French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron states: “We are at war, admittedly a health war: we’re fighting neither an army nor another nation. But the enemy is there, invisible, elusive, and it’s making headway.” Here, Macron, like many world leaders invoking military metaphors, sets the stage for an “us vs. them” dynamic in the “battle” against the virus.

At first glance, the strategy to rely on wartime rhetoric to spur public urgency and action seems to make sense. Politicians and health officials use this language to convey the level of the pandemic’s severity, and adjacently, to build collective motivation to follow public health and safety guidelines. But the problem with using war to build cohesion is that it’s a concept that involves opposing forces – if the virus Macron and his counterparts are referring to here is “them”, who is “us”? Diving deeper into the commonalities between state leaders’ rhetoric surrounding COVID responses suggests a troubling response to this question: themes of nationalism emerge underpinned by formidable power dynamics in establishing control of both borders and bodies.

Geopolitical Control: Consolidating Power and Shifting Blame

Shortly after declaring “we are at war” on March 16th, Macron suspended municipal elections and warned against any violations of his emergency measures.[ii] Although there was still significant uncertainty and panic about the coronavirus at the time and Macron’s Green Party would likely win the election regardless, the use of war metaphors to justify suspending democracy aligned with what has become modus operandi for leaders looking to assert political control: the continued displacement of democratic processes through the consolidation of power and shifting blame.

In a classic case of bait-and-switch, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban used rhetoric of “battling COVID-19” as a ruse to pass emergency legislation, effectively setting up a dictatorship that canceled all elections and allowed Orban to rule by decree indefinitely. And further, Orban’s indefinite state of emergency prescribes five-year prison sentences for those allegedly disseminating false information. The line between “disseminating false information” and democratic dissent collapses, specifically in the case of what looks like a textbook authoritarian move to centralize power.

In Bolivia, within just five speeches about COVID-19, interim president Jeanine Añez used war metaphors 26 times. In one speech, Añez stated, “I will dedicate 100% of my time to fighting for the health of Bolivians. It will be a tough battle and it will be a long one, but I want you to know that it is a battle that we are going to win if we do it among all Bolivians.”[iii] Immediately following this speech, her purported transitional government announced that the presidential election on May 3rd to replace Evo Morales was postponed indefinitely. This plea for patriotic unity was a thinly veiled autocratic power play; it is hard to believe that Añez’s real intent behind using this rhetoric was to build national solidarity in preventing the spread of COVID, rather than reasserting political control through the suspension of democratic processes.[iv]

One strategy that populist leaders have used in their speeches in order to maintain political control is to shirk responsibility for the disastrous impact of the pandemic and their ineptitude in responding to it. Perhaps most visible is President Trump’s constant reference to COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus,” rather than using its official or scientific name. Throughout his speeches, Trump consistently peppered in references to China as a scapegoat; in his speech on March 14, 2020, he said, “It’s something that nobody expected. It came out of China, and it’s one of those things that happened.”[v]

Both Trump and Brazil’s Bolsonaro point their fingers at China and the media for their role in the pandemic. On March 24, 2020, Bolsonaro accused the media of stoking panic in the nation: “Considerable part of the media went against the grain. They spread exactly the feeling of fear, with the announcement of the large number of victims in Italy as their flagship.”[vi] By employing this “wasn’t me” strategy, state leaders reinforce the “us vs. them” equation, assigning the responsibility of their own government failures to an external source.

And these examples are the tip of the iceberg. Although it might seem understandable that officials often resort to war analogies to foster a sense of urgency and national cohesion in a public health emergency, pulling back the curtain just slightly reveals a number of leaders evoking nationalist wartime rhetoric to exploit this crisis and expand their geopolitical control by consolidating power and scapegoating.

Corporeal Control of Civilians through Obedience and Silence

Another linguistic strategy that political leaders have pulled out of their toolbox is the appeal to citizens to espouse their patriotic duty and follow orders. This call for citizens to “fall in line” for the health of the nation is effectively a call for public obedience. When state officials invoke rhetoric equating private citizens to the likes of soldiers in war, it is cloaked in the appeal for subordination. As with any good soldier, silence and complicity are valued, whereas dissent is punished.

This state rhetoric used to assert public control over private bodies surfaces on numerous occasions. In a 60 Minutes interview on March 22, 2020, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated “[W]e are in a war against this virus and all Australians are enlisted to do the right thing. We can give instruction. We can enforce them… If it’s not observed, then very draconian measures will have to be introduced that might otherwise have been unnecessary.” Morrison in a sense “drafts” Australians into the military without their consent and threatens to discipline them through draconian measures, should they challenge his administration’s power.

A central component to the demand for obedience is silence. In the U.K., Boris Johnson’s similar statement that every citizen was “directly enlisted” in the fight against the virus was followed by passage of the Coronavirus Bill, expanding government authority to detain and isolate people, as well as banning protests and shutting down transportation infrastructure. While the severity of COVID-19 necessitates strong restraint of human movement, the Coronavirus Bill goes too far. Its sunset clause is an absurdly long two years, and it dramatically expands policing power to silence and detain protestors and restrict civil resistance to authority. Most recently, these restrictions were invoked to suppress women’s protests in London over the murder of Sarah Everard, where women reported being dragged across the ground by police. In the same week, a policing bill was debated in Parliament that would “lead to harsher penalties for damaging a statue than for attacking a woman.”

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte compared his COVID-19 response to his tactics to fight the country’s “war on drugs”: “we shall fight this pandemic with the same fervor as our campaign against illegal drugs, criminality, insurgency and corruption in high places and entrenched parochial interests.” What this meant in practice was Duterte doubling down on his previous record of human rights violations by passing a national emergency bill that sanctioned punitive measures against people spreading “false information” about COVID, or in other words, stifling political dissent and criminalizing “disobedience”.

The consolidation of power, pointing of fingers, and dissolution of democratic processes enabled through use of war rhetoric all serve to shield leaders from accountability mechanisms, shrouded in the moral guise of saving lives from the virus. Invoking the language of war also affords state officials and leaders increased opacity over their decision-making processes. In the study of 20 state leaders, public health researchers cautioned against the reliance on war metaphors, as they can serve as a bulwark to the dissemination of direct and crucial information: “In times of crisis, those in charge may be quick to fall back on existing structures of response that are not transparent. The decisions made in these times, particularly in attempting to mitigate a disease outbreak, will invariably affect and rely on the public.”[vii] In this way, equating a public health emergency with a war shields decision-makers at the top from censure or accountability for their actions.

II. THE GENDERED DIMENSIONS OF WAR RHETORIC

The rise in war rhetoric and militarized discourse is deeply troubling; as leaders and governments look to assert control over state institutions as well as human bodies, voices and dissent are silenced and mechanisms to ensure accountability become fragmented. A gender analysis provides a lens for looking not only at the demographic impact of the pandemic, as has been written about at length and in detail here and here, but critically, helps to uncover the power dynamics that are produced and reproduced by state leaders’ reliance on war rhetoric with the contours of nationalism.

The power dynamics that underscore nationalism and militarism are heavily shaped by gender ideologies of masculinity. Spike Peterson, a prominent feminist IR scholar, offers an approach to answering the question of how and why nationalist rhetoric is tied to masculinity: “A gender-sensitive analysis improves our map of nationalism. It illuminates the processes of identity formation, cultural reproduction, and political allegiance that are key to understanding collective identities and their political impact. It also helps us understand the dynamics of domination.[viii] In the context of COVID-19, state attempts to harness, and often exploit, these processes that inform the formation of a collective national identity are grounded in dynamics of domination, or the ability to control.

Nationalism and Masculinity

Following President Trump’s release from the hospital after he was treated for COVID-19, his first instruction to the nation was “Don’t let it dominate you. Don’t be afraid of it.” Firstly, it should be noted that Trump certainly did not “dominate” the virus: he was treated and cared for diligently by the very scientists he sneers at. Secondly, promoting the idea that COVID could be controlled by refusing to be submissive is not only insulting to the hundreds of thousands of people who had already lost their lives to the virus, but it’s also dangerous in Trump’s conflation of controlling the virus with the idea of domination.

It is hardly a topic of debate that President Trump is a public figure defined by hyper-masculinity, an admission (and sometimes an advertisement) even members within his own party have acknowledged. No statement is more telling or notorious than Trump’s assertion that he can grab women by their pussies, trumpeting his power to dominate women’s bodies without their consent. This rhetoric of masculine dominance over women’s bodies is not only present throughout the trajectory of Trump’s own populist ascent, but it is present throughout the history of nationalist movements.

Across a tapestry of geopolitical and cultural contexts, women and femininity are used as symbols of nationhood, emblematic of what must be defended from foreign “invasion”.[ix] In what seems on its surface to be  a harmless rhetorical device, the constant and unquestioned use of the pronouns “she” and “her” in referring to land actually has catastrophic and corporal consequences throughout the history of armed conflict and nationalist movements, particularly in looking at rape as a weapon of war. When women’s bodies and femininity are connected to the land, their bodies become tangible sites for the display of metaphorical domination.

Cynthia Enloe, renowned researcher of war, conflict, and gender, traces the history of a number of nationalist movements, their complicated relationships with colonialism and capitalist globalization, and the deeply gendered, patriarchal national identities that define them in her book Bananas, Beaches and Bases. She argues, “Even when they have been energized by nationalism, many women have discovered that, in practice, as women, they often have been treated by male nationalist leaders and intellectuals chiefly as symbols—patriarchally sculpted symbols—of the nation. Women have served as symbols of the nation violated, the nation suffering, the nation reproducing itself, the nation at its purest.”[x] The symbolic connection between women and the land and men as “her” protector and conqueror has revealed itself in many investigations and analyses of the tragic phenomenon of sexual violence as a site of nationalist domination.

The growing body of research in the past few decades on sexual violence in war and conflict has informed the progress of post-conflict law in addressing this issue, notably in the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court which established sexual violence, including rape, as a war crime for the first time. While there’s been a noticeable shift in awareness around the effects of conflict on women’s bodies physically in the human rights and international law regimes, this awareness often fails to progress to a structural critique of gendered power dynamics that buttress the concept of security and the institution of “defense”. In the context of COVID-19, part of this gendered structural critique necessitates questioning the nationalist rhetoric state leaders use around “security” and the dangerous dogmas that follow.

Sexuality and Security

In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro employed a homophobic slur to influence the national opinion of essential public health protocols, claiming masks were worn only by “fairies,” or “coisa de viado”. The feminization of mask-wearing began to bind itself to political rhetoric simultaneously in the United States, where Donald Trump’s refusal to wear a mask trickled down to his rallies: his supporters told reporters, “wearing a mask is submission” and “looks weak.”[xi] Right-wing talking heads reproduced the politics of un-masked masculine dominance, suggesting Joe Biden “might as well carry a purse with that mask.” These state leaders who identify as “strongmen” and refuse to follow basic public health measures in the name of hetero masculine dominance put millions of lives at risk. In this way, the construction of national political identities using the dynamics of sexualized domination has deadly consequences.

The dynamics of domination play a critical role in the strategic project to exploit the COVID response through the control of gender performance and sexuality.[xii] This can be seen in efforts to control bodies that deviate from heteronormativity through authoritarian attempts to reassert the state’s “manhood” in the name of national security. When gender identity or sexual practice is performed that is not aligned with the production of male dominance and female subordination, the dichotomous power dynamics that reproduce male privilege through the control of women are disrupted. For state leaders and officials who seek to assert authority using rhetoric grounded in gendered nationalism, the fragmentation of structural masculine domination thus generates state anxiety over sexual practice and performance.

Invoking war rhetoric to justify the policing of gender and bodies that deviate from the norm has become a strategy to assert national authority during COVID-19. As such, the patriarchal violence woven into militaristic rhetoric isn’t just theoretical – it has real effects. In the context of the Hungarian Prime Minister’s use of wartime discourse to justify an authoritarian power grab, he declared emergency powers to justify the prohibition of transgender people from legally changing their sex. The bill introduced “gender at birth” in the Hungarian Civil Registry as an unalterable category in place of “gender”. This sweeping legislative move, made by Orban’s right-wing Fidesz party, had nothing to do with fighting the effects of the virus or supporting public health, but instead revealed the intent to masculinize statehood by policing bodies that don’t fit neatly into heteronormative boxes. Following the Fidesz announcement, Ordan’s press secretary, Zoltán Kovács, exclaimed in a posted comment online, “We’re in a state of emergency, by the way. Lives are at stake.” Yes, lives are at stake. The question is, whose lives really count according to the Hungarian state?

In April, the Panamanian Ministry of Health imposed gender-based quarantines requiring women and men to quarantine on alternate days. This declaration made by the Panamanian state was an excuse to demand public displays of gender performance that only exist in the male-female binary. On April 1, police detained Bárbara Delgado, a transgender woman, claiming that she was a man and out on “the wrong day.” The policing of non-normative bodies under the guise of “public health” during COVID-19 is a cruel irony, because in reality, these measures do more to cause harm to citizens than to keep them safe. Further, evidence of police violence against transgender people was documented in the case of Mónica, a transgender woman who was detained by police and brought to Casa de Justicia Comunitaria de Paz Pedregal. Officers inappropriately touched her breasts and mocked her about being a man during a body search, as well as threatened to put her in a cell with 200 men. She told Human Rights Watch, “The [COVID-19] measures have empowered police to discriminate and we, transgender people, need urgent help.” While Panama supposedly imposed these quarantine measures for the safety of the nation, the experiences of Bárbara and Mónica trouble the idea of what national security really means and who gets access to it.

III. THE LASTING IMPLICATIONS OF GENDERED NATIONALISM

Constructing an “us vs. them” brand of nationalism using wartime rhetoric is not an effective way to frame a public health crisis and has dangerous implications for the world’s most marginalized. Although war rhetoric is often rationalized as an effective means to inspire public adhesion to protocols in order to prevent the spread of the virus, a linguistic analysis of state leaders’ rhetoric across borders has proved otherwise: embedded in the speeches are patterns of nationalism that seek to control borders and bodies. The implications of this rhetoric have real and lasting effects: “us vs. them” rhetoric increases the inequitable allocation of already scarce resources due to intersecting oppressions, and secondly, crowds out the possibility for reimaging ways to generate solidarity across community, domestic, and international scales.

Scarce Resources and Intersectionality

A gendered analysis of power structures shows how COVID-19 is affecting marginalized populations disproportionately. When state leaders use war metaphors, suggesting the nation must defeat the “enemy,” the “us vs. them” dynamic can tip the scale even farther away from marginalized populations in the fight for scarce resources. Cynthia Enloe argues “because a nation is framed as an ‘us,’ it puts a premium on belonging. It has a strong potential to be exclusivist, even xenophobic. Women active in ethnic minority communities, especially in new immigrant communities, are wary of nationalism’s exclusivist tendencies.”[xiii] In this way, nationalism (and relatedly, masculinity) is constructed in opposition to an “other”. And state leaders who are using nationalist rhetoric contribute to the augmented “othering” of already marginalized populations.

Women, non-binary and gender non-conforming people are affected differently by COVID-19. Applying an intersectional framework to COVID’s impact on communities in the United States shows how for poor communities and people of color, specifically Black women, the crisis has produced dire economic consequences, and the burden has not been distributed equally. Outside the U.S., there is no doubt that the longer-term impact of the crisis will continue to exacerbate and re-produce structural inequalities for marginalized communities around the world. In conflict and humanitarian settings, statistics and data collected analyzing short-term impact of the crisis have already raised alarm among human rights groups and NGOs. When state leaders continue to frame this crisis as a war, while advocating for collective sacrifice for the “good of the nation”, they ignore the reality of intersecting oppressions on a global scale.

Additionally, likening COVID-19 to a war misallocates scarce resources because it further rationalizes the higher expenditure on military and defense, rather than distributing adequate funds to health infrastructure and social safety nets that save lives and actually make good on the promise of security. In September, the Washington Post reported that U.S. taxpayer money intended for masks, ventilators, and swabs ultimately went to military equipment. The Department of Defense was allocated $1 billion through the CARES Act to obtain and deliver PPE throughout the U.S. during the early days of the pandemic when essential workers were desperate for supplies. The Pentagon, however, redirected this emergency spending so that $183 million went to firms including Rolls-Royce and ArcelorMittal to maintain the shipbuilding industry, tens of millions of dollars for satellite, drone, and space surveillance technology, and $2 million to a domestic manufacturer of Army dress uniform fabric. During a time when U.S. defense spending was already at an all-time high ($686B in FY2019), the critical funding specifically intended to bolster PPE supply chains, potentially saving countless lives, was misleadingly used to produce non-pandemic related military equipment. Following the money in U.S. defense spending shows how our security sector prioritizes an idea of national “strength” coded in force and violence rather than physical health and wellbeing. Moving forward, in thinking about both how we frame this pandemic and how we equitably allocate resources, the lessons we learn from the fraught history of patriarchal violence in militarized, nationalist discourse should teach us to ask ourselves: “who benefits?” and “who pays the price?”

Reimagining Security

State leaders who employ militaristic language obfuscate real societal problems that have compounded effects of racial, gendered, and economic oppressions. Engaging in a gender analysis to demonstrate COVID’s disproportionate impact on marginalized groups is absolutely essential – it uncovers fundamental issues like the inequitable distribution of resources. But beyond the policy level, we must continue to reevaluate the language that we use to describe the coronavirus pandemic because it determines how we respond to it.

Looking at state rhetoric framing the crisis shows how it has enabled state leaders to amplify a masculinist nationalism, weaponizing the idea of a patriotic fight against the “other”, in order to accumulate power free from censure. But even in states with leaders who don’t necessarily have authoritarian intentions to consolidate power, this resort to war rhetoric crowds out the opportunity to reimagine linguistic strategies that would build solidarity and promote equitable allocation of care and resources to communities who are hardest hit.

Back in March 2020, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg held a press briefing to address questions and concerns of the nation’s children. She remarked, “Many children find this scary. I understand that well. It’s allowed to get a little scared when so many big things happen at once. It is allowed to be a little scared to get infected by the coronavirus.”[xiv] Solberg’s compassionate and honest words hit home for many, both literally and figuratively, and sounded more like a dialogue between the state and the citizen than a patronizing, barking order.

A fear-based approach that uses militarized wartime rhetoric will only cultivate divisiveness through an “us vs. them” mentality, and it reflects a masculinist disdain for communal approaches to solving societal problems. Instead, by using language that appeals to empathy, solidarity, and respect for fellow human beings, we can begin to imagine a public health response with an inclusive framing for meeting complex security challenges, and further, destabilize systems of domination.

 

[i] Dada et al., “Words Matter,” 20.

[ii] Dada et al., “Words Matter,” 22.

[iii] Dada et al., “Words Matter,” 22.

[iv] After attempting to institute hardline policy reforms and secure a permanent position as President, Añez bowed out of the Election in September 2020.

[v] Dada et al., “Words Matter,” 15.

[vi] Dada et al., “Words Matter,” 15.

[vii] Dada et al., “Words Matter,” 27.

[viii] Peterson, “Gendered Nationalism,” 83.

[ix] Ng, “Unmasking Masculinity,” 700.

[x] Enloe, Bananas, Beaches and Bases, 87.

[xi] Theidon, “A Forecasted Failure,” 532.

[xii] See Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1999) for a complete definition of “gender performance”.

[xiii] Enloe, Bananas, Beaches and Bases, 88.

[xiv] Dada et al., “Words Matter,” 23.

 

References

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Dada, Sara, Henry C Ashworth, Marlene Joannie Bewa, and Roopa Dhatt. “Words Matter: Political and Gender Analysis of Speeches Made by Heads of Government during the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Preprint. Public and Global Health, September 15, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.09.10.20187427.

Enloe, Cynthia H. Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. Updated ed. with a new preface, [Nachdr.]. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2004.

Ng. “Unmasking Masculinity: Considering Gender, Science, and Nation in Responses to COVID-19.” Feminist Studies 46, no. 3 (2020): 694. https://doi.org/10.15767/feministstudies.46.3.0694.

Peterson, V. Spike. “Gendered Nationalism.” Peace Review 6, no. 1 (March 1994): 77–83. https://doi.org/10.1080/10402659408425777.

Theidon, Kimberly. “A Forecasted Failure: Intersectionality, COVID-19, and the Perfect Storm.” Journal of Human Rights 19, no. 5 (October 19, 2020): 528–36. https://doi.org/10.1080/14754835.2020.1822156.