Empowered to please my man: (Post)feminist discourses in contemporary romantic comedies

by Elize Soer

As fears related to the coronavirus COVID-19 have risen, so have the number of Netflix subscribers. Countries around the world have imposed various stages of ‘lockdown’ and since more affluent people have been spending an increased amount of time at home, the American media-services provider Netflix has grown in popularity.[1] One of the most watched genres on Netflix is the ‘romantic comedy’. Although rom-coms are often dismissed as trivial, they are still widely enjoyed as ‘guilty pleasures’ (Warner, 2013: 226). Rom-coms have also received more scholarly attention over the past two decades, especially regarding their importance in depicting and constructing gender relations (Garret, 2007; Kaklamanidou, 2013). Accordingly, the following piece will discuss the representation of gender relations in recent romantic comedies released by Netflix. The piece will focus on three recent releases, namely Let it Snow (Snellin, 2019), Isn’t it Romantic (Strauss-Schulson, 2019) and The Wrong Missy (Spindel, 2020). These three films will be used as examples of broader trends in the genre and as manifestations of contemporary gender ideologies.

Firstly, it is important to define what a ‘romantic comedy’ is. Ostensibly it might be simple to identify a film as a rom-com, but the genre has actually been the subject of some debate. According to a recent straightforward definition it is a hybrid genre that encompasses romance and comedy. It is thus characterised by a narrative that focuses on a relationship and, since it is a comedy, it must feature a happy ending (Kaklamanidou, 2013: 7). What exactly constitutes a ‘happy ending’ is subjective, but the narrative focuses on romance between (often lovably eccentric) protagonists who face antagonism, which leads to comic situations, and then the eventual reconstitution of the relationship (Garret, 2007: 97). It is important to note that many genre theorists have argued that “genres are not defined by a feature that makes all films of a certain type fundamentally similar; rather they are produced by the discourse through which films are understood,” (Warner, 2013: 224). However, for the purpose of this piece, I will employ the straightforward definition since I chose the films based on a search of ‘popular romantic comedies’.

Film genres have become organised into a cultural hierarchy, which views ‘feminine genres’ such as the rom-com as less culturally legitimate than, for example, film noir (Warner, 2013: 225). Distinctions between films are often gendered. Roms-coms have a lower cultural status because they are associated with ‘feminine’ and thus ‘trivial’ themes such as relationships, romance and love.[2] This link is evident in the classification of rom-coms as ‘chick flicks’.[3] When ‘female’ genres are classified separately it creates the impression that they are a deviation from the standard, which is then presumably masculine (Kaklamanidou, 2013: 10).

This divide is further perpetuated by (relatively) new rom-com subgenres such as the ‘bromance’ and the ‘homme-com’, which focuses on the same themes but follows a male protagonist. Prominent examples include The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Apatow, 2005), The Heartbreak Kid (Farrelly & Farrelly, 2007) and 50 First Dates (Segal, 2004). The Wrong Missy, which will be discussed in more detail later, also falls under this category. John Alberti argued that the emergence of these subcategories demonstrates that the marketing of rom-coms to predominately female viewers “resulted not from any essential qualities of male viewers that prevented them from connecting emotionally with romantic comedies but from an ongoing crisis involving the construction of masculinity within the genre.” (Alberti, 2013: 161). This point will be reinforced by the discussion of The Wrong Missy, which presented an ‘empowered’ female character as threatening and emasculating.

Not only is the genre itself gendered, but the focus on relationships and the performance of each character’s gender as a narrative point makes rom-coms particularly interesting from a gender-studies perspective. Moreover, as Amanda Rebekah Roskelley noted, “we often take our cues on appropriate social behavior from examples found on television and in the movies,” (Roskelley, 2016: 74). We thus emulate the gendered performances of characters we see on screen while socio-cultural contexts and historical events influence the media produced. The genre has been significant in mediating changes in the norms of sexual behaviour, courtship rituals and the function of marriage. The ideological changes presented in various historical cycles of the rom-com therefore present “a particularly rich source of inquiry regarding these issues, highlighting the way in which the specific rules and conventions which comprise the discourse of heterosexual coupledom have been articulated in different cultural contexts,” (Garret, 2007: 96). The films that will be discussed in this piece represent a new group of rom-coms that form part of ongoing dialogues about romantic and sexual relationship and they can lend insight into the world of gender politics (Kaklamanidou, 2013: 2)

As mentioned, my choice of films was based on a simple google search of the most popular rom-coms on Netflix from 2019-2020. The three films I chose were mentioned on multiple platforms and, as I will argue, they also present pertinent examples of broader gendered ideologies. The first film I will discuss is Let It Snow, an American Christmas special directed by Luke Snellin and based on the similarly named young adult novel by Maureen Johnson, John Green and Lauren Myracle. The film followed a group of young people in a small American town on Christmas Eve and was comfortably clichéd. The story centred on three couples and it is significant because it is the only one of the three films considered that featured both an interracial and a same-sex couple. This is representative of the genre more broadly, which usually focuses on white heterosexual couples, with the exception of Hitch (Tennant, 2005)[4] and Set It Up (Scanlon, 2018), although the leading couple in Set It Up was still white and heterosexual.

It is not insignificant that Julie (played by Isabela Merced) and Stuart (played by Shameik Moore), the interracial couple in Let It Snow, were Latina and African-American. This is part of a general reluctance to match African-American men with white women in mainstream narratives. In Set It Up the interracial couple was an African-American man and an Asian woman and in the popular Hitch, the interracial couple was also an African-American man and a Cuban woman. As Chito Childs noted, “it is safer to pair a man of color with a Latina woman, who is almost, yet not quite, white,” (cited in: Kaklamanidou, 2013: 149). Childs argued that this allows filmmakers to have black male characters that are slick and savvy, but who do not directly pose a threat to white men who are, according to Hollywood narratives, interested in white women.

In Betty Kaklamanidou’s analysis of race and ethnicity in recent romantic comedies, she observed that they superficially incorporate “‘a ‘raced’ subject into the neoliberal cosmos, conforming to the promotion of colour blindness as the way to eliminate the issue of race,” (Kaklamanidou, 2013: 149). This observation holds true for Let It Snow. The film featured people from various ethnicities, which is a progressive step for a (relatively) conservative genre. However, the film followed the principle of colour blindness and represented a world in which racial equality had already been achieved. Although people of colour were represented, their positions were completely depoliticised. The other two rom-coms that will be discussed did not have any main characters that were people of colour[5]. However, in rom-coms that do feature people from other ethnicities, there is no mention of structural inequality.

Similar to the incorporation of race into a ‘neoliberal cosmos’, same-sex couples are incorporated into a monogamous structure. In Let It Snow the lesbian couple, Dorrie (played by Liv Hewson) and Kerry (played by Anna Akana) are united in the end and it is implied that they are a monogamous couple. It has to be noted that the obstacle to their romance was that Kerry had not ‘come out’ to her friends yet and she did not want them to know that she was attracted to Dorrie. To an extent, the film did thus consider some of the difficulties and personal struggles faced by sexually diverse people who are afraid of being ostracised. However, the two characters appeared feminine and their gender performances did not challenge constructions of masculinity and femininity.

During the last part of the film, Dorrie and Kerry kissed in front of Kerry’s cheerleader friends and the friends applauded the union. This unanimous acceptance stood in contrast to the characterisation of the cheerleader squad throughout the film and definitely presented an oversimplification of people’s reactions to sexually diverse people. The film suggested that the obstacle to Dorrie and Kerry’s romance was Kerry’s reluctance to ‘come out’ and be true to herself. When she overcame this fear, society was supportive of her choice. This representation completely erased the discrimination and social scrutinity that sexually diverse people face and, as with racial differences, everyone was presented as equal in a world where discrimination and structural inequality were things of the past.

The last and (arguably) main couple in Let It Snow was Angie/The Duke (played by Kiernan Shipka) and Tobin (played by Mitchell Hope) who were best friends at the start of the film. We find out later that Angie was nicknamed ‘The Duke’ because she was “always one of the boys”. Tobin gave her the nickname because he thought she should be distinguished for her masculine qualities. In many ways, Angie was a younger version of the classic ‘cool girl’ trope. The ‘cool girl’ has become a stock character in male-authored literature and movies. A typical example of the trope is Mikaela Banes (played by Megan Fox) in the live-action Transformers films. However, the trope is also prevalent in rom-coms, as demonstrated by Andie Anderson’s ‘real’ character in How to lose a Guy in 10 Days (Petrie, 2003) and Mary in There’s Something About Mary (Farrelly & Farrelly, 1998).

The general characteristics of this trope is that she is ‘one of the guys’, meaning that she is passionate about cars, sports or other stereotypically masculine activities. She is also generally fun-loving, uninhibited and raunchy. She enjoys junk-food and beer, but she is, above all else, conventionally attractive. She is constructed in contrast to other women who are presented as overly feminine and apparently ‘clingy’ or ‘needy’. There are often explicit references to her food choices since she must remain ‘effortlessly hot’ while other women are then portrayed as overly concerned with their dietary choices. The trope has become so popular that the American author Gillian Flynn commented on it in her psychological thriller Gone Girl, which was also adapted into a film in 2014. A (now famous) passage from Flynn’s novel remarked:

“Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl,” (Flynn, 2014: 226).

Angie was less raunchy than the 20-something cool girl because of her age, but she shared many other characteristics with the trope. She was interested in sports and beer and was conventionally attractive[6]. Most significantly, she was repeatedly lauded for being ‘not like other girls’, as demonstrated by the reasoning behind her nickname, The Duke. I want to stress that the problem is not the fact that a female character was interested in ‘masculine’ activities, but that women who are interested in these activities are seen as exceptions. Firstly, this perpetuates a gender dichotomy because ‘other girls’ are portrayed as overly feminine caricatures. Moreover, it praises masculinity above characteristics that are deemed to be feminine and thus less significant. In fact, the cool girl is often used to demean other characters who are portrayed as more feminine.

The developing romance between Angie and Tobin is also significant in relation to constructions of masculinity. Throughout the story, Tobin was portrayed in relation to Angie’s other love interest, JP (played by Matthew Noszka). Three versions of masculinity were present in the story: Tobin’s, JP’s and a kind of ‘toxic masculinity’ evinced by the antagonists, the Reston brothers. Chad and Pete Reston presented a violent hyper-masculinity based on physical strength. They also used gendered slurs to insult other characters and teased Tobin for driving a “pussy wagon”. This type of masculinity was presented in a negative light and the film thus shunned toxic masculinity.

JP was depicted as ‘the perfect guy’ and was a good example of the ideal masculinity in contemporary popular culture. He was conventionally attractive and demonstrated his physical capabilities early in the film when he beat Tobin in a sporting contest. He also mentioned that he spent his holiday building schools in Kenya and that he practiced a type of meditation that was “great for martial arts training”. This participation in New-Age-inspired exercises such as yoga formed part of what Benjamin Brabon referred to as ‘the sensitive new man’. In Brabon’s analysis of masculinity in contemporary romantic comedies, particularly Failure to Launch (2006), he argued that ‘sensitive new man’ characteristics were often combined with more ‘traditionally masculine’ characteristics such as a daredevilish love of fun (Brabon, 2013: 122). In Let it Snow, as is in other new romantic comedies, this enlightened kind of masculinity was pitted against pure strength and aggression. As demonstrated by the attributes of the Reston brothers, “those traits traditionally lauded in men of the past are given to antagonists and punished,” (Roskelley, 2016: 73).

Although JP is portrayed as the ideal, he did not ultimately win the heart of the heroine. Throughout the film it was made clear that Tobin had less physical prowess than JP  and that he was not as ‘enlightened’. In fact, he embarrassed himself multiple times and a large part of the narrative focused on his continuously bleeding nipple, which he got from cutting himself while trying to trim his nipple hair. Tobin’s musical talent was highlighted and it was made apparent (in a somewhat awkward musical number) that he and Angie shared a musical connection. The fact that many of Tobin’s flaws were accentuated gives us insight into the factors that were presented as valuable in a relationship, predominantly, friendship. As we shall see, this is a widespread theme and it was also present in Isn’t It Romantic. Perfection was thus shunned and even mocked, while friendship and shared experiences were valued.

Another interesting element that Let It Snow shared with Isn’t It Romantic was that men (or a man) were portrayed as better feminists than women. In an exemplary scene from Let It Snow, Angie, Tobin and JP were fleeing from the Reston brothers after they had stolen the brothers’ beer-keg and the car they had been driving, notably named Carla, died. Angie and Tobin then started speaking to the car in an attempt to encourage it to restart. Angie exclaimed “come on Carla, don’t be a little bitch” and Tobin followed up with “work that ass like I know you can”. In response, the enlightened JP commented “I know it’s a car, but I’m also a feminist”. JP was thus depicted as a ‘better feminist’ than Angie and the way in which the scene was contextualised portrayed feminism as something to be mocked or something annoying that spoiled other people’s jokes.[7]

Similarly, in Isn’t It Romantic, the female protagonist Natalie (played by Rebel Wilson) and her office friend Whitney (played by Betty Gilpin) commented on the physical attractiveness of Blake (played by Liam Hemsworth) only to be corrected by the male protagonist Josh (played by Adam Devine), who stated “please don’t objectify the men in this office, I won’t stand for it”. In this instance, feminism was taken into account in a joking way. In both movies there was a clear recognition of feminist issues, but also an implied understanding that they should not be taken too seriously. This attitude forms part of a general (post)feminist sentiment that has shaped popular media productions since the 1990s, typified by the dominance of ‘Girl power’ rhetoric in consumer culture (Gwynne & Muller, 2013: 3).

The concepts ‘post-feminism’, referring to a historical period, and ‘postfeminism’, referring to a cultural sensibility, have been the subject of much debate. I use the term (post)feminism to refer to a popular cultural sensibility that can coexist with feminism. This sensibility is characterised by a celebration of the power of the individual that implies that the socio-economic constraints faced by women and girls have become inconsequential. In Angela McRobbie’s canonical thesis statement on the topic she argued that “postfeminism positively draws on and invokes feminism as that which can be taken into account, to suggest that equality is achieved, in order to install a whole repertoire of new meanings, which emphasize that it is no longer needed, that it is a spent force,” (McRobbie, 2009:12). As demonstrated by the two extracts discussed above, (post)feminist discourses do not explicitly reject feminist politics, but imply that feminism has been successful and thus superceded (Bowler, 2013: 189).

Within (post)feminist discourses, women are positioned as empowered subjects “in ways that are almost always connected to consumption and feminine physical appearance,” (Gwynne & Muller, 2013: 7). There is an emphasis on women’s financial autonomy, but instead of contextualising this within a climate of social responsibility, it conforms to the individualist goals of neoliberal ideology (Moya: 2013: 15). Women are encouraged to attain success materially and ‘express themselves’ through commodity consumption while maintaining a female identity. The image created by (post)feminist discourses is a “new autonomous and independent woman who seeks personal gratification and self-development,” (Moya: 2013: 16). The emphasis on choice and individual agency often encourages the female subject to ‘have it all’, including job aspirations and material success, a rewarding home life and a belief in independence and the pleasures of feminine adornment (Brabon, 2013: 128).

Accordingly, (post)feminist discourses do not encourage women to pursue their careers at the expense of (heterosexual) romance. In fact, women are required to be skilled in a variety of sexual practices and a performance of confident sexual agency is seen as empowering (Farrimond, 2013: 51)[8]. This is not problematic because of the emphasis on sexual agency, but because sexual agency is presented as a way to please men. This is exemplified by the popular phrase ‘men like confident women’. This implies that women should be confident in order to please men. Moreover, the demand for women’s domestic expertise has not receded. Roberta Garrett remarked that “Women are still exhorted to excel at domestic skills, regardless of any other goals and aspirations they might want to nurture,” (Garret, 2007: 204). In fact, there has been a boom in magazines, books and television programmes dedicated to fashion, cookery, home decoration, makeovers and mothering during the last decade. Accordingly, women are constructed as having the personal choice and agency to become ‘domestic goddesses’ (Garret, 2007: 204-205).

In light of the earlier discussion of race and same-sex couples in rom-coms, it seems even more pertinent to note that “postfeminist discourse has little to say to the Hollywood consumer who is not a young, white, heterosexual, middle class woman,” (Gwynne & Muller, 2013: 4). In fact, when people of other ehtnic groups are included in mainstream Hollywood narratives, their function is often to contribute to the spiritual enlightenment of white characters. A clear example of the ways in which these discourses function together was Eat Pray Love (Murphy, 2010). The film is focused on the individual agency of a white, heterosexual, middle class woman who encounters other cultures in order to enhance her knowledge of her ‘true self’.

A very intriguing aspect of Isn’t It Romantic was the film’s critique of a similar discourse in relation to the ‘gay sidekick’. The protagonist of the film, Natalie, continuously critiqued the ‘gay sidekick’ trope because the character presented gay men as (necessarily) overly-effeminate and as having no other purpose than to support the female protagonist. While discussing rom-coms with her friend Whitney, Natalie listed problematic aspects of rom-coms, including “the cliché gay best friend whose sole purpose is to help the hot chick”. Later in the film, when her neighbour Donny transformed into a hyper-effeminate gay sidekick in the rom-com version of Natalie’s life, she commented that “my neighbour Donny is setting gay rights back 100 years”. The film thus used the trope, but commented on it critically throughout, which in turn made it seem more acceptable.

Natalie’s comments on the ‘gay sidekick’ trope were not an exception. Throughout the film, she critiqued typical rom-com conventions while the film followed these conventions almost precisely. During the same conversation with Whitney, she stated “this movie ends like all stupid rom-coms do. The girl gets the guy and then finally that makes her happy”. According to Natalie, the problem with this is that “she should be happy with other things in her life. Like her great career that she’s worked hard for”. Although this might be true in principle, the film went to great lengths to demonstrate that Natalie was not happy with her life without love. This was demonstrated by her remarks about her “dull ordinary life”. Not only did her career not make her happy, but from the start of the film she needed to male protagonist, Josh, to boost her very low self-esteem. ‘Wokeness’[9] was therefore invoked and, as we shall see, the film alluded to important debates, but the status-quo ultimately remained unchallenged.

Accordingly, Isn’t It Romantic followed many of the principles associated with (post)feminism. Firstly, there was a strong ‘empowerment’ discourse which celebrated “depictions of white, middle-class, heterosexual women’s success as markers of all women’s supposed success,” (Moya: 2013: 14). The film explicitly referenced feminism when Whitney turned into a nasty and competitive woman in the rom-com version of Natalie’s life. In response to Whitney’s transformation, Natalie announced “we marched together, remember? We had that sign: Girls Just Want to Have Fun- Demand Your Human Rights”. In this instance, Natalie was not necessarily referring to a march that she and Whitney participated in, but to the women’s movement more generally. Earlier in the film she also criticised “the idea that women can’t root for each other at work” and called it “just disgusting”.

Although the feminist observations were positive, the film followed a (post)feminist trajectory by defining ‘empowerment’ as individual women’s career success. Natalie’s comments about female solidarity in the workplace were also completely contradicted by her reaction to Josh’s love interest, Isabella. While looking at a poster of Isabella modelling a swimsuit, she mockingly said “I’m so sexy. I just want a man to buy me a salad”. She was also condescending towards Isabella’s career as a yoga ambassador and the film thus followed the typical structure in which two women compete with each other for the affection of a man. The fact that Isabella, the only non-white woman in the film, was hypersexualised as a bikini model with a career based on her physical attributes, is interesting in itself. This reinforced the observation that, when (post)feminism does refer to solidarity among women, it implicitly refers to solidarity among white women.

The (post)feminist ideology was also evident during the climax of the movie. Natalie ran to stop Josh and Isabella’s wedding and burst into the chapel. Her intention was to stop the wedding and declare her love for Josh after her ‘gay side-kick’ remarked “what, so the best friend you’ve always had a ton of chemistry with is the guy for you. Oh my God, who could have seen that coming except every single person ever of all time.” However, as Natalie was about to confess her love for Josh, she realised that the person she really had to love was herself. At the critical moment she exclaimed “I love me!” The message of the film was about the importance of self-love. This fits perfectly into an ideology that emphasises the liberation of the individual while completely ignoring exploitation or unequal social power. As with Let It Snow’s representation of sexual diversity, the only thing that Natalie had to do to prosper in life was find her confidence. This empowered her to attain success in a patriarchal capitalist framework, which the film was obviously oblivious to.

Moreover, after Natalie’s realisation that she ‘completes herself’ she became ‘empowered’ to choose a heterosexual romantic relationship with Josh. At the end of the film, Whitney observed that “even though you were so cynical, it seems as though you have the dream job, the guy that really likes you, the really cool best friend… it looks like you are in one of those romantic stories you hate so much”. Here I want to argue that Natalie’s cynical commentary did not contradict the structure of the conventional rom-com, but that it was precisely this commentary that made the film watchable. We can clearly see all the aspects of a conventional rom-com and the film does end with happy heterosexual coupledom for the protagonist. However, since it is assumed that the audience is now familiar with this structure,[10] the film had to critique certain elements of it so that it would not be written off as yet another soppy rom-com.

This technique has not been limited to Isn’t It Romantic, though this was the most extreme incarnation. In Let It Snow, Tobin confessed his love for Angie in the following way: “I’m in love with you… It’s not in the traditional sense of anything… I want to be with you for the rest of my life, Angie.” However, Angie then commented that “that was actually pretty traditional”. We can again see how the ironic comment at the end is exactly what makes the ‘traditional’ confession of love acceptable.

Another similarity between Isn’t It Romantic and Let It Snow was the construction of ideal masculinity and its ultimate refutation in favour of friendship. In Isn’t It Romantic, Blake was supposed to represent the ideal rom-com hero. It was made evident throughout that Blake was physically attractive and he characterised himself as “a good listener”. Throughout the film he also used New-Age pseudo-philosophical quotes like “still waters run deepest”. The construction of ideal masculinity was rich and handsome with a New Age twist. However, Blake’s flaws were his patriarchal assumptions. During the last part of the film he told Natalie “now that you’re with me, you won’t be working anymore”. He also assumed that “obviously we’ll be changing your last name” and he wanted to change her first name to Georgina. He thus did not accept Natalie ‘for who she is’. Although Blake was supposed to present ideal masculinity, he ultimately also functioned as the embodiment of toxic-masculinity in comparison to the more ‘woke’ Josh.

Isn’t It Romantic was a typical example of a (post)feminist rom-com in which the protagonist ultimately got to ‘have it all’, meaning that she could maintain her career and have a hetrosexual romantic relationship. This stands in contrast to a recently released homme-comme, The Wrong Missy,  in which Missy’s ultimate role was to enrich the life of the male protagonist, Tim Morris (played by David Spade). The basic plot of The Wrong Missy started with a blind date involving Tim and Melissa/Missy (played by Lauren Lapkus). Tim was presented as a plain guy who followed social conventions while Missy was extremely odd and borderline terrifying. She talked about sex openly, dipped her hair in wine before sucking it and carried around a knife named Sheila. The date ended disastrously. Three months later, Tim met another woman named Melissa who seemed to be his perfect match (basically a female version of himself). The second Melissa gave Tim her number and Tim invited her to accompany him to a work retreat in Hawaii. However, the first Missy showed up on the plane and it became clear that Tim invited the wrong Melissa.

In Hawaii, Missy was uninhibited and embarrassed Tim in front of his boss, Jack Winstone, and his colleagues. However, as the weekend progressed Missy helped Tim win Winstone’s favour by hypnotizing him and Tim began to develop feelings for Missy. Because of Missy, Tim beat his workplace competitor, Jess, and won a promotion. In order to get revenge, Jess revealed to Missy that she was invited by accident. Missy checked Tim’s phone and after she discovered the truth she left Hawaii. Meanwhile, the ‘right’ Melissa arrived in Hawaii, having been invited by Jess. During a lunch with the ‘right Melissa’, Tim started behaving like Missy and realised that he actually loved her. He left Hawaii, found Missy in Portland, apologised to her and declared his intention to become more like her. She forgave him, they were reunited and they presumably lived happily ever after.

The gender relations depicted in The Wrong Missy were problematic for various reasons. The most prominent reason was the fact that Missy’s sole purpose in the film was to make Tim realise that he should be more outgoing. She was a somewhat extreme version of the classic ‘manic pixie dream girl’ trope. Although this trope has been applied to a variety of characters and it has perhaps become overused, its trademark quality is the fact that the manic girl’s function is to transform the male protagonist (Schwyzer, 2013).[11] However, the problematic aspect that I want to discuss is how Missy was portrayed in relation to Jess, Tim’s workplace competitor.

Although Missy had a strong personality, her role was ultimately to support Tim. In contrast, Jess was competing with Tim for a promotion. Jess was presented as competitive, emasculating and ruthless and was nicknamed ‘The Barracuda’ by Tim and his male co-workers. This is no exception and there is a general tendency in rom-coms to “pathologize the career woman and turn her into a monstrous figure,” (Kaklamanidou, 2013: 28). It was thus no coincidence that the stereotypical ‘career woman’ was the antagonist in the film. However, even in films with ‘career women’ protagonists, it is made apparent that they sacrificed relationships in order to gain success in a ‘man’s world’. Here we only need to think of Margaret (Sandra Bullock) in The Proposal (Fletcher, 2009). Instead of being applauded for her perseverance and dedication, she is described as a “Type A (rhymes with) witch”.

At the start of The Proposal, Margaret was criticised for her drive and decisiveness, traits that men in business are congratulated for. However, as the film progressed and she developed a relationship with the male protagonist Andrew (played by Ryan Reynolds) the audience was exposed to her softness, sensitivity and humour. She was thus portrayed as misguided and miswanting (wanting the wrong things in life) and, once she understood the importance of heterosexual romance, it was made apparent that she was ultimately an amiable person. In contrast, Jess remained the antagonist throughout The Wrong Missy. Although she was a more dedicated worker than Tim and she was more knowledgeable in her field, she was punished because of her ‘masculine’ characteristics. The message of the film was clear: it is alright for women to have strong personalities as long as their goal is to enrich the lives of their male partners. However, it is not acceptable for them to be competitive and challenge the positions of their male colleagues.

Betty Kaklamanidou noted that the vicious caricature of the ‘evil career woman’ has been around since at least the 1980s. Moreover, the stereotype has not been limited to the rom-com genre. Harriet Hawkins noted that powerful female literary figures are often anathematised as femme fatales, vampires, unnatural monsters or superbitches (Kaklamanidou, 2013: 33). On the one hand, there are thus rom-coms that portray working women as ‘superbitches’ and, on the other hand, (post)feminist rom-coms encourage women to ‘have it all’, including successful careers. This apparent dichotomy could perhaps be explained away by simply noting that different films promote different (gendered) ideologies. After all, Isn’t It Romantic is a rom-com while The Wrong Missy is a homme-com that is more tailored to a ‘masculine’ audience. It is therefore possible that films directed at women encourage them to ‘have it all’ while films directed at men portray their ‘empowered’ female challengers as vicious and emasculating.

While keeping the rom-com/homme-com distinction in mind, I think it is also important to recognise the difference between ‘having it all’ and ‘being a career woman’. Natalie in Isn’t It Romantic still needed the male protagonist to boost her self-esteem and, although she did eventually succeed in her career, she was not competitive and did not threaten masculine power in any way. In fact, she still had to propose her ideas to a male investor to gain approval. In contrast, female characters that are independent and competitive, and thus threatening to masculine power, are presented in a negative light.[12]

In conclusion, films inform our conceptualisations of gender relations while they should also be read within their ideological and sociopolitical contexts. This piece has provided analyses of three popular contemporary rom-coms in order to gain insight into gendered constructions in popular culture. The first significant observation was the tendency of films to register the triumph of liberal feminism. This was especially evident in Isn’t It Romantic, which emphasised a discourse of female self-empowerment within capitalist structures. A similar trend was visible in the depiction of race in Let It Snow. The film depicted characters from various ethnic groups. However, these characters were included in a ‘neoliberal cosmos’ where racial inequality was assumed to be something of the past. Similarly, same-sex sexuality was presented as acceptable as long as it followed the principle of monogamy. In all instances, the characters were debilitated by their own lack of self-esteem and once they gained confidence they were successful. The existence of structural inequality and patriarchal capitalism was thus completely ignored.

Another tendency in recent rom-coms is to incorporate a critique of the discourse of romantic love within a romance framework (Garret, 2007: 57). Alexia Bowler observed that “the work of the postfeminist romantic comedy disarms and depoliticizes its own feminist critique of sexual negotiations through knowingness, irony and a cosy humour, coupled with discourses surrounding personal choice.”  (Bowler, 2013: 194). In Isn’t It Romantic and other recent rom-coms such as Easy A (Gluck, 2010), Friends With Benefits (Gluck, 2011) and, to an extent, Let It Snow, the characters are aware of rom-com conventions and cinematic techniques that are used to manipulate audiences. They also critique these conventions while they are themselves following them. Summarily, they employ a (post)feminist knowingness and irony to discredit romantic conventions and then these critiques are subsumed within the same romantic ideologies. Instead of undermining romantic ideologies, it is precisely this ironic self-awareness that makes contemporary rom-coms watchable for an audience that is well versed in rom-com conventions.

Within a (post)feminist framework, there is also a celebration of very specific forms of female ‘empowerment’. Women are encouraged to ‘have it all’, including a successful career and a heterosexual romantic relationship. However, women are discouraged from adopting ‘masculine’ character traits such as being ‘too competitive’, lest they become ‘emasculating’. Women must also appear ‘feminine’ and engagement in consumer culture and feminine adornment activities is presented as empowering. All of these factors indicate that it is not enough to label contemporary rom-coms as simply ‘progressive’ or ‘regressive’. They can be ‘progressive’ in some ways and can disrupt ‘traditional’ gender divides by featuring driven ‘career women’ as protagonists. However, we must also remain critical of the ways in which these films contain progressive discourses within monogamous, patriarchal and capitalist structures. A particularly worrisome trend is the ways in which rom-coms (and other popular media productions) invoke ‘wokeness’ to sustain these broader exploitative structures.


Ahmed, S. 2017. Living a Feminist Life. Duke University Press, Durham.

Alberti, J. 2013. ‘ “I Love You, Man”: Bromances, the Construction of Masculinity, and the Continuing Evolution of the Romantic Comedy’. Quarterly Review of Film and Video 30(2), pp. 159-172.

Apatow, J. 2005. The 40-Year-Old-Virgin. Apatow Productions.

Bowler, A. L. 2013. ‘Towards a New Sexual Conservatism in Postfeminist Romantic Comedy’, in Gwynne, J. Muller, N. (eds.) Postfeminism and Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. Palgrave MacMillan, New York.

Brabon, B.A. 2013. ‘‘Chuck Flick’: A Genealogy of the Postfeminist Male Singleton’, in Gwynne, J. Muller, N. (eds.) Postfeminism and Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. Palgrave MacMillan, New York.

Farrelly, P. Farrelly, B. 1998. There’s Something About Mary. 20th Century Fox.

Farrelly, P. Farrelly, B. 2007. The Heartbreak Kid. ‎Ted Field‎ & Bradley Thomas.

Farrimond, K. 2013. ‘The Slut That Wasn’t: Virginity, (Post)Feminism and Representation in Easy A’, in Gwynne, J. Muller, N. (eds.) Postfeminism and Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. Palgrave MacMillan, New York.

Fletcher, A. 2009. The Proposal. Touchstone Pictures.

Flynn, G. 2014. The Complete Gillian Flynn. Random House, New York.

Garret, R. 2007. Postmodern Chick Flicks: The Return of the Woman’s Film. Palgrave MacMillan, Hampshire & New York.

Gluck, W. 2010. Easy A. Olive Bridge Entertainment.

Gluck, W. 2011. Friends With Benefits. Screen Gems; Castle Rock Entertainment.

Green, J. Myracle, L. Johnson, M. 2008. Let It Snow. The Penguin Group, New York.

Gwynne, J. Muller, N. 2013. ‘Introduction: Postfeminism and Contemporary Hollywood Cinema’, in Gwynne, J. Muller, N. (eds.) Postfeminism and Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. Palgrave MacMillan, New York.

Higgins, C. 1980. 9 to  5. IPC Films.

Kaklamanidou, B. 2013. Genre, Gender and the Effects of Neoliberalism: The New Millennium Hollywood Rom Com. Taylor & Francis Group, London.

McRobbie, A. 2009. The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change. Sage Publications, London.

Moody, R. 2020. ‘Netflix Subscribers & Revenue by Country’. Comparitech. <https://www.comparitech.com/tv-streaming/netflix-subscribers/> Access: 30 June 2020.

Moya, A. 2013. ‘Neo-Feminism In-Between: Female Cosmopolitan Subjects in Contemporary American Film’, in Gwynne, J. Muller, N. (eds.) Postfeminism and Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. Palgrave MacMillan, New York.

Murphy, R. 2010. Eat Pray Love. Dede Gardner.

Petrie, D. 2003. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. Paramount Pictures.

Roskelley, A.R. 2016. The Modern Mr. Darcy: An Analysis of Leading Men in Contemporary Romantic Comedy Film. Masters Degree, Brigham Young University.

Scanlon, C. 2018. Set It Up. Berman, J. Nappi, J.

Segal, P. 2004. 50 First Dates. Columbia Pictures.

Snellin, L. 2019. Let It Snow. Netflix.

Spindel, T. 2020. The Wrong Missy. Netflix.

Strauss-Schulson, T. 2019. Isn’t It Romantic. Netflix.

Schwyzer, H. 2013. ‘The Real-World Consequences of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Cliché’. The Atlantic. <https://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/07/the-real-world-consequences-of-the-manic-pixie-dream-girl-clich-233/277645/> Access: 5 July 2020.

Tennant, A. 2005. Hitch. Overbrook Entertainment.

The Take. 2020. ‘The Manic Pixie Dream Girl Trope, Explained’. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_gxo8l9j8s> Access: 5 July 2020.

Torres, M. 2019. ‘The 1980 Movie ‘9 To 5’ Is Still Depressingly Relevant For Women At Work’. Huffington Post. <https://www.huffpost.com/entry/movie-9-to-5-film-dolly-parton_l_5db6fa34e4b079eb95a7299a> Access: 9 July 2020.

Warner, H. 2013. ‘‘A New Feminist Revolution in Hollywood Comedy’?: Postfeminist Discourses and the Critical Reception of Bridesmaids’, in Gwynne, J. Muller, N. (eds.) Postfeminism and Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. Palgrave MacMillan, New York.


[1] At the end of 2019, Netflix had about 167 million subscribers and generated revenues of $20.1 billion during the year. Subscriptions skyrocketed in the first quarter of 2020 and by April there were 183 million. Netflix is also popular worldwide and has subscribers from the United States (US), Canada, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, the Asia-Pacific and Africa (Moody, 2020).

[2] It is also possible that rom-coms have a low cultural status because they trivialise the complexity of relationships.

[3] Although rom-coms are generally marketed as feminine, males dominate behind the scenes. Only about 12% of rom-coms are directed by women (Kaklamanidou, 2013: 11). Coincidently, all of the films chosen for this piece were directed by men and I only noticed this after I had already chosen the films.

[4] For a more in-depth discussion of the racial elements in Hitch please consult ‘Romantic comedy and the ‘other’: race, ethnicity and the transcendental star’, in: Kaklamanidou, B. 2013. Genre, Gender and the Effects of Neoliberalism: The New Millennium Hollywood Rom Com. Taylor & Francis Group, London.

[5] Isn’t It Romantic did feature Priyanka Chopra, the Indian actress and singer. She played Isabella, the temporary love interest of one of the main characters in a fantasy world. She was a billboard model and, somewhat stereotypically, a yoga ambassador.

[6] In the book version of the story, the author (John Green) also repeatedly emphasised the fact that she ate junk-food and did not diet ‘like other girls’. She was often discussed in contrast to other hyper-feminised girls of her age, especially a group of cheerleaders (Green, Myracle, Johnson, 2008). However, Angie’s eating habits were not really mentioned in the film version.

[7] This is perhaps a humorous (though no less serious) evocation of what Sarah Ahmed labelled ‘the feminist killjoy’. The feminist killjoy is seen as getting in the way of the happiness of others by, amongst other things, not laughing at their offensive jokes (Ahmed, 2017: 37; 201)

[8] This obligation to have sexual expertise stands in contrast to earlier discourses that constructed chastity as the ultimate feminine virtue (Farrimond, 2013: 51).

[9]  ‘Woke’ is a popular term used to describe someone who is alert to injustice and social movements, especially racism and sexism.

[10] This assumption is made apparent throughout the film since it references several past rom-coms. In fact, a young version of the protagonist (Natalie) is watching Pretty Woman at the start of the film. There are also references to other popular rom-coms, including Notting Hill and 13 Going on 30, and Natalie also uses a pun (“you had me at hallo-copter”) to evoke another rom-com.

[11] The Take recently released a video that discussed the trope and some of the complexities around classifying a character as a ‘manic pixie dream girl’. The video is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_gxo8l9j8s.

[12] An exception to this is the 1980 classic 9 to 5 (Higgins, 1980). The film is not a rom-com since it does not feature a romance as part of its main plot, but in my opinion this factor is a strongpoint. For an interesting discussion of the film, please consult ‘The 1980 Movie ‘9 To 5’ Is Still Depressingly Relevant For Women At Work’ (Torres, 2019).

A critical engagement on gender and gender-based violence in community settings

You are cordially invited to the next seminar in the Gender, HIV and Sexualities Seminar Series that is hosted by the CSA&G: A critical engagement on gender and gender-based violence in community settings during COVID-19 and beyond by Mapule Moroke (community-based counselling psychologist and researcher)

Session A: Tuesday 28th July from 14.00-16.00
Session B: Thursday 30th July from 14.00-16.00

RSVP: with Gabriela Pinheiro at u05081832@up.ac.za to confirm your attendance and receive the meeting link(s)

Engagement on gender and GBV


Sex, Drugs and COVID-19

by Elize Soer

South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, announced that a national lockdown would commence on 26 March 2020 in response to COVID-19 or what some have labelled the ‘panic pandemic’ (Locwin, 2020). Since the start of the lockdown, reports and articles on the economic effect of the lockdown conditions have been ubiquitous (Business Tech, 2020; APO, 2020; Arndt et al. 2020). The South African Reserve Bank (SARB) predicted that South Africa’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) would shrink by 6.1% in 2020 and other sources claimed that the contraction would be around 8% (Business Tech, 2020; Institute for Economic Justice, 2020). Most sources noted that the unemployed and informal workers would suffer the most and that “the hardship will fall hardest on black people, and especially black women and children” (Institute for Economic Justice, 2020).

Although it is noted that the lockdown will have a more profound influence on some than on others, the general belief seems to be that economic growth is beneficial for everyone, while economic contraction harms everyone. This is based on the common conceptualisation of ‘the economy’ as a homogenous and abstract system, as well as an implicit faith in the ‘trickle down’ effect.[1] The following piece will argue that this assumption conceals some of the heterogeneous effects that the lockdown has had (and will have) on different economic systems in South Africa (SA). In order to illustrate this point, I will discuss some of the effects of the lockdown on two economic systems that are sometimes (mistakenly) seen as separated from SA’s official economy, namely the informal economy and the illicit economy. Some of the gendered aspects of these economies will also be discussed, especially in relation to sex work, which can be characterised as part of both the informal and illicit economies.[2]

The ‘trickle-down’ effect has been widely critiqued by academics and activists (Andreou, 2014; Lichtblau, 2019). Yet, in almost all of the media coverage concerning the impact of COVID-19 and the lockdown on ‘the economy’, it is assumed that this impact will be homogeneously damaging. It is clear that there will be massive job losses[3] and millions will be pushed further into poverty. Nonetheless, companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Oracle and Alphabet (Google’s parent company) have profited greatly. Lockdown situations around the world have led to increases in the number of people who work from home and shop online. Moreover, educational institutions, hospitals, police and military institutions are outsourcing more and more of their core functions to private tech companies (Klein, 2020).

In the midst of a turn towards tech-alternatives and requests for a future run on artificial intelligence, it is important to remember that these systems function because of human workers. Tens of millions of workers labour in warehouses, content-moderation mills, data centres, electronic sweatshops and lithium mines so that the economically advantaged can work from home and order online. Technology will certainly be a fundamental part of strategies to protect public health in the coming months and years.  This raises significant questions about how that technology will be used and under whose oversight; a discussion that falls outside of the scope of this short piece. Instead, I used tech companies as an explicit example of how some sectors of ‘the economy’ have benefited while others have suffered.

The position of technology companies is a rather obvious example of the heterogeneous economic effects of lockdowns. If we consider the so-called ‘informal’ and ‘illicit’ economies, then the effects become more complex. It is difficult to give an exact definition of ‘informal economy’, since it is so connected to the ‘formal economy’. However, the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) current working definition includes small, unregistered enterprises and all employment without adequate social and legal protection (Rogan & Alfers, 2019: 91). Informal employment accounts for approximately a third of employment in SA[4]. Nonetheless, it has received very limited and narrow support from the government and interventions usually consist of training and micro-finance loans that are centred on a very small group of informal workers.

Moreover, there are stark gender divides in informal employment. According to a 2015 analysis of SA’s labour market dynamics, women earn less within the same broad categories of employment and are also concentrated in the types of employment with the lowest pay (Rogan, 2018)[5]. Since 1994, informal employment has constituted a greater share of total employment for women than for men, mostly owing to the fact that household and domestic work is classified as informal work.[6] Childcare is also still commonly seen as ‘women’s work’ and this responsibility influences the incomes of female informal workers. For example, female waste-pickers often have to bring their children with them when they work in hazardous conditions on landfill sites. In an interview with Rogan and Alfers (2019) a waste-picker from Durban explained that she found it difficult to keep pace with her male counterparts because she had to bring her child to work:

“We collect recyclable materials by climbing into moving trucks when they enter the landfill. You need to act very quickly to catch up with the truck. We push each other whilst we are trying to get onto the back of the truck. Sometimes I don’t know what to do because I can’t leave my child on the ground. No one cares about you or your child. I no longer work as efficiently as I did when I didn’t have my child with me,” (cited in: Rogan & Alfers, 2019: 91).

Gender-based violence (GBV) is also common in informal economies in SA. In preparation for the 2018 International Labour Conference’s Discussion on GBV in the Workplace, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) conducted a series of interviews with informal workers. During the interviews, a group of female waste-pickers from KwaZulu-Natal reported that physical intimidation regularly impacted their incomes. Male waste-pickers physically intimidated them in order to access the most valuable pieces of waste first and forced them (sometimes at knifepoint) to buy recyclables (WIEGO, 2018). The municipality is responsible for the provision of security at landfill sites. However, generally, the municipal officers do not intervene, and/or they collect recyclables and sell them to the women in exchange for sex. Rape has also been common and about two rape cases are reported per month in these settings (Rogan & Alfers, 2019: 98). It is therefore evident that women in the informal economy often work in an environment of insecurity and fear in which GBV and exploitation are widespread.

Before SA’s lockdown, the Professor of Development Economics Imraan Valodia noted that “whilst the government offers a vast package of support measures to big business, its policy is largely irrelevant to the survivalist segment of small business” (2001: 871). However, government policies have not been irrelevant. Not only do they support the big businesses against which survivalist entrepreneurs compete, but they sometimes affect these entrepreneurs negatively. For example, it is often difficult and expensive to access water in informal workspaces such as on roadsides and in markets. People (the majority of whom are women) who sell cooked food need access to water before they can start cooking and frequently spend their peak selling time looking for water. Not only does this decrease sales, but in Durban, for example, there is a municipal by-law which states that only a legal permit holder can oversee a trading stall. When the legal permit holder has to leave the stall to look for water, the goods can be confiscated by the police. One food seller in Durban declared that: “When I run around looking for water, sometimes I come back to my goods being stolen…the policeman comes and takes my things if I’m late. They ask for permits and they do their own theft” (cited in: Rogan & Alfers, 2019: 99).

There is also a ban on imported second-hand clothing in SA, with the aim of protecting clothing retailers. However, there is a large illegal market in second-hand clothes (Velia, Valodia & Amisi, 2006). When police officers catch sellers with illegal garments, they can impose a fine and confiscate the goods. This can demolish the income of survivalist sellers and even leave them indebted to the importers of second-hand clothes. This demonstrates how government policies are not necessarily irrelevant to survivalist entrepreneurs, but actively disadvantage them in favour of larger retailers. The second-hand clothing trade is also significant because it is located at the nexus between the informal and the illicit economies

Sex work is another sector that is part of both the informal and illicit economies, again illustrating the considerable extent to which these different economic systems are intertwined. Despite outcries from Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), such as the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task force (SWEAT), sex work has remained criminalised in SA. Selling and buying sex are illegal and other aspects of sex work, such as running or owning a brothel or “enticing a woman into prostitution”, are also prohibited (SWEAT, 2019: 1). The criminalisation of sex work has not prevented people from selling sex to make a living, but has undermined sex workers’ access to justice and has also exposed many of them to exploitation and abuse by law enforcement officials. It is thus clear that sex work was already a precarious occupation before the lockdown. This is not only because the trade is criminalised and stigmatised, but also because sex workers are often from marginalised groups such as migrants and gender non-conforming people who have been pushed out of their families because of identity discrimination (Wheeler, 2020).

Along with most of the informal economy, sex work has been affected negatively by the lockdown. Sex work can be conducted online, but it is generally physical and intimate work. SA has about 158,000 sex workers[7] who were already impacted negatively when fears of COVID-19 began to spread, since customers and workers were afraid of contracting the virus. The increased police presence since the start of the lockdown has certainly increased the risks associated with conducting sex work. Sex workers have also reported interruptions to condom supplies and people living with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) have experienced a decrease in access to essential medicines. Moreover, sex workers do not have access to some of the emergency assistance available to other workers. Many assistance schemes require proof that employment has been lost as a result of COVID-19 and, because sex work is still criminalised, workers do not have the necessary paperwork and proof of unemployment (Mafolo, 2020; Wheeler, 2020; UNAIDS, 2020).

Organisations such as SWEAT and Sisonke have created solidarity fund raisers to assist sex workers and there has been an increase in online sex work as people have attempted to adapt to lockdown conditions (Collison & Christianson, 2020).[8] This is where the definition of sex work becomes particularly pertinent. The United Nations (UN) defines sex workers as “Female, male and transgender adults aged over 18 years who sell consensual sexual services in return for cash or payment in kind, and who may sell sex formally or informally, regularly or occasionally,” (Sonke Gender Justice, 2014: 5). This definition highlights two fundamental characteristics of acceptable, but often criminalised, sex work: it must be consensual and the participants must be over the age of 18. From the discussion above, it is evident that appropriate sex work has suffered due to COVID-19 and the lockdown. However, more illicit sex markets related to human trafficking and child pornography have flourished.

The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GIATOC) recently released a report about the ramifications of COVID-19 for human trafficking. The report noted that some forms of human trafficking, especially those related to the commercial sexual exploitation of children and domestic servitude, are likely to increase (Wagner & Hoang, 202: 1). Since the start of lockdowns around the world, there has been an increase in online Child Sexual Exploitation Material (CSEM). The demand for CSEM has increased, because more predators have been confined to their homes and the supply has increased as people have become more desperate to acquire incomes. The inflated demand has also probably exposed children who were already being used for CSEM to greater frequencies of exploitation and violence (Wagner & Hoang, 202: 4).

It is not only children who have become more vulnerable. Due to an increase in movement restrictions, many migrants have been forced into immobility, “unable to continue on their journeys or return home,” (Wagner & Hoang, 202: 6). Migrants who are continuing with their journeys are more reliant on smugglers for assistance in environments that are more hostile towards migration. Smugglers often have connections to traffickers, who seem to be taking advantage of the situation. Trafficking and sex work are intertwined and the GIATOC noted that sex workers are more exposed to trafficking during lockdown.[9]

Transnational criminal networks are often involved in multiple illegal activities, including human trafficking and the trade of prohibited drugs. COVID-19 and its ramifications seem to have presented drug dealers with both challenges and opportunities. Challenges include disruptions in supply chains, restricted access to some markets and blocked distribution channels (Eligh, 2020: 1). On the other hand, in countries such as Afghanistan[10] the drug trade is a significant source of income for people with very limited options. As more people’s livelihoods are diminished in the aftermath of COVID-19, the pool of exploitable labour upon which drug markets depend will widen and workers will become more likely to accept even worse terms, similar to the ‘formal economy’. As the GIATOC noted, “structural changes caused by abrupt shocks tend to persist long after the shocks or crises are over,” (Wagner & Hoang, 202: 13). In addition to a more desperate and cheaper labour source, COVID-19 might also lead to further monopolisation in illicit markets since the shock could ‘weed out’ the weaker organisations. This will evidently harm some organisations while it is likely to benefit others in the long term.

It is also probable that supply chains of opium-based drugs (primarily heroin) will be disrupted. Conversely, drug expert Jason Eligh stated that the supply of crystal meth or tik in SA is unlikely to run out in the near future. In spite of this, many drug dealers have raised their prices based on the assumption that buyers will expect prices to rise in the midst of COVID-19. There has also been an increase in the sale of ‘adulterated’ drugs[11]. In some cases, this has been the consequence of actual supply-chain disruptions and in other cases, dealers have been opportunistic (Hyman, 2020). Organisations have also found creative ways to transport drugs and crystal meth has been found in shipments of medical supplies and food parcels. The last few months have also seen a rise in the trade of fake pharmaceuticals, especially medicines linked to COVID-19. Fake or counterfeit medicines are often sold online and can contain dangerous ingredients if they are not properly formulated. Sellers of fake pharmaceuticals are exploiting widespread fear and panic to sell their products (OECD, 2020).

It is impossible to discuss illicit markets without mentioning the lockdown-induced ban on alcohol and cigarettes in SA. Reporting on the ban has largely discussed it in a negative light. In particular, the tax income that the state is losing as a consequence of the ban has received notable attention. Hellen Ndlovu, the director of Regulatory and Public Affairs at South African Breweries (SAB), has been cited in multiple articles. She emphasised that excise tax and value-added tax (VAT) would be lost. She claimed that SAB would have paid R14 billion in excise taxes this year, which equates to an average monthly contribution of more than R1 billion per month that will be lost as a consequence of the ban (Food Review, 2020).

There was already a well-established illicit alcohol market prior to the lockdown and the illicit trade in alcohol was valued at R13 billion in 2017, which accounts for more than 15% of the total alcohol market in SA (Stockenstroom, 2020). There is no doubt that the ban on alcohol, which was partially lifted in late April, boosted the illicit trade.[12] In almost all of the articles that discuss the alcohol ban, the licit and illicit sale of alcohol are seen as completely dichotomous. However, many of the beverages that are sold on the black market are obtained from the licit market, albeit not always in licit ways[13], and sold by people who do not have liquor licences. This also implies that the initial tax has already been paid on beverages that are resold (Luthuli, 2020). This factor was not accounted for in SAB’s calculations of lost tax revenues. It also implies that the ban did not harm everyone, but harmed some and benefited others. While SAB’s profits evidently decreased, many organised criminal cartels and smaller back-yard brewers have benefitted. Although the ban has ended, it seems as if cartels have seized the opportunity to grow their business and strengthen their stronghold in the market (Ndlovu, 2020).

Similar to the illicit trade in alcohol, there was already a booming trade in illegal cigarettes prior to the lockdown. Illegal cigarettes accounted for about 33% of the cigarettes sold in SA and approximately 42% of the informal market. Illegal cigarettes come from a variety of sources. They can be smuggled into SA from neighbouring countries via illicit networks or they can be counterfeit versions of legitimate cigarette brands. However, the bulk of illegal cigarettes sold in SA come from “local, licenced tobacco manufacturers who do not declare all their manufactured product to the South African Revenue Services (SARS),” (BATSA, 2016). Not only are the manufacturers of illegal cigarettes well known, but they are also reported to be significant funders of multiple political parties, including the African National Congress (ANC) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) (Pauw, 2018). The same cartels who are involved with human trafficking and narcotics also collect revenues from selling illicit cigarettes and alcohol and it seems likely that their power has increased during the lockdown.

It is critical not to conflate ‘licit’ and ‘illicit’ with ‘good’ and ‘evil’, as most of the news articles about illicit markets have done. As in many other parts of the global south, gangs and cartels exercise a great deal of territorial control in regions of SA, and, in many cases, they can become arbiters of governance and power. Gangs often protect the communities in their territories in order to maintain local legitimacy and can become figureheads of stability in times of crisis. Gangs and cartels can thus become entrenched in local governance. In SA, this is clearly the case in some suburbs of the Cape Flats (such as Steenberg), where the Mongrels exercise a great deal of authority. Since the start of the lockdown, the Mongrels (under the leadership of Leon ‘Poppie’ Meyer) have set up soup kitchens to feed people in one of SA’s poorest communities. Naxz Modack, another underworld figure, has launched feeding schemes in Eldorado Park in Johannesburg and in Cape Town. He has commissioned security companies to deliver food parcels and pots of food to multiple poor communities predominantly in Manenberg, Bonteheuwel, Athlone and Mitchells Plain (Hyman, 2020).

Distributing food parcels certainly does not justify the violence and brutality that cartels and gangs inflict. However, it is important to remember that state apparatuses also inflict violence and brutality. Activists in the recent #BlackLivesMatter protests have highlighted this, but it has also been evident in reports of police violence against lockdown violators and protestors in countries such as SA and Zimbabwe (Shoki, 2020; Dzirutwe, 2019). There are almost innumerable histories recounting the violent actions of nation states and, as illustrated by the example of the illicit cigarette trade in SA, state actors sometimes benefit from illicit markets. Moreover, there is not always a sharp distinction between licit and illicit markets, as demonstrated by the fact that illicit alcohol is often obtained from licit sellers but sold by people without liquor licenses. It is of course true that gangs do not always distribute food out of pure altruism and that they benefit from community loyalty in the long term. However, as Leon Meyer observed, “Why does that lady go to that drug merchant asking for help? Ask her, because the politicians and government officials come when they want the votes, and when they’ve got their vote it’s all over” (cited in: Hyman, 2020).

The literature on gender, drugs and crime has tended to emphasise women’s victimisation and there is a recurring narrative of dependence, exploitation and dysfunction (Anderson, 2005). In contrast, the state has attempted to represent itself as a protector of women’s rights and a champion of gender equality. During President Cyril Ramaphosa’s latest national address on 17 June 2020, he discussed GBV as “another pandemic that is raging in our country”. He mentioned various steps that the government was taking to curb GBV and commended the South African Police Service (SAPS) for their “excellent work in arresting almost all of the alleged perpetrators”. This evidently ignores the fact that SAPS officers are often perpetrators of GBV, as demonstrated by the example of some SAPS officers abusing female waste-pickers. Moreover, he blamed GBV on “the actions of violent men,” (Ramaphosa, 2020). Although this seems obvious at a superficial level, it ignores more structural drivers of GBV and individualises the problem.

In reference to victims of GBV, President Ramaphosa even claimed that “we will speak for them where they cannot,” (Ramaphosa, 2020). Although the President did not specify who this ‘we’ was, he was presumably speaking on behalf of the government. The narrative that emerges is thus one that presents the state as the protector of women against violent men. This is problematic for various reasons. As mentioned above, it individualises GBV. Furthermore, it creates a ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ dichotomy between the state and ‘violent men’. The President did not only present these men as separated from society, but in an earlier address on GBV he stated that they were attacking “the very foundation of our democratic society” and “our common humanity” (Ramaphosa, 2019). If violent men are depicted as outside society or as ‘attackers’ of society, then we run the risk of overlooking the complex drivers of GBV within our societies.

It is also worrisome that the state is allegedly speaking ‘for’ victims of GBV. This again perpetuates the notion that women are merely helpless victims that cannot speak for themselves and have to be protected by the (masculine) state. It can be argued that the President was speaking on behalf of deceased victims. However, this is still problematic because it overlooks the voices of thousands of protestors who demanded action on GBV. The state was thus not speaking for people who have been affected by GBV, but was responding to the outcries of survivors and activists.

In order to disrupt the narrative of the valiant state as the protector of women against violent men, we should also recognise the agency of women in illicit economies. Women in illicit economies, particularly in those related to drugs and sex work, do experience discrimination and are often victims of GBV. However, as the sociologist Tammy Anderson reminded us, “the situation is not quite as simple as it has been made out to be: ‘victimization’ and ‘empowerment’ can be, and often are, interrelated,” (Anderson, 2005: 375). On the one hand, men are more likely to occupy more lucrative and higher status roles in illicit drug economies and male actors in these economies often live out violent masculinities. According to Anderson, this gives men ‘structural power’, especially in relation to the possession of resources.

On the other hand, women seem to exercise a more relational form of power that enables illicit economies to function. This is particularly evident in the realm of sex work, which supplies “the drug economy with necessary money capital,” (Anderson, 2005: 376). Due to socially constructed gender roles, women often act as facilitators in drug deals and do a lot of the ‘behind-the-scenes’ work that supports drug markets[14]. Although men still generally hold structural power in illicit economies, women’s ‘supporting’ roles are not necessarily performed for men’s benefit. Anderson argued that “While it is true that women’s agency does not earn them a more structurally recognized position of power in the illicit drug market, less recognized is that their agency may empower them to better excel in future conventional (i.e. legal) activities than their male counterparts,” (Anderson, 2005: 383).

Anderson’s discussion of women’s agency in illicit economies supports the argument that there is not a ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ dichotomy between licit and illicit markets. In fact, when seen through a gendered lens, it seems as if illicit economies are structured relatively similar to licit economies. In both cases, ‘women’s work’ is central to the functioning of markets, yet it is often overlooked. In relation to illicit economies, Anderson noted that “the market is dependent on their agency, yet it disallows their accumulation of structural power” (Anderson, 2005: 383). This same point is equally applicable to the ‘formal’ economy, which depends on women’s capital as consumers and on their ‘behind-the-scenes’ labour. Moreover, women are allowed to become ‘empowered’ within the ‘formal’ economy, but are discouraged from changing its structure. The argument that women’s roles in illicit economies sometimes enables them to participate more effectively in ‘formal’ economies again challenges the distinction between different economic systems.

As mentioned at the start of this piece, reports and articles on the economic effect of the lockdown have been ubiquitous. Concurrently, President Ramaphosa declared that the state would implement an economic strategy that will “drive the recovery of our economy” (Ngobeni, 2020). According to Finance Minister Tito Mboweni, this strategy involves stimulus measures that would amount to R800 billion. This included the monetary response of the SA Reserve Bank, which cut the interest rate and made concessions to banks. In order to benefit from the stimulus package, spaza shops would have to have licences and bank accounts and be registered at SARS (De Lange, 2020). The stimulus package includes a COVID-19 Block Exemption for the Retail sector. However, other businesses that want to access funds have to be owned by South Africans (thus excluding migrants), they have to “demonstrate strong business fundamentals” and have a detailed business plan. They also have to be able to demonstrate that they will recover within 18-24 months (White & Case, 2020).

This piece has attempted to demonstrate that speaking of the damaging effects of the lockdown on ‘the economy’ is highly misleading. Similarly, claims that the stimulus package will save ‘our economy’ obscures the heterogeneous repercussions that it is likely to have. The previous paragraph mentioned only a few of the policies in the government’s stimulus package. However, it becomes clear that retailers and banks are likely to benefit while people working in the ‘informal’ economy could become even more marginalised. The situation becomes more complex when we consider the links between different economies in SA. This was demonstrated by the fact that illicit tobacco sellers often obtain their products from larger licit tobacco manufacturers. At first glance it thus seems as if the illicit cigarette trade is flourishing to the detriment of the licit trade, but this is clearly an oversimplification.

Furthermore, it is problematic to assume that licit economies are ‘good’ while illicit economies are ‘evil’, as much of the reporting on the two interrelated economies did. This was demonstrated in the discussion of evidence to suggest that cartels and gangs are supplying food parcels to struggling local communities. This does not mean that the brutal actions of gangs are justified. Instead, we are able to draw parallels between the ways in which gangs and governments function. This point becomes clearer if we consider the gendered aspects of illicit markets, since they are analogous to the gendered dimensions of licit markets. This also disrupts the government’s narrative on GBV, which positions the (masculine) state as a protector of women against ‘evil’ men. All of these factors have implications for the policies that are adapted in response to COVID-19. Summarily, we cannot assume that a stimulus package will benefit ‘our economy’ because this leaves crucial questions unasked: Who will benefit, and in which ways?


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[1] Very basically, the ‘trickle down’ effect or theory refers to the notion that policies that benefit the wealthy will benefit everyone because the profits will ‘trickle down’ into society.

[2] This also demonstrates how interconnected various economic systems are.

[3] Estimates are around 1 million in SA alone (Institute for Economic Justice, 2020).

[4] The labour market in SA has historically been characterised by informality and flexibility because the apartheid system was based on highly flexible migrant and contract labour (Valodia, 2001: 874).

[5] This is because informal economies (much like formal economies) often have a pyramid structure with employers, the group with the highest earnings, at the top. Men make up the majority of employers and “moving further down the different levels of the pyramid, the risk of poverty increases, as does the percentage of workers who are women,” (Rogan & Alfers, 2019: 93).

[6] About 70% of women in the informal economy work in domestic and ‘elementary’ occupations (Valodia, 2001: 875).

[7] According to a 2013 study by SWEAT, these workers often support families of up to seven dependents with their incomes (Mafolo, 2020).

[8] These organisations have launched various programmes, which are accessible via their websites: http://www.sweat.org.za/ and https://aidsfonds.org/partner/sisonke-south-africa.

[9] One reason for this is that sex workers frequently live in the places they work and the closure of brothels, bars and nightclubs has heightened their risk of losing their accommodation along with their livelihoods. One inspiring trend is solidarity groups that have formed among sex workers. For example, in Amsterdam sex workers have set up a crowd funding initiative to support their peers (Wagner & Hoang, 202: 6).

[10] About 90% of the world’s opium is produced in Afghanistan (Malloch-Brown, 2008).

[11] Adulterated drugs are mixed with other substances that decrease the purity.

[12] It is important to note that beer is the most commonly sold type of alcohol in the legal market while illicit traders focus on high margin, low volume products and are more likely to sell hard liquor. Licit and illicit traders thus focus on different types of demand (Stockenstroom, 2020).

[13] There has been a sharp increase in the looting of alcohol stores and storage facilities since the start of the lockdown (Ndlovu, 2020).

[14] This ‘behind the scenes work’ includes, but is not limited to: providing housing, subsidising male dependency and purchasing and selling drugs (Anderson, 2005: 393).

The J(g)endered nation: Zimbabwe’s heroic and macho-currencies

by Tinashe Mawere

Introduction: Heroism and national masculinities

Contestations around national heroism have been rampant in Southern Africa in general and in Zimbabwe in particular (Mawere 2016; Becker 2011; Willems 2010; Goredema & Chigora 2009; Kriger 1995). In Zimbabwe, apart from being buried at national monuments, being commemorated on specific days and having structures and institutions named after them, heroic figures have featured in national (his)tories and artistic compositions such as songs, poems, plays and novels (Mawere 2016; Chitando 2005; Mugabe 2001). A number of scholars have reflected on the contested identities of heroes and subversions of heroism and heroic acts (Mawere 2019, 2016; Ndlovu-Gatsheni & Willems 2009; Goredema & Chigora 2009).

Clear enough is that globally, national heroism has been attached to nation-craft, but in Zimbabwe, this has been very much pronounced. The connotations of heroism have been attached to notions of struggles or chimurenga[1] which is foundational to Zimbabwean nationhood (Mawere 2019, 2016; Vambe 2004). The conflation of nationhood with chimurenga, which is re/imagined as violent reactions to national attacks that are acted out by the nation’s amadoda sibili/varume chaivo chaivo (real men) is problematic in relation to the ways in which masculinities are re/imagined in Zimbabwe and elsewhere. Due to its association with heroism and violent nationhood, rather than being associated with attributes and qualities that boys and men have or do not have, masculinity has landed as a field of discursive inquiry, connected to broader issues of knowledge re/production that are associated with socio-economic and political issues of dominance, oppression, inequalities and violence.

Apart from formal narratives imbibing or contesting Zimbabwean heroism and its performance and re/production of state-craft, in the face of hyper-inflation, Zimbabwe’s currency regime has performed and re/produced how Zimbabwean heroism and nationalism are re/imagined. In this work, by analysing the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ)’s 2006 initiative, ‘Zero to Hero’, I show an unfolding spectacle of Zimbabwean heroism and masculinity. I demonstrate how Zimbabwe’s currency and its ‘chimurenga’ or struggle against the ‘targeted’ crushing and loss of its value-mirror manliness, militarism and notions of masculinities that are foundational to Zimbabwe’s imagi(nation). This ultimately adds to the configuration of Zimbabwe as a j(g)endered nation – a nation founded, performed and re/produced through ‘politics dzejende’ (the politics of the balls/violence) and the politics of gender (Mawere 2019, 2016).

‘From Zero to Hero’: Re/reading the Zimbabwean currency inside the chimurenga

From the 2000s, Zimbabwe saw unprecedented and world-record-breaking levels of inflation (Kangira 2007; Muzondidya 2009). As part of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ)’s 2006 intervention to curb hyper-inflation, which then was at over 1000%, Gideon Gono, the RBZ governor, established and implemented some programs for curbing inflation and strengthening the Zimbabwean currency, popularly known as the Zim dollar. Some of these measures have continued to be applied to a corpus of Zimbabwe’s pseudo-currencies such as bearer cheques, bond notes and the RTGS (Real-Time Gross Settlement).

On 31 July 2006, the state, through the RBZ governor, Gono, announced a Monetary Policy Review Statement branded ‘Sunrise: A New Beginning/Zuva Rabuda (Shona)/Ilanga Seliphumile (Ndebele)’, which was also known as ‘Operation Sunrise’.[2] “Gono gave the impression that the Monetary Statement was a panacea to all the economic woes bedeviling Zimbabwe” (Kangira 2007:23). I posit that ‘sunrise’ framed Zimbabwe within the nationalist discourse of a new nation coming out of the dark tunnel of ‘foreign’ manipulation and naming it an ‘operation’, a war strategy, sensualised militarisation of the ‘sunrise’. The victorious currency announced by Gono was therefore some symbolic imagi(nation) of a new Zimbabwe that had militantly redeemed itself from ‘Western’ control. This spectacle was synonymous to the popular Hero’s Day Celebrations which also marked Zimbabwe as a ‘new beginning’ coming out of the heroic chimurenga struggles.

Gono popularised the ‘Zero to Hero’ (Mawere 2016; Kangira 2007) advertising campaign, which was meant to restore the value of the Zimbabwean currency and therefore masculinise and ‘empower’ it. This meant the slashing of three zeros from the Zimbabwean dollar denominations, where $1000 became $1 but still maintained its value. This was done “to make people believe that once the three zeros were removed from the currency, all economic problems would be a thing of the past” (Kangira 2007:23). Kangira used rhetoric analysis to show the state’s and Gono’s attempt to create a ‘common ownership of the economic crisis’ and a common bond among people to fight the crisis through his analysis of ‘together words’, buzzwords and an emotive call. He reads ‘Zero to Hero’ as a failed attempt to envision a strong and stable Zimbabwean currency.

I go beyond Kangira (2007)’s rhetoric analysis by reading the monetary re/vision as an ideological base re/producing and performing Zimbabwean masculinities and militarism, which are the hallmarks of Zimbabwean nationhood, especially in times of crises and alleged adversaries (Mugabe 2001). This reading confirms the state’s view that the apparent weakness or feminisation of the currency, which also translates to the weakening and emasculation of Zimbabwe, was a result of ‘foreign’ attacks on the Zimbabwean nation. The removal of zeros was therefore symbolic of and dramatised amadoda sibili’s politics dzejende (necessary masculine aggression) against the emasculation of the nation. Thus, the masculinisation and militarisation of the currency was a call to masculinise and militarise the nation to dispel ‘foreign’ aggression and the feminisation of the nation since a weak nation can easily be ‘penetrated’ by others. This is very sensitive in the context where being ‘penetrated’ is synonymous with being controlled.

The campaign was massive and it featured on television, radio and newspaper advertisements (Mawere 2016). The timing of this campaign was therefore not accidental, but well appropriate within the expected and intended discourse of nationhood. The new denominations took effect on the first of August 2006, in the obvious knowledge that in Zimbabwe, the month of August is regarded as the month of heroes since the Heroes Day is on the 11th of August. The struggle, rising, militancy and victory of the currency (which had been ‘imprisoned’ and puppeteered by ‘foreign’ nations) was a semblance of the heroic Zimbabwean nation which was founded on militancy nationalism (chimurenga).

It is also crucial to problematise Gono’s choice of the hero terminology. The notion of “Zero to Hero” is as controversial as the notion of heroism in Zimbabwean state-craft and which has been associated with national masculinities, ‘amadoda sibili’ and militarism, since the Zimbabwean hero is broadly re/imagined as militant (Mawere 2019; Vambe 2004). When unpacking masculinities, it is crucial to focus on how they are perceived and how they are performed and re/produced. I argue that Zimbabwean masculinities are re/presented in symbols and objects through a discursive analysis of heroism as a symbol of masculinity and the resistance, struggle and victory of the Zimbabwean currency regime as performances of heroism and therefore, of national masculinities.

The RBZ initiative therefore, was not related only to the masculinisation or strengthening of the currency, but also to a re/production of masculinities that perform Zimbabwean nationalism. Restoring the value of money became an affective and insidious reorientation on the ‘value’ of masculinity and militarism in Zimbabwe, since the ‘victorious’ currency was equated to the nation’s heroic and militant history, symbols and figures. Threats by ‘outside forces’ to the currency’s value were positioned as a manifestation of ‘foreign’ threats on national masculinities and therefore, a disruption of nationhood. Zimbabwe’s re/invention of macho-currencies amidst a ‘struggle’ against the allegedly ‘foreign’ engineered devaluation and economic lapse falls in line with Zimbabwe’s j(g)endered nationalism: a national identity that thrives on the politics of the balls and militarism. Zimbabwe’s currency regime, especially in the post-2000 era is, therefore, a spectacle of Zimbabwean militant masculinities which are foundational to Zimbabwean nationhood. Performances of heroism and nationhood (such as the masculinisation and militarisation of the Zimbabwean currency regime) help to illustrate how citizenship, gender, and sexual scripts; and cultures and knowledges of dominance, entitlement and violence are re/produced and performed.

Re/Valuing hegemonic and violent masculinities

In Zimbabwe and many other nations, men and particular performances of masculinity are given more value than women and femininity and this explains why betrayal and weakness are often associated with women and femininity (Mawere 2019, Sithole 1970). Proverbs such as uyo murume chaiye (that one is a man), which is used to praise both men and women who would have proven to the ‘society’ that they are extra-ordinary, are part of the everyday in Zimbabwe. These help to prove the different values that are associated with men and women as well as masculinity and femininity. The feminisation and homosexualisation of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and its leaders in Zimbabwe, the historical feminisation of the nationalist, Joshua Nkomo by fabricating stories that he escaped the government of Robert Mugabe while dressed in a petticoat (Mawere 2020, 2019, 2016; Nkomo 2001) exemplify metaphors of weakness and the hierarchical positioning of masculinity and femininity in Zimbabwe.

The performance of the masculinities of the Zimbabwean currency regime centralises male domination and masculine violence in nation-craft. Adding and violently-enforcing value to the Zimbabwean currency regime is an act of naturalising and normalising hegemonic and violent masculinities in Zimbabwean nation-craft. This aestheticisation of Zimbabwe’s state-craft invokes Ranciere (2006)’s ‘distribution of the sensible’, which is “…the system of divisions and boundaries that define, among other things, what is visible and audible within a particular aesthetic-political regime” (Ranciere 2006:1) and therefore makes politics performative. The cultural promotion of masculinities naturalises the subjugation of women and the feminisation of others in Zimbabwe’s game of power and discourses of development. The militarisation of the Zimbabwean currency, in line with the nation’s militarisation of heroes, extends militarism and Zimbabwe’s war ethic to the economic zone, turning livelihoods into real war zones. Vulnerable groups are drawn into war without consent, without being prepared and without the necessary resources to maneuver in situations of combat and conflict. Much literature has reflected, for example, on how women are abused, victimised, mis/represented and dishonored during wars and nation-building projects (Manganga 2011; Charumbira 2008; Chung 2006; Lewis 2004; Chadya 2003; Nhongo-Simbanegavi 2000; Anthias & Yuval-Davis 1989; Cock 1989). Understanding the Zimbabwean economy as a war zone (as shown by the militant and masculine Zimbabwean currency) thus enables us to re/think the position of women and other disempowered populations in the struggle for livelihoods.

Subverting national masculinities

There have been subversive voices contesting the state narrative of heroism, leading to a rejection of some of the people iconised by the state such as Chenjerai Hunzvi, Border Gezi and others (Mawere 2016). This counter narrative has also produced alternative heroes. Ibhetshu LikaZulu, a subversive group in Bulawayo attempted to celebrate Gwasela and Gayigusvu, ‘state dissidents’, as heroes during the National Heroes Holidays in 2009. Some MDC members allegedly ‘assassinated’ by security agents such as Tonderai Ndira (nicknamed Commander/Serge/Sergeant) have also been identified as heroes by the MDC. This demonstrates the complex ways in which people receive the hero status and reflects that people do not just accept dominant meanings that make no sense in their lives (Mawere 2016; Wilkins, 2012). The state-driven representations and performances of heroism and masculinities are ridiculed in the popular mockery of Gideon Gono’s intervention measure to fight inflation in Zimbabwe.

Gideon Gono was satirically called Giden Gn, after removing the three Os (the likeness of zeroes) in his names (Mawere 2016). This iconoclastic humour, analogous to Bakhtin (1994)’s Rabelaisian laughter visualises how ordinary people contest dominant heroism and the glaring vulgarity, simplicity, fictitious and irrationality of its masculinities. The laughter has continued throughout the years as the Zimbabwean government fictitiously gave value to bearer’s cheques, bonds, RTGs that it has used as currency or legal tender, with at one point in time, the 1 bond being at par with 1 US dollar. The fictitious nature and instability of the Zimbabwean currencies, is ironically reflected by the fiction and instability of the hero identity. This is shown by the state’s controversial inclusions of the likes of Joseph Chinotimba, Chenjerai Hunzvi and Border Gezi as heroes and the undressing of people like Joice Mujuru and former president Robert Mugabe as befitting heroes as a result of ugly factional fights within Zanu-Pf (Mawere 2019, 2016; Mugabe 2001).

In the context of the hardships that have been experienced by ordinary Zimbabweans especially from the 2000s, even to the extent of laughing at the folly of those who considered themselves technocrats like Gono, and the state which considered itself powerful, masculine and invincible, ordinary people have emerged as survivors. Willems (2010) discusses how a joke that was circulated at the eve of year 2007 contested the narrow definition of struggle and heroism, by reflecting how ordinary people were the real heroes, since they managed to survive economic and other livelihood challenges despite unfavorable odds. This invites us to problematise notions of heroism and masculinity in Zimbabwe and the kind of nationhood they re/produce and perform. The heroism and masculinity of Zimbabwe’s currency has proved to be fictitious and simplistic as reflected by gross economic instabilities. This also ruptures notions of heroism and masculinity that are at the center of Zimbabwe’s national construction.

Conclusion: Many ways to kill a cat

Zimbabwean masculinities are re/presented and re/produced in the popular, in symbols and objects that are part of the everyday. Heroism has broadly been coined with Zimbabwean nationhood and masculinities. I have argued that Zimbabwe’s currency regime has been turned into a war zone where the nation expresses or performs and re/produces its masculinities and nationhood, naturalising and performing hierarchical and gendered identities. In many ways, these masculinities have been re/imagined in silos of violence and have violated the livelihoods of ordinary people, especially women who are culturally given liminal spaces in a nation where violent masculinities are normalised and central for livelihoods. The masculinisation of Zimbabwe’s currency regime is therefore an ideological warfare to its actual dispute with the West (foreign powers), but also a performance and naturalisation of its gendered script in nation re/construction. In the midst of state performances of heroism and masculinity, however, it is possible to rupture dominant knowledges and to re/think subversive and dissenting, bottom-up heroism and masculinities that offer positions of refusal and give agentive power to those that are dominated and at the mercy of state manipulation. The failure of the state’s and Gono’s monetary strategy, ‘Zero to Hero’ is laughable and undresses state pretentions. This failure urges us to re/think masculinities and militarism as foundational to society and central to state-craft.


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[1] This is a veneration of military masculinities in Zimbabwe and originates in the Shona ancestor, Murenga Sororenzou, who was a hunter, great warrior, war genius, war-song composer and nation-builder (Vambe 2004).

[2] https://www.flickr.com/photos/sokwanele/228321813

New CSA&G publication – A magnifying glass and a fine-tooth comb: understanding adolescent girls’ and young women’s sexual vulnerability

The CSA&G’s Gender Justice project published a new monograph by Professor Mzikazi Nduna from Wits University. The monograph, A magnifying glass and a fine-tooth comb: understanding adolescent girls’ and young women’s sexual vulnerability, was made possible though the continued support of the Irish Embassy, Pretoria.

About the monograph

Research with regard to the sexuality of adolescent girls and young women continues to suggest new approaches for understanding the sexual risks experienced by girls and young women in Southern Africa. Whilst this knowledge base reveals that young women’s life conditions and experiences are sub-optimal, some sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) interventions are designed and delivered with unchecked assumptions. This monograph by Mzikazi Nduna addresses some of the assumptions underpinning adolescent girls’ and young women’s vulnerability that could be considered when designing and delivering SRHR interventions.

Nduna grounds the discussion in historical eras that contributed to current gender inequalities in Southern Africa. This history locates women’s sexual vulnerability in the context of failed capitalist economies, tailor-made education systems and religious and moral influences that inform women’s lived realities of gender and racial inequality.

She then guides you through a detailed discussion that introduces and examines five assumptions that appear to underpin sequential model interventions aimed at protecting adolescent girls and young women (AG&YW) against negative outcomes such as early and unwanted pregnancy and HIV infection.

The monograph concludes with a challenge to all of us to examine interventions with a fine-tooth comb, to reveal and interrogate underlying assumptions, and to intervene at the level of root causes of the problems that adolescents and young women face.

A magnifying glass and a fine-tooth comb: understanding adolescent girls’ and young women’s sexual vulnerability is a welcome contribution to the body of knowledge on adolescent girls and young women and will have relevance for academics, interventionists, policymakers and funders of SRHR interventions in Southern Africa and beyond.

An online discussion with the author will be hosted later in July, details to follow.