Shell Shocked; Feminist Criticism after Trump by Bonnie Honig
Review by Charlotte Mears
Bonnie Honig’s Shell Shocked is an act of political protest. From the opening sentences in which she explains the difference between feminist theory and feminist criticism, it is clear that Honig intends this work to be a scathing observational critique of the Trump era. Shell Shocked achieves this with biting wit and dry humour, guiding the reader through the political landscape of the United States in a series of thought-provoking essays. In these easily digestible essays, the role of misogyny, racism and feminization as tools of oppression are made clear. Honig thus highlights the disastrous consequences of Trump’s time as president on vulnerable communities.
In Shell Shocked’s collection of essays, Honig explores the impact that Trump and his brand of shock politics has had upon the United States through an examination of politics, culture and media. Her sharp and witty critique highlights the danger and negative impact of this kind of statecraft on women, people of colour, and the vulnerable. The book could be split into three parts; a theoretical debate, evidenced essays on Trump’s use of shock politics, and how feminism should move forward. The first essays take the theoretical ideas explored in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine and place them in the reality of Trump’s America. Honig thereby practically demonstrates how Trump uses the tactics of shock and destruction to manipulate and destroy communities through disorientation and ultimately physical destruction so that they can then be seized for capitalist gain.
Perhaps the most significant insight that Shell Shocked offers in its early chapters is on gaslighting. Exploring how this process, generally found in abusive relationships where women are isolated, deprived of normality and then flooded with misinformation to control and destroy them was utilized by the Trump administration as a political tool. Whilst Trump’s misogyny is explicit, he used the techniques of gaslighting upon more than just the women who sought to challenge him. Although that fact alone proves that Trump had succeeded in his aims of desensitization, it is expected that Trump would gaslight and undermine any women he encountered. His wider practices of gaslighting becomes clear through his interactions with military leaders and his staff. It is also evident in his constant tweeting. Honig contends that through the barrage of tweets, he is able to determine what society fears and what political and cultural issues should be at the forefront of our minds. There is no time for the public to ask their own questions and gather their own information within the Trump manufactured commotion. As such, society is dependent on the information given from above. No questions asked.
Honig emphasizes how Trump uses gender roles to manipulate the emotions and reactions of crowds. For example, when Trump sought to undermine FBI director James Comey, he feminized him. Comey takes on feminine characteristics, and since women can’t be in charge of the FBI in Trump’s America, he is devalued in the eyes of misogynistic Americans. Feminization as a tool of subjugation is perhaps the most understandable of use of gender roles by Trump, appealing to his fan base who are obsessed with masculinity and traditional characteristics. However, what Honig emphasizes is that Trump uses gender stereotypes for his own purposes. Casting himself as a woman in need of protection, he is picked on by those who just don’t understand how he is making America great again. In this situation, his supporters rally. At the same time, Trump plays the masculine aggressor, building walls and acting as America’s protector with declarations of ‘get them out’ aimed at immigrants. Honig makes it clear that for Trump, gender is a weapon he is willing to puppet. He uses ideas of traditional gender roles to manipulate audiences into providing the emotional responses he requires.
In the last section of Shell Shocked, Honig looks to the future, offering the reader hope, a glimpse of what could be in store for feminists moving forward. Broadly, this can be interpreted as a call to arms for society to no longer ignore the misogyny that runs rampant in American politics. The concluding essays fit the book well and work to sum up Honig’s criticism and offer solutions to counteract Trump and shock politics. The advice: get involved in grassroots activism, campaign, protest, and find your own sources of information. Here, it is apt to mention that Honig’s book is missing a critical discussion of other genders. The book deals solely in her and him, with no mention of they. Despite the fact that those who identify on the wider gender spectrum have been targeted by Trump in numerous attacks, the impact of shock politics upon these groups is not included in the discussion. Inclusion of the entire gender spectrum and the experiences of individuals would enhance the critique and foster the inclusivity of community that Trump sought to destroy.
Keywords: Gender, Trump, Politics, Feminism, Culture
Charlotte Mears is a recent PhD graduate from Kingston University. Her thesis title was ‘A Social History of the Aufseherinnen of Auschwitz Concentration Camp’. Her research interests have developed to gender in the wider far right and she has had chapters published in the edited volume Alt-Histories (ed. by Louie D Valencia) and Pornography: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (ed. by Frank Jacob).