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Guns, patriarchy and violence against women

In Ridley Scott’s (for a male director) astonishingly feminist film, Thelma and Louise (1991), there is a scene-sequence that graphically captures the indissoluble connection between patriarchal men and guns. And, at the same time, it shows how much the vaunted power of patriarchal men depends on their guns.

The scene-sequence commences at that point in the narrative where the two anti-heroines of the film, the eponymous Thelma and Louise (Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon), driving too fast in their blue Thunderbird on an American highway, and on the run from the police for a series of “felonies” triggered when Louise shot a man who was trying to rape Thelma, hear the sound of a siren behind them. They discover that the source of the familiar noise is a police car behind them, the driver of which is indicating to them to pull over.

When they do, a police officer, clad in the clothes of the American highway patrol, gets out, saunters over to them and goes through the normal American routine of telling them what to do, where to keep their hands, to produce their driver’s licences, and so on. They cooperate in exemplary manner, until the officer gets back into his own car and picks up the radio receiver. Before he can make radio contact with a police unit, however, he sees one of the until-now “nice ladies” standing next to his car window, pointing a gun — the veritable emblem of maleness — at him, and telling him to get out, because they cannot afford to let him communicate their whereabouts to the police (who are already looking for them).

Thelma and Louise proceed, in graphic cinematic terms, to strip him systematically of all that defines him as a man and a police officer. They confiscate his gun — a phallic symbol par excellence — his gun-belt and holster, his “eyewear” behind which he could conveniently hide until now (projecting a kind of anonymous power), as well as his ammunition. In the course of this process of emasculation, during which they fire into the car tyres to puncture them, he starts blubbering, pleading with them to have mercy on him, because — ironically — he has “a wife and kids”.

The climax comes when they open the boot of the police car and order him — ever so nicely, and apologising all the time about the fact that they cannot avoid doing it — to get into it. This is the final humiliation: sending him back into a space that metaphorically represents the womb or, as Luce Irigaray has argued, Plato’s cave in the Republic, from which people — that is, for Plato adult Athenian men — are exhorted to liberate themselves to be able to reach the “sun” of phallogocentric reason.

It is a compelling film, and Scott does not mince its dialogue or images to get his message across, namely, that to defend themselves against the predictable violence inflicted upon them by many, if not all, men, women sometimes have no option but to resort to the same kind of violence against men.

In the process they unavoidably turn to the same instruments that men often use against them, where the revolvers and pistols they appropriate also stand for the male sex organ so frequently imposed on them with violence. And the narrative clearly reflects Scott’s misgivings about the wisdom of women turning to policemen for help under these circumstances, given the likelihood of solidarity among men when it comes to “rebellious” women. The narrative can have only one outcome for two women who have tasted freedom. In the face of “the revolutionary’s choice — Freedom or death!” (Lacan) — it has to end with their death.

One might ask why women like the fictional Thelma and Louise do not resort to more “feminine” ways and wiles — employed since time immemorial by women as instruments of power against men — to defend themselves against the abuse that their respective men (husbands or boyfriends) inflict upon them, and which sometimes compels them to leave the latter. It may appear that it is mostly under relatively civilised conditions that these charms have their efficacy, but the answer is not that simple.

The history of so-called “civilisation” constantly reflects changes in its social dynamics, and has recently registered certain changes that are conducive to a deterioration in the position of women. In fact, the gender relations refracted through the fictional lens of Thelma and Louise find their counterpart in a book based on the factual social conditions pertaining to the sexes at the time.

In Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man (1999) Susan Faludi reminds members of the masculine sex that it is not only through violent behaviour — either towards women or towards one another — that their masculinity can be asserted, and encourages them to cast their minds back to a time when men demonstrated their manhood by securing a social space for their families and communities to flourish.

In contrast to this, what she encountered among American men in the 1990s was a desperate attempt somehow to prove their manhood, given their experience of powerlessness in the face of what she terms the “ornamental culture” promoted by the corporations.

This was an eye-opening discovery by the writer of (the earlier book) Backlash, where she charted the “backlash” of the patriarchal establishment against the successes of the women’s movement. What she found when she was researching Stiffed, however, was that the violent treatment of women by husbands, boyfriends and the like, derived from a widespread experience on the part of men, of being systematically disempowered in a world where they had been taught that a man “should always be in control”.

This seems to me to resonate with what is happening in South Africa, and a psychoanalytical perspective on what Faludi uncovered in Stiffed is revealing. When one feels frustrated or powerless because of an inability to do or achieve what one’s self-image (in this case, as a man) dictates according to the criteria for “masculinity”, and there is little one can do to change this (given impersonal economic circumstances inexorably constituting an invisible ceiling), what happens?

As African psychiatrist Frantz Fanon realised in the case of colonised people, when powerlessness in the face of the coloniser’s power prevents the colonised from rebelling violently and “vertically” against the oppressor, the violence becomes “horizontal”. That is, the colonised people project their frustration violently on to their own people as substitute for the coloniser.

Much of the violence against women and children in this country has similar roots — in a society that has been patriarchal throughout its recent history, men increasingly resort to violent “lateral” expression of the same kind of frustration and feelings of powerlessness that Fanon found in colonised people, and Faludi detected in American men. In America it was (and still is) corporate economic power which she diagnosed as the unidentified target of masculine, “horizontal” violence against women.

We have essentially the same situation in South Africa today, and when ordinary men cannot assert themselves “vertically” against an impersonal economic system that is disempowering everyone (including men) except the very wealthy, disempowered men — who still harbour the subliminal notion that they are “the breadwinners”, but are progressively unable to fulfil this role — direct their frustration and anger “horizontally” at the women in their lives.

To exacerbate things, all the usual sources of violence still exist side by side with the kind described above. Jealousy and possessiveness on the part of men will always be there, in good as well as bad economic times, for as long as patriarchy exists.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. Sophia Sophia 9 March 2013

    Bert, I simply don’t buy Fanon’s vertical-to-horizontal-power-transference hypothesis. Certainly the narrow range of behaviours deemed acceptable in civilised society and the forces that maintain them can lead men (& women) to feel frustrated and oppressed, but idealising women as the ultimate (perpetually innocent) victims is utterly naive. The issue is definitely one of power, but can be characterised very differently from this dangerously nostalgic view of women as the (butt) end-recipients of all socio-economic forces. Many men of course do struggle with the fact that much of their socialisation demands imperturbable ‘performance’; but to think that women don’t engage in their own strategies is to leave (at least) half the story untold. Faludi and others seem to think of power in one-dimensional terms failing to see that multiple forms of power and stratagems for its expression and deployment exist. The devolution of the exercise of power to the physical and mechanical is admittedly man’s last resort. It is then that he seeks exclusivity in the exercise of power. It is however a last resort, an aberration and a collapse in the normal functioning of social relations. Most of the time – in ‘normal’ relations – the tussle can (temporarily) go either way. It’s misguided to exemplify the abnormal as a means of explaining the vast majority of hetero-sexual interactions. Most of us thankfully aren’t Thelma, Louise, Oscar or Jack the Ripper.

  2. Sophia Sophia 10 March 2013

    …and please don’t get me wrong, I recognise that one can point to all manner of examples of (what is now referred to as; phallogocentricsm, but used to be simply called) patriarchal sexism. I agree with you that Thelma and Louise provide a great example of two women who move outside of the stereotypical feminine modes of power, by contesting their freedom in the realms of the physical and the mechanical. I just don’t buy the notion “…when one feels…powerless because of an inability (to) … achieve what one’s self-image according to the criteria for “masculinity”, and there is little one can do to change this given impersonal economic circumstances”, men (automatically) turn to wife-beating, rape and the male superiority complex. t just doesn’t ring true. The networks of power are more intricate, varied and multi-directional than that. This leads to very many different explanations and personal exigencies. From a psychoanalytical point of view, for instance, the role of the mother (and her relationship with men as perceived by her son) is often a crucial determinant. Having a distorted image of what it means to be a man is of course a factor, but when employed in a generalised way, is nothing more than reductionism.

  3. Maria Maria 10 March 2013

    I love that part in Stiffed where Faludi says the penny finally dropped. She had been attending support group meetings of men who were girlfriend and wife batterers, when a man admitted, in a moment of (what – lucidity, or honesty?) that the only time he felt “in control” was when he was beating up his woman. isn’t it amazing that one moment like that can supply the missing heuristic link, and become the paradigmatic knot around which the rest of her research started taking intelligible shape!

  4. John John 10 March 2013

    “This was an eye-opening discovery by the writer of (the earlier book) Backlash, where she charted the “backlash” of the patriarchal establishment against the successes of the women’s movement. What she found when she was researching Stiffed, however, was that the violent treatment of women by husbands, boyfriends and the like, derived from a widespread experience on the part of men, of being systematically disempowered in a world where they had been taught that a man “should always be in control”.”

    Where is the evidence to back up this claim? This sounds contradictory to the argument that it’s patriarchy that fosters violence – not only towards women, but towards other men, animals and the environment. If patriarchy is the cause or at least the conditions of violence, then to blame more violence against women by men because patriarchy is being undermined seems to do little more than blame the victim once again. In other words, men seem to engage in violence whether they feel in control or whether they feel disempowered. This suggests that the problem lies deep in the male psyche. As a man, I feel that we need to begin looking towards ourselves for solutions to violence. Stop blaming the victim.

  5. Joanne Hichens Joanne Hichens 10 March 2013

    Having penned a piece for news24 at Voices on this issue around the underlying dynamics of powerlessness at the root of violence towards women, and having used rap lyrics to kick off my piece, I really enjoyed your inclusion of the Thelma and Louise movie, a great one. Popular culture remains a vehicle to show us who we are. Power dynamics are, simply put, at the base of many struggles we face, not only as women, but as South Africans trying to ensure some sort of equal system from which we all benefit.

  6. Maria Maria 10 March 2013

    Sophia, I don’t know if you are a woman or if “Sophia” is a nom de plume for a man, but as a woman I tend to think that Bert’s analysis (deriving from Faludi and Fanon) rings true. And I say this with full acknowledgement of the complexity and multiplicity of power relations, which I don’t think Bert’s analysis precludes or disavows. It seems to me he is talking about a tendency that exists under a certain set of economic circumstances. Have you read Stiffed? I recall that, when I first read it, as a Mexican I felt immediately that its thesis was not peculiar to the USA, but even applied to certain social strata in Mexico, although “ornamental culture” had a far stronger hold on American society. Perhaps because it takes a shorter time for people to respond to changing power relations than it takes for them to change their self-conception, that is, their “identity” (the scare quotes are important), a clash between the two things eventually occurs. This is what Faludi brought to light.

  7. JitsZA JitsZA 10 March 2013

    Great food for thought Bert. Sophie, you make excellent points as well. More importantly neither of you have even suggested any solutions, so what’s the point?

  8. Enough Said Enough Said 11 March 2013

    Thanks Bert. Interesting read.

    Interesting comment Sophia. “I simply don’t buy Fanon’s vertical-to-horizontal-power-transference hypothesis.”

    Is there any research to back-up or dismiss this hypothesis?

    From personal experience I know that when I am being frustrated by oppressive individuals, I can take it out on someone close to me with virtually no provocation. ‘Kick the cat or dog’ or shout at a family member for basically no reason other than I have pent up frustration due to some difficult character giving me a hard time.

  9. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 11 March 2013

    … and sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
    Rather than psychoanalyse everything I see or read, I tend to go with the Occam s Razor principle.

    SA men abuse women because they can. Simple as that. It is condoned (if not actively encouraged) by religion, culture and society. Even our media makes excuses for them by making it about ‘poverty’ or ‘powerlessness’ instead of simply condemning it. It reminds me of that crackpot Dr Spock who blamed everything on potty-training.

  10. Bert Bert 11 March 2013

    Sophia, to what Maria has said (thank you, Maria!) I can add: It goes without saying that power-relations are more complex than this short post can possibly suggest (as the work of Foucault, Lacan, Ranciere, Arendt, Fanon, Faludi, Kristeva, Zizek and a host of other thinkers demonstrates; Zizek’s Violence: ‘Six sideways reflections’ being a case in point). But you seem to forget, when you dismiss Fanon so glibly, that psychoanalysis alerts us to the phenomenon that daily impacts on our lives, namely ‘projection’, of which Fanon’s distinction between the two axes of violence is an instance. Right at the end of my post I remind readers that other sources of vioence continue to exist alongside the kind I try to grapple with here, and earlier I also admit the overdetermined status of violence, when I talk about the ways that women have always had, of wielding power over men, even under patriarchy. Foucault talks about those, incidentally. Faludi is essentially diagnosing what happens when men who have been socialized into a certain cratological ‘identity’ (thank you again Maria!) find that nowhere can they assert this ‘identity’, in the face of the immense restructuring of power-relations under neoliberalist economics. And it is no secret that the same has been happening in South Africa, hence the perceived parallel.
    John – ‘blaming the victim’? This suggests that I’m blaming women for the violence inflicted upon them. I think you have seriously misread my piece.

  11. Bert Bert 11 March 2013

    JitsZa – There are no easy solutions, but one could start by educating our children in such a way that they reject patriarchy, which disempowers women, as well as neoliberal economics, which empowers the few at the cost of the many, and creates the structural conditions for the kind of violence discussed here (as well as protests, seen all over the world recently). But there are no guarantees.

  12. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 11 March 2013

    It’s a bit of a smokescreen to claim these power relations are too complex. Surely if you go by Rancieré, then provided of course that these complex power relations are understood, you could phrase these complex issues in such a way that us poor indoctrinated patriarchal Neoliberals can understand them? Or as they say in the hard sciences, “if you can’t explain your physics to a barmaid it is probably not very good physics”.

    Surely, if they are so complex, then it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that a gun is a phallic symbol in the first place? I can understand how swords and spears may be phallic, but guns are decidedly gender neutral. Think Annie Oakley.

    This while rape and domestic violence are serious issues. Most of these are related to drug crimes and societies that have a distinct absence of patriarchs and grow up in a culture of extreme collectivism – the veritable opposite of Neoliberal economics values. No guarantees indeed, especially if the analysis amounts to psychobabble.

  13. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 11 March 2013

    @ Bert, I think Sophia’s point, “to exemplify the abnormal as a means of explaining the vast majority of hetero-sexual interactions” is pertinent, perhaps the question isn’t so much “why are men violent”, as to, “why aren’t all men violent”. Perhaps a counter movie metaphor, “Life is Beautiful” – in which the hero man recreates the dominant story, an act of creativity, rather than violence – is to recognize that men have options, that even in the face of violence (institutional, natural), like “Shawshank Redemption”, like “Castaway” there are creative options available.
    Unfortunately I think our debates are shaped by movies that portray the man as the physical being who through violence resolves the crisis that reason and nurturing (the damsel in distress) cannot solve. John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone,Tom Cruise et al have all made their careers portraying the stereotype. Our media then reinforces the stereotype, when it profiles the Oscars of the world, and we buy into the anomaly, we buy into the sensationalist offerings, we come to believe that all men are like that, whereas it is only some, the majority use others mechanisms to deal with the crisis created by decline of our role as provider and protector, hunter and warrior!

  14. Joe Soap Joe Soap 11 March 2013


    “then it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that a gun is a phallic symbol in the first place?”

    Bumper sticker seen on the back of a pro-gun lobbyists vehicle: “Suck my Glock”

    For those who don’t know what a Glock is:

    “GLOCK “Safe Action”® Pistols | Handguns | Firearms | GLOCK USA”

    All seems fairly phallic to me. :-)

  15. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 11 March 2013

    This is not to deny the stat’s, that a women is raped every 8 hours in SA, that 1 in 3 (am I right?) women will be sexually abused in their lives, or that feminism was not an appropriate response to patriarchy. But I think we too often “celebrate” the sensationalist, the bad news, over the mundane and the alternative ways that are being readily used.
    In trying to understand this issue, I had asked myself, what would it take for me to rape a woman, and whilst I sympathize with the loss in identity, the role confusion, the paralysis against the economic forces that shape my life, the answer I came up with, was I don’t believe there is a circumstance/ characteristic that would drive me to that point. I don’t believe myself capable of raping, the potential is obviously there, I am a man, but I choose differently!

  16. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 11 March 2013

    @Joe Soap:
    That’s a word play. You’d notice quite a few ladies also use the term, G.I. Jane style. Speaking of which, it’s hardly a feminist or equality victory when women can only obtain respect by appropriating male phalocentric symbols. Also, I was referring to Bert’s comment that “there are no guarantees”. The reason for this is polysemy. One can pretty much deconstruct any text to mean whatever one wants it to mean, which is to say deconstructing texts teaches one more about the deconstructor than the text.

  17. Maria Maria 11 March 2013

    Touche, Joe Soap!
    @Gary: Read Bert’s piece again, as well as his comments/answers. What you argue is not contradicted by what he wrote. Of course there are many men, even patriarchal ones, who don’t “act” violently towards women, but how many of them do something to combat, actively (like Bert), the social structures that systematically privilege men’s interests above women’s? Patriarchy is so pervasive that VERY few men can be said not to be patriarchal, although, as I’ve said, they may not inflict physical violence on women. So point taken, Gary, but reflect on what I’ve pointed out here. And I hope you don’t mean it, that “feminism was not an appropriate response to patriarchy”. Did women like Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem, Marilyn French, and many others, have a choice but to walk that road?

  18. Chris2 Chris2 11 March 2013

    In mostly pre-historic hunter-gatherer societies the males were hunters and also fighters to defend their gatherer women-folk and progeny. In historic times, until quite recently, fighting and soldiering were a male preserve, Men’s special – even loving – relationship regarding arms, now guns, is understandable from such a perspective. To see a gun as a phallic symbol is somewhat contrived; how about a bow and arrow? Or a stone? Weapons augment human power for hunting, offensive and defensive purposes. Should it ever be used to force sexual favours, that does not make it a phallic symbol per se. Women carrying and using guns for self-defense is nothing new.
    Whether guns have anything to do with patriarchy is questionable. The greatest threats to ‘benign’ patriarchy have occurred during the past century and are continuing, but I would be interested to know where the female revolution, personified by militant feminism, was countered with guns. The fact that theirs is a phyrric victory is (tragically) hardly being considered, even by our philosophers. In almost all cases where women’s rights have advanced most, the birthrates have dropped precipitously to far below replacement, leading to irreversible decline (the demographers tell us) and relatively rapid effective extinction. Liberal Europe is being populated by militant patriarchal immigrants that are bound to turn it into an islamic region within a few decades if present trends continue.

  19. Sophia Sophia 12 March 2013

    @Bert, Maria, et al, we’re broadly in agreement, it’s just a crucial matter of explanatory emphasis. I’m as deeply appalled by gun violence as you appear to be – but note that far more men are the victims of this than women. I agree with Faludi that anyone who believes they “should always be in control” will feel that they are victims of systematic disempowerment; that’s just a fact of life that most children learn on the playing field – some unfortunately don’t. There’s no doubt that South Africa (like Mexico) is infected with an epidemic of (gun) violence & that much of this can certainly be explained by economic circumstances – but we can usefully dispense with the lateralisation & projection hypotheses. It’s clear that the remnants of patriarchalism are alive & well and that this could be “because it takes a shorter time for people to respond to changing power relations than… to change their self-conception”. It could also be that for certain men it’s simply not perceived to be in their interests. Another related reason is that they just don’t know how to change & are incapable of imagining another ‘identity’. Most, I suspect, are not misogynists, but some do (as Momma Cyndi argues), “abuse women because they can”. Gary K’s point should give us pause for thought i.e.’not all men are violent’ despite your depiction of an overwhelming cratalogical trajectory. Somehow choices are made. Ps. glib is a function of space constraints rather than intention.

  20. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 12 March 2013

    @ Maria, to be clear I am saying that feminism is an entirely appropriate response to patriarchy, and I agree that patriarchy is so pervasive that both men AND women are often not aware of its influence. I struggle however with the notion that this is entirely a testosterone thing, that somehow only men are required to look deeply inwards. I think we too easily accept the stereotype of man the aggressor and don’t recognize man the nurturer. Isn’t that the point Faludi is making? The environmental need for hunter/ gatherer division of roles is over, but our programming and messaging hasn’t followed suit, men are still encouraged to be the breadwinner and women still encouraged to be the homemaker. Men remain physically stronger on the whole, women still are the only gender capable of producing children, and to some extent these physical limitations may “trap” us into certain ways of thinking. We need to be freed from this to enable us to assume roles more appropriate to our character and capabilities, than to our gender. So I understand Bert’s point entirely, my objection is mainly one of emphasis, if we keep telling men they are bastards, why are we surprised that in moments of stress they resort to the stereotype?
    I would consider myself a “genderist” (don’t know if such category exists, but hey) in that I believe both genders need to be freed of patriarchy. Men have certainly benefited in some ways, but don’t believe we have emerged unscathed!

  21. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 12 March 2013

    @ all women commenting, to my point about how men are trapped by the stereotype, when I read of the recent and ongoing rapes and killings, I asked myself whether I as an individual, as a man, was I capable of similar violence? I wonder if as a women, the same thought occurred to you, are you capable of such violence? IF that thought did not occur to you, why not? Is it because each of us is programmed to think of man as the aggressor and woman the nurturer. Or is it as simple as that you had a pot on the stove, your man was asking for another beer, and you just didn’t have time to think that far?

  22. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 13 March 2013

    Gary Koekemoer

    I don’t think women are able to contemplate using rape to steal power from another individual. We do, however, get rather vicious with words. Same result but different methods.

    My veneer of civilization is pretty thin. Threaten my children (actually any child) or my loved ones and I go right back to pre-Neanderthal – all teeth and nails. So, yes, I am reasonably certain that I am more than capable of tremendous violence. Without provocation? Well that is highly unlikely but cannot be discounted either, seeing as how I have admitted to being capable of violence…. hell hath no fury and all that.

    If there were girls in Lord of the Flies, do you honestly think they would have been less ruthless than the boys became? I don’t

  23. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 14 March 2013

    @ Momma – touch my kid and I agree, violent defense is very possible, so no gender difference there. But taking your example, Lord of the Flies, why were boys chosen as the gender for the story, and would the book have sold if the cast was solely female?

  24. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 14 March 2013

    Gary Koekemoer

    When was it written? Sometime in the 1950’s? Still the days when women were believed to fill up their spare time with swooning and bringing a martini for hubby. I suspect that it simply would not have been believable in that time period to have vicious little girls running around putting pigs heads on stakes. Even today, we tend to be a bit “eeeew” when it comes to things like that.

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