By Kristen Barber
As we walked down Market Street to the St. Louis Gateway Arch, I saw an orange, oversized paper mâché head pass by. With light rings painted around the eyes and a large swath of yellow felt for hair, it was unmistakably a representation of the now-President, Donald Trump. A ball gag was strapped tight across his mouth and a sign below his tiny black business suit read, “Putin’s Little Bitch.” The artist-activist of this sculpture drew attention to public worries about Trump’s amicable—although long denied—relationship with Russia. For a march organized around the rejection of an elected head of state, these images of bondage and submissiveness and the use of misogynistic language questioned Trump’s presidency—and his masculinity.
This paper mâché Trump received a lot of attention on the morning of January 21st, as thousands of people came together downtown for the Women’s March. Many were there objecting to Trump’s proposals around limiting women’s access to abortion and birth control, as well as his “hot mic” remarks about grabbing women “by the pussy.” Protesters criticized how this language reflects men’s entitlement to women’s bodies and questioned whether a man who marginalizes sexual assault rhetoric as “locker room talk” can actually work in the interest of women. Three days later, Trump, surrounded by a group of white men in the oval office, signed an executive gag order to keep international health organizations from counseling women on abortions—an order that will likely increase global maternal mortality rates.
Protesters in St. Louis and around the globe were serious about the social justice advocacy they were doing on the streets that day. But many were having fun, too, using humor and satire to make political statements. I saw people holding signs with tongue-in-cheek slogans that held Trump responsible for his remarks about women, calling Trump “Groper in Chief” and retorting, “This Pussy Grabs Backs!” Satire can be a powerful way to reappropriate “isms” and redirect the flow of power. The pink pussy hat that became symbolically synonymous with the march may have been cute, but they were also reminders that women refuse to be reduced to their sexual organs; they refuse sexism.
Many signs poked fun at Trump by symbolically situating him as sexually inadequate. “Keep Your Tiny Hands Off All Our Rights” played on Trump’s apparent insecurities about the size of his hands and what this says about the size of his penis. Small hands rhetoric employed by protesters was supposed to hit Trump below the belt in more ways than one. If we take seriously that masculine privilege is bought in part via heterosexual prowess—like Raewyn Connell theorizes in Masculinities—then size matters.
“POTUS is a SCROTUS,” read another sign held high and proud by a young white man standing on the steps of an old courthouse. Passersby chuckled and asked if they could take his photo. In a popular Huffington Post Op-Ed, philosopher Debra Jane Campbell debates the election of a SCROTUS: “Supremely Corruptible Ruler of the United States,” by confronting Trump’s many conflicts of interest as both president and business entrepreneur. This sign uses SCROTUS as a homonym for scrotum, reflecting popular “dude culture” that centers male genitalia and sexual vulgarity in satirical ways to bring men’s masculinity under suspicion.
Satire has a long history in protest, and it’s not uncommon to see people engage playfully in politics. This reminds me of the recent work by sociologist Anya M. Galli, who studied “glitter bombing” as a form of protest in support of LGBT rights (also see here). Throwing glitter at politicians who push sexually prejudiced legislation is a novel and humorous way to create spectacles that gain media attention and to get more people engaged. As a scholar interested in the articulation of masculinities in what might be considered “women’s” spaces, I am attuned to these kinds of protest tactics. In my co-authored work on men’s participation in the 2011 SlutWalks (also see here), it’s clear that humor makes protest fun and can be a quick and powerful way to promote a message. But I’m also concerned with what other messages get produced alongside this participation.
Gendered and sexual protest satire holds a lot of political potential. At the Women’s Marches, this type of participation allowed women to feel empowered in the face of sexism and brought people together through humor, creating a collective effervescence important in forging a continued movement. But it can also make leadership synonymous with masculinity and arguably marginalize the very people the march is organized to protect. The use of “bitch” and the ball gag as sexually submissive symbolism feminize Trump, where he can be imagined as passive and penetrable. Suggesting Trump and Vladimir Putin have sadomasochistic sex is supposed to represent current U.S./Russia political relations, conflating political authority with masculinity. References to Trump’s “tiny hands” bring his sexual adequacy into question, and associating him with a set of testicles also attacks his masculinity and upholds the importance of men’s heterosexual potential. All of these images draw on cultural metaphors between femininity and submissiveness, homosexuality, and social stigma.
Inherent in satire is the ability to protect itself from scrutiny. This is because ultimately it can be reduced to “just a joke.” But to be “in on” the joke means people have to have a shared understanding of the gender and sexual order; they have to understand sexual submissiveness is feminine and something for women, and that political leadership is culturally defined by the jockeying of masculine identities between heads of state. The images I show here ought to remind us that grappling with gender is not easy, and attempting to undermine the status quo and make provocative political statements while maintaining sensitivity to the systems of inequality you oppose is difficult work. Protest matters, as does how we protest.
Kristen Barber is an Assistant Professor with a full appointment in Sociology and is faculty affiliate in the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department. Her research and teaching focus on issues of gender and social inequalities. She is an editorial board member for Gender & Society. Her recent book, Styling Masculinity: Gender, Class, and Inequality in the Men’s Grooming Industry (Rutgers University Press, 2016), looks at the social relations involved in selling beauty to men.