Book review: Disordered Violence: How Race, Gender, and Heteronormativity Structure Terrorism

by Caron Gentry. Edinburgh University Press, p. 216. Hardback: 9781474424806

The best question I have been asked about my work was ‘if you were to use this text to teach, what would you like to students to learn?’. This is a useful question for establishing your own argument but also for thinking about what you take from another’s contribution. If I were Caron Gentry answering that question, I would say: how we study global politics—in this instance, terrorism and the use of violence—is deeply rooted in gendered, racialised, sexualised, and classed structures. These power structures organise and order how we talk about and research global political issues. And they are beholden to and reproduce IR’s Westphalian story. What Gentry shows in Disordered Violence: How Race, Gender, and Heteronormativity Structure Terrorism is that these structures are often willingly (re)produced in ways that benefit a state-centrist organisation of global politics underpinned by European colonial imaginaries, white supremacy, misogyny, and heterosexism. 

Disordered Violence is a timely contribution that deepens our understanding of the racialised, gendered, and sexualised structure of (academic) debates on and representations of terrorism and violence.”

Disordered Violence is a timely contribution that deepens our understanding of the racialised, gendered, and sexualised structure of (academic) debates on, and representations of, terrorism and violence. The book outlines how race, sexuality, and gender are implicated in security discourses and shows why security studies must take an intersectional, feminist, queer, and critical race analytic seriously. Gentry shows us how to do this by drawing on Matsuda (1991) to describe how ‘asking the other question’ (e.g., when confronted with misogyny ask how race functions, too) allowed her to see and explore the connections between race, gender, and sexuality as they relate to terrorism. While focused on terrorism, this book is relevant to scholars researching international security issues more broadly. 

The book opens with several examples of how immensely political acts—whether we call them ‘terrorism’, ‘protest’, or ‘political violence’—are constituted through racialised-gendered-sexualised logics. Opening with this, Gentry prompts us to ask how events might have unfolded differently had the wielders of violence been differently racialised, differently gendered, and so on. I use the ‘racialised-gendered-sexualised’ formulation (Cooper-Cunningham 2020) because it supports Gentry’s argument about their inseparability. In chapter one, Gentry asks us: “Why are mass shootings in the US not seen as an act of terrorism if they are perpetrated by white men, but are when they are perpetrated by brown men?” (38). This is a point Gentry returns to in the conclusion when exploring how Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors was constituted as a ‘terrorist’ and the movement compared to the Ku Klux Klan. Why is it that the terrorism/terrorist labels only stick to certain (gendered-racialised-sexualised) actors? 

Gentry concludes that “[t]errorism as a label works because it makes sense given the historical legacies of whose violence is legitimated, whose lives matter more and whose bodies are seen as expendable. This is the ordering of violence, in which state violence is legitimated and terrorism is always seen in opposition” (195-6). If IR, a Western-centric discipline, is founded on the Westphalian ideal where legitimate authority and wielding of violence are “tied closely to white, Western liberal democracies” then we must problematise and deconstruct those structures, asking qui bono? One lesson that is reiterated throughout, it is that we must dig into the concepts that we use: how do they (re)produce gendered-sexualised-racialised power structures and discourses?

Unpacking the gendered-racialised-sexualised foundations of key concepts in terrorism studies, Gentry deconstructs the dichotomies at the core of current and historical discourses about terrorism—West/Islam, counter-terrorist/terrorist, developed/undeveloped, rational/emotional, progressive/radicalised, moral/immoral, reasoned/pathological, legitimate/illegitimate violence to name a few—rendering them more complicated and less coherent. It is this destabilisation of the dichotomies structuring the field that makes Gentry’s contribution novel and incredibly important; the queer logics of this could, however, be emphasised more. Not only does this destabilisation force terrorism scholars to think deeper and more critically about the concepts they use and the power structures their work (re)produces—after all, knowledge is power—it also forces us to question the larger assumptions IR as a discipline is founded on. This book can, therefore, be read as a deconstruction of the gendered-racialised-sexualised dichotomies through which terrorism and international security are written about.

”Global order, politics, and the study of it, are rooted in convenient ‘forgettings’ of colonial history, misogyny, and heteronormative structures that support the way the world is ordered.”

One of the key concepts Gentry brings into terrorism studies—or more broadly, security studies—is ‘forgettings’. ‘Forgettings’ (re)produce global political orders by (re)inscribing the “divisions of the world and power between European whites and people of colour” (27). Gentry argues that a definition of terrorism is futile and always reliant on (and reproductive of) gendered, racialised, imperialist, a heteronormative ‘forgettings’. Global order, politics, and the study of it, are rooted in convenient ‘forgettings’ of colonial history, misogyny, and heteronormative structures that support the way the world is ordered. Addressing these ‘forgettings’ Gentry asks: Who/what is represented? How are they represented? In whose interests are these representations? What is invisibilised, sought silent, and pushed out? These questions bring what is invisibilised and/or actively sought silent into focus: that is, the racialised-gendered-sexualised machinations of discourses about ‘terrorism’ and how they enable a particular world order to be (re)produced in a way that favours Western norms and structures. 

Nevertheless, no book is perfect. While the book is intersectional in its theoretical and methodological set up, sexuality often drops out. This is perhaps because heteronormativity “is one of the hardest forgettings to see” (48). While Gentry acknowledges this limitation, there was space for a deeper engagement with sexuality and its structuring of international politics. Noting the important work of feminism in identifying the dichotomies that structure social and political life, Gentry argues that feminism has not offered a way beyond them, whereas Queer theory does. This is a call for feminist and queer security scholars to build on this book. 

There was also a missed opportunity to draw on queer theorising and expand the argument about misogynistic terrorism. Heteronormativity is founded in an essentialist ideology around sex/gender, it is often violently enforced (conversion camps, murder, beatings), it has a wide audience in the general public (conform or be punished), and it aims to coerce into (heteronormative) action. To see the work of heteronormativity in ‘the West’ as terroristic would develop Gentry’s point that “see[ing] violence against women as a form of terrorism within the West means seeing those who are typically aligned with counter-terrorists as suddenly aligned with the terrorists themselves [the counter-/terrorist dichotomy]” (166). Analysing Anders Breivik’s manifesto, Gentry points to his desire to sustain the privilege of “native Christian European heterosexual males” (167). Like ‘misogynistic terrorism’, heteronormativity is a sociopolitical power structure that controls all bodies and enables the surveillance and punishment of individuals for sexual/gender deviance: it is systematic and intentional. 

If the label ‘terrorism’ is rooted in colonial, racists, gendered, and sexualised discourses then it is not a leap to view the enforcement of a particular form of sexual behaviour as terrorist. If misogyny is used to uphold patriarchal order, homophobia is used to uphold heteronormativity (173). It is political, coercive, and there is always a threat of (state) violence. 

Putting these minor points aside, as with Gentry’s other work, this book provides a thorough and critical engagement with terrorism studies, feminist IR, critical race, and queer. It serves as a provocation for scholars to do better and more intersectional work that attends to the racialised-sexualised-gendered foundations of international relations; both small and large caps. It is a lesson in how to do outstanding intersectional feminist work that should be emulated. Disordered Violence reiterates how it is no longer acceptable to say ‘I am not asking the gender (or race, or sexuality) question’ when these are baked into (the study of) international politics.


Cooper-Cunningham, Dean. 2020. “Drawing Fear of Difference: Race, Gender, and National Identity in Ms. Marvel Comics.”  Millennium: Journal of International Studies 48(2):165-97.

Gentry, Caron. 2020. Disordered Violence. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Matsuda, MJ. 1991. “Beside My Sister, Facing the Enemy: Legal Theory out of Coalition.”  Stanford law review 43(6):1183-92.

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