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Blog Post | Colouring Diplomacy through Feminist and Pro-Gender Bodies and Foreign Policies

In the past months the COVID-19 pandemic has made the world become more reliant on digital communication and social media. As virtual spectators of diplomacy during these times, it is not difficult to notice that diplomacy is more colourful nowadays.

Diplomats are not only social bodies, they are dressed bodies. Their social bodies are object of dress practice, of adorning and covering the body. And for a very long time, diplomats have been male bodies dressed in dark blue and black suits for the most part. If the ‘dress code produces the diplomat’ as it contributes to the construction of the social diplomatic identity, could it be possible then that the use of vibrant colours by feminist and pro-gender diplomats and political leaders in mundane materialities such as attire signals a gradual gender-balanced transformation in diplomacy?

High-Level Pledging Event for the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen. Source: OCHA photo by Violaine Martin/UN Geneva Flickr

Diplomacy is fundamentally embodied in dark blue and black. The toned-down dark blue and black suit has made the body of the diplomat acceptable and respectable as it represents one of the most basic diplomatic social codes and normative expectations. In a particularly compelling series of images, Dutch graphic designer and researcher Noortje van Eekelen created the renown ‘Pantone Merkel’ montage as part of her project ‘The Spectacle of the Tragedy’ in 2012. Eight years later the Pantone colour chart of Angela Merkel, the first female Chancellor of Germany, continues to arise every now and then on social media. As Merkel recognises, “for a man, it's no problem at all to wear a dark blue suit a hundred days in a row, but if I wear the same blazer four times within two weeks, the letters start pouring in.” Whilst she avoids being drawn into debates about feminism, Merkel is a global promoter of gender equality and women’s empowerment. And by wearing a vibrant attire she may be visually disrupting the gendered social imaginaries of leadership, diplomacy and foreign policy, as well as going viral.

Colours are everywhere. As Guillaume, Vuori and Andersen illustrate, colours are more than a natural component of our visual experience. Colours, as Michel Pastoureau expounds, are “conventions, tags, social codes. Their primary function is to distinguish, to classify, to associate, to oppose, to hierarchise.” In doing so, colours are intrinsically social, political and international.

Conceiving colour as a powerful visual modality in human communication allows us to note and decode its particular use, absence or transformation. Since colours are codified with social meanings and identities, colour use plays a part in the making and transformation of social, political and international fields such as the military, peacekeeping, and diplomacy. Consider, for instance, the use of green camouflaged battlefield uniforms by militaries and of light blue helmets, berets and vehicles by UN peacekeepers.

Since diplomacy is a colourful constructed visibility, the unduly use of dark blue and black in the diplomatic attire provides a gender-consciousness-raising function. The toned-down dark blue and black suit has become a visual allegory of contemporary diplomacy as it continues to be a masculine practice dominated by men. Diplomacy is not gender-neutral, it is practised and enacted in dark blue and black. Thus, international diplomacy perpetuates patriarchal hierarchies and valorises essentialist masculinity whilst marginalising the socially constructed ‘feminine’. Consequently, it is not uncommon for token women in diplomacy to be extra conscious of their bodies and adopt the tailored dark blue or black suit, or a very close toned-down variation of it, on an everyday basis to attend to the ‘masculine’ norm of diplomacy.

Diplomacy, however, is transforming in many ways ranging from the everyday use of digital technology as part of the diplomatic practice to the notable inclusion of more women into the diplomatic sphere. Furthermore, diplomats pursuing feminist and pro-gender foreign policies are colouring international diplomacy. Sweden, under Foreign Minister Margot Wallström, became the first government in 2014 to implement a pragmatic and forceful feminist foreign policy committed to standing against the systematic and international subordination of women and girls. Since then, Sweden has become one of the most successful countries promoting female diplomats that challenge the status quo by different means, including the implicit and most likely subconscious incorporation of more colours into the diplomatic attire. In particular, former and current Swedish Ministers for Foreign Affairs, Margot Wallström and Ann Linde, have constantly created a visual contrast in images by wearing ‘unconventional’ diplomatic attires with patterns and colours such as vibrant pink, turquoise, and red.

Ann Linde, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden, discussing COVID-19, public health, supply chains and international cooperation with Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. Source: Twitter

As other countries follow Sweden in implementing feminist- and gender-informed foreign policies, the use of more colours in diplomacy is already making a feminist transformation visible. A transformation that could transcend the diplomatic female body and perhaps one day gradually rectify ‘the great masculine renunciation’ that at the end of the eighteen century stripped off vivid colours and adornments from male attires rendering the male body to be only useful and not beautiful in society.

Colouring diplomacy though feminist and pro-gender bodies and foreign policies is already helping us conceive a more just and better equipped future where international politics is no longer solely visualised in dark blue, black and army green. Without a doubt, new opportunities arise to analyse and trace the many ways international diplomacy is transforming as digital technologies continue to revitalise the diplomatic practice on an everyday basis. With Zoom and public diplomacy becoming critical preoccupations of foreign ministries, the recent rise of their visuals on public social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram can help us understand complex and often overlooked aspects of international politics and contemporary diplomacy such as its current feminist, colourful transformation.

Patricia Salas Sanchez is a PhD Candidate at the Monash University Gender, Peace and Security Centre. Patricia is working on a thesis that engages with the recent ‘practice turn’ in International Relations to analyse gendered international, foreign policy and diplomatic practices.

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