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Nuclear weapons are plagued by paradox. The most fundamental paradox of nuclear weapons—the paradox from which all others are derived—is that they complete the logic of maintaining national security through force while at the same time leaving the United States more vulnerable than ever before. The superweapon continues to exist since its creation during World War II, and will continue existing forever—after all, the possession of nuclear power is one of the major ways we assess a country’s power, status, and security. Discourse about nuclear weapons is infused with a series of false dichotomies which underpin the primary signifiers of masculine/feminine, favouring masculinity over femininity in almost all respects.1 We obfuscate the language of the military to distract ourselves from the devastation and calamity that armed conflict and warfare actually inflicts. This paper will take up the ways in which the language of the bomb, nuclear warfare, and national security reifies stereotypes of men’s sexuality as dominating and conquering of women across various media, travelling through time from the Cold War era to our current, post–9/11 existence.

Feminist critiques to technostrategic language

Carol Cohn’s 1987 work, “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals,” offers a feminist’s perspective of nuclear strategy and the language used by defense intellectuals—pretty much all of whom are men, in Cohn’s experience—who use deterrence to explain why it’s safe to have nuclear weapons. Cohn notes that most surprising was the “elaborate use of abstraction and euphemism, of words so bland that they never forced the speaker or enabled the listener to touch the realities of nuclear holocaust that lay behind the words.”2 Indeed, she notes that feminists who are concerned about nuclear weaponry and nuclear warfare must pay special attention to the language they choose to use—and the impacts that it may have on the ability to communicate, and the ways in which the language limits or allows us to think and speak. The language of nuclear warfare has enormous destructive power, but the euphemisms employed in this language allows these ‘defense intellectuals’ to remove themselves from the emotional fallout that would result if the terminology used was clear about planning for “mass murder, mangled bodies, and unspeakable human suffering.”3 Defense analysts reference ‘countervalue attacks’ instead of incinerating cities, about ‘collateral damage’ rather than human death. As one defense analyst said to Cohn, “The Air Force doesn’t target people, it targets shoe factories.”4 The language at play here exemplifies the massive discontinuity between signification and reality that characterizes what Cohn coins ‘technostrategic’ language: “‘Clean bombs’ tell us that radiation is the only ‘dirty’ part of killing people,” she notes, commenting on the moral and ethical absolution this language seems to imbue.5 Feminists suggest that an important aspect of the arms race, particularly in the Cold War, is phallic worship—that “missile envy” is a significant motivating force in nuclear build-up.6 As Cohn notes, if disarmament is emasculation, how could any Real Man even consider it?

In “Nuclear Weapons as the Currency of Power,” Anne Harrington de Santana suggests that the production of nuclear weapons as fetish objects is the culmination of a pattern of behaviour that she refers to as the “fetishism of force.”7 Santana draws a link between Marx’s commodity fetishism and the militaristic fetishization of force, claiming that where Marx suggests that money is the mature expression of commodity fetishism, nuclear weapons are the mature expression of the fetishism of force. Money is the physical embodiment of social value—i.e., wealth; for the military, nuclear weapons represent the same power that commodities and wealth provide under late-stage capitalism. “In both cases, the physical form of the fetish object is valuable because it serves as a carrier of social value.”8 In other words, the power of nuclear weapons is not reducible to their explosive capacity. Nuclear weapons are powerful because we treat them as powerful. We fetishize them like we fetishize capital. Indeed, we fetishize them like we fetishize women’s bodies.

The erasure of motherhood

Both the military and arms manufacturers are constantly exploiting the phallic imagery and promise of sexual conquest and domination that their weapons suggest. It’s hard to argue that engaging in nuclear conflict is anything but sexually dominating—and thus colonial—in nature. A journalist was brought to Nagasaki by the U.S. Air Force to witness and report on the bombing in 1945. His interpretation speaks volumes:

Then, just when it appeared as though the thing had settled down in to a state of permanence, there came shooting out of the top a giant mushroom that increased the size of the pillar to a total of 45,000 feet. The mushroom top was even more alive than the pillar, seething and boiling in a white fury of creamy foam, sizzling upward and then descending earthward, a thousand geysers rolled into one. It kept struggling in an elemental fury, like a creature in the act of breaking the bonds that held it down.9

The use of sexualized language and innuendo is almost laughable here. Cohn notes that the French use the Mururoa Atoll in the South Pacific for their nuclear tests and “assign a woman’s name to each of the craters they gouge out of the earth.”10 If we remove the context of nuclear bombing here, this could very well be the description of some sexual encounter. References to  mushroom tops and creamy foam, combined with the assignment of women’s names to orifices in the ground is symbolic of men’s conquest over women as simply holes to conquer—holes to fuck. Some might suggest that there is a particular latent homosexuality in the terminology of close contact with the missile—of ‘patting’ the missile. “What are men doing when they ‘pat’ these high-tech phalluses?,” Cohn asks.11 It sounds homoerotic: “The thrill and pleasure of ‘patting the missile’ is the proximity of all that phallic power, the possibility of vicariously appropriating it as one’s own.” I would say, though, that we must look past the homoeroticism of such close contact with the missile—the techno-phallus—and into homosociality: a term popularized by Eve Sedgwick. She notes that the term was coined in an effort to distance close, non-romantic male–male bonds from homosexuality, and is often characterized in men through “intense homophobia, fear, and hatred of homosexuality.”12 Indeed, these are all qualities and opinions the military held of homosexuality during the Cold War. I would suggest that this closeness of man to missile is indeed a homosocial phenomenon, and one which is predicated on the deep-rooted misogyny of these defense intellectuals to subjugate, belittle, and conquer women—to erase their existence entirely.

The bomb project is rife with images of male birth, suggesting men’s desires to appropriate from women the power of giving life, conflating creation and destruction. In December 1942, Ernest Lawrence’s telegram to physicists at Chicago regarding the atom bomb read, “Congratulations to the new parents. Can hardly wait to see the new arrival.”13 At Los Alamos, the atom bomb was referred to as “Oppenheimer’s baby.”14 This idea of male birth and the ways in which it belittles maternity—the denial of women’s roles in the process of creation and the reduction of motherhood to the provision of nurturance—seems thoroughly incorporated into the nuclear mentality.

Phalluses in mainstream media

We can see representations of all of these ideas of masculinism and male domination in entertainment media that emerge from the Cold War and post-Cold War eras. The 1995 James Bond film, GoldenEye,15 is about a fictional electromagnetic weapon developed by the Soviets, equipped with two nuclear warheads. The presence of these missiles is, of course, threatening, phallic. The state of paralysis of the Cold War, however, was that such bombs could not be used without risking nuclear calamity: mutually assured destruction. During the Cold War, citizens were forced to fight a war without conventional, sexualized weapons—and frustrating wartime notions of masculinity and virility. The James Bond films work to alleviate this frustration by “linking Bond’s hyperheterosexual nature with his adeptness at detonating bombs and using other technological firepower to both destroy the enemies and get the girls.”16 These ideas of technological destruction and of the conquest of women are inextricably linked—these ideas both comprise the monolithic, hyperreal entity of masculinity which cannot be considered to be ‘complete’ without both colonizing, destructive pieces of the puzzle. Hyperreal, indeed—where is the ‘reality’, as Baudrillard would say, in masculinity? There are no original referents for this imaginary, yet frightening, concept, being, thing.

The entire plot of the original Star Wars film revolves around the Death Star—a moon-sized superweapon that can destroy an entire planet with a single blast of its laser beam. The imagery here screams ‘big man with a big, destructive dick.’ The creation of such weapons and motifs of domination and conquest in mainstream media at such a politically tense time was no mistake. The creators of the Star Trek television series were uncomfortable with the salience of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security policy and with U.S. military intervention in other countries. The television series “was intended not only to shape the values of the American public but also to redirect U.S. policies abroad,”17 as Sarantakes notes in his article about Cold War popular culture in relation to U.S. foreign policy. Star Trek producer Gene Coon explains that the Klingons represent the Soviet Union, and are played very much like the Russians, while the Romulans are meant to be representative of the People’s Republic of China or North Korea, “or possibly some combination.”18 Many of the weapons used in Star Trek are phallic, namely the phasers and torpedoes. Indeed, the USS Enterprise starship is a colonial-esque vessel (often referred to with female pronouns)19 upon which its crew voyage in search for new frontiers. Even this starship is constructed with three phallic attachments. These cultural phenomenons—Star Trek, Star Wars, and even James Bond—have become popularized because political tensions in the postwar period did not allow for open public dialogue about these issues. In the aftermath of the first uses of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, science fiction writers turned to grappling with the issues raised by the very real existence of their previously metaphorical and imaginary technologies. As Berger notes, “The original conception of nuclear power as an ultimate weapon and revolutionary social force carried the implication that nothing could stand in the way of that force’s eventual, destructive realization, particularly in the presence of human irrationality.”20

Postmodern—but not postphallic—’security’

These gendered, heterosexist mentalities surrounding the superweapon penetrate the twenty-first century, post–9/11 war dialogue as well. Claire Duncanson and Catherine Eschle take on a feminist anti-militaristic approach to discuss how the gendered discourse surrounding nuclear weaponry and modern warfare presents itself in the UK government’s 2006 White Paper on the Trident nuclear weapons program. They claim that the linkage between sexual potency and masculinity is a way to mobilize gendered associations in order to create “excitement about, support for, and identification with”21 both the weapons and the political regimes which employ them. These euphemisms continue to make the nuclear arms race seem like the stuff of “jocular locker-room rivalry”22 and minimize the seriousness of militarist and nuclear endeavours. With respect to Trident, past submarine names include Astute, Resolution, Swiftsure, and Vanguard, all of which connote strength, resolve, and action.23 The photos accompanying the submarines in this post–9/11 ‘security plan’ are reminiscent of the phallic iconography of the Cold War. It’s clear that plans like Trident once again approach the foundational paradox of nuclear weaponry—the one that suggests that a good offence is the best defence, and that through this nationhood will be undoubtedly protected. Other feminists have also argued that invulnerability is an unachievable fantasy with deeply gendered connotations—a claim with which I agree. The female body is continually penetrated and impregnated while the male body remains, as ever, intact and impermeable.24

Judith Stiehm claims that many views of security cast the state and its military wings as “protector” and civilians within the state as “protected,” a deeply gendered binary.25 Indeed, the role of the masculine protector puts these women in a subordinate position of dependence and obedience. These citizens come to occupy a subordinate status like that of women in the patriarchal household. As Iris Marion Young notes, we are to “accept a more authoritarian and paternalistic state power, which gets its support partly from the unity a threat produces and our gratitude for protection.”26 This disenfranchisement of the civilian population not only serves as gendered oppression, but also discourages civilians from feeling any agency as members of a citizenry—members of a national community. In this context, the unity a threat produces and this gratitude for protection is predicated on a particularly Western view of national defense—one where war does not occur on ‘home soil’ and where we ultimately destroy civilians in other countries for wars that largely do not require our involvement (see all of the Middle Eastern conflict with which the United States has involved itself).


The multilayered use of abstraction and euphemism latent in the language of war and civil defence has major repercussions on the ways we communicate, and, by extension, the ways in which this language limits or allows us to think and speak about nuclear war and national security. This language also can be seen through the context of Marx’s commodity fetishism, whereby women, sex, and power are the commodities that become fetishized in what some scholars have called a ‘fetishism of force’. Indeed, this language has hypersexualized connotations, and most descriptions of nuclear warfare and national security are laden with references to men’s genitalia and ejaculate as well as euphemisms for sexual intercourse and conquest of women’s bodies (e.g., ‘deep penetration’). We also see these ideas played out in action and science-fiction films, some of which critique U.S. nuclear and foreign policy (like Star Trek), but some of which embolden the mentality of conquest (see James Bond). These ideas of conquest and penetration do not stop at the end of the Cold War; the superweapon continues to exist post–9/11, and this language imbues public government documents about nuclear programs and enforce paternalistic, gendered, hierarchical ideas of government–citizen relations. The trajectory of this language has moved through time and space: from World War II to the present, and across international borders, permeating the Global North dialogue surrounding ‘security’. Of course, all of this dialogue also contributes to the foundational, inherently masculinist paradox of nuclear war, and, until we recognize that total global disarmament is the only way to stay safe, we will always live in fear, under the shadow of the bomb.

  1.  Claire Duncanson and Catherine Eschle, “Gender and the Nuclear Weapons State: A Feminist Critique of the UK Government’s White Paper on Trident,” New Political Science 30, no. 4 (December 1, 2008): 546, doi:10.1080/07393140802518120.
  2.  Carol Cohn, “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals,” Signs 12, no. 4 (1987): 690.
  3.  Ibid., 691.
  4.  Ibid.
  5.  Ibid., 692.
  6.  Helen Caldicott, Missile Envy: The Arms Race and Nuclear War, Rev. ed (Toronto; New York: Bantam Books, 1986).
  7.  Anne Harrington de Santana, “Nuclear Weapons as the Currency of Power,” The Nonproliferation Review 16, no. 3 (November 1, 2009): 327, doi:10.1080/10736700903255029.
  8.  Ibid.
  9. William Leonard Laurence, Dawn over Zero; the Story of the Atomic Bomb, 2nd ed., enl (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1972), 198-99.
  10.  Carol Cohn, op. cit., 694.
  11.  Ibid., 695.
  12.  Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Wayne Koestenbaum, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, Thirthieth anniversary edition, Gender and Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 1.
  13.  Herbert Childs, An American Genius: The Life of Ernest Orlando Lawrence, Father of the Cyclotron, 1st ed. (E. P. Dutton, 1968), 340.
  14.  Richard P. Feynman, “Los Alamos from Below,” in Reminiscences of Los Alamos 1943-1945, eds. Lawrence Badash, Joseph O Hirschfelder, and Herbert P Broida (Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, 1980), 130.
  15.  Martin Campbell, GoldenEye, Action, Adventure, Thriller, (1995).
  16.  Tricia Jenkins, “James Bond’s ‘Pussy’ and Anglo-American Cold War Sexuality,” The Journal of American Culture 28, no. 3 (September 1, 2005): 315, doi:10.1111/j.1542-734X.2005.00215.x.
  17.  Nicholas Evan Sarantakes, “Cold War Pop Culture and the Image of U.S. Foreign Policy: The Perspective of the Original Star Trek Series,” Journal of Cold War Studies 7, no. 4 (October 13, 2005): 74.
  18.  Ibid., 78.
  19.  ‘All women are cars—and all cars are women.’
  20.  Albert I. Berger, “Love, Death, and the Atomic Bomb: Sexuality and Community in Science Fiction, 1935-55,” Science Fiction Studies 8, no. 3 (1981): 286.
  21.  Duncanson and Catherine Eschle, op. cit., 548.
  22.  Ibid., 549.
  23.  See Section 1: Secretary of State for Defence and Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, “The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent (Cm. 6994)” (The Stationery Office Limited on behalf of the Controller of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, December 2006).
  24. Susannah Radstone, “The War of the Fathers: Trauma, Fantasy, and September 11,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28, no. 1 (September 1, 2002): 457–59, doi:10.1086/340889.
  25.  Judith Hicks Stiehm, “The Protected, the Protector, the Defender,” Women’s Studies International Forum 5, no. 3/4 (January 1982): 368, doi:10.1016/0277-5395(82)90048-6.
  26.  Iris Marion Young, “Feminist Reactions to the Contemporary Security Regime,” Hypatia 18, no. 1 (February 1, 2003): 226, doi:10.1111/j.1527-2001.2003.tb00792.x.