‘A technocracy of sensuousness’: music video in international politics

A citeable version of this article including an academic bibliography originally appeared at e-International Relations on 20 April 2018.

Music video reveals how people imagine world politics. This claim is hard to contest given the documented geopolitical influence of other popular cultural artefacts including superhero films and comics, counter-terrorism procedural dramas, military shooter video games, or satirical cartoons. On one level there is a politics of what examples of these popular cultural forms these media depict, as well as the geopolitical imaginations or militarised attachments that the pleasures of engaging with them might help to produce. On another level, such media forms have all allowed researchers of world politics and international security to derive new theoretical and interpretive insights from the kinds of artefacts they are and how their viewers, readers or players interact with them.

While music video has been a major popular cultural force since the (global) rise of MTV in the 1980s, it has been subject to little study within the popular culture-world politics (PCWP) continuum even when compared to popular music in general. Perhaps the art form (a combination of a recorded song with dance performances and/or short narrative or non-narrative film, which may or may not directly reflect any of the song’s lyrical content) seems bereft of enough meaning to be worth analysing, particularly in contrast to a big-budget Hollywood movie about US soldiers in World War II or a videogame that places virtual weapons into a player’s hands. That being stated, we should not ignore music video as a medium for providing narratives of military masculinity, American exceptionalism and the ‘Good War’ – or other significant narratives in world politics.

Perhaps part of the problem is that music video needs not depend on narrative for making sense. Moreover, its aesthetics have often been seen as a collapse of meaning, with its textual content being fairly simple and rendered in the form of lyrics that the images may dramatise. Even when popular culture and world politics research manages to account for images as well as plot and dialogue, many music videos might seem too trivial even for empirical analysis. Often, in commercial music video, all performers seem to do is dance or mime the words as if they were actual singing. And yet from feminist and postcolonial perspectives, the spectacle of bodies moving to music in a transnational economy of desire cannot but be political: the fashions and fantasies of music video exemplify societies’ gendered and racialised ‘cultural archive’.

Historically, conceptually, and methodologically, therefore, studying music video makes new contributions to the wider and wider literature on how popular culture and world politics are intertwined. It shows how the emergence of music video as a promotional and communicative technology was constructed by cultural critics as the manifestation of ‘postmodernism’ in practice, and how this imagination became a way of making sense of the confusing apparently new dynamics of conflict after the Cold War. It focuses our attention towards performance and stardom, and spectators’ affective relationships with the performing body, as often neglected aspects of audio-visual meaning. And, when we go on to consider how music video mediates spectators’ affective relationships to performing bodies, it reveals that geopolitical imaginations take their emotional charge from the intimate politics of identification and desire that popular music taps into even more effectively in audio-visual form.

Music Video, MTV and the Cultural Politics of the Late Cold War

The history of music video, for most scholars who deal with it, conventionally divides itself into pre- and post-1981, before and after the launch of MTV. Technologies for screening ‘illustrated songs’ had existed since sound began to be synchronisable with film, including the almost-forgotten Panoram visual jukebox of the 1940s. In fact, pop and rock bands in the 1960s and 1970s had increasingly filmed promotional clips  to reach international audiences that they could never have performed for in person. MTV represented a platform that affirmed music video as a specific type of cultural artefact, and an early global application of the medium of satellite TV, which possessed the potential to disrupt terrestrial broadcasting’s dependence on the nation-state as its main level of organisation (scholars of media and transnationalism would debate throughout the 1990s and 2000s how far it succeeded in doing so). It also represented, and did not even try to conceal, a mission of consumerist enlightenment and an expression of US soft power. From the start, its branding and visual identity connoted an ‘American’ militarised imagination of technological modernity and the supposedly inevitable spread of US cultural influence, famously announcing itself to viewers with the image of an Apollo 11 astronaut planting an animated MTV flag on the Moon.

During the 1980s, music video worked in tandem with film to communicate the aesthetics of the post-Vietnam ‘remasculinization of America’, broadcasting war and action movies to audiences outside as well as inside the USA. Amanda Howell has written that the heavy presence of electric guitar on the Top Gun soundtrack associated its imaginary of jets, flight and US technological dominance of the air with the ‘rock masculinity’ of Tom Cruise’s motorbike-riding pilot: the circuit of associations flowed back to let the legitimacy of US air defence spending benefit from the cool factor of the leather flight jackets and Ray-Bans whose sales were poised to soar. Clearly, the duo of music video and film was responsible for popularising Top Gun’s style. Top Gun pioneered the use of music video as an additional form of film advertising (using film footage in three smash-hit videos for Kenny Loggins’ ‘Danger Zone’, Berlin’s ‘Take My Breath Away’ and the ‘Top Gun Anthem’ itself), meaning many viewers encountered these invitations to gaze on the eroticised masculine cool of US airpower through music videos before they even saw the film (as the videos were meant to entice them to do).

In many instances, music video was interwoven with cinema to inject this stylised militarism into the popular geopolitics of the late Cold War. However, the cultural imaginaries that music video could document and help to generate were not confined to America: the sexual revolution of the movida madrileña in post-Franco Spain, and the last burst of Yugoslav socialist consumerism amid the economic and constitutional crisis after Tito, were mediated through the medium as well. Via  similar cultural translations associated with television formats, transnational media history demonstrates how national pop industries filtered the aesthetics of MTV through local cultural meanings of style and consumption to signify aspiration and modernity however those were locally understood.

The aesthetics of Anglo-American music video in the late 20th century readily equipped it to symbolise postmodernism as a practical aesthetic. Its heavy use of montage and jump-cut techniques, its often-dizzying sense of context collapse, its frequent intertextuality and its attitude of pastiche were an everyday manifestation of what theorists such as Frederic Jameson seemed to be talking about. Critics such as E Ann Kaplan bound MTV in particular to the idea of ‘postmodernism’ so successfully that by 1993 postmodernism had become what Andrew Goodwin called the ‘academic orthodoxy’ for scholars of music television. As Goodwin and his fellow editors of the Sound and Vision music video reader argued, this was often at the cost of engaging with music video’s place in the wider music industry’s political economy. At the same time, war itself was starting to appear postmodern, by differing from Cold War expectations of ‘modern’ and ‘conventional’ war.

Music Video and ‘Postmodern’ Conflict: New Aesthetics for ‘New Wars’?

Notions such as Mary Kaldor’s ‘new wars’ drew from conflicts at the dawn of the 1990s, when both the first Gulf War and the apparently multiplying number of ‘civil wars’ and ethnopolitical conflicts seemed to epitomise as postmodern warfare. The Gulf War, relayed as spectacular entertainment by the international news network CNN, famously made the arch-postmodernist Jean Baudrillard argue that the war had been constituted by its televisual representation to such an extent that it effectively had not taken place. The ethnopolitical violence and urban warfare of conflicts such as the Yugoslav wars also seemed to fit their own postmodern script: such wars and their causes appeared jumbled and surreal both to Western eyes accustomed to perceiving those regions as unknowable, and to citizens of the countries where everyday life seemed to have turned into a baffling new reality almost overnight. Boundaries between civilian space and the front line had been blurred, laws of war were being violated by design and the strategies belligerents used to forcibly change the ethnic map looked very different to the large-scale clashes of regular state armed forces under nuclear shadow that Cold War strategists had anticipated. The surreal mixture of globalised youth culture – symbolised by MTV – and ethnic hatred that confronted war correspondents interacting with many of these wars’ rebels and paramilitaries seemed just one more layer of this conceptual frame for explaining what seemed to be changing about global security and war.

Music video, in tandem with advertising and fashion photography, had meanwhile circulated styles and masculinities transnationally to which participants in post-Cold-War conflicts could turn in defining cultural identities of ‘self’ and ‘other’. In fact, the media on different sides of these conflicts that represented combatants and other participants in conflict, aggregating individual experiences into collective narratives in the process, perhaps used these transnational frameworks of style as a basis for contrasting ‘self’ and ‘other’ more often. The young volunteers who Croatian media turned into patriotic symbols of a nation with a modern, Western cultural identity rising in self-defence supposedly went to the front with Guns ‘n’ Roses songs on their lips and Walkman headphones in their ears as readily as British Tommies in the First World War had (just as mythically) marched towards the front line singing ‘Tipperary’.

The image of Sarajevo’s underequipped defenders as a highly-motivated, ragtag band of peace-loving rockers forced into war was not untruthful – rock music was already a symbol of the city’s cultural identity, and the Sarajevo rock scene in the 1980s had given rise to nostalgically remembered last-ditch attempts to reinvent multi-ethnic Yugoslavia – but quickly became myth, first through the work of local and foreign war photographers, then via Danis Tanović and Zvonka Makuc, the director and costume designer of Ničija zemlja (No Man’s Land) [2001], who dressed Branko Đurić’s reluctant Bosniak soldier in a mismatched uniform and tattered t-shirt bearing the logo of the Rolling Stones.

Today’s configurations of what James Der Derian has called the ‘Military–Industrial–Media–Entertainment Network’, meanwhile, do not even require music video to be transmitted through broadcast television. Online video platforms, with YouTube chief among them, have decoupled music video from TV and catapulted it into the realm of digital media. Just as popular culture and world politics research has inseparably become research into digital communications and new media, music video scholarship has also taken a new digital turn.

Music Video and Digital Media Today

The frequency with which journalists compare the editing, pace and soundtrack of ISIS recruitment videos to MTV as well as Hollywood starts to reveal that, without realising how music video’s aesthetic practices engage the viewer (via an affective, embodied politics of spectatorship that feminist film scholars already understand), it is hard to grasp how these audiovisual artefacts which so perplex security services create the bonds of identification that persuade sympathisers towards militancy. This goes equally for Islamist networks and the far-right and white supremacist groups that synchronise videos of their mobilisation and training with tracks from the libraries of epic ‘trailer music’ that give video game and film trailers their characteristic soundscapes.

Yet digital media’s effect on how music video operates in world politics reaches further than networks of extremism and militancy. YouTube has supplanted MP3 blogs as the chief site of music micro-archiving – an important practice of digital memory and postmemory for many diasporas, including post-Yugoslav ones – offering users new audiovisual possibilities for creative remembering by synchronising audio with their own montages of still or moving images depicting their community or nation. Digital video cameras and editing software render it much simpler and cheaper to make, let alone disseminate videos, democratising music video production: hip-hop musicians, above all, have been able to use digital platforms to record and spread their simultaneously globalised and intensely localised affirmations of identity and expression and social critique.

Music video’s increasing convergence with other forms of audiovisual media (including YouTube and digitally generated cinema) is even being said to have produced a distinctively new audiovisual and digital aesthetics. The music video scholar Carol Vernallis calls it the ‘audiovisual swirl’, while Steven Shaviro has theorised as ‘post-cinematic affect’, a new structure of feeling emerging from how digital as opposed to analogue technologies depict and stimulate experience. The digital music video, Shaviro argues, blurs the traditional boundary between filmed action and post-production, ontologically altering what it means to construct and (re)produce audiovisual meaning (even if audiovisual meaning in analogue music video was already more obviously artificial and less mimetic than in other media). This will have its own implications for spectatorship and its embodied experiences, which – games researchers such as Matthew Thomas Payne have led the way in showing – are part of the political.

Throughout these decades of change in technology platforms, the economies of media and international politics, music video exhibits all aspects of what researchers argue makes popular culture political. It plays a role in popular geopolitics, offering frequently fantasised depictions of space and place, though (Vernallis notes in Experiencing Music Video) differently to many spatial settings in film and television: while narrative audiovisual fictions usually aim to represent an identifiable existing or imaginary geographical location, even if it has to be filmed elsewhere, music video very often conjures a type of place, as cultural imaginary or ‘place-myth’. A video set on a beach has (normally) been filmed on one particular beach with its own spatial location and history, but represents its action taking place at the beach, a spatial trope on to which viewers project their cultural imagination. The beach, the luxury hotel and the club are all characteristic settings in music video; at certain moments and in certain genres, so to have been the military base or the spaceship. To break the norm, spaces have to be directly marked as extant material locations, such as sites well-known to ‘tourist gazes’ or places extra-textually known to be the performer’s home town. Music video is therefore one more form of media through which viewers produce popular geopolitics and the politics of desire that, as Cynthia Enloe and Debbie Lisle both argue, create the fascinations around militarised and fantasised tourist sites that they do. But all popular cultural forms can do this – is any world-political work particularly characteristic of music video?

Embodied performance, Stardom and Celebrity in World Politics

One element of meaning particularly prominent in, though not exclusive to, meaning-making in music video is stardom and celebrity. International Relations scholarship seems more able to talk about celebrities as political operators off screen (especially as humanitarians), than either the labour they do as performance or the influence that narrative understandings of stars and their personas have on how viewers make sense of the characters and performances that stars embody. Music video need not of course feature the music’s performers at all, especially for musicians and genres claiming an alternative ‘cool’ which generates subcultural capital from rejecting commercial ‘celebrity’: MIA’s controversial video ‘Born Free’, directed in 2010 by Romain Gavras, was a short film depicting the rounding-up and execution of white ginger-haired men by US paramilitary police where the singer did not appear on screen at all, though it conformed to other music video genre conventions by cueing the editing of its action to the song. When performers appear, as in commercial pop, R&B and hip-hop they are most likely to do, videos produce their imaginative space by combining costume and place, mediating setting through the embodied performances of actors and dancers but even more so through those of their star(s).

Andrew Goodwin, whose early 1990s writing on music video may have outlasted some other studies from the MTV era more concerned with the aesthetics of the postmodern, drew on Richard Dyer’s work on film stardom to argue in his 1992 book Dancing in the Distraction Factory that one of the most important ways viewers interpret music video is through the ‘metanarratives’ of stardom and identity that stars’ images and bodies bring. Star personas are built up over time as the sum of their most iconic performances plus the most recirculated representations of their image off screen: many musicians’ persona-making images will be the styles of their most famous music videos, in tandem with or separate from the look of their most famous albums, tours, or publicity campaigns. Music video has contributed more and more to the on-screen dimension of star image as the physical album’s importance in music sales has declined. Goodwin argues that ‘the storyteller, rather than the story’ is what constitutes the ‘central fiction’ of popular music, a form of entertainment that leverages the authenticity of feeling listeners are supposed to perceive in vocal expression. Viewers thus make sense of music video both by using their knowledge of a star’s persona to make narrative connections between videos’ interleaved sequences of many videos, and also by wondering what contribution the image of this video is meant to make in the ongoing story of the star.

Using popular culture in a ‘narrative’ or an ‘aesthetic’ approach to security studies – especially if that narrative or aesthetic approach already, like Annick Wibben’s or Laura Shepherd’s, constitutes itself as feminist – means therefore that part of the narratives and aesthetics in front of us is this metanarrative of star persona, in any popular cultural form where an economy of stardom is at work. Neither meaning, nor the affective pleasures of spectatorship, come solely from what is happening and being said on screen, or how it looks and sounds; they also come from who is performing it and who is watching. They ask us therefore to take account of the politics and emotions of identification and desire (indeed of the desires that identification invites) that feminist and queer gaze theorists already seek to explain. Combining music, audiovisual fiction, performance and fashion photography, not to mention less or more concealed forms of advertising, spectatorship in music video involves the affective relationships sustained by all these cultural forms.

Making stardom and the politics of spectatorship more central to how we think about music video (and other popular culture) thus helps ask deeper questions about common ‘popular culture and world politics’ themes seen in music video, such as its mediation of war memory and its often contradictory position in and/or against dynamics of militarisation.

Music Video and Militarisation

Music videos may depict war as adventure or duty, war as trauma, or even create an imaginary space that invite the viewer to feel powerful affects towards war but in contradictory directions, what Cynthia Weber might term perversely ‘and/or’. Cinematic conventions of war narrative reverberate through music video, from the small-town-to-boot-camp-to-Iraq narrative of Green Day’s ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’ (and most US Iraq War cinema), to the cinematic–literary interplay of Metallica’s ‘One’, released in 1989, which remediated the pacifist tragedy of the 1971 film adaptation of Johnny Got His Gun but as a song in live performance introduces itself to the audience with recorded machine-gun fire, explosions and other ‘belliphonic’ sounds of war (and according to Jonathan Pieslak was a favourite of US troops in Iraq reading themselves for danger during vehicle patrols). The ambiguity of how distanced or immersed the listener is ‘supposed’ to be from imaginaries, ideologies and masculinities of war is arguably metal’s stock-in-trade, from the heavy metal era to millennial folk and power metal or the relativistic military-history-making of Sabaton, affectively manifesting the and/or.

Amid the ‘increasingly explicit visualisation’ of warfare that Lilie Chouliaraki and others detect, and the ‘qualitatively new’ expression of older ‘feedback loop[s]’ between military and civilian technology that Der Derian argues digital media provides, music video and its strategies for representing spaces and bodies are not quite like any other cultural artefact within what Rachel Woodward and Karl Jenkings call ‘popular geopolitical imaginaries of war’. There are the videos we would expect to be embedded in these imaginaries because their songs’ themes are already nationalistic or patriotic, like the just warrior/beautiful soul storyline that accompanied Jura Stublić’s video ‘Bili cvitak’ (‘White flower’) during the Croatian war of independence (the soldier’s bereaved girlfriend ends up joining a fictional, victorious Croatian peace monitoring force), and those we might not: nothing in the assemblage of music and lyrics that formed Cher’s song ‘If I Could Turn Back Time’ in 1989 would have determined that its video needed to be filmed as a staged concert to hundreds of cheering US sailors on board the USS Missouri, or that Cher needed to pose straddling one of the ship’s guns, yet there in her fishnets she unquestionably is.

Video also permits musicians to mediate gendered histories of nationhood and war by taking the roles of soldiers or other archetypal participants in significant national wars from the past, again whether or not the song itself has a patriotic theme. The Armenian singer Sirusho inserts herself into a continuum of ancient, late-19th-century and post-Soviet heroism by leading a band of armed men in (neo-)traditional feasts and dances in the mountains in her 2015 video ‘Zartonk’ (‘Awakening’); while the Czech model-turned singer Mikolas Josef plays a fallen Czech soldier (from WWI, being buried under the Czechoslovakian flag and/or today’s identical Czech one) and a contemporary young man in a 2016 song ‘Free’ that imagines a dream of world tolerance (including Putin waving ‘the flag of the gay’ to reconcile with a Pride parade) but has nothing ostensibly to do with Czech nationhood or Czechoslovak liberation during the First World War. Their ideologies of gender, war and nation could and do appear in any popular cultural form: yet how they depict them, via the singing, costumed body of a performer who invites the viewer to make sense of this persona as an image within the star’s metanarrative, is distinct to music video.

At more apparent distance from actual conflict, but not from militarisation in Enloe’s broader societal sense, are videos that become vehicles for the affirmation of camouflage and uniform as fashion (where Enloe encourages us to start unpicking what has made people think that camouflage prints and military references are attractive things to wear). The fashion industry and the construction of popular music stardom are interdependent, as much in the remediation of historic and contemporary military uniform into fashion as in anything else (take Jimi Hendrix, Sgt. Pepper, The Clash and above all Michael Jackson; the vehicle for women’s tops with padded shoulders and militaristic epaulettes to transfer from the Balmain catwalk into high-street fashion in 2009–10 was above all the star image of Rihanna). To queerly ‘trouble the soldier as an object of desire’, as Jesse Crane-Seeber does in rethinking the relationship between actual soldiers’ bodies and the state, involves understanding the militarisation of desire, identification and self-fashioning outside as well as inside the military – and music video, as what Goodwin called a ‘technocracy of sensuousness’, helps form this framework, albeit in complex configurations of irony and resistance. If Jane Tynan suggests that fashion photography referencing military uniform and activity invites its viewers to identify with imaginaries of war by recreating ‘images of social and sexual power’ through the ‘seductive qualities’ of elements of military uniform, the more multisensory involvement of audiovisual spectatorship makes the invitation to identify more intense.

The glamorous female combatant indeed became a stock character for music video treatments in the 2000s and 2010s, just as ideas about women’s capacity for violence were being contested across political and cultural spheres. Katy Perry’s ‘Part Of Me’, Rihanna’s ‘Hard’ and Beyoncé’s ‘Run The World’ each position themselves differently towards the embodiment of US militarism (Perry’s character is a jilted lover who finds empowerment in joining the Marines, in a video made with Marine Corps cooperation; Rihanna’s self-proclaimed ‘couture military’ video is set in a hyperreal, desert battlefield and advanced the narrative reconstruction of Rihanna’s persona around fantasies of female excess, revenge and violence after she had survived intimate abuse; Beyoncé’s places in her in a post-apocalyptic setting, commanding a defiant, high-fashion, black-led women’s rebellion against heavily armoured male police) yet produce stills and animated gifs which, abstracted from the narrative, move even more flexibly along the and/or. Their configurations of race, gender, nation and mimesis/fantasy belong just as much as the television dramas Laura Shepherd discusses in Gender, Violence and Popular Culture within an aesthetic approach to gender and security.

As well as being representations with transnational origins, they also have a transnational and potentially global reach. The singer Helly Luv, part of the Kurdish diaspora in Finland, filmed two videos in 2014–15 in Kurdistan using a similar bank of sonic and visual imagery to the aesthetics of ‘Run The World’ or MIA’s ‘Bad Girls’ but incorporating real peshmerga fighters and equipment and dramatizing a fight against terrorism and repressive fundamentalism, celebrating peshmerga women at a time when their image was already the subject of problematic fascination in the West. Western journalists covering the Liberian civil war, Katrin Lock writes, often compared the style of the Liberian female militia leader Black Diamond to stars of hip-hop, soul and Blaxploitation cinema, and indeed the girls in the militia ‘adopted the symbols of this global and universal visual language, which is so familiar from music videos and Hollywood films’, in fashioning themselves for war.

As popular geopolitics, as war memory, as vehicle for the political economy of fashion or desire itself, music video is already world-political. At the same time, as digital communications have become part of statecraft, state and non-state actors (from ISIS to the manufacturers of fighter jets) have become increasingly skilled at using techniques that mark audiovisual artefacts as music video to enhance the appeal and impact of their own political and strategic messages. Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca Stein describe the Israeli military’s production of content tailored to the visual aesthetics of digital media platforms, intended to be shared organically and virally through social networking, as ‘digital militarism’. The Chinese military recruitment video released with a nu-metal style soundtrack in 2016 uses music video conventions such as the slow-motion introduction of a hero dressing themselves in uniform, and the synchronisation of a missile hitting its target with a musical break, which even to a non-Chinese-speaker show the video aiming to attach its intended audience’s identificatory pleasures of spectatorship on to the Chinese military.

Music video, therefore, is not just useful for understanding popular culture and world politics because it increases the number of interesting popular cultural texts to analyse, because it offers historical insights into how people were imagining the apparently changing nature of conflict and security at the turn of the 1980s/1990s, or because ‘MTV-style’ is still a buzzword for the translation of aesthetics from entertainment media into propaganda and diplomacy even though MTV’s major contributions to audiovisual culture since the millennium have been reality TV: it also shows how deeply connected aesthetics, visuality and emotion in international politics are. Popular music is and has long been a nexus of visuality, identification and intimate affect, as well as a cultural form so intimately connected to the politics of sexuality and race that a ‘queer intellectual curiosity’ ought to recognise it as even more important to IR than it has already been said to be.

Music Video and Studying World Politics

The relatively small international politics literature on music, as Matt Davies and Marianna Franklin noted in 2015, has been slow to take up any objects of study beyond song lyrics with overtly political messages or state treatment of politicised musical movements, let alone the ‘embodied affects and experiences of sonic, audible worlds’ that distinguish music from other cultural forms. Even Davies and Franklin, however, do not theorise the nexus between sound and audiovisual aesthetics of music video. And yet it is clearly embedded in the pop-cultural ‘archive’ where gendered understandings of war, violence and security are produced and contested; in the networks of capital, ideology, technology, representation and power in which the defence and entertainment industries are mutually implicated; in the ‘everyday geopolitics’ of militarism and anti-militarism that Critical Military Studies research brings to light. Music video, arguably more than any other popular cultural form, puts the political economy and aesthetics of fashion, style and desire, and the narrative dimensions of celebrity and stardom, into the fore. Recognising what is political about them requires more than transferring typical questions about film and television to music video: it also proceeds from largely feminist and queer inquiry into the relationship between spectator, audiovisual image and performer that could usefully be brought into studying more conventionally ‘narrative’ audiovisual forms as well. Music video is a technology of fascination, fantasy and desire which, if we are seeking to explain the ‘fascination with militarized products’ that so troubles Enloe, condenses the militarising potential of audiovisual narrative texts on to an aesthetic and stylistic fulcrum; it animates the seductions of empire that so alarm Anna Agathangelou and L H M Ling.

Music video thus not just encourages but forces us to follow Roland Bleiker’s encouragement for scholars of music in world politics to go beyond the places ‘where references to the political are easy to find’, that is beyond the layer of text and language which conventional ways of knowing about global politics find most accessible. Bleiker resolved this for himself by studying instrumental music, asking explicitly ‘What can we hear that we cannot see? And what is the political content of this difference?’ Music video is conversely about what we can hear and what we can see at the same time, and the political content of these senses’ convergence rather than their separation: it is the synchronisation of editing with sound, Matthew Sumera suggests while discussing soldiers’ own amateur digital montages of war footage set to metal soundtracks, that creates music video’s unique aesthetics and affects. While music’s ‘embodied affects and […] sonic, audible worlds’ certainly offer more scope for incorporating music into IR’s ‘aesthetic turn’ than if musical lyrics simply counted as another written text, it is not even just the sonic and audible dimensions of musical worlds which matter: music video’s symbiosis of moving image and sound, and its intimate political economy of stardom, identification and desire, create modes of imagining international politics which are not quite matched by any other cultural form.

 

 

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Monstrous regiment: how should we talk about those who dressed as men and went to war?

This article first appeared at the History Today website on 17 April 2018.

Whether the stories come via a 17th-century ballad, a 19th-century newspaper or a 21st-century tablet, the public has been fascinated for centuries by tales of women who put on men’s clothes, take a male name and run away to join the army – or to go to sea.

Mark Stoyle, Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Southampton, is the latest scholar to add to these entangled histories of war and gender. His forthcoming article, ‘“Give mee a Souldier’s coat”: female cross-dressing during the English Civil War’, is based on the study of hundreds of printed works and original manuscripts, and unsurprisingly drew The Guardian’s attention.

These stories of transgression have, as Stoyle writes, an ‘intrinsic human interest’ as well as a ‘peculiar elusiveness’ and have captured the imaginations of women dreaming of life outside restrictive gender norms. Feminist writers such as Julie Wheelwright, author of Amazons and Military Maids: Women Who Dressed as Men in Pursuit of Life, Liberty and Happiness, have written dozens of ‘cross-dressing soldiers’ into a history of women’s collective struggle for emancipation, which they themselves project back on to the past.

Yet does calling all these individuals who went to war in men’s attire ‘cross-dressing women’ account for all the possibilities of how they might have viewed themselves?

Historians as a profession are, rightly, reluctant to draw conclusions about the interior lives of people who left no first-hand evidence of how they regarded themselves, or to project modern ways of thinking about gender and the body on to the past. The concept of being ‘transgender’ as an identity is the historically and culturally specific consequence of 20th-century medical science and, later, community activism: it would be anachronistic to believe any of these cross-dressing troopers understood themselves as ‘transgender’ as someone might today.

And yet, as Christine Burns writes in the introduction to her recent collection Trans Britain, behaviours suggesting people were living outside the gender identities they had been ascribed at birth can be found in sources dating back to ancient history.

If gender non-conforming people have always been finding their precarious ways around the social identities they would have been expected to live in, during peacetime as well as war, the possibilities for how ‘cross-dressing’ soldiers might have lived are wider than history has usually allowed them to be.

Acknowledging that trans histories exist as a principle is different from being able to know for certain that individuals whose behaviour transgressed the extremely fixed gender structures of early modern England ‘were definitely a woman’ or ‘would be called a trans man today’. Stronger conclusions about the social identity of any ‘cross-dressed’ soldier would depend on evidence about whether they took steps to be socially recognised in an identity that was not female after wartime, or whether they immediately put men’s clothes aside on leaving military service. It does not erase historians’ knowledge about soldiers who did live as women to allow for trans possibilities in other lives.

Evidence of gender non-conforming soldiers’ postwar lives is scant enough for the 19th century, where DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook (authors of They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War) found at least 250 such individuals serving on both sides of the US Civil War. The strongest example is probably the Union soldier Albert Cashier, who carried on living as male until doctors at the asylum where he died in 1915 forced him to wear women’s clothes (his ex-comrades campaigned for him to be brought back to the old soldiers’ home where he had lived before). The Edinburgh-trained army surgeon James Barry lived his whole adult life, public and private, as a man, yet his most recent biographers in 2016 still called him ‘a woman ahead of her time’.

Whether or not historians choose to represent Cashier or Barry in the same terms that they presented themselves to the world, their stories are only known today because they were put on display during or soon after their lifetimes. Trans histories’ great irony is that those who most successfully ‘passed’ in times when gender transgression was against the law, and were never ‘outed’ by physicians or in court, have taken their full selves to their graves – just as those who sought secrecy in their lifetimes would probably have wished.

Often, the available sources will not even tell historians what became of a soldier after the wars they fought in, let alone give access to their interior lives. Yet, even then, and even with historians’ proper caution against imposing modern identity labels on the past, history can accept some people have felt such deep incongruity with the gender they had been born into that they took whatever options were available within the social, medical and spiritual frameworks – the very structures historians strive to uncover – to live differently.

For an unknown but, in the popular imagination, striking number of people in 17th-century Britain, those options included putting on men’s clothes and going to war.

There are many reasons why someone brought up as a woman might have enlisted in a man’s name. Some women likely made the choice through economic necessity: their husbands had been killed, the army was in camp and they needed pay. Ballads have popularised the trope of women taking on a man’s identity to serve alongside a husband or lover – especially at sea, where a woman could not slip in alongside the female camp-followers who supplied the army’s logistics needs on land. (The ballad tradition is affectionately parodied in Terry Pratchett’s novel Monstrous Regiment, which follows ‘Polly’, in the guise of ‘Oliver’, into a company of soldiers who all turn out not to be men.)

For others, an army filling its ranks was one space where someone who sought to live in society as a man could be what they were.

Indeed, early modern armies like the royalist and parliamentarian forces, which depended on women camp-followers for much of their logistics and supply, pose the question: why would people go to such lengths to present a masculine identity while there were ways to stay close to the army while dressed as a woman?

Comparative historians of war and gender, as well as specialists in early modern Britain, will find Stoyle’s article invaluable because of the weight of historical evidence it assembles about the extent of ‘cross-dressing’ in the Civil Wars – or rather, how surprisingly little firm evidence there is to corroborate the balladeers’ (and King Charles’) belief that it was widespread.

Importantly, it also sets wartime gender transgressions in the context of a vibrant prewar cultural imagination surrounding women in masculine dress in early Stuart London. ‘In January 1620’, Stoyle writes, ‘the king had famously ordered his clergy to preach “against the insolencie of our women, and theyre wearing of brode brimd hats [and] pointed dublets [with] theyre haire cut short … and some of them [carrying] stilettos or poniards”.’

But here too, – once we understand that people lived lives that we might now call trans centuries before the 20th century named them as such – do we trust the king and clergy, hardly impartial observers of the social order, to know that every person they railed against as a woman in masculine dress understood themselves that way?

Even the article itself recognises that what the evidence can prove about gender-transgressive behaviour is not the same as the extent we might infer there had been. Charles, we discover, had originally apostilled a 1643 proclamation to include a memorandum ‘that no woman presume to weare mens apparell’. The amendment, primarily directed against sex workers whom they believed were putting on men’s clothes to get closer to soldiers in camp, was left out of the final proclamation.

Stoyle speculates that it might have been dropped because so many ‘women in mens apparell’ were marching with the troops and foraging that it would have been impractical to stamp it out, or because parliamentarian propaganda would have seized on the proclamation as proof that the royalist army was defying God through endemic cross-dressing (even, perhaps, because Queen Henrietta Maria herself had dressed up as an Amazon three years before in a court masque).

If ‘cross-dressed royalist women’ had not been that unusual, the article even hints, would we need to interpret the parliamentarian massacre of women royalist camp-followers at Naseby in 1645 as punishment for gender transgression by some of their number, as well as for being ‘Irish’ (the women had spoken Welsh) and ‘whores’?

All this could still be demonstrated, about the Civil Wars or others such, with space for acknowledging what we can know, and what we can not, about the people who come down to us through the sources as ‘cross-dressing women’. What is more, the possibilities of gender-variant lives in the past are not just an academic matter.

Adventurous women, and lesbians drawn to traditionally masculine style and dress, have long identified with historic figures like the soldiers in the manuscripts Stoyle studied, or cultural representations like the ‘Polly Olivers’ of early modern ballads. Trans readers of history might identify with these soldiers just as strongly. Many trans men and non-binary people might recognise parallels to their own experiences in the methods ‘cross-dressed’ soldiers had to use to ‘pass’ as military men, the unexpected acceptance they would sometimes win from their closest comrades and their fears of being publicly revealed. Most historical writing, however, has not offered trans people the same space to recognise echoes of their own lives that women have been able to enjoy.

To be repeatedly, wrongly assumed to be the gender that society projects on to you – as CN Lester explains in their acclaimed Trans Like Me – is one of the most painful experiences trans people have to contend with. Popular and academic history, unwittingly or not, has played its own part in trans ‘erasure’ by foreclosing the very possibility that some of these ‘cross-dressing’ histories might reveal trans lives in the past.

The same sources that show us women who cross-dressed also offer us glimpses of how people who might have distanced themselves from womanhood over a longer period of time got by, how those who felt equally at home in more than one gender role accommodated that fluidity, and how people with intersex conditions coped with a society where their bodies did not belong. They only rarely reveal which interior reasons motivated an individual’s behaviour: but the ways a woman who wanted to cope in a masculine space managed, and the way someone who wanted to put aside a ‘female’ identity for good managed, often looked indistinguishable from the outside.

The proclamations and ballads and court records that give us most of our evidence for gender transgressions in the early modern military will not distinguish how any ‘cross-dressed woman’ in the Civil Wars lived. But historians can interpret them in ways that let trans histories be possible, even when the evidence does not let them be known.