Remember when former US President Donald Trump tweeted, “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” in reference to North Korea’s nuclear missiles? Even if you didn’t catch it, this really resembles, well, a dick-swinging contest. Yes, it seems like leaders talking about their nuclear weaponry tend to act as size-queens. And their big talk does not stop here. The discourse surrounding nuclear weapons is filled with gendered and lively sexual metaphors.
Conversations often centre around vertical erector launchers, thrust-to-weight ratios, soft lay down, deep penetration, penetration aids or releasing megatonnage in one orgasmic whump. Seeing this begs the question of whether the phallic shape of numerous weapons is just about aerodynamics and operational necessity? Just like NATO coincidently code naming the Soviet Mig-15 fighter jet “Fagot,” rather than any, literally, any other word starting with F as convention dictates. I mean, really? This language seems to act as a means to reassert competitive masculine sexuality, potency, and power over a given space, where masculinity is also associated with distance, abstraction, toughness, and risk-taking. And the consequences of this tragically insecure macho discourse around nuclear strategies go beyond phallic suggestions.
Whilst seemingly harmless, these hyper-masculine narratives tend to reinforce this vision that solving a conflict through nonmilitary means isn’t as manly or that thinking about the human realities targeted by the missiles would require entering the realm of emotions, femininity, and well, that simply cannot be. These not-so-subtle metaphors and euphemistic language also act as a way to distance professionals from the very real human victims behind these weapons. Some even call this the ‘institutionalised madness of nuclear war planning’ or the ability to name incinerating cities and murdering civilians a “counter-value attack.” If only that was it.
Although this remains underestimated and under-researched, the current body of research clearly states that the use or testing of nuclear weapons disproportionately harms women and girls. Research from Chernobyl or Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed that women and girls were much more likely to develop and die from solid cancers due to ionising radiation exposure or nuclear fallout. Pregnant women exposed to nuclear radiation are more likely to deliver malformed babies or stillbirths, increasing the risks of maternal mortality. Despite these disproportionate effects, women still far too often remain absent from the decision-making table on nuclear actions.
Another group that has been dramatically impacted by nuclear detonations and testing is indigenous communities. In a subtle form of colonial racism, indigenous communities from Nevada, Kazakhstan, Algeria, Marshall Islands, and the Pacific Islands were exposed to radiation because great powers believed their lives were expendable and decided to test their nuclear weapons on their soil, thus exposing them and their environment to nuclear fallout. On another level, some argue that the US dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was also fuelled by racism. On the flip side, these communities and people of colour, just like women, were actually often the first ones to actively protest nuclear trials, resist colonial power, and ask for the disarmament of such destructive weapons.
In a nutshell, talks on nuclear weapons can quite easily be summarised by toxic white men in ties discussing missile size. Does anyone else see the issue here and the importance of bringing a gender and anti-racist perspective to nuclear weaponry?