Bullet-resistant apparel for civilians has emerged as a symptom of fear in the contemporary world– one in which a preoccupation with “security” pervades public policy, media images, and even intimate aspects of the self. Common security discourses range from concerns about national security and the threat of terrorism to freedom from robbery and street crime. In this context, garments known as “bulletproof”1 function within a spectrum of tactics aimed to produce security in everyday life, including gated communities, surveillance cameras, and armored vehicles. Among these, bulletproof fashion operates the closest to the body, blending a feeling of increased security with concerns around bodily appearance. Bulletproof garments have crossed over from the domain of military, police, and security forces and have begun to find a place in everyday civilian life. They are examples of privatized security tactics functioning in line with the neoliberal imperative to find solutions in the economic marketplace, and to construct the “self as enterprise.”2 This militarized security approach cannot be separated from the politics of fear that permeates various aspects of modern life in different societies.
The move to dress the body as a way to achieve security constitutes a “fashion of fear.”3 The clothing in question is primarily aimed to offset the perceived or real threat of gun violence, while also retaining some sense of normalcy. The garments operate as a camouflage of sorts, designed to hide their ballistic nature and to ensure that their users blend into civilian society. While bulletproof fashion has been largely designed for adults, a number of companies have now produced armored garments for children.4 In particular, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut (United States)—which resulted in the killing of twenty children and six adults in late 2012—a leading company in bulletproof fashion, Miguel Caballero (MC), started to manufacture armored vests and backpacks for children. As images of grieving parents, crying children, and a distressed President Obama crossed national borders through television and the Internet, so did this particular response to the threat of violence. The Miguel Caballero company, owned by the eponymous entrepreneur, is based in Colombia but exports its products to many countries around the world. According to Caballero, the clothing line MC Kids was produced with the U.S. market in mind and combines a child-oriented aesthetics with ballistic materials that would allegedly help protect against gun violence in U.S. schools.5 Building on previous work on bulletproof fashion6 and drawing on an analysis of media coverage and visual imagery, this article explores the meanings and implications of a fashion of fear for kids. What does the promotion of bulletproof garments for children reveal about the social construction of security in the context of neoliberal political economy and the attendant militarization of society? Other than the purported protection of children’s lives and bodies, what cultural dimensions of childhood might these garments be protecting, and for whom?
The Miguel Caballero company was founded in Bogotá, Colombia in the early 1990s as a producer of bulletproof apparel. Caballero, a business student at the time, saw that the bulletproof protection worn by private security firms was bulky and inconvenient; he resolved to create bulletproof clothing that was fashionable and lightweight.7 Though Caballero originally marketed his products to an almost exclusively Colombian audience, twenty years later the majority of his customers have been international.8 The Miguel Caballero company takes pride in producing clothing and accessories that are stylish and comfortable, and with top-shelf ballistic credentials from various U.S. and international certifying institutions. The apparel has been offered at different levels of protection, ranging from something capable of blocking pistol fire to a fabric designed to protect the wearer from submachine gun fire.9 Part of Caballero’s success is also owed to the diversity of garments and accessories that the company produces, targeting various social sectors and world markets. The company has catered to both public officials (heads of state, militaries, and police forces, who have the option of contracting the company to produce their garments) and private citizens (who have a choice between casual-looking polo shirts, jackets, vests, and blazers or formal attire including tuxedos and ball gowns). According to journalistic reports, Caballero has also produced culturally and occupationally specific attire, including tunics (for Middle Eastern customers), kurtas and saris (for the Southeast Asian market), guayaberas (for Latin American men), kimonos (including the design of a special kimono for actor Steven Seagal and, presumably, East Asian customers), priests’ robes, and even a bulletproof Bible.10
In 2012, the company Elite Sterling Security was established in Colorado as the United States-based distributor for Caballero’s products.11 Under the leadership of international businessman A.J. Zabadne, it advertises “bullet resistant clothing and concealable body armor solutions that are fashionable, comfortable, unobtrusive, and discrete.”12 In 2013, Elite Sterling Security began marketing its Children’s Collection, which includes two “puffer vests” for children and a selection of bullet-resistant backpacks. A visual example of the garments can found in a Reuters slideshow that features children posing with the products. In one of these images two girls hold the bulletproof backpacks in front of their bodies with a protective stance; their half-covered faces show a seemingly worried expression, their eyes shifted in one direction as if focusing on a looming threat.
Information about these products has reached the U.S. general public through the mainstream media, including news coverage on networks such as CNN, Fox, CBS, and ABC News, and through a variety of newspapers, magazines, and blogs. In addition, the companies in question advertise their products in their own web content and promotional videos.13 How has this expansion of bulletproof products into children’s worlds been represented in the media? How do media representations of bulletproof wear, including the use of words and visual content, contribute to discourse surrounding insecurity and the protection of children? What does a fashion of fear for kids tell us about the connection between notions of security and the reproduction of inequalities in the context of neoliberal agendas?14
Shootings, Security, Neoliberalism, and Inequality
In the last few decades, mass shootings in various settings have gained considerable public attention, particularly those involving attacks on children, such as the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre. Calls for increased security have often followed those incidents. Despite the public focus on these types of violence, such events are relatively rare as compared to other forms of gun violence.15 Still, a 2014 FBI study registered an increase in the frequency of “active shooter” incidents in the U.S., defined as those in which one or more individuals with firearms aim to kill or do kill other people in populated areas (excluding gang and drug-related violence and events that do not intend to put others at risk, such as accidental firearm discharge). According to the report, 160 active shooter events took place during the 2000-2013 period, resulting in the deaths of 486 people and the injuries of 557. The great majority of the shooters were male (3.8% were female). “During the first 7 years included in the study, an average of 6.4 incidents occurred annually. In the last 7 years of the study, that average increased to 16.4 incidents annually,” the report states.16 Of the 160 identified shootings, 24.4% occurred in educational facilities (sites of primary, secondary, or postsecondary education). The largest category of incidents, based on location, corresponds to those that occurred in commercial areas (45.6%).17
Research on mass shootings—and rampage shootings in educational facilities in particular—suggests that such forms of violence are complex phenomena. That is, they are neither determined by single causes nor merit reductionist security solutions.18 The foci of studies and scholarly commentary related to such incidents include the social construction of masculinity,19 the role of the media,20 the social contexts of school shootings,21 schools’ organizational structures and culture,22 parental perceptions,23 gun policy,24 fear and moral panic,25 and health and science perspectives,26 among others.27 The multifaceted nature of the problem is disregarded by public calls for increased security that simply concentrate on supplying schools with security devices and promoting the idea that teachers and/or administrators should be able to carry firearms in schools. In her commentary, “The Politics of Fear,” Jennifer Martin points out that in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, “School Boards across the United States and Canada reacted to the threat to school safety by investing in increased security strategies such as surveillance cameras, on-site police officers and security guards, enhanced lockdown procedures (all school entrances and classroom doors are locked at all times), and regular lockdown drills.”28 Martin also points out that this funneling of resources into security happens in the context of a longer-standing trend of funding cutbacks to school services for students, including those related to mental health.29
Attending to prevalent discourses calling for increased security is important in understanding responses to school shootings. Scholarship on the dominance of security discourse in global policymaking—and the concomitant marketization of security provision—suggests that the “lexicon of security”30 and the generalized assumption that the world is increasingly insecure have come to play a key role in our reactions to violent events. Dominant understandings of what “security” means often reduce the concept to militarized and state-centric dimensions, a trend that can be traced back to Cold War politics.31 Here we draw on the work of scholars and activists who challenge such narrow notions of security and analyze the way systems of inequality are intertwined with security practices and perspectives. Contributors to volumes such as Security Disarmed (edited by Barbara Sutton, Sandra Morgen and Julie Novkov) and Gender, Violence, and Human Security (edited by Aili Mari Tripp, Myra Marx Ferree, and Christina Ewig) apply more expansive concepts of security and are sensitive to power differences and social hierarchies.32 For instance, notions of “human security” go beyond state-generated definitions or circumscribed forms of violent attacks (e.g. gang and drug violence, or ordinary street crime).33 Yet, as Aili Mari Tripp suggests, even under expanded and people-centered concepts of security it is important to inquire about “what is meant by ‘people,’ especially where there are multiple and competing interests of different ‘people’ embedded in power relations.”34 Who is included in and excluded from different conceptions and practices of “security”? Which conception of “security”—for which people—is made visible in our global visual discourse?
Our work on the role of security discourse in relation to bulletproof fashion also relies on analyses of neoliberal political economy, or “the unconcealed acknowledgement of market logic as the sole arbiter of value.”35 The marketization of social life witnessed under neoliberalism is productive of, and reliant upon, a militarizing project in which security concerns (narrowly defined) are given a deciding role in national political, social, and economic priorities.36 Security strategies have been increasingly privatized and outsourced to non-state actors, in line with neoliberal imperatives.37 This approach is also reflected in the privatization of securing oneself and one’s family’s well-being. Zeynep Gambetti and Marcial Godoy-Anativia ponder “whether we are facing what might be called a global production of subjectivities of security.”38 This orientation toward “security” needs to be understood in the context of neoliberal governance, in which the state abdicates various social responsibilities while expecting citizens to take responsibility for their individual well-being.39 Gambetti and Godoy-Anativia speak to this trend:
Today, security becomes the ultimate frontier of privatization, the latest stage of the neoliberal dismantling of the state, which privatizes and redistributes its core functions. The present situation is not characterized by the total transfer of the state’s monopoly to the private sector, but rather, as [Nandini] Sundar puts it, by “an expansion of options of greater market choice in the use of violence”—and, it must be added, of boundary setting and law enforcement.40
Despite the appearance of a “choice” to be made by members of society, neoliberal security is not an equal opportunity. Distinct from statist models in which the security of all citizens is, in theory, of equal concern to the government, under neoliberal governance only elite members of the population are endowed with the ability to address their security concerns. This is achieved by contracting privatized security in the form of bodyguards, gated communities, armored cars, and other expensive options such as bulletproof fashion, but these “solutions” are not accessible to most people (nor are they necessarily desirable to many). In this way a marketized conception of security—despite its claims to promote freedom of choice to the consumer—acts in practice to limit public access to security, even in the most narrowly defined sense of the term.
Furthermore, while the bodies and property of elites are deemed worthy of protection, the lives and bodies of those in marginalized social locations are often treated as not equally “grievable.”41 In fact, members of marginalized populations are disproportionately likely to be labeled as the sources of security threats, which is inflected by intersecting social inequalities. Rather than being the main clientele of security companies offering to protect what an Elite Sterling Security spokesman refers to as “our kids,”42 low-income communities of color in the United States often find themselves as targets of security enforcement by the state.43 Members of these families and communities are targeted by law enforcement, imprisoned or otherwise tied into the prison industrial complex at appallingly disproportionate rates,44 and their children are frequently pulled into what has been called the “school-to-prison pipeline,”45 construed as potential threats from a young age.46 This insecurity—which dominant security discourse and policy produce for low-income families and communities of color—is absent from the visual images under study, which cast bulletproof attire as a response to a threatening (albeit faceless) other. It is a privileged mode of security and protection made visible through the advertisement of bulletproof fashion, even as the garments themselves hide the ballistic component.
Not only are class and racial inequalities integral to neoliberal and militarized security projects, but gender is an important—though often overlooked—dimension as well.47 For instance, Maya Eichler shows that in the face of public pressure to incorporate more women in the military and redress other forms of gender discrimination within it (e.g. sexual violence), the trend towards “[security] privatization reconstitutes the link between masculinity and security.” Eichler points out that “[p]olitical goals such as gender equality have no place in a sector premised on de-regulation and free markets.”48 In the world of private military and security companies, women are a pronounced minority and concentrated in jobs typically associated with femininity. The role of security providers (or competent protectors) in the private sector is largely ascribed to men, even more than in state armed and security forces.49 Interestingly, as men overwhelmingly populate privatized security enterprises, a different type of “private” realm is also enlisted into security routines: the home. In this gendered space, often associated with women’s care and nurturance, women have an apparent security role to play. Enter the figure of the “security mom,” a hyper-vigilant woman who ties her home’s safety to national security concerns defined by the neoliberal state.50 At the same time, what the dominant security discourse and imagery makes invisible is the lack of genuine security for countless women and girls in various communities of color, fueled by the privatization of prisons and law enforcement, the withdrawal of the social safety net, and other elements of the neoliberal project analyzed in Julia Sudbury’s Global Lockdown.51 Instead, the media under study call the viewers’ attention to the security gadgets that ought to be present in the lives of more privileged families. As we will see, the security “choices” of fathers and mothers are critical for the fashion of fear for kids industry.
Neoliberal militarized security is supported, in part, by a series of visual symbols that continually reinforce its priorities. In “Banal Terrorism: Spatial Fetishism and Everyday Insecurity,” Cindi Katz notes the increasing presence of banal security objects that exist—but do not necessarily belong—in everyday society.52 These are visual talismans which we pass during our daily routines; we see them, but may not register them: surveillance cameras, military camouflage, police dogs, or color-coded security alerts on television.
The notion of “banal terrorism” refers to “everyday, routinized, barely noticed reminders of terror or the threat of an always already presence of terrorism in our midst.”53 Katz’s work is situated in the post-9/11 United States, where anxieties about terrorism have served geopolitical and economic purposes, from justifying military aggression abroad to shoring up neoliberal market priorities on the home front.54 Katz notes the way that, through exposure to visual metonyms of militarized security as people go about their daily business—e.g., metal detectors, military helicopters—ordinary citizens are encouraged to believe that there is a constant threat. While Katz focuses on the specific discourses and material practices surrounding the “war on terror” and the construction of racialized and gendered foreign Others in that context, her concepts can be helpful in considering responses to other sorts of domestic security threats, such as school shootings.
Bulletproof fashion, including garments for children, can be conceptualized as another kind of banal security object. Bulletproof apparel for kids joins a whole array of security-oriented gadgets related to children, which Katz herself notes: from “nanny cams” to cell phones with “family locator” capabilities to “child safety camera ID Kits.”55 The creation and promotion of these products both reflect and contribute to the generation of certain ideas of security and of how best to protect children. In the case of bulletproof garments for kids, the images and rhetoric that accompany the promotion of these products implicitly convey that 1) family security is a market commodity which is available chiefly via purchase; and 2) such militarized security products, along with whatever other militarized measures are available to citizens/consumers (in schools, in the streets, in foreign affairs, etc.) are necessary to fend off looming threats. While such interpretations do not go uncontested, it is important to note that even if the general public does not “buy” the corporate message or product, the ideas of marketized and militarized security might still find considerable resonance as they fit with broader trends.
Significantly, for bulletproof articles of clothing to operate as banal security objects, media and advertisement strategies need to be enlisted. Indeed, the way in which ordinary people come to know that the vests and backpacks are security artifacts at all is through media coverage and the companies’ own marketing strategies. The fact that bulletproof fashion relies on concealed armor undermines its “ability” to convey the same message that other security objects convey by themselves (e.g. when one sees a security camera or passes through a metal detector, it is apparent that such objects function as surveillance devices). In the case of bulletproof fashion, the security/militarized features of the products are hidden and therefore invisible, so one cannot tell they are security objects just by looking at them (they manifest visually simply as regular backpacks or vests). These “understated” security devices differ from those outlined by Katz in that citizens-turned-customers in the age of neoliberal security must be explicitly told that these are security objects: either by the company manufacturing or selling the products or through media stories that feature such products. While the sale of various overt security objects relies on advertisement that extoll their virtues to a greater or smaller extent, the media’s visual and rhetorical “pedagogy” is particularly important in the case of disguised ballistic products. They need to explicitly point to these banal security objects, with the implications outlined above.
Bulletproof Fashion in the Media: A Note on Methods
In order to study the discourse and imagery that surround bulletproof garments for children, we conducted a content analysis of news coverage and company messaging regarding such products. We focused on the company Miguel Caballero (MC), and its U.S. distributor Elite Sterling Security (ESS), given the long trajectory of MC as a manufacturer and exporter of bulletproof apparel. A related reason was the considerable media attention that this company and its founder have gained in recent years. For this article we concentrated on reports that featured or mentioned ballistic products for children. We conducted a Lexis-Nexis and Google News search for the period between January 1, 2013 and June 30, 2014; that is, the period starting just over two weeks after the Sandy Hook school shooting of December 14, 2012. The news search included newspapers, major world publications, magazines, wire services, blogs, and broadcast transcripts. We also traced the news coverage posted on the Miguel Caballero and Elite Sterling Security websites, focusing on items that mentioned children. All in all we examined 54 news items, as well as 13 videos (7 posted on the companies’ websites or uploaded to their YouTube channels and 6 obtained through a Google Video search, but originating in broadcast TV). We also examined the way the products were presented on these companies’ websites from June to July of 2014.56
We started our analysis with an interest in the depictions of the implied threat and the potential victim, as well as the class, race-ethnicity, and gendered dimensions that might inflect such representations. We also paid attention to the way the adult buyer of children’s ballistic apparel was portrayed and what kind of solution was offered through the bulletproof products. As we delved into the analysis by attentively reading the texts, noticing the type of imagery that accompanied the text, and watching the selected videos, we developed categories based on our initial interests as well as themes that emerged through an inductive analytical process. Although we tracked the frequency of selected coded categories,57 the analysis was largely qualitative, focusing on the interpretation of meanings conveyed through words and images. This study demonstrates the convergence of notions of militarized and neoliberal security in defining protection for (some) children of school age, in the context of school shootings and notions of violence in a larger global framework. We address the construction of children as new security markets and parents as consumers who make security “choices.” We examine the reproduction of inequalities via bulletproof products for children in the context of class, racialized, and gendered scripts that undergird security discourse.
Rampage and the Militarization of Security
Media references to famous shootings help establish the perceived need for the emergence of bulletproof fashion for kids. The news sources we examined often mention paradigmatic school shootings to set the stage for this line of products, including rampages in the following U.S. locations: Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado (1999), Roccori High School in Cold Spring, Minnesota (2003), the Century movie theater in Aurora, Colorado (2012) and, most prominently, Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut (2012). In references to these cases of gun violence and their relevance in connection to different security solutions, various players weigh in or are mentioned in the news media under analysis: the gun lobby, gun-control advocates, security entrepreneurs and companies, concerned parents, school officials and teachers, and the government. Children are also represented in articles and visual media both as individuals wearing the bullet resistant backpacks and vests and, perhaps metonymically, in the form of kids’ backpacks which are fired upon on camera in order to prove the efficacy of the products. Footage of what looks like a military-style weapon firing upon a pink and yellow child’s backpack, with an attached light blue vest, reminds the viewer of potential violent threats against children, while also featuring a device that promises to save their lives. The contrast between the threatening weapon and a garment that evokes childhood vulnerability and innocence creates a jarring and ominous effect (See, e.g., a video clip on bulletproof wear released by Associated Press in 2013).58
While a variety of social actors appear on screen, the perpetrators of the shootings are generally faceless in the examined media. Aside from one of 13 videos59 which mentions explicitly Adam Lanza, author of the Sandy Hook massacre, little or no direct reference is made to the identity or motives of the shooters in the rest of the video clips we examined.60 This absence appears as a lacuna, as if gun violence were a force of nature for which it is imperative to be prepared—not as a product of social, economic, or political processes which can be addressed or prevented. In the face of such a naturalized disaster, militarized security, like a raincoat in a storm, might appear as the logical choice. Among the articles and broadcast transcripts analyzed, the real or imagined authors of shootings are mentioned in a minority (29.6%) of the items, and not always by name but with more vague references such as “remorseless killers,”61 “a gunman,”62 a “lone and deranged gunman,”63 and “a single person.”64
Though close to a third of the sources contain some sort of critique (sometimes very implicit) of the type of security solution embodied by bulletproof apparel for kids, even some of these stories serve to broadcast a range of militarized gadgets on the market in lieu of mechanisms that might foster more genuine, collective security. News information about such products include not only armored children’s backpacks and vests but also bulletproof blankets, whiteboards, desktop calendars, shields, and other security gadgets. Additionally, the sources under study repeatedly mention or visually depict specific firearms—such as the .9 mm Glock, the .44-calibre Magnum, the Bushmaster .223 rifle, and the Uzi—that have been or could be shot at bulletproof products (or used in past school shootings). This emphasis helps support the militarization of parental protection, implying that buyers know (or need to know) all the different types and makes of firearms that could be shot at their children—as though a crash course in weaponry were a necessary component of parenting.
At the same time, much is made of the fact that the militarized dimension of the garment—its bullet-resistant quality—cannot be easily detected. Indeed, this is one of the touted advantages of MC bulletproof wear for civilians. Many of the news sources show features such as contemporary designs (colors, patterns) which are closely linked to the concealment dimension of the products, as well as materials that are lightweight and comfortable while also suitable to provide protection against violent threats. Although one news article reports on fashionable clothing that imitates bulletproof vests without providing such protection,65 it seems that in the case of garments that are actually bullet-resistant, concealment is generally key. That is, the garments are militarized without this aspect being apparent to the naked eye. For example, we see backpacks with casual patterns and bright colors, which help disguise the militarized component of the product. The user can just blend in with the rest, even if having a layer of protection that is absent for most people.
The militarization of parenting and children—even if in concealed forms—emerges as analogous or as a necessary companion to the militarization of education. Some news articles report on companies that sell armored blankets, bulletproof whiteboards, and other security items to educational institutions. According to a report by The Guardian, “Elite Sterling Security also sells sheets disguised as rainbow-covered posters to hang on the back of classroom doors to prevent someone trying to shoot their way in.”66 Teachers appear as squad leaders, trained and equipped with ballistic technology to deal with potential security threats involving guns. This is the case for a rural school in Maryland that was supplied with 80 ballistic shields “disguised as whiteboards and clipboards.” The school’s head teacher recounted the training that teachers received on how to use these devices: “The former secret service trainers we had in showed us how they can deploy them; how to hold them in front of their body defensively or use them offensively where the teacher charges at someone with the shield as cover.”67 The existence of such training implies that teachers need to learn about ballistic protection in addition to acquiring customary pedagogical skills or learning CPR. A quarter of the news stories make references to the role ascribed to the teachers, including being the ones to distribute the backpacks or to hold up the bulletproof blankets or whiteboards in the event of a shooting. A Herald Sun report notes that these products “are not designed for everyday use, but to be handed out by teachers in an emergency.”68 Consistent with these developments, ESS claimed to be forming partnerships to work with schools and law enforcement to help ensure school safety.69
U.S. Exceptionalism and the Violent “Third World”
Over and over, bulletproof wear for kids is presented as a product exclusively designed and suitable for the United States context, a response to school shootings. An exceptionalist national identity is constructed in reference to particular types of violent threats affecting children. It is as if school shootings were the most prevalent form of violence—or even gun violence—to which children are exposed to in the United States. Other forms of gun violence that children, both in the U.S. and around the world, have experienced—including in the context of armed conflicts, drug or gang wars, and state violence—do not seem to be seen as meriting any kind of ballistic protection, at least not from the point of view of business.
Periodic school shootings in the U.S. have captured the public’s attention not only through images of traumatized children and distraught parents, but also in relation to bitter debates around gun control. In a Washington Post article, Caballero is quoted as saying: “The rest of the countries in the world try to disarm, but in the United States, they say, ‘Let’s protect ourselves,’ [. . .] So, in that light, that’s a business opportunity.”70 Caballero recognizes the U.S. as an outlier in the global scheme of gun control laws. This is a country where civilian gun ownership is widely considered a “right,” in contrast to many other countries, in which it is considered a “privilege.”71 “Guns are less tightly regulated and more easily purchased in the United States than in other Western nations.”72 Yet the relatively permissive U.S. gun policy is not presented as a cause for concern for the bulletproof fashion industry; rather, it appears as a fact of life without assigned value—and a profit opportunity. When asked about the gun control debate, Timothy Hogan, Colorado-based representative of the U.S. distributor of MC Kids, responds that the company does not involve itself in that issue.73
In some news clips about bulletproof apparel for children, U.S. exceptionalism is juxtaposed with references to routine violence, long-standing armed conflicts, or drug cartel violence in peripheral or semi-peripheral countries in the world system. The fact that MC has headquarters in Colombia, and has a store in Mexico, is used to bolster the legitimacy and expertise of the company. For instance, according to Caballero, “[a]fter so many years of fighting, people realise that if a security product or service works in Colombia, it will undoubtedly work anywhere in the world.”74 Notions of violent peripheral countries are deployed not only by company representatives who make the case for the wisdom of bulletproof wear, but in one news source even a gun-control advocate opposed to bulletproof kids’ apparel makes this connection to further his argument. Ladd Everitt, of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, asks:
Do you want to live in a country where your child has to go to school on a daily basis wearing bulletproof clothing because at any given moment they can be attacked and killed by someone who is homicidal and who has gained easy access to military-style fire power? [. . .] Is that your vision of America or does that to you sound like a Third World country?75
Negative imagery of so-called Third World countries appears as part of a shared imaginary among people who might hold different perspectives when it comes to security issues. It becomes the foil from which to argue for one position or another, serving to conflate global peripherality with seemingly intrinsic violent tendencies divorced from structural causes.
The media’s references to MC business in Colombia and Mexico, as well as its exports to the Middle East, implicitly build on and reinforce stereotypical notions of marginalized countries as inherently violent. This may both instill fear among, and encourage purchases by, potential consumers by connecting U.S. schools with violent scenarios; and also bolster the legitimacy and street credibility of the company. There is an implicit (and sometimes explicit) message that if the company makes ballistics for such a violent market, then its representatives must know what they are doing. This ultimately reinforces the “otherization” of violence.
At the same time, the associations between violent conflict in the Middle East, Latin America, and “your” child’s school encourages U.S. consumers to imagine a need for bulletproof products for kids. For instance, one news video clip mentions that the company produces “gear for the Red Cross, the Paraguayan police, and now the company’s newest clients: American children.”76 Repeated references to the fact that MC has supplied international military, security, and humanitarian actors help to establish the company’s target market as a global security-oriented class. Children in the United States with relative privilege then become one of the latest additions to this class of purportedly protected consumers.
In examining the discourse and imagery surrounding bulletproof wear for children, we argue that, through the marshalling of notions of security, threat, and proper manifestations of citizenship, parenthood, femininity, and masculinity, U.S. consumers are drawn into a neoliberal project of marketized security. Encouraged to assume responsibility for their own children’s individual security—and in so doing relieving the state from addressing root causes of security threats—consumers are enlisted into a project of privatization and securitization that serves the goals of global capital at the expense of collective solutions. This approach resonates with key features of neoliberalism, which, as Wendy Brown points out,
figures individuals as rational, calculating creatures whose moral autonomy is measured by their capacity for ‘self-care’—the ability to provide for their own needs and service their own ambitions [. . . .] The model neoliberal citizen is one who strategizes for her- or himself among various social, political, and economic options, not one who strives with others to alter or organize these options.77
Entrepreneur as Benefactor
The neoliberal “ethic” not only turns members of a social collective into fragmented individuals with “self-care” responsibilities, but individuals and corporations driven by “self-profit” are often presented as social benefactors (consider, for example, conservative discourse that discourages taxes on wealthy individuals and companies under the arguments that they are the “job creators” who benefit society as a whole). In this vein, we found that in the coverage of MC Kids products, capitalist entrepreneurs promoting these articles appear to be in service to the betterment of society. As Inderpal Grewal argues, “neoliberalism suggests that the state is unable to provide security and thus it disavows its ability to protect all citizens.”78 Key to MC’s success is the seemingly agreed-upon notion that the state is no longer capable, responsible, or the most “efficient” protector of its people. Seeking security in the marketplace appears, then, as the most reliable option—one that private business entrepreneurs are ready and eager to provide, which they frame as a service to the population.
A ubiquitous theme in various news sources is the portrayal of Caballero as an entrepreneur responding quasi altruistically to the desperate requests of concerned parents seeking to protect their children. Rather than being driven by a profit motive, the image of Caballero emerges almost as if he were a public servant. According to an Associated Press video report,79 Caballero had “never considered” making bulletproof attire for children until after the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Connecticut (only three weeks earlier), when parents asked for these products. Who these parents were, or whether they were connected to the Sandy Hook shooting, is not specified. The image of bulletproof garment companies as service providers responding to need appears in a majority of the analyzed news sources, including in televised interviews with U.S., Australian, and British media. For instance, in an interview with the Australian TV show Sunrise, Timothy Hogan, representative of Miguel Caballero’s U.S. distributor Elite Sterling Security, explained: “We’ve been responsible for selling bulletproof clothing to law enforcement, military, that type of thing, for a long time now; and after the Sandy Hook shootings there was a request by parents to . . . for us to make something like this. And we just see it as one more safety measure in order to help protect children.”80 The product is sometimes presented with an apologetic air—as if tacitly acknowledging that many people may perceive children’s ballistic apparel to be disturbing—while simultaneously promoting these garments as useful security resources. The tone of these entrepreneurs is that of helpful partners in the protection of children, rather than overeager businessmen. In an interview with Fox News, Timothy Hogan clarifies: “It doesn’t make me happy that we even have to have something like this, but it is a form of taking protection of your life, and, you know, offering you that security.”81
The Sandy Hook shooting and Caballero’s references to parental needs serve to bolster the company’s legitimacy—presenting the company not as one that profits from tragedy, but as one that comes to the rescue of concerned parents. One video interview published by Reuters, moreover, reports that Caballero consulted with pediatricians during the product design.82 The U.S. distributor’s assertion that it has formed partnerships to work in tandem with U.S. schools also serves to reinforce this image of bulletproof garment companies as community allies.
Children as Security Market
Children emerge as a largely untapped market niche in the bulletproof garment industry, which Miguel Caballero and other companies have jumped to fill. Despite the claim that the production of bulletproof items for kids was primarily a response to parental demand, it seems that this new market still needs to be groomed. Media interviews with company representatives implicitly serve as persuasion tools, in the sense that they advertise the existence of the products as well as help convey information to target consumers—children, parents, teachers, and school officials—about the utility of the products and how to use them appropriately. In advancing these bulletproof garments, the companies are faced with the dilemma of how to voice the need for the product (engaging people’s fears and sense of insecurity in relation to school shootings) while also overcoming the aversion that armored wear for kids might produce.
In Western societies modern notions of childhood have often associated children’s worlds with innocence, even as the realities of many children are very distant from the cultural ideal of a sheltered childhood.83 According to childhood studies scholar Kerry Robinson, childhood innocence is “the most important signifier of the socio-culturally-constructed differences between adulthood and childhood in Western societies. [. . .] It continues to be a major force – albeit in the name of protection – in the subjugation of children’s lives, and underpins the dualistic relationships of the world of adults and the world of children.”84 As we will show, child-oriented ballistic products appear as a technology of protection in a double sense: They purportedly protect children’s bodies/lives as well as the innocence popularly associated with their worlds. The marketing of the products implicitly suggests that what would give parents and teachers peace of mind—enabling their children to live, learn and play as they should—is the acquisition of bulletproof wear.
Still, a sense of sadness or resignation emerges in some of the news reports as parents consider or decide to equip their children with armor, or as company representatives comment on bulletproof products. In a CBS News report, Zack Phillips—father of a 4-year-old boy trying on a ballistic backpack near a playground—concedes: “I don’t know how much it would’ve prevented or if it would’ve been helpful in any of these cases [of school shootings], but I suppose it’s not a bad idea.”85 A representative of Aspetto, another producer of bulletproof clothing, expresses sadness: “We made a bulletproof kids’ backpack. It was pink. It was right after the Newtown shooting. We had a lot of inquiries about the protection of kids. The backpack was the most common solution for that. It was really sad.”86 As mentioned earlier, Timothy Hogan, Chief Operating Officer of ESS, also lamented the need for the product.
Given the sadness or aversion that may be associated with bulletproof garments for children, a veneer of fun attached to the products may help make them more palatable to parents and children. The reminder of ominous potential threats to the child’s life—the bullet resistant component—is invisible, but colorful designs and patterns remit to the children’s worlds. The invisibility of the ballistic component, combined with imagery associated with childhood, is essential to help keep the appearance of normalcy in the child’s life. Both the Elite Sterling Security and the Miguel Caballero websites present children’s backpacks and vests in pink, blue, and red, including combinations with brightly colored patterns. Other companies mentioned in news sources, such as Amendment II, echo this approach by manufacturing Disney Princess backpacks and Avengers backpacks for kids.87 In one of the examined video clips, a father presents his daughter with an armored backpack, calling it “superwoman’s cape.”88 Yet for all the children’s themes incorporated in bulletproof wear, the existence of these products speaks to the larger presence of militarization in the lives of today’s children—well beyond the already existing toys with military themes available to children (mini soldier sets, military costumes, fake guns, war video games, and so forth). Bulletproof fashion goes beyond these products in that it does not simply mimic the technology of the military sphere; it equips children with actual body armor, an item used by soldiers in war zones.89
Indeed, bulletproof fashion reflects the creeping of militarization further and further into civilian lives via the mechanisms of the capitalist market. The bodies of children constitute the last conquest of security companies as they produce and sell armored wear designed for kids. And yet the production and marketing of these products presents special considerations. For instance, children’s smaller body size necessitates an added concern about the weight and other features of the ballistic protection (e.g. its ability to not only save lives, but prevent injury and body trauma).90 Furthermore, there are certain thresholds that MC has not crossed when it comes to children’s products, including his customary use of live subjects to test the effectiveness of the apparel. Miguel Caballero’s live demos—in which company workers, journalists, and other visitors are shot wearing bulletproof clothing91—have attracted considerable media attention.92 Yet as far as we have seen, these quality tests are not conducted with children wearing MC Kids products. Instead, in the case of children’s items what we see are the backpacks being shot at—unworn or placed on mannequins—and then the bulletproof plate examined for damage. This is the child-friendly replacement of MC’s standard demos. As a viewer watching this footage, it can be easy to imagine a child in the backpack. This connection is sometimes made explicit: for example, when a reporter interviewing Caballero about a backpack just shot-tested comments, “there is nothing on this side of the plate which is actually against the child’s body.”93 The comment not only offers testimony about the purported effectiveness of the product, but also brings to the forefront the image of a child being shot. The message conveyed: children’s security is at stake.
Parental Security “Choices”
Even though children are the recipients of the bullet resistant garments, it is largely their parents who are in a position to make decisions regarding these products. One aspect of the marketization of security—in this case with regards to gun violence in schools—is the outsourcing of security solutions from the state to individual parents. The discourse of choice is apparent in Caballero’s statement, “If you need, you will use. If you don’t need, you don’t have to use” [sic].94 The onus in this schema is on the parents to either live in fear or to take charge of their own lives and move forward. From this perspective, the state’s role is limited to enabling (or regulating) the privatized provision of security (for example, by issuing certifications for the bulletproof garment companies to operate). Parents as citizens, or members of communities, appear powerless to make or demand changes that might ameliorate gun violence—other than fitting their children with bulletproof wear.
While critical voices emerge in different news sources with respect to these products, various parents, reporters, and company people featured in the news discuss these garments as appropriate and even responsible solutions. “We look at it as an additional safety measure, no different than wearing seat belts in your car,” affirms Timothy Hogan, ESS representative, in a TV news show.95 The wisdom of this choice is visually reinforced with the caption, “Bulletproof Backpacks: Keeping Kids Safe,” against the background of two mannequins wearing pink and blue patterned children’s backpacks. Sometimes the news reporters endorse the solution more or less emphatically. Even in the case of an Australian News video report, which also offers critical comments and questions, one of the anchors concludes that “it’s awful that these things have to exist,” but that she would ultimately buy bulletproof products for children if she were a parent.96 Demetric Boykin,97 a parent who acquired a backpack for his 4-year old daughter (and also appears in one ESS promotional video and several news reports) explains: “It was a very hard conversation to have but she [his daughter] knows that it’s something that will keep her safe.”98
Thus a number of news stories subtly imply that in the modern world, it is the parents’ responsibility to purchase ballistic apparel for their children—that it is up to the parent, in other words, to save the child’s life: “Those children [at Sandy Hook] didn’t have to die” says Mike Taylor, who invented other bulletproof products for schools, albeit not in association with MC or ESS.99 The tacit question in this type of statement is this: “If there were a product that could save your child’s life, wouldn’t you buy it?”
Today the possibility of shootings “is something that I realize is reality,” announces parent Demetric Boykin.100 This assertion helps to establish the need for bulletproof clothing as a fact, the effect of an exogenous reality to which it is apparently the most efficacious response. It leaves little room for argument, implicitly painting parents who fail to realize this “reality” as naïve and irresponsible. And in the context of neoliberal political economy, “responsibility” is readily associated with economic means (those whose low socio-economic status constrains their ability to provide for their children’s material well-being are more easily labeled “irresponsible”). As Brown explains, the neoliberal conception of morality “erases the discrepancy between economic and moral behavior [. . . .] the rationally calculating individual bears full responsibility for the consequences of his or her action no matter how severe the constraints on this action.”101 In this schema, working-class parents’ inability to provide (expensive) ballistic apparel for their children can be implicitly framed as a result of poor economic and moral choices. Interestingly, though, for all the language of “choice” the depiction of bulletproof backpacks as a “necessary layer of security”102 preemptively decides for the parent that these products are needed. Once that “fact” is established, only irresponsible parents would opt not to purchase one.
As parents become enlisted in the privatization of security, subtle tropes of femininity and masculinity are also deployed. For instance, in one news video, customer Demetric Boykin explains why he acquired the bulletproof backpack for his daughter: to “keep my arm around her when I couldn’t keep my arm around her.”103 This evokes notions of a powerful masculinity— the protector role usually ascribed to men, particularly when it comes to militarized ideas of security.104 However, as Grewal points out, women are also called upon to participate in security efforts “in the private realm of the family [. . . .] Such privatization turns the personal into the political and defines security as everyone’s job.”105 In a Reuters slideshow about bulletproof fashion,106 there are three adult women portrayed: two of them are defined as mothers, depicted in nurturing postures toward their kids who are wearing bulletproof products (a woman gently helps her son fit the bulletproof vest; another woman smiles at her two daughters with her arms reaching to each of the girls, who in turn look at their mother with big smiles).107 Masculine parental protection and feminine motherly nurturance in relation to children are subtly conveyed in some of the analyzed media.
As with various security products meant to protect (or monitor) children, bulletproof fashion for kids emerges as yet another instance of what Katz describes as a “regime of parental hypervigilance [that] has much in common with that of the homeland security state.”108 While the ballistic vests and backpacks for children do not seem to enjoy mass appeal—despite the MC company rhetoric about parents flocking to Miguel Caballero for security solutions—the availability and media coverage of such products nonetheless has performative effects (as Katz notes in relation to other child-oriented “security” products). According to Katz, “the performance of security through objects, technologies and displays is meant to stage and foreground a pervasive sense of fear.”109 Market priorities shape the “choice” of parents and sculpt security as an individual family responsibility. In this way, the fashion of fear for kids actually puts the parents in the service of the neoliberal security agenda. This is a solution that is buyable, and it evokes the connotations of personal choice and individual freedom often associated with the market. In one interview, Elite Sterling Security representative Timothy Hogan states that bulletproof products help to “empower” potential victims.110 They enable consumers to feel a sense of security in an insecure world. This imagined untouchability creates a fetish of security. Furthermore, this marketized solution is a highly individualized response. Might parents who see this “choice” as a viable solution be less likely to put efforts to protect their children through more collective and policy-based responses?
Bulletproof products for kids are meant to protect children from gun violence. But the question arises: Which children are to be protected? What types of violence are included in hegemonic definitions of “insecurity,” including from guns? What else is being “protected” besides the lives and bodies of children? As in the case of stylish bulletproof fashion for adults, class emerges as a first qualifier with respect to the children’s garments. School backpacks that cost hundreds of dollars and vests that can reach up to $1,000 are not affordable or realistic options for most families. In this way, security becomes another luxury and bulletproof wear a status symbol, this time attached to children’s bodies.
Furthermore, what type of gun violence is on the radar as these products are imagined, produced, and marketed? The families featured using the products generally seem to be middle-to-upper-middle class, judging by the footage and pictures released by the companies and related news reports, which show suburban locations and homes. Meanwhile, gun violence in poorer urban areas in the U.S. has been naturalized, and the bodies of the children in such milieus are often not seen as worthy of serious public concern—particularly if they are ethnoracial minorities.111 Except for Boykin’s daughter, who visually presents as a girl of color, the majority of children featured in the examined media images of bulletproof garments appear as light-skinned kids in suburban communities. This is the case in the slideshow “Bullet-proof fashion,”112 which depicts various scenes with boys and girls: for instance, six children are semi-covered by a bullet proof blanket, apparently having fun; three girls clad in bulletproof backpacks walk on a driveway, a woman helps her 8-year-old son to put on a bulletproof vest, another woman, who wears a headscarf, talks with her young daughters who wear bulletproof backpacks. These scenes take place either outdoors in what appears a suburban location (and in fact were photographed in suburban Aurora, Colorado, site of a movie theater mass shooting in 2012), or indoors in seemingly middle to high-income homes. Thus, it is the disturbance of the expected peace of privileged families wrought by violent school rampages that becomes the focus of attention.
News reports repeatedly reference the MC company’s distinguished clients—high-level figures allegedly including Barack Obama, Prince Philip of Spain, Álvaro Uribe, and Hugo Chávez (“eleven heads of state,” according to Caballero113); celebrities such as the Wu-Tang Clan and Steven Seagal; Middle-Eastern royal families; Qatari oil sheiks, and other VIPs.114 These statements reinforce not only the legitimacy of the company and its products, but also draw links between these “VIPs” and the viewer’s child. The link between presidents, celebrities, the super-rich, and one’s child might encourage viewers to imagine their children as valuable “assets” deserving of expensive private protection that other children do not have. In at least two appearances, ESS representative Timothy Hogan—a light-skinned man clad in an elegant suit—refers to protecting “our kids.” Given Hogan’s projected class status (including expensive clothing, his comparison of bulletproof backpacks to life-vests in cruise ships,115 and MC’s and ESS’ repeated emphasis of VIPs), one wonders to whose kids he is really referring.
More than one statement in the analyzed news articles and video clips related to MC products presents the choice to purchase a ballistic backpack as an assertion of personal autonomy and assertiveness. In reference to the bulletproof solution, The Guardian states: “US parents take action as firearms law is blocked.”116 Timothy Hogan, in a video interview with the Australian news program Sunrise, states that the company doesn’t involve itself with the gun control debate, but “offers one more means to empower the individuals who are being shot at.”117 In a CBS News clip about bulletproof products for kids, a light-skinned woman referred to as Amy, mother of Trey Martinez, opines that “[t]here’s a lot more we have to be aware of now . . . At the same time, I don’t think it should stop us, so we’ll just be prepared.”118 This sense of individual autonomy is often not afforded or actively denied—for example, by the state and other institutions—to members of economically and racially marginalized communities who experience their lives under siege and surveillance.119
Economic inequalities are part and parcel of the bulletproof fashion products, and not just because of limited access. The concealment of the ballistic features of the product points to a more hidden protection dynamic that also helps to reproduce inequalities. While in the case of adults the fashion of fear offers security while preserving style, in the case of children, bulletproof wear promises security while preserving childhood innocence for economically privileged consumers. That is, a cherished notion of childhood is being protected through militarized garments that do not look as such. The colorful patterns, gender normative colors, and happy designs—including the word “love” and heart designs in one of the pink backpacks—allow the child user of these bulletproof garments to blend in (See Fig. 3). Yet, following the logic of a stratified market, this recourse is available only to children whose bodies and lives are already deemed more precious than others.
A preoccupation with maintaining the innocence and sense of playfulness associated with childhood does not appear to apply to socially and economically disadvantaged children. According to sociologist Pedro Noguera, many schools serving students with low academic achievement or with behavioral issues “operate more like prisons than schools. They are more likely to rely on guards, metal detectors, and surveillance cameras to monitor and control students.”120 Kupchik and Ward find that in the U.S. security measures are prevalent in high schools across social strata; however, the more exclusionary security methods, such as metal detectors, “are concentrated in elementary, middle, and high schools attended by non-White and/or poorer students.”121 The politics of concealed protection embodied by ballistic products for kids contrast with those of overt social control in how they apply to different groups of children.
Although neoliberal governance professes to serve the common good by way of offering choices for purchase to all consumers, regardless of background, it exists over a palimpsest of racial and class discrimination that shows itself in the way the security apparatus interacts with different groups of children. If we juxtapose the child models (middle-to-upper class, generally lighter-skinned) in the bulletproof fashion visual depictions—apparently walking to their suburban school wearing ballistic puffer vests and bulletproof backpacks—with actual students entering their urban school through metal detectors and under police surveillance, it becomes apparent that technologies of security aim to offer protection to some children, while other children are constructed as threats. This dialectic of the locus of the origins of violence—always-already inside peripheral communities and always-already outside (but threatening to enter) elite communities—has much to say about the way violence is envisioned and narrated, and is one that deserves further scrutiny.
The images of children dressed in bright colors leaning into the embrace of a parent or the quiet suburban street settings where children are to walk to school free of threats contrast with the footage of a child’s backpack at a shooting range and the jarring sound of gunfire. Visual representations of guns and armor paired with children’s apparel remit to—and are sometimes explicitly juxtaposed with—the distressing images of the aftermath of school shootings. Heightened attention to certain security threats and the popularization of market solutions both depend profoundly on visual images. The production and marketing of ballistic apparel for children appears, in the visual and written media under study, to have arisen as a natural response to current events. But that response is made possible only by a complex construction of the self in relation to the world. This is the neoliberal subject: market-oriented, “free” of collective allegiances, and concerned with the conservation of power and privilege through the financial exercise of individual choice. Thus neoliberal conceptions of “security,” and what threatens it, intertwine with notions of family responsibility and militarized solutions to set a scene in which it appears logical and appropriate for a four-year-old child to strap on a military-grade backpack.
The fashion of fear for kids, no matter how many or how few of the products are actually sold, has performative qualities. Bulletproof garment companies’ mise-en-scene—in which profiteering is the new public service, capitalist entrepreneurship the new heroism—is one in which the visual symbols of children’s ballistics, accompanied by important markers of class and privilege, act to further hegemonic narratives of marketized and militarized security. In a dangerous and unpredictable world full of unknown threats, the backpacks seem to whisper, “It’s up to you and you alone to defend your own child’s life . . . make the right choice.”
Some citizen-consumers have the ability to exercise that security choice; others do not. Some children seem to deserve to be protected, both from the constant threat and from knowing about it; others are to be protected against with highly visual symbols of militarization. As such, the proliferation of ballistic apparel for children both reflects and reproduces neoliberal structures of inequality; it both asserts a threat and pretends to ameliorate it for those who can pay. Any responsibility to the broader society is made irrelevant when the consumer’s own assets are protected, proving Wendy Brown’s assertion that within “a fully realized neoliberal citizenry [. . .] [t]he body politic ceases to be a body but is rather a group of individual entrepreneurs and consumers.”122 Bulletproof fashion for children, and the visual imagery on which its narrative relies, conveys individual empowerment and determination in the face of violence and insecurity. However, it is fair to ask whether collective responses based on social justice and solidarity would be more effective and ethical in protecting all children.
Acknowledgments: We thank Hava Gordon, Barbara Lüthi, and Lauren DiGiulio for their constructive feedback on this project.
Barbara Sutton is an Associate Professor in the department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is also affiliated with the departments of Sociology and of Latin American, Caribbean, and U.S. Latino Studies. She earned her Ph.D. in Sociology in the United States and a law degree in Argentina, her country of origin. She co-edited Security Disarmed: Critical Perspectives on Gender, Race, and Militarization (with Sandra Morgen and Julie Novkov; Rutgers University Press, 2008) and is the author of Bodies in Crisis: Culture, Violence, and Women’s Resistance in Neoliberal Argentina (Rutgers University Press, 2010), winner of the 2011 Gloria E. Anzaldúa book prize by the National Women’s Studies Association.
Kate Paarlberg-Kvam is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Latin American History at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY. She holds a PhD in Latin American, Caribbean, and U.S. Latino Studies from the State University of New York at Albany, and conducts research on security discourse, gender, and political economy in Latin America.