The Shapes We Mae

Why Gun Control is a Feminist Issue

ActivismLily MyersComment

by Daniel Pope

My mother once told me that, when I was a kid, she tried to keep me away from violence in movies, toy guns, and other cultural expressions of the west’s masculine obsession with violence. When watching Star Wars, I asked with wide, innocent eyes (I imagine) if the storm troopers were being killed—my mother told me no, “they’re stunning them.” But despite her efforts, one day I picked up a stick and pretended to shoot it like a gun. One day I pushed a kid on the playground. I used to dream of violent vengeance for petty grievances, used to romanticize violence and power and the masculinity that it conferred.

These things are so subtle and so deeply internalized that it almost feels like it’s part of your ontology. Or that it’s “natural.” But it’s not natural, it’s there for a purpose, it’s motivated: This masculine socialization from an early age is deeply linked to the violence that is leveled at the most vulnerable, worldwide, linked to U.S. hegemony, to sexism, to racism. And one nexus that joins these forces is the category of weaponry and weapons manufacturing. Upon close analysis, it becomes clear that the U.S. attitude about guns is sexist, and that gun control is a feminist issue.

It would be easy to start right off the bat with a comparison of the gun to a phallus. In this analogy, “open carry laws” would be tantamount to letting men pull out their penises in public, attempting to impress everyone with its size and with the power that it connotes. The phallic imagery of power is ubiquitous and well-studied. Freud wrote that in the phallic stage of psychosexual development, the male child learns of the sexual difference between himself and his female peers. When the boy sees that his father has a penis and understands that it comes with attendant power and privilege, he competes with his father for possession of the mother; upon learning of the father’s “right” over the mother, he yearns to “kill” him by replacing him once he has grown and taking a wife that is like his mother and will replace her.

This is a crude rendering of a crude theory, but one that is instructive. For Freud, the zone of the male is the zone of rationality, language, mind, power. The zone of the female is, by contrast, physical, sensual, bodily, and therefore lower than the mind. (We’re stepping beyond Freud, now, into the entire western symbolic.) The phallus is, of course, associated with the zone of male power.

We can understand through the political rhetoric of war that abstraction leads the way. Nations are pictured as being discrete entities, and described through metaphors of the body (not unlike in medieval political philosophy, in which the king was the head, the people the legs, etc.). Using these analogies, when a nation experiences a terrorist attack, it is seen as a threat to everybody. “The nation will not be brought to its knees,” our leaders tell us; “The nation will not tolerate threats.” (Carlos Escudé has written about this phenomenon as it connects to Argentinean politics.) But who does this rhetoric benefit, when it is deployed primarily for the purpose of going to war in foreign nations? Going to war so that “democracy” can be spread to the “unenlightened,” the “benighted” foreigners? Furthermore, this rhetoric of threats and weakness (cf. the trillions of times Obama has been called “weak” even though he is about the most enthusiastic employer of drones that exists) rings with hyper-masculine competitive undercurrents. Or not even undercurrents, really—it’s not very subtle.

The white supremacist/sexist/capitalist elite are the ones that benefit from war: oil companies and weapons manufacturers, to name a significant few. So launching a war off of the anthropomorphic rhetoric of international relations benefits a minority of elites, and ends up being a pretty shitty deal for the people who are shipped off to war, the people who actually have to fight it (read: the poor, the vulnerable).

But this isn’t enough for weapons manufacturers—not when they can generate a domestic market for civilians. So they use their money to lobby congress and block any gun legislation that pops up (even when it’s supported by over 80% of the U.S. population), which contributes to the horrendously high rate of gun deaths in the U.S. And worst of all, it’s all covered by a thin blanket of “rationality” which actually sounds like “shitty rationalizations.” Some women have even claimed that gun control is sexist because guns allow women to defend themselves against male attackers. Okay, sure. But violence against women is another symptom of the socialized sexism that is itself connected with the proliferation of firearms.

So we’ve gone through some abstractions, but let’s think about it more concretely. In a 2013 study, it was shown overwhelmingly that women outnumber men in the least lucrative majors, while men dominate the most lucrative. The least lucrative majors include visual and performing arts, social work, education, human services, counseling and psychology—in short, artistic or jobs related to nurturing, care, and ameliorating inequality. (The only non-lucrative major they didn’t dominate was theology and religious vocations, which comes as no surprise given the historical role of Christianity in propagating a sexist ideology.) On the other hand, in the lucrative jobs that men dominate, we have petroleum engineering, chemical engineering, mechanical and metallurgical and marine engineering. In short, all jobs that increase the power of the military and private weapons manufacturers.

So what we have is men developing and engineering weapons because it’s lucrative and male, and women attending to all of the physical and social damage of that privileging of weapons engineering. The boys that shoot up schools and movie theaters and Planned Parenthood clinics send the wounded to the women at the hospital, or the female counselors to deal with the psychological damage, and the female social workers try to support communities that are wracked with this gun violence. The burden of fixing the problems that men cause falls on the backs of women. And this has always been the case, at least in the west. It is the same in Freud: the boy’s mother nurtures him while his father teaches him how to “be a man.” Meanwhile the girls are taught to put the Band-Aids on the boys—“boys will be boys,” that dangerous tautology—they are taught that they must save the bad boy, wash the mud from his clothes, and to generally assume the “feminine” role of nurture and care and self-sacrifice.

This system is kept in place because oil companies, weapons manufacturers, the NRA, and all of the big businesses that benefit from violence (basically all of them) use their money to lobby congress and spread propaganda in a vertiginous and diffuse system of interlocking institutions that trickles down like blood into our communities, pooling around those who are most vulnerable. And this nightmare is kept in place by guns in the hands of police, in the hands of open-carriers, in the hands of soldiers in military bases all around the globe in countries that eagerly pay for U.S. government bonds—the U.S. hegemony, the white supremacist male capitalist hegemony, is kept in place by violence, pure and simple.

Imposing better gun legislation is not going to fix all that. Cops will still have guns, and they will still exist, and that will keep a racist hierarchy more firmly in place. The military will still have guns, and will continue imposing U.S. hegemony. But gun control is a feminist issue, not to mention an issue for queer and trans activists as well (one merely has to glance at the higher rate of murder among trans people to know that). The recent attack on a Planned Parenthood building makes this abundantly clear and illustrates how guns are used to enforce a system of male regulation of female bodies. In building an understanding of the issues and the structures that keep them in place, gun control must factor in. It is only one issue, but it’s an important one, and must be acted on in order to reduce the sickening frequency of these catastrophes.

Daniel Pope is a writer and musician from Seattle, Washington. Currently he is an undergrad at Wesleyan University. He loves non-human animals and Lucifer.