Emaciating machismo: masculinity, murals and memorialising hunger strikes
The emaciated, gaunt, sometimes twisted bodies of hunger strikers challenged the fantasy of the macho warrior by depicting the consequences of war on the male body
Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands in the film, Hunger, whose director Steve McQueen takes a well-built, athletic-looking Sands and subjects him to violence so extreme that it shatters any sanitised fantasy of war
What does masculinity have to do with the 1981 hunger strike? At first glance the links might not seem obvious. Gender politics might have been the last thing on the minds of the hunger strikers, their families or many observers. And yet everyone engages with performances of identity as part of daily life, whether reproducing or frustrating norms.
In times of conflict the stakes of masculinity are just as high, and historically what has been conceived of as the ideal “man” has also often been considered the ultimate soldier (and vice versa). Although the hunger strikes and their reception in visual culture have been rarely talked about in terms of masculinity, it’s worth considering the connection in order to gain a greater understanding of the Troubles and their legacy.
Macho, stoic, muscular male bodies have historically been used to cultivate militarism and patriarchy throughout twentieth-century Europe. They represent strength and self-control: the idea of the disciplined manly solider, able to sacrifice his body for the cause. This notion of the ideal warrior is used to try and justify the oppression of those seen to be “unmanly”: women, queer identities, colonial subjects, opposing factions in a war. By this logic the latter are supposedly weak, emotional, hysterical, and unable to control themselves.
In Ireland and Britain, loyalists, republicans and the British state all perpetuated these understandings of gender before and during the Troubles. Such stereotypes shaped how female hunger strikers were perceived in early 1900s Ireland, in contrast to men using the same tool of protest in later decades.
However, the 1981 hunger strike was a real turning point in Republican visual culture. While opinions of the strike itself differed within nationalist communities, it was significant that new representations of the male soldier as fragile, weak, wounded and frail emerged.
The emaciated, gaunt, sometimes twisted bodies of the hunger strikers challenged the fantasy of the macho warrior by depicting the consequences of war on the male body. No longer invulnerable in a steely skin-armour, but flesh and blood.
Not that all murals are the same – some, like the famous image of Bobby Sands on the Falls Road, show him smiling: the picture of health. What’s more, many of the fragile bodies of the hunger strikers have also been associated with Christ-like sacrifice, a testament to their unbroken “strength of spirit”, in an attempt to recoup aspects of the previous ideal.
However, it is notable that the hunger strikes themselves and the emergence of this aesthetic coincided with what has often been described as the origins of the peace process: republican engagement in democratic electoral politics. Bobby Sands was, famously, elected as an MP while on the strike. Although many new volunteers signed up in the wake of his death and the military campaign persisted for almost two more decades, 1981 was the beginning of a historical shift that led to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. While there are a small number of armed dissidents in operation today, they are outside the mainstream of public opinion. A number of recent murals adorn the hunger strikers with white doves of peace.
Ten years or more after the 1998 treaty, some muscular heroic murals were still being painted. However, other forms of visual culture also registered the image of the wounded male body. Steve McQueen’s movie Hunger (2008) is set in the Long Kesh/Maze Prison during 1980-81, opening amidst the “no wash” protests and culminating with Sands’ death. McQueen takes a well-built, athletic-looking Sands and subjects him to violence so extreme that it shatters any sanitised fantasy of war.
In the film, Sands’ body wastes to a harrowing cluster of bones, his skin rupturing open with burning ulcers as he begins ejecting blood and bile. Although these scenes are cut alongside footage of the young Sands running through a wood, such poetics jar with the graphic violence: deliberately rendering the “transcendent” pastoral episodes utterly unconvincing. Most of the criticism of Hunger claims it is apolitical or “terrorist” propaganda. Neither is the case. McQueen is both registering social changes and in turn feeding back in to the cultural imagination of the peace process.
It’s important to be honest about how harrowing and brutal the conflict was, how it affected everyone whether directly or indirectly. All sides – and those without any – suffered. The scale and severity of the trauma and wounding, across both communities, put pressure on traditional understandings of masculinity: rendering aspects of the stoic, invulnerable warrior ideal unsustainable.
The Troubles also brought or coincided with other forms of social change. Northern Ireland may not be a totally equal society today, but gains have been made for women since 1981. The families of some of the hunger strikers responded to their sons’ actions with activism through the Relatives Action Committee, which politicised many who hadn’t been familiar with campaigning on the streets. Many murals subsequently depicted female protesters or paramilitaries, contesting the traditional view of women confined to the home with the sole duty of mothering future fighters.
Continuing to challenge patriarchy and prejudice is an urgent task, and public culture plays a powerful role in shaping how we perceive society. It’s important to be honest about the realities of conflict, in order to challenge its myths. Pacifist and feminist perspectives are also fundamental to democracy and the struggle for equality. The way visual culture represents the hunger strikes today can play a key role in processing the wounds of the past, while also making the continual demand for peace.