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Monday, September 5, 2011

The Mobilizing Power of Endangered Femininity

The Black Legend Effect: Images of Mexicans, Cubans, and Spaniards in 19th Century American Visual Culture, 1848 to 1898
I am pleased to introduce the topic I will be presenting on at the upcoming NEASA conference, on the panel “Visual Arts and Identity.” 
When I saw on CNN reports of the Taliban’s mistreatment of Afghan women in the buildup to the recent U.S. invasion, I thought to myself, here we go again.  There may be some truth to that claim, but it certainly was not driving American military policy.  This type of charge is recurrent in the making of domestic and foreign enemy images throughout American history, and it provides policymakers or propagandists with a rationale for war that upholds the nation's moral mission while eliding the actual strategic gains of such actions.  Just how many times is this country going to justify aggression in the name of protecting women?  My talk isn’t going to answer this question comprehensively, but it will demonstrate the salience of this narrative in the propaganda of two nineteenth century wars.  This theme of endangered femininity has proven effective because it turns action into manly heroism and inaction into selfish negligence.  It also enables media makers to infuse elements of sensation and drama into these political scenarios, amplifying their commercial appeal. By making explicit the formulaic nature of these rallying cries, perhaps we can help make future generations less susceptible to their mobilizing power.
This project grew out of the book I recently completed, which traces patterns of visual representation in a range of cultural forms during the Spanish-American War of 1898 and its imperial aftermath.  It is titled From Liberation to Conquest: The Visual and Popular Cultures of the Spanish-American War of 1898 and is forthcoming this October from the University of Massachusetts Press.  I realized that cartoonists, filmmakers, playwrights, and other cultural producers often reshaped existing narratives in order to convey the politics of war and empire in simple, compelling ways.  This inspired me to explore the roots of this iconography in earlier conflicts, and I began with the media campaigns of the Mexican-American War.
Media makers predominantly represented the stakes of these international conflicts as sexual melodrama, with the American male hero coming to the rescue of the imperiled Mexican or Cuban woman.  Image makers depicted the Mexicans (and later the Spanish) as a lecherous breed that preys upon women.  Propagandists heightened the enemy threat by drawing upon a set of stereotypes that had existed in Western culture since the sixteenth century – the Black Legend.  When the Spanish empire was at the height of its power, its Northern European rivals branded Spain as exceptionally barbaric and fanatical based on the alleged brutalities of colonialism and the Spanish Inquisition.  Although the Black Legend had originally targeted Spain, media makers in the 1840s fused Spanish and Mexican peoples under the category of the “Latin” race.  They claimed that Spain’s prolonged imperial rule in Latin America and the high incidence of miscegenation between Spanish and native peoples caused Mexico to internalize the characteristics of the Black Legend.  The Black Legend furnished media makers with a shared language to dehumanize the Spanish and Mexicans in 1846 and 1898 in order to rally the nation for war.  The prevailing images of the dark, evil Spanish bandit and the sexualized Latina set important precedents for the representation of Latin American peoples inside and outside American borders in American popular culture of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Bonnie Miller, University of Massachusetts Boston

1 comment:

  1. Hi Bonnie,

    I just wanted to say that your research sounds fascinating.

    From my own experiences in the UK, I can remember being in Manchester a few months ago during a march that was organised by an anti-islamist, far-right group (I can't remember their name, but I believe they were aligned with the English Defence League). I was particularly surprised by the incongruity of witnessing banners with slogans such as 'Islam Oppresses Women', carried by a group of around 100 men.

    In respect of your research, I remember perceiving these kinds of slogans from the group as a somewhat insincere act, and as a form of justificatory narrative writing.

    Looking forward to hearing your paper.

    Dani Abulhawa
    University of Chester