Reactions to Bin Laden’s death by gender

“Throughout human history, war has been seen as a gendered activity, one that separates men and women into more sharply defined roles than almost any other undertaking.”

— quoted from materials for “In the War Zone: How Does Gender Matter?”, a 2005 conference at Harvard University

Where were you when you found out about the death of Osama Bin Laden?

I was at a neighborhood bar in Crown Heights, where a friend of mine was celebrating her birthday. The DJ had been on a roll, playing Jill Scott, D’angelo, and Janet Jackson as the birthday girl swayed and laughed. When the music cut off suddenly, everyone began to loudly voice their disapproval- until they realized that history was unfolding on the large projector screen that usually delivered sports highlights and beer specials. From then on, the neosoul interruption was immediately forgiven, and the entire bar watched President Obama’s speech attentively, alternatively expressing shock and jubilation, mostly pin-drop silent but sometimes taking moments to clap and cheer when President Obama delivered particularly juicy details or news. And I couldn’t help but notice that the men in the bar seemed to be cheering just a bit more loudly and absolutely than most of the women, especially at mentions of death and justice.

At the time, I wondered if men were more universally able to accept the need for death as a means of justice in wartimes. Watching footage of celebrations outside of the White House did nothing to quell this suspicion; while the celebrations were made up of men and women, the men seemed to take a more prominent role in the revelry, climbing trees and crushing beer cans for the cameras.

Now, as brought to my attention by Fishbowl NY, there’s some slightly more scientific data about reactions to Bin Laden’s death by gender.

The New York Times posted an interactive graph that allowed visitors to plot their feelings on Osama bin Laden‘s death, giving them the option to position themselves on a matrix by indicating how negative or positive they viewed his death on one axis, and how insignificant or significant they viewed it on another axis. The chart is displayed after the jump (darker blue indicates more responses).

interactive matrix of reactions to Osamas death by the NYT

While these findings in themselves are pretty fascinating, also of interest is the additional analysis offered by Dan Nguyen, a developer/journalist for ProPublica, who took it upon himself to sort these 13,000 responses by geography and gender. Since gender was not a checkbox in the NYT’s form, he used Google Refine to sort the data based on first names and assumed gender.

While the result is not entirely scientific, it does begin to provide a picture of reactions to Bin Laden’s death by gender. The results? Dan found that female and non-U.S. Times’ readers were more ambivalent to the news of bin Laden’s death. From Dan’s analysis:

Among all NYT website users, there was general moral approval and optimism for killing bin Laden. This did not vary significantly among U.S. citizens, whether they were from the cities attacked on Sept. 11 or elsewhere….

The 260 non-U.S.-female respondents averaged a 43 in positivity, which is a whole step below the average female response. U.S. females (2,270 of them), averaged a 52, compared to the 6,059 U.S. males who averaged a 65.

These finds are interesting given the background: the raid was conducted by an all-male team (as far as we know), and left three widows who may have been killed if not for their gender, and who have now been thrust into the world’s spotlight — and hold potentially valuable intelligence information about Osama Bin Laden’s place in Al Qaeda and the role (or lack thereof) of Pakistani forces in facilitating Bin Laden’s hideout. So while I don’t think the (relative) female ambivalence can be chalked up to any one factor, I do think it’s interesting and important to consider on the whole.

Feminism and anti-militarism, pro-peace efforts have a long history of overlap and commonalities. For more on feminism, women, and war, check out this awesome feminist article on demilitarization and rehumanization by Clare Bayard (courtesy of good friend and lovely blogger Kloncke), and the websites of AWID, CodePink, and MADRE.

And, importantly, for more awesome reactions to Bin Laden’s death, check out the adorable video below.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is Executive Director of Partnerships at Feministing, where she enjoys creating and curating content on gender, race, class, technology, and the media. Lori is also an advocacy and communications professional specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health, and currently works in the Global Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Brooklyn.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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  • nazza

    I didn’t learn of Bin Laden’s death until the next morning. It had been a long day and I went to bed fairly early. The next morning, I found a listserve post in my inbox whereby fellow Quakers were chiming in on the development.

    We were all pretty conflicted and completely unsure of how to take it. I don’t think the response of anyone was jubilant. Though his plotting killed thousands of innocent Americans, the violence of his death and the mission that killed him did not sit well with us, either. Pacifism in a violent society always produces such tensions.

  • Alex

    I also didn’t find out until the next morning–I don’t watch the news on TV and I was celebrating my birthday one day early that night with my parents, then I went to stay the night at my fiance’s place. I woke up the next morning, on my birthday, to my fiance saying “Guess what?” He’d been up for a while, and he didn’t look happy or anything–just kind of concerned (otherwise I would have been like, “That’s right, I’m 23 now!”).

    So, the conversation went like this:
    Him: “Guess what?”
    Me: “What?”
    Him: “They killed Osama bin Laden.”
    Me: “…WHAT??”
    Him: “Yeah. Turns out he was in Pakistan.”
    Me: “Wait, go back to the part where they killed him??”

    Neither of us were really sure how to feel about it, I think. He was very interested in the geopolitics of it (history major, go figure), but didn’t express any personal feelings about the actual killing.

    Personally, the whole thing–especially the rhetoric around it–makes me uncomfortable. It’s kind of good to know I’m not the only one who doesn’t feel glad or relieved or something, just…weirdly uncomfortable. I mean, 9/11 happened when I was 13, so my friends and I came of age during this terror-alert, TSA-regulation-saturated era where Osama bin Laden was always “the most evil man on Earth” or whatever. And I never really felt it was right to put all the blame on this one man–terrorist mastermind, sure, yes, but also a scapegoat that conveniently allowed us to ignore the fact that U.S. foreign policy on that side of the world was part of what made this man so determined that the United States was the enemy.

    So, I’m not sure I feel this way because I’m a woman–not that that’s the implication of this piece–but maybe because I’m young, maybe because I’m liberal, and definitely because I don’t believe that killing someone because he organized the killing of thousands of other people counts as “justice.” Instead, I find that sounds a lot like “vengeance,” and I don’t believe that’s good for us.

  • Jessica “Jess” Victoria Carillo

    I’m merely relieved. But I wonder….what next? I was only 11 back then and I was scared shitless. What an insightful video, like Nick News

  • natasha

    I don’t really know anyone who reacted in a celebratory way, my boyfriend and I were together when we found out. My reaction was shock, it felt really surreal to me that he was dead, it was my ninth birthday when the attack happened, so I grew up with the whole terrorist-boogeyman type of fear, and once I found out he was dead, it was just unreal to me. My boyfriend had a mild reaction, and expressed a hope that maybe the war would stop pretty soon. It was a skeptical hope though, as the war seems endless at this point, and like the kid in the video said, “there’s always going to be a bad guy.” I’m more concerned now about how much longer the war will go on, I’m definitely an anti-war feminist.

  • Matt

    In all three front page articles discussing the death of Bin Laden (including this one) here on feministing, the concept of “justice” is paramount. I find myself sympathetic to these arguments. However, it occurs to me that “justice” as we mean it in an activist sense and “justice” as President Obama meant it in his speech are two different things.

    To us, “justice” describes the struggle towards equality. It is a movement marked by the strive for true equality of opportunity, equality of assessment, and equality of access to care. The “justice” that our president spoke of was that of an end to an ongoing social and political problem. His “justice” was not the process to an end, but rather the very beginning. Now that the “problem” of Bin Laden has been stopped, it is easier to move on and rebuild.

    It is a testament to the explicit/implicit pacifism and mountains of empathy inherent to the character of our movement that people continue to be emotionally disconcerted by the events. These feelings are not entirely misplaced. There is no denying the brutality of the situation. However, this type of thing is what our military is for. To make sure that within a still very brutal world, it is possible for the rest of us to live with as much civility as possible.

  • KGirl

    I am a woman, a lawyer, and a feminist, and I have to say I was nothing but happy when I heard the news that Bin Laden had been killed. I was in D.C., less than five miles from the pentagon, when the plane crashed into it, as was most of my family. As a lawyer, I think that the application of death penalty in our country is extremely problematic; however, I do not think that death is antithetical to justice. I think a terrorist who orchestrates the death of thousands is deserving of death, and I am glad we got him.

    • Stephanie

      I fully agree. His death is by no means the end all of the fight. It’s not justification for everything we’ve sent the troops over for. But I’m glad we got him too.

  • davenj

    I don’t know if it’s because I’m a guy or because I know folks who lost family on 9/11, but I felt, and continue to feel, pretty good about our military finding Osama bin Laden and killing him. Unless one is a pure pacifist it’s hard to argue that Osama did not deserve to be apprehended and, if necessary, killed. The alternatives to that are all extremely unappetizing, so I’m pleased that the ongoing problem of Osama bin Laden’s existence came to the best possible conclusion.

  • Kaitlyn

    What’s with the pink and blue backgrounds in the video?

  • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    My husband likes to have WBAI on, and I heard Obama’s speech on there while I was sitting at the computer working on my web site. Some of my housemates are involved in the Truth Movement in different capacities. I tend to find people’s reactions have not been so much based in gender as they are in whatever a given individual believes about 9/11. My initial hope was “ok, you found him, no more excuses for occupying other countries, right?” but I’ve heard no plans to withdraw troops or anything like that. I didn’t race over to Ground Zero to party, but at the same time I’ve also found myself irritated when I encounter finger-wagging about how wrong & bad people are to celebrate a death.

    My personal belief, while not exactly those of the Truth Movement, is that bin Laden/Al Queda is just one piece of the puzzle in regards to what happened on 9/11. Bin Laden’s death doesn’t mean “terrorism is over” any more than Obama’s election meant “racism is over”. I know one firefighter who died in the Towers and others who were harmed or traumatized by it, I myself was lucky enough to only have to contend with some respiratory troubles, but I just don’t feel that anything was completely avenged or vindicated Which is not to say I don’t appreciate it, just that I don’t think this is the whole picture. However, it never occurred to me to think of my conflicting feelings and opinions as being gendered, I mean. I think I’d feel the same way if I were a guy.

  • Benjamin M

    I’m fascinated by the statistics, but while I’m glad this is a topic of discussion, I’m not entirely comfortable with some of the just-barely-implied conclusions in this piece. For the record, I am in the “just uncomfortable, but not upset” camp regarding the event itself.

    Please don’t take get me wrong here. I’m not upset, and I do not feel the need to defend my gender (male). I know that this piece is far from a universal statement of the intentions and motives of any gender.

    Where I respectfully differ is in the nature of the relationship between gender and reaction that is being hinted at. The question asked is whether, based on their reactions in the bar, “men were more universally able to accept the need for death as a means of justice in wartimes.” I have a slightly different take on it. I would suggest that it’s at least equally likely that the differences in observed reaction between men and women has more to do with the socialized expectations of behavior experienced by both men and women. This is very different than a universal, gender-determined reaction. It’s an exercise in gender performance.

    To be honest, I also suspect that the genders of the team that conducted the raid, and of the survivors played little into the public reactions. I’ve heard it said many times that this killing was a victory for the US, but never that it was a victory for men.

    All of this being said, I love that this is being discussed, and I’d love to see more of it.