On the Blazon

Again, as always, it is necessary to pay attention to how gender functions. On the one hand, the intensification of a militarized masculinity that beats the war drums incessantly, revels in the idea of “killing” the enemy and “protecting” the tourists, that struts around, chest out, convinced of its rightness, deaf to any and all other viewpoints. Enemy sighted. Enemy killed.

And then: in the always reprehensible Nation, two articles: in the first, a random assortment of men debate what women’s hairstyles mean. In what one can only hope is a gross parody of nineteenth-century pseudo-science, in which anatomy was character, these fairly random (does that mean representative?) men tell us what it means when women shave their heads, wear their hair short, have weaves, grow dreads, or cultivate braids. All these hairstyles are, through some perverse calculus, linked to women’s marriageability.

A few sample quotes.

On women with dreads:

Edwin: There’s no wife for me here. I can’t take her to my parents. She looks like a spoilt girl, though she can be creative in life.

She’s independent minded and trusts her decisions. She is prone to abuse substances such as alcohol and can smoke. Her affinity for bracelets, bangles and chains is high and I do not like this.

Teddy: She is a suspect for all the naughty things ladies can do. Date her and you will experience various social misdemeanors such as blackouts after a night out.
. . .
Her bar for the guys she would date is quite high and she does well with white men who are more liberal. I can’t date her, though.

Ben: She is quite carefree in nature and will make decisions and stick to them without reference to anyone. I won’t date this one as I cannot take her home as a wife.

An outdoor job will do well with her, not an office environment. Her aggressive nature ensures she is successful in most of the things she does.

Jeff: She’s an attention seeker who wants to be a leader. I can interact with her on the work level, not heart level.

She has a lot of time on her hands as she isn’t really a formal employee; you will find her working several part time jobs at the same time.

She’s unsettled in life and may have been disappointed by several things earlier in life.

Hairstyles are psychic clues: Kenyan women if you want four random dudes to date you, then don’t get dreads. Or, that is, if you want them to marry you.

Yet another article, this time by a woman, urges women to use their “breast power.” I don’t have the psychic energy to go through it and explain why it is wrong.

How should we read these blazons in a time of war? What does it mean that these articles are itemizing body parts as bodies are being destroyed by war? What does it mean that Kenyan body attributes are being valued (no matter how annoyingly) in the name of an aggressive hetero-masculinity? How are bodies identified as Kenyan accruing value within a hetero-patriarchal economy? What does it mean that the article on hair becomes about hetero-futurity with its repeated invocations of “wife”?

While it’s tempting to dismiss these “lifestyle” articles as detritus, as the light reading one undertakes to think outside the frame of war and death, these articles can also be re-situated, indeed, must be re-situated within the frames of war and death so we can understand how their meditations on the banal, the quotidian, the frivolous, are actually rich sites for envisioning what Butler calls bodies that matter. That, read together, they read as a blazon, alerts us to the war conditions we inhabit. It might be that the blazon is a form especially suited to wartime, as what Jameson might call a political unconscious.

Might we see in these articles taking apart women’s bodies the ideological violence of militarized masculinities? That is, these dissection fantasies register a (blood)lust similar to that exhibited on the warfield, but now directed specifically toward women. Ironically, if one follows the argument, the claim that war is to protect the most vulnerable becomes impossible to sustain in the face of the blazon, as the violence ostensibly directed outward becomes redirected inward. We protect women by taking them apart. To protect, in this instance, becomes to preserve for other kinds of violence.

4 thoughts on “On the Blazon

  1. In those same pages of the nation, I came across an article saying Somali youth are the most positive people in Kenya — judging by some timely poll. I almost got depressed just scanning the headline.

    I saw this article about these random men judging women by their hair. I wasn’t brave enough to venture it.

    The Kenyan media constantly forces us to desire from a very heterofascist and upper class position. TMI: now I feel guilty for that painfully heterosexual in-class presentation I did yesterday about gender, marriage and sexuality in Kenya. Painfully heterosexual! I am almost as reprehensible as the Daily Nation sometimes :(.

    Need to decolonize and decenter myself some more. Like five minutes ago.

  2. I think there are interesting ways to talk about gender and marriage and sexuality; some of my favorite scholarship is precisely about these issues (Stephanie Coontz, Nancy Cott, Kath Weston, Engels, of course). And, granted, the DN is no worse than most mainstream and non-mainstream media and scholarship. I think you are right that the DN is interested in training “us” how to desire–I’m not sure “force” is the right word, but ideology works in mysterious and often coercive ways. I don’t think it’s possible to avoid the clichés of the quotidian in discussing these issues: one must start somewhere to speak to an audience. I simply don’t think the DN ever has anything interesting or worthwhile to say about these issues. And this surprises me, because I know Kenya has people who think about this stuff in surprising and interesting ways.

    Yes, decolonize yourself–which, more and more, sounds like a painful procedure related to constipation. Just don’t hurt yourself in the process.

  3. I cannot now find–which I find suspect–Gitau Warigi’s latest column, where he argues that should anything happen in Nairobi or any other major Kenyan city, Somalis (regardless of nationality) will face heightened xenophobia. It read as a warning and was incredibly irresponsible.

    So, yes, half-hearted attempts to deal with profiling, if that.

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