States and Stilettos

The last commentary in our forum on Parashar, Tickner and True (eds.) Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations from Shine Choi. Shine is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Massey University, where her work focuses on North Korea, visuality and aesthetics. She is also an Associate Editor for the International Feminist Journal of Politics and a co-editor of the Creative Interventions in Global Politics book series. Her recent publications include ‘Questioning the International: (Un)making Bosnian and Korean Conflicts, Cinematically’, (with Maria-Adriana Deiana) in Trans-Humanities Journal. The complete set of posts in this series is available here.


Choi Shoe

In the Afterward essay to Revisiting Gendered States, Christine Sylvester suggests feminists focus on people’s experiences of the state, and as an aside, also asks us to take off our stilettos. Taking the state as an agent or structure in our studies impedes feminist objectives; it is too snug with power even if we critique it. Fashion choice is telling.

This is now the second time, in the last month, that a feminist IR reading has nudged me, as a parenthetical in a larger argument, to reconsider my fashion choice in wearing heels. And now that I think about it, I recall at least two other conversations with academics (one was a fellow IR theory friend, the other a colleague in anthropology who has now retired) where they confide how they would personally never wear heels because their colleagues would never take them seriously if they did. I had assumed their colleagues in reference were men but now I am not so sure.

These shared assumptions about heels – and stilettos perhaps being an extreme, and as a result, an easy type of heels to dismiss – in these conversations/readings are curious. They got me wondering why serious thinking, and more importantly, serious feminist politics cannot be done wearing heels. This is not the lesson we are learning from drag queens about stilettos, and I cannot help but wonder why it takes drag queens to teach us that serious affective embodied thinking and doing do happen in most ridiculous of heels, full makeup and by ‘eccentric’ looking people. Why do we have all these social, cultural gendered ideas around what serious work/wear look like?

But perhaps the kind of heels under critique or distanced here is more accurately a different kind of heels. Readers of Revisiting Gendered States are academics and most academic feminists, if in heels, are in sensible heels, heels that accentuate femininity in the masculinising world of academia and IR but do not call too much attention to itself. Different but not too different. Feminine but do not call out ‘Sex!’ These sensible heels are also heels that other working professionals in corporate settings, government agencies, and other white collar jobs wear. We call some of these feminists, neoliberal feminists, market feminists, lean-in feminists. We know the limits of such ‘feminism’ and of the professions that work within and produce agents for the structures of neoliberal state, security state, patriarchal state.

But I do not think that is the entire story, if indeed that is the story (hard to tell when these fashion injunctions are thrown in as an aside. Can someone write a ‘serious’ paper on this from a feminist IR context?). Part of the story is also about this thing about being serious, doing serious work, and being taken seriously.  It is curious that women in heels – feminists in heels – are also imagined as unbecoming, unserious figures in the masculinist academic circles, especially those who do (serious, high) theory or the marxists or humanists that take pride in working on the ground with ‘the people’. I know there are many important historical, economic, medical explanations against wearing heels but that is not the point. In a context of masculine norms structuring theory and serious intellectual work, wearing even sensible-looking heels might be something of a radical (fashion) move. In short, I don’t think there can be a single feminist position on heels and stilettos. But what about the state?

The editors of the book make a pragmatic, grounded, academic argument: While critical of the state failures to fulfill their express function to protect the ‘safety and security of women and all gender minorities’, it is important to recognise ‘the state may be the only guarantor of human rights and gender justice’ (3).  This argument is made in the context of the volume’s broader feminist research that shows how states are not gender-neutral, and further, they are patriarchal. In arguing for the concept of gendered state, Jacqui True in her chapter, argues for understanding the state as social relations that order public/private, masculine/feminine, fighter/protected and rational/emotional to establish sovereignty, and this turn structures inter-state hierarchy along other masculinist distinctions of strong over weak. Here, True and others in the volume make rigorous arguments that (should) debunk the annoyingly entrenched position that gender analysis is somehow secondary or optional political analysis. It is feminist analysis that makes visible the problematic common position in mainstream, i.e. malestream social science, and it is feminist agenda, the volume argues, to unravel the patriarchal gendered relations that states enable.

What I found helpful in this formulation is what feminist agenda is not: it is not the job of feminist IR to save the state. The volume elucidates how the state is a variable – a dominant one with a long history of benefitting from and constructing patriarchy –but at the same time, the state is not the same as objects of feminist interventions such as patriarchy, or synonymous to masculinity or hypermasculinity. Mutually constitutive but not one and the same. To be even clearer here, patriarchy, masculinity, hypermasculinity, gender – these are not so much objects of feminist interventions but objects that feminist perspectives create to make visible the insidious, all-pervasive yet not-quite-there way power, oppression and difference work. I’m outing myself here as not only a heel wearing feminist but a postie, and as a postie feminist, what I found interesting was this construction of objects of feminist interventions such that the state is not the direct object but a secondary one, if you will. This allows a wider range of analyses and insights to be part of this revisitation of questions of the state, which has been an important  starting and entry point for feminist IR to become a thing – a section at ISA, a week in an IR course, a research stream that wins grants, a journal’s platform, a career path, a network of colleagues, mentors and friends, and also a thing to be pushed back when it does not know its place. I think various figurations of the state haunt all these ways feminist IR is a thing so it is imperative that we understand it better.

The volume also offers thoughtful discussions in the face of the easy cynical position that gender, by being mainstreamed as part of the international regime of norms, diplomatic language, and good governance, has become a pawn for inter-state politics which remain masculinist and patriarchal. The various chapters suggest, yes, there is a fair bit of that but even then how gender works is not a simple case – feminist analyses offer deeper understanding of the mechanics of ‘mainstreaming’ (e.g. Gunawardana’s chapter on Sri Lanka and migration; Lee-Koo’s analysis of postconflict and post-disaster Aceh). Some of the chapters in the volume also say, no, pawning gender is not the only game in town, and there are important developments and activities that should be noted, in peacekeeping, Women Peace and Security, and femocrat foreign policy (see chapters by Pruitt and Agius). The point of feminist analyses is not to take a side on state, pro-, anti- or middling. States are relevant only so far as they are dominant sites of power and gendered social order.

That said, how closely do we need to continue to examine dominant sites and processes of power? Is there hope (t)here? Tickner and also Sylvester seem to be saying no. Tickner asks, ‘Given that we still live in a world of states, how can feminists work with, or beyond, the state to promote feminist agendas that function in the interests of all its citizens – women as well as other less privileged individuals?’ (27) Tickner’s assessment of today’s world is that an inwardly-turning caring state that some had placed hope on is not possible. Refugees and conflicts (absence of peace inside state boundaries) raise major problems for this optimism about state. Tickner argues for ‘new transformational models that take us beyond a world of states’ (9). This focus on beyond the state and the question Tickner asks is a distinctively different kind of question from that Chris Agius who asks, ‘Can states become more other-regarding?’ Or Lesley Pruitt’s question, ‘can global south states not only institutionalise masculinist systems of domination but also contribute to interrupting and disrupting them?’  The fact that pioneering feminist IR scholars, Tickner and Sylvester, are the very contributors that encourage ‘abandoning’ this line of questioning, for me, points to more complex cleavages at work. What is going on here?

I don’t know, but I don’t think moving away from state as structure or agent provides relief. Criticality is not just a knowledge postion, it is also a position of knowledge politics. Those that criticise the focus on states in this volume, those who critique feminist IR for being too establishment, too chummy with the baddies (the state), there is a politics there as well. Relevant to bring in here is another intersection that the volume highlights, the west and the postcolonial/global south/the non-west (and as an aside: I like how the book does not use this as an organising theme but interweaves the arguments and allows the chapters to bring this issue up wherever relevant. The division/category is already too rigid and static, we do not need to reinforce difference and tensions by how we organise our arguments).

In traditions where the relationship between academia and the state is not one of separation but either of aspirational separation or firm embeddedness and alignment – what would a non-Eurocentric, or even a less West-dominated feminist imagining look like? Would feminist IR here be directly critical of the state?  Would it be gender analysis as we are familiar with? Would this familiar-seeming gender analysis mean it is doing the same thing there-and-then as we have seen such analysis travel/affect?  Could it possibly take form of some other language that does not use gender as an analytic yet have disruptive effects that shift gender hierarchy effectively albeit less directly?

I am not sure if these are good, sensible feminist questions but I think these are important questions because they are questions about location and how feminist study of politics has developed. David Duriesmith’s chapter is useful here for how it places positionality at the centre of arguments about liberal state, and makes an argument for seeing states not as feminist agents but as allies. I think such distinctions of positionality needs further application within feminist studies of politics. Terms like postcolonial state and the global south state help gesture to issues of location and positionality though I am not sure if these groupings are particularly helpful for the kind of re-imaginings of feminist studies of politics that need to happen today. To start, I think we need to better understand the various roles and positions that university and academia occupy around different parts of the world rather than assume that the roles and relation to states are the same. This is clearly not the case in non-liberal states, and the politics in such contexts means gender research and academic feminism are produced differently.

We can already read in the volume issues of positionality that feminist IR must attend to. True argues unravelling patriarchal relations in the West creates tensions between Western and Non-Western patriarchies. But what Parashar’s and Pruitt’s chapters show is that we might benefit from being a bit more cautious here about how we characterise the West. How do we know patiarchy has been unravelling in the West or in the liberal circles of the West? Are we sure about that? Or more pointedly, what kind of patriarchal relations and gendered order does such position create/sustain? The assumption that brown states are worse than (white or whitened) liberal states because the former is more directly repressive often feels true. It is true but in what context, level and perspective of sight? And what use is this truth? For whom?

There is also a shared assumption in many of the chapters that women’s work outside official sites of politics, women’s rights network, transnational feminist network and the cultural underpinning that these marginalised actors and activities bring forth to the public are somehow largely a force for good, a force that unravels patriarchy. Again true, but just as states as feminist allies have complex ramifications and questionable impact on women and other nonconforming citizens and subject position, can feminist network/agents themselves be ever unambiguously effective?

Studying states is studying masculinity and being in conversation with masculinist states, cultures, bodies – it is the stuff we are swimming in – and we do not escape unscathed. To be relevant, intelligible, rational according to the policy circles we speak to/against, engage or participate in, there is an element of becoming-masculinist and swimming in the currents of malestream. This does not take away the fact that feminist IR is radical. The volume tells us states exist because of gendered order, and to ungender the state is to unravel what is essential. Unravelling patriarchy will mean unravelling international relations as we know it (42). In short, feminist politics is radical however way you dress it, in suits or heels with makeup, or in jeans and t-shirt, or in hijab or in hanbok, or in bikinis (and let us not go there about the patriarchy- colonialism-military nexus that is behind bikinis).

But in starting with the question of wearing or taking off stilettos in this book review, I want to push this position further and ask, how do we ungender our imagination? How do we unlearn the work of gendered state on us? For me this is not a question about the state or the need to move beyond state as an agent or structure, but the unquestioned importance of seriousness, serious work, serious analysis, and being taken seriously in how we (re)imagine the political. Is there something about IR that makes us too serious? How do we push at the limits of imagination in ways that reimagine the sites that give us space and time to imagine? How do we re-enter how feminism entered IR and how we ourselves entered IR as a field of study? And, can we do this in our stilettos and screaming sex?

The volume does not provide answers to these questions and contradictions in them, but it has plenty of sinewy texts to ground us, for us to play with.

Parallel Readings:

Xu, Feng (2009) Chinese Feminisms Encounter International Feminisms: Identity, Power and Knowledge Production, International Feminist Journal of Politics 11:2, 196-215.

Peterson, V Spike (1999) Political Identities/Nationalism as Heterosexism, International Feminist Journal of Politics 1: 1, 34-65.

Peterson, V Spike, Barabantseva, Elena, Ní Mhurchú, Aoileann (2018) On Intimacy, Geopolitics and Discipline: Elena Barabantseva and Aoileann Ní Mhurchú in Conversation with V. Spike Peterson, International Feminist Journal of Politics 20: 2, 258-271.

Zalewski, Marysia (2010) ‘I Don’t Even Know What Gender Is’: A Discussion of the Connections between Gender, Gender Mainstreaming and Feminist Theory, Review of International Studies 36: 1, 3-27.


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