Daniel W. Drezner

Gender, international relations, and humor

Gender, international relations, and humor

Over at Duck of Minerva, Laura Sjoberg takes issue with my post from last week about the effects beautiful women have on men. 

Though I appreciate the effort, [Drezner’s post] is not funny. Some would call me a spoilsport, and not up for a good joke. That might be also true, but isn’t the reason I don’t find this funny.

"Mainstream" IR engages gender issues rarely if at all, and when it does, it usually does so fairly trivially. I’m not a regular reader of the Foreign Policy Blog, but back searches say that this is one of the few times issues of gender have been mentioned on the blog… and the only time that I can find in the archive that the IR theorists on the blog have mentioned gender issues at all.

Sjoberg goes on to identify three reasons why this is not funny: 

  1. "It trivializes gender-based work in IR."
  2. The post denies "Agency" to women in world politics
  3. By focusing on the beauty angle, I’m "Privileging Sex in IR." at the cost of other gender issues. 

She observes:

Women matter, and have agency, in important ways in global politics – as leaders, as soldiers, as peacemakers, as seamstresses, as housewives, as prostitutes, as business executives, etc.; and where women matter (and even where they do not seem to), gender matters in the shaping of expectations associated with jobs and leadership positions, they way people in those positions are treated, and the way that they treat each other. Again, likely unwittingly, Dan’s post replicates traditional assumptions that women are at once without agency and to blame for men’s mistakes.

I am somewhat hesitant to respond to Sjoberg’s points.  From my past experiences in the blogosphere, blogging about the politics of gender as a Man ranks right around blogging about Israel/Palestine as a Jew in the category of "Things I Do Not Like Talking About on The Interwebs."  These kind of debates have a disturbing tendency to devolve into invocations of Godwin’s Law or retorts like, "some of my best friends are women!  Really!  Why are you laughing at that?" 

Still, Sjoberg wants to see more conversation on this topic — so here goes. 

First, I don’t think I’m trivializing gender-based work in IR.  As Sjoberg herself acknowledges, contained within a humorous post are some seriously interesting hypotheses that are worth testing. 

She states that, "this is not the way to encourage/develop the field and those research programs, which are already struggling for resources and legitimacy."  I agree that it’s not the only way, but you’d be surprised sometimes what can emerge from a humorous post.  Take zombies, for example.

Part of the fun of blogging is being able to mix the serious with the light-hearted, the quirky with the conventional posts.  In denying the humor of that individual post, Laura (unwittingly, I’m sure) appears to be denying IR bloggers the ability to play with ideas in an admittedly silly, but occasionally productive manner.  Laura is also (again, unwittingly, I’m sure) perpetuating an unfortunate stereotype with this observation — that gender scholars are both humorless and didactic in their discourse. 

Last I checked, IR research programs don’t rise or fall because of my blog posts, and they certainly aren’t obscured by them. 

On the denial of agency, a point of concession — I think Laura is correct.  The linked article suggested that men acted stupidly in front of attractive women, but the title of my post appeared to blame women for a social phenomenon that is really the fault of men.  True, this was a humorous blog post, but that doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t be as precise as possible in one’s blogging.  So, point for Laura.

As to whether I’m denying the importance of other gender issues in international relations, I’m going to put the ball back in Sjoberg’s court.  Don’t just complain about the absence of gender issues on IR blogs — start posting about the actual issues

Surfing through the Duck’s archive of posts about gender, I found little of substance about gender and international relations by Sjoberg.  Actually, to be honest, I didn’t find a lot of blog posts by Sjoberg at all.  Memo to Laura:  start blogging more!

There are myriad ways in which gender affects international relations beyond sex and beauty — click here and here, for examples.  And to defend my FP colleagues, some of them have raised the issue of gender.  But rather than belaboring the point — or engaging in meta-conversations about it — just talk about the issues.