This essay explores the controversy spawned by the release, in April,
2004, of the photographs taken by U.S. military personnel at the Abu
Ghraib prison in Baghdad. Its particular concern is with photographs that
depict American servicewomen engaged in various forms of abusive conduct
against Iraqi prisoners. In its opening half, the essay examines and
criticizes the responses to these photographs offered, first, by
right-wing commentators and, second, by American feminists, most notably
Barbara Ehrenreich. All read these photographs as a referendum on feminism
and, more particularly, its commitment to the cause of gender equality;
and all do so, I argue, on the basis of a naive understanding of gender.
In its latter half, accordingly, the essay offers a more adequate
understanding of gender, one loosely grounded in the work of Judith Butler
and the concept of performativity. Referencing various official
interrogation manuals, as well as the investigative reports released in
the wake of this scandal, the essay employs this concept in offering a
more adequate account of the gendered import of the deeds depicted in the
Abu Ghraib photographs. It concludes by arguing that what is important
about these photographs is neither whether the perpetrators of the
exploitation they depict are male or female, nor whether the deeds they
portray somehow compromise the feminist quest for gender equality. Rather,
what is important are the multiple ways in which specifically gendered
practices, which can be detached from the bodies they conventionally
regulate, are deployed as elements within a more comprehensive network of
technologies aimed at disciplining prisoners and so confirming their
status as abject subjects of U.S. military power.
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