“Imperial Cry-Faces: Women Lamenting the War on Terror”

I was so fortunate to have been invited to participate in the Imperial Benevolence: U.S. Foreign Policy in American Popular Culture Since 9/11 conference at Hong Kong University this May.  And now they are putting together an edited volume!  This is what I’ll be contributing:

Who cries for American empire?  This paper maps the intersections of gender, sadness, and imperial violence as embodied by the crying female protagonists who populate the media landscape of the War on Terror.  The ruthless interrogator who weeps quietly at the end of Zero Dark Thirty, the drone operator whose eyes spill over during every strike in The Good Kill, and the CIA agent who sobs theatrically all the time, over everything, in Homeland: these women do the lethal affective work of empire.   Superficially, this leitmotif reiterates familiar narratives about female weakness or sensitivity, while the characters enact a tepidly misogynist anti-war polemic against a hysterical nation-state gone rogue in its fight against terror.  Yet my goal in this paper is not simply to analyze these representations of emotionally frail female warriors; rather, I want to consider the political and emotional complexities of their crying.

By crying, these women dramatize key elements of the purported benevolence of American empire: the compunction and expressions of regret that regularly accompany its violence.  Whether the architects of U.S. imperialism deny their imperial ambitions or the critics of U.S. imperialism demand that it not be undertaken ‘in our names,’ the affective landscape of the imperium is saturated with apology and denial.  The act of crying acknowledges the militarized violence of contemporary American empire—drone strikes, torture, quasi-legal special operations—while disavowing the imperial ambitions that underpin it.   Crucially, however, their tears are always noncathartic, neither offering relief to the woman who cries them nor effecting any change in the prosecution of the war.  In this way, I argue, they point to both the inevitability and the meaninglessness of being saddened by war, and reveal the ease with which such hyperbolic emoting deflects attention off of the targets of their violence.  Even as these women perform elaborate sentimental dramas in unlikely places—UAV control rooms, the hold of a military cargo plane, secure CIA locations—they also index the circumscribed political potential of remorse, sorrow, and grief, and thus suggest a need to reconsider the affective dimensions of anti-imperialist critique.