Security Theater, Sex, Power, and Samuel Beeton

As most people know, the TSA has new rules in places for its security checkpoints. These rules/regulations involve a more intense scanning device and a more, em, intimate pat down method for individual searches. I’m less interested in the security theater aspects of these new regulations. I don’t think they’re making anyone more safe, but I’m not an expert in security. I feel remarkably unqualified to judge whether or not these measures will make people safer. I do feel like they are an invasion of privacy, but I also don’t have the whole cost benefit analysis in front of me to properly judge.

I am, however, an expert in gender studies. The whole discourse around these new regulations is utterly fascinating from a gender studies perspective. What I am interested in is the decidedly sexualized and fetishistic nature of the conversation about both of these new measures.  The new scanners reveal the body; they’re not pictures of people nude, but they do reveal the body. Our whole culture’s body image issues aside, the fact that these scanners produce such images essentially makes the TSA agents (and anyone standing near the screen) into voyeurs, a fact that the news media has danced around, but no one has quite said. The paranoic hand wringing over “our daughters and wives” being subjected to these scanners essentially comes down to fear of voyeurism. I’m not sure we are even capable of calling it voyeurism because it is done through a government apparatus; in effect, the TSA has turned itself into agents of sexual regulation. Most troublingly, they’re voyeurs of everyone. So called “real” Americans are subject to these new rules just as much as the Othered people these regulations are supposedly designed to protect us from. Racial profiling is okay in this skewed world view because it means that white people are exempt. These machines exempt no one; everyone’s body is subject to view. No one wonder the right is rabidly incapable of making a cogent argument against these machines that doesn’t involve sexual anxiety. If their bodies can be fetishized as they fetishsize the bodies of the Othered, then they have been stripped, quite literally, of a certain amount of power.  Hence, Mike Huckabee’s rant yesterday about Obama bringing his daughters and wife down to the airport in D.C. and making them go through the scanners. As Josh Marshall points out, “The mix of race and sex and populist demagoguery packed into Huckabee’s verbal slash was enough to bring you back to one of a hundred or a thousand rants below the Mason-Dixon line fifty or sixty or seventy years ago.” Marshall goes on to persuasively argue his case:

Now, let’s stipulate to the obvious fact that having me or you get a pat-down in a crowded airport while most people are more concerned about getting to their planes on time or aggravated about standing in line or whatever is a rather different matter than even imagining the sort of nutso media circus that would ensue with the president having to drag his 9 and 12 year old daughters down to DCA for a pat-down that would amount to a ritual humiliation in front of the international press corps. The comment itself, the visual created, is simply disgusting, as is the whole personalizing of the situation with regards to the president.

Daring Obama to subject his daughters to this media circus carries out the Othering of the President that the right is already committed to. It luridly and reprehensibly takes it further by utterly Othering two little girls, whose only fault is that they happen to be Obama’s daughters and black. Huckabee isn’t interested in protecting people; he’s merely playing out the sexual anxieties of the right. Voyeuristically Othering the President’s family in language gives Huckabee and the right a sense of power that the idea of their white bodies on display takes away.

The more aggressive pat downs present another issue, although they too have been subject to this same kind of sexual panic. James Fallows posted this morning an email from a recent traveller who claims to have enjoyed the pat down.

Yesterday I deliberately opted out of the back-scatter machine at Toronto airport so as to see what the enhanced pat-down is about. I must say I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It is akin to a full-body massage. Just to be sure that I am not the only one who has this unusual view, I posted my experience on Facebook, and immediately several of my friends concurred.

Oh, I forgot to mention that these friends of mine are all gay.

I’m not sure if I want to take this comment seriously. In fact, my instinct is to think this comment is a joke, but it’s a telling one. It reminds me of the debate about tightlacing that raged in the letters pages of Samuel Beeton’s The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine in the 1860s. Many of the letters were from real people, anxious about the effects of tightlacing or trying to honestly protect what they saw as proper. But, many of the letters were semi-pornographic, lauding the restrictive and sexual effects of tightly laced corsets. The above comment seems to me to fall into the latter category, with the nicely added twist of using Facebook for evidence and the last dig about the friends all being gay. Again, it plays into a social sexual anxiety that not only will these pat downs be sexual in nature but also subject people to homoerotic displays. It does neatly invert the trope; most of the fear has been about corrupt TSA agents not travellers who might enjoy being aggressively frisked. And again, we have a tension between power, security, sexuality, fetishism, and a state apparatus potentially erotically touching people.

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