Have you seen Grimes' video for "Genesis"? It came out in 2012. If you have seen it, try to remember the first time you watched it. What did you think? Women in costumes, riding in an SUV, carrying archaic weapons to the desert. It is an odd pairing for the airy, space sounds of Grimes, who is an artist whose present is physically slight, minimal, if powerful. It is this lithe figure that swings a mace in the video, from the top of the SUV.
The beginning of 2012 was when Pussy Riot staged their famous performance in the Moscow cathedral, bringing the powerful image of women in brightly colored ski masks to the world. If one was the sort of person to make gross epochalizations of history, one might say that Pussy Riot "kicked off" a period of amplified feminine weaponization. Alternatively, one might say that Pussy Riot's political protest and subsequent imprisonment resonated strongly in a world already agitated by the rampant misogyny occurring in many cultural contexts. The sort of person who believes in epochs might say that we are riding a wave of backlash to the backlash—the progress made by an inter-related era of civil and gender rights was pushed back by a conservative reaction, which is again being pushed back against by a new movement for progress. Or alternatively, one might simply say that women around the world are sick of the violence, the bullshit, and the refusal to acknowledge both, and are tired of asking nicely.
Leikeli47 is another artist who uses the ski mask in her work. The effect is palpable—unable to see her face, one is confronted with her teeth, her lips, and her tongue as she spits out the words to her songs. Words that are themselves both about weapons, and of weapons, as in her video for "C&C". She sings about the weapons her friends are carrying and ready to use, and the images play out a scenario in which someone, apparently attempting to take photographs of her and her friends on the street, is stuffed violently into the trunk of a car, and threatening gunshot effects are mimed.
This violent posturing is very much a movement of the youth, against an older generation that favors stability over progress, peaceful martyrdom over self-defense. It is, of course, tied up with issues of race and class. Earlier this year MIA released her video for "Double Bubble Trouble", which samples an older track by a pair of white British women about being in trouble for staying out late, and hacks it into an anthem for the estate projects of the future, where weapons are 3D printed, drones are fabricated, and the semiotics of internet memes become a political language. One of the most striking shots in the video is of a woman aiming a handgun while sitting on a bicycle. She turns to point the weapon at the camera over her shoulder while her body points away, in a militant re-purposing of the popular mirror selfie pose that emphasizes the shape of a woman's frame over her face. Throughout the video, young people don ski masks and pose with weapons. Three women don face veils, printed with uncanny images of a pale woman's face, and the camera angles suggest that thusly, they are invisible to the persistent surveillance inflicted upon women, the impoverished, and minorities.
There are other videos we might mention as well, such as Charli XCX's video for "You (ha ha ha)" that features a gang of women flaunting assault rifles. But, for a moment at least, let us step outside of the important form of cultural production that is music video, and look to Twitter, where women are taking up actual arms.
The Women's Protection Units (YPJ) of the Kurdish Resistance Movement was founded in the same year as Pussy Riot's famous performance, but grew to international recognition in 2014 as they began fighting against the spread of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the Kurdish regions of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. The YPJ, helped by a wide ranging social media campaign, grew in popularity in the West as images circulated of young, armed women portrayed as defending their homes against the spread of Sharia law and terrorist aggression.October 30, 2014 September 23, 2014
The YPJ—and the People's Protection Units (YPG) of which it is a part—are leftist, a political tradition with a history of using powerful images of armed women to represent their promise of equality as opposed to the oppressive regimes they have historically fought. Images of women serving in the militia during the Spanish Civil War still circulate. Soviet snipers in World War Two who happened to be women—like Roza Yegorovna Shanina who was credited with 54 confirmed kills—were made legendary by propaganda. The famous image of a Sandinista breastfeeding with a shouldered weapon has been seen by many.
In so many places, from news reports, to music videos, to Twitter, to wheat paste posters: what does the image of an armed woman mean? Why is it that this image means any more than the image of an armed man? It might simply be a feature of representational politics. It might be that there are not any more armed women now than there have been in history—it is just that through a historical avoidance of that image (outside of particular leftist circles) coupled with a wider resurgence of that image, we draw the conclusion that the numbers of armed women are growing.
But even if it were simply a representational issue, the images bring to mind a particular phrase: "misandry". Misandry is literally the inverse of misogyny, but it is the word used by sexist men to describe the threat of feminism to their sexist way of life. While the word "misandry" literally means a form of violence, is used to describe such indignities as recognizing that women are more than 50% of the human species, having to treat women like people, and being forced to bear the brunt of public criticism when they refuse to do so. The threat of feminism to these men is that they will have to give up the privilege and power that they currently enjoy, as they are coerced into treating people equally. This theft of privilege that they might suffer is the potential "violence" of misandry.
And therefore, the image of a woman who is armed, and therefore less likely to suffer the actual, literal, historically widespread violence of misogyny—as has been status quo for thousands of years—represents that threat of "misandry" to misogynist men. The image of an armed, masked woman not afraid to use violence against violence is perceived as a threat against men, by men who are already predisposed to see themselves as violent towards women. That these men see an armed woman as a threat, rather than an obvious ally, exposed the already violent oppression of the male-dominated "peace" that such a woman would potentially disturb.
The label of "misandry" applied in this way makes the image of an armed woman an epochal symbol against such oppressive, systemic violence. But it also does not have to be. Alternatively, one might simply see that women, as always, may carry arms if they want to, and may wear masks if they want to; just as men, the rich, and the white have always been privileged to do. It is not necessary to call them anything, to make them a symbol of anything, or to treat them as representative of anything. They might not need anyone to make any sort of historical or cultural pronouncement about them, along any lines, feminist, anti-capitalist, or anti-racist. All they need is simply what any human being has ever needed—the ability live as they like, in security and with respect.