TERRORISM AS SEXUAL ENVY: ADVERSARIAL MASCULINITIES IN TWO FICTIONS OF TICKING BOMB TORTURE
This essay examines the representations of masculinity in the torture scenes in 24 (2001-18) and Jean Lartéguy's The Centurions (1960).
From the introduction and conclusion:
"However we may constitute the genre, even a peremptory survey of counterterrorism fiction will quickly reveal that much of it is deeply invested in the emphatic lionization of conservative fantasies about masculinity. Further, this essay will argue that what often gives such narratives their urgency is the paternalist maintenance of the family boundary, an impetus often rather schematically mapped onto counterterrorist operations that reassert the integrity of the nation. This chapter looks at these gendered dynamics in two influential examples of the genre, Jean Lartéguy’s 1960 novel The Centurions, the ur-text of much modern counterterrorism fiction and the original literary iteration of the ticking bomb scenario, and Fox’s televisual counterterrorism saga 24 (2001-9), which refamiliarised global audiences with it through a populist synthesis of ideologically driven political drama and race-against-time action television. Drawing out the two common imperatives of masculinity and the family, the argument I make here is that the representations of the ticking bomb scenario in these two texts allow torture to function both as a successful strategy for defusing the threat of terrorism – repeating the myth of controlled torture as a surgical weapon of professionalized intelligence warfare – and as a reassertion of dominant codes of masculinity – explicitly connecting this torture myth to the reactionary fantasies about masculinity and heteronormativity that saturate the genre. By heteronormativity, I mean the cultural and political operations that discursively construct heterosexuality as not only normative and inevitable but, as Berlant and Warner observe, ‘coherent – that is, organized as a sexuality – but also privileged.’ In The Centurions and 24, white (colonial) heterosexuality, and the ordered functioning of society of which it is an image in miniature – coded through domesticity, the family unit, and inviolable white women – are the targets of terrorist operations, and counterterrorist masculinity functions as a guarantor, a vital sealant, of this privileged heterosexuality.
First, after 9/11 proves that apocalyptic terrorist catastrophes really are possible, colonial discourses of counterterrorist torture regain, for certain audiences, legitimacy. Central to this legitimacy and plausibility is the idea of necessity, and the ability to identify such necessity is frequently represented as belonging only to an experienced class of warrior. Secondly, torture is perceived to have an edifying effect on those who suffer it well. Not only does it provide evidence of their strength, but it demonstrates to the survivor-become-perpetrator the inevitability and value of certain forms of violence. Further, torture is presumed to always reveal truth. Consequently, when there is anything to be revealed, such as the location of a ticking bomb, torture is made to appear to be a value-neutral tool uniquely suited to discover this truth. The ticking bomb scenario provides a frame through which hegemonic counterterrorist masculinity demonstrates its superiority over terrorist masculinity, which is represented as degenerate, cowardly, and motivated by sexual inferiority complexes. As well as this competition between masculinities, there is in both texts a reassertion of white heterosexual family boundaries. When the nation-read-as-family is disrupted by terrorist attack, torturers reinstate and reinforce its unity through the violent reaffirmation of heteronormative paternalistic masculinity."
In: Terrorist Transgressions:
Gender and the Visual Culture of the Terrorist.
Edited by Sue Malvern and Gabriel Koureas (London: IB Tauris, 2014), pp. 181-201.
"As a collection of essays, Terrorist Transgressions: Gender, and the Visual Culture of the Terrorist, marks out points in an emerging conversation for a field of study that is still in the process of being defined. The primary strength of the book is that the various contributions articulate well the stakes of using visual culture as a lens through which to understand political phenomena, and the importance of gender in that analysis. [...] The other main strength of the book is the methodological diversity it showcases, illustrating for the reader just how variegated the scope of cultural analysis can be. [...] The inclusion of non-academic work by practitioners of visual culture suggests that this volume is meant to function as a tool, utilized by readers to challenge staid perceptions of what “terrorism” as a form is, and in turn what forms the analysis of terrorism should take. This is an important project if we are to adequately contend with the complex and contradictory iterations of terrorist violence, and parse out claims made on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of violence as a means of resistance."
Review by Isra Ali, published in Feminist Media Studies, 2015.