Last week a coterie of Republican lawmakers in New Hampshire drew media attention for wearing pearl necklaces to a hearing on proposed gun control legislation. Called out by Shannon Watts, gun safety advocate and founder of Moms Demand Action, for mocking supporters of the bill, men who wore their pearls in public insist they’re really about showing solidarity with the New Hampshire Women’s Defense League, a 2A group opposed to legal restrictions on gun access. So either way, worn to mock one group or support another, the necklaces make it clear that at this public hearing, we aren’t listening.
No one owns the symbolism of the pearl necklace, of course. Its meaning is inherently contested. Still, its characteristic pattern and placement around the neck and shoulders have made it a notorious double entendre and visual accessory to acts of sexual power. These cultural associations are not elementary, but instructive. They are of a piece with the not-so-subtle signs of gendered aggression on display in this photograph. They remind us that guns, masculinity, and domination hang together as part of a political style on the hard right. Seen this way, the militaristic trinkets and tightly cropped swagger of Rep. Scott Wallace are supposed to function as a badge of honor. But that’s just what makes this photograph so inflammatory: It is not that lawmakers pulled off a visual stunt, but that the main purpose of the stunt was to be openly and publicly dishonorable.
And as if the visual theme of gender and domination is not already pronounced in the photograph, Washington Post cartoonist Ann Telnaes makes the connection explicit:
— Shannon Watts (@shannonrwatts) March 6, 2019
Photo: Shannon Watts Caption: New Hampshire state legislators wear pearl necklaces as their committee debates a gun control measure on Tuesday, March 5, 2019.