This entry on "Whistleblowers” reviews some of the landmark moments and commemorative films that have made whistleblowing a prevalent part of a wider public conversation about secrets and secrecy. It is concerned with the relationship between surveillance and gender, as it relates to both the surveillance of transgender people by securitarian institutions and the emergence of Me Too and #MeToo as prominent whistleblowing movements in the early 21st century.

Recordings for this Entry

Required Secondary Reading for UMN-TC

Mia Fischer, "Pathologizing and Prosecuting a (Gender) Traitor"

The Rhetoricity of Whistleblowing

Whistleblowing may be considered rhetorical for a variety of different reasons. It is a term that recieves its specificity and meaning in relationship to other terms, like "leaking" and "stove-piping." It is also a metaphor used in different ways to describe the transmission of secret information, either bringing it forth into public (whistleblowing) or sounding off a message that only those 'in the know' will be able to hear. It is spectacularly rendered in cinematic narratives juxtaposing the heroic truth-teller (or tellers) against a nefarious institution or individual, often in the sense of a melodramatic narrative. Finally, whistleblowing often implies a metaphorical relationship between the gendered dynamics of un-closeting and the release of sensitive information into the public realm.

Whistleblowing also speaks to the porous and viral quality of secrets, which seep out of sealed archives and envelopes into public knowledge. The designation of "whistleblower" is also defined legally in terms of legally protectable releases of information and those which are prosecutable under the law.

Important instances of the former would include the collaborative efforts of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) that resulted in the publication of the Panama Papers (2016), the Paradise Papers (2017), and the Pandora Papers (2021). Prominent examples of the latter include whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Reality Winner, both of whom released sensitive government and military information in the public interest but who were subsequently imprisoned in landmark cases that sought to establish a precedent for enforcing legal repercussions against unauthorized information release. As described in the "Secrecy Situation" entry of the UnTextbook, whistleblowing may be set alongside several other terms with related meanings:

  • Whistleblowing is when a member of an organization circumvents or goes around the institutional hierarchy to reveal compromising information about wrongdoing. If you are working in a group if you catch someone cheating on an exam and you report it to the instructor, that would be an example of whistleblowing. You circumvented the institutional hierarchy in some sense by going around your relationship with this other person in order to report it to the instructor. Because the secret is attributable to you because you revealed it to them, you would be the whistleblower.
  • Leaking occurs when secret information is shared with a third party to preserve the anonymity of an original source. If you were to catch someone cheating on an exam then pass that information to another person in the class who then passes it on to the instructor, that would be leaking. That way you would have shared that information with a third party, this other friend, who would have then passed it along in order to keep your identity a secret.
  • Stove-piping is when confidential information is released strategically to polarize public opinion. If you have a grudge against someone and then intentionally whistleblow or leak information that is false or incorrect to get them in trouble, that would be stove-piping. This term describes when information is labeled as a secret – likely with significant inaccuracies – to serve some personal or political goal.
A spoofy whistleblower video from "The Office" s6 episode, "The Cover-Up" 

The "whistle" is also an auditory metaphor for spilling secrets: "whistleblowing" versus "dog-whistles," although the two terms have opposing connotations. "Whistleblowing" references the audible sound of a whistle often associated with a rule-enforcing referee. Blowing the whistle means cutting through the noise at a pitch that is unignorable to a wide audience. "Dog-whistles" reference a sound only audible at some frequencies, or to a limited audience who knows how to decipher the meaning. Sounding this kind of whistle sends a message widely that only some can hear. It most often describes coded racist epithets that signal one's commitments to an anti-Black ideology and other deeply pejorative beliefs.

Rhetoric professor Dr. Lee Pierce explains "Let's Go Brandon" as a dog-whistle used to express shared resentment toward President Joe Biden.

A Cinematic Spectacle of Whistleblowing

Why is whistleblowing a "spectacle"? As defined in the "keywords" entry for this class, the spectacle has the following features:

The spectacle can occur because televisions are fixtures in every home and there is no cross-communication between people. There is a complete unity insofar as people exist in complete isolation from one another. The spectacle is constantly talking about itself. It is about its own self-worship, it doesn’t refer to anything but itself. We are, for instance, sucked into the spectacle when millions of people tune in or engage in the same consumerist habits at the same time. It is the imagined space where subjects define their value in terms of a marketplace of unequally distributed data. The term “spectacle” also describes “value” in terms of the ideas and goals that allow us to feel worthy in our own eyes; such as when we aspire to the same status as token celebrities or fall for misleading political rhetoric. By drawing attention to one thing after the next, one crisis after another, the spectacle demands all of our attention, but makes it impossible to focus it.

To call whistleblowing a spectacle does not mean that it is just an illusion, that it is ineffective, or that it is unimportant. Instead, it means that whistleblowing has two kinds of existence. In one mode, whistleblowers assume a significant personal and professional risk by seeking to render something more visible to authorities or for purposes of accountability. In the other, whistleblowing is an object of public consumption and even entertainment, associated with common notions of a moral righteousness, heroic individualism, and speaking truth to power from a position of subordination or lessened social standing (sometimes, this last kind of speech is also called parrhesia or 'frank speech'). In the latter sense, we are not talking about whistleblowing 'itself' in the sense of policies and legal procedures but of the representation of whistleblowing in popular mediated forms to give the whistleblower a kind of social standing apart from actual instances of whistleblowing.

Often, acts of whistleblowing (and even whistleblowers 'themselves') are ignored, un-recognized, un-publicized, anonymized, or otherwise removed from public view.  Indeed, often the visibility of whistleblowers may be seen as undoing the protections of anonymity that protects institutional subordinates against a larger institution or powerful individual. In the early 21st century,  whistleblowers like Reality Winner, Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, Daniel Hale, and Trisha Newbold have remained in the margins of mainstream news coverage for a multitude of reasons. The point of calling whistleblowing a spectacle is to say that popular representations of this practice and its practitioners are often at odds with the romanticized image of whistleblowing we receive from popularly circulating accounts.

One example is the Watergate scandal, which is both famous as an instance of whistleblowing and conspiracy rhetoric, which describes how one version of social reality (the 'fantasy' of the conspiracy) is displaced by another (the 'pragmatic' reality of the conspiracy). Watergate highlighted the heroism of the whistleblower known as "Deep Throat" (later revealed as FBI agent Mark Felt) and the journalists (Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein) who publicized Richard Nixon's illegal wiretapping scheme against his political opponents. Similarly featured in this moment was Daniel Ellsburg, the "Pentagon Papers" whistleblower  whose disclosures undercut the publicly stated justification of the Vietnam War. Ellsberg's disclosures preceded Watergate. However as part of the Watergate disclosures, it was shown that Nixon had sought to illegally retrieve information on Ellsberg and other political opponents in anticipation of a forthcoming presidential election. Felt was a crucial whistleblower because he provided important information that connected the Watergate heist and Committee for the Re-election of President Nixon (CRP), disclosing "in detail that the Watergate break-in was part of a larger effort to sabotage Nixon's political opponents--paid for through the CRP under the direction of some of Nixon's closest aides."

Woodward and Bernstein’s search brought them face-to-face with inconsistencies, contradictions, lies, and most notably, the Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP) that was “inviolate, as impenetrable as a super-secret national-security bureaucracy. … Despite the various forms of adversity, they were determined to get to the end of what seemed to be an ever-perplexing labyrinth. But more than their own discoveries, it was the administration’s monotonous rhetoric of denial which was fascinating. If the White House was so interested in hiding the facts behind Watergate, there was reason to believe that the stakes were extremely high, and therefore, worthy of pursuit. ... When the two reporters established that the same people who were seemingly responsible for Watergate had also supervised the burglary of the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist and the ‘conversation’ of Dita Beard, their theory of conspiracy became warrantable. (305)

The Watergate events were commemorated in the 1976 film "All the President's Men," which portrays Woodward and Bernstein as heroic investigative journalists working for the Washington Post:

Trailer for "All the President's Men" (1976)

In the late 20th century, the "whistleblower" cinematic genre was widely recognizable for the way that it depicted a familiar narrative of corporate corruption. Whereas the Watergate scandal could be traced back to the nefarious actions of a single executive, corporate whistleblowing films focused on widespread environmental or embodied harms that were 'out in the open' but which had gone unprosecuted due to the control companies leveraged over information. In many of these films, the whistleblower is positioned as the hero of a melodramatic narrative in which their evil opponents are driven by greed and profit. The first and last examples below are striking because the same actor (Matt Damon) takes on very different character roles: In the first example, "The Rainmaker," this actor plays a heroic attorney whose efforts result in the disclosure of environmental devastation. By comparison, in the last example shown below, "The Informant," seeks to complicate the heroic whistleblower narrative through satire, making the protagonist into a buffoonish character obsessed with his own image.

Trailer for "The Rainmaker" (1997)
Trailer for "The Insider" (1999)
Trailer for "Erin Brockovich" (2000)
Trailer for "The Informant!" (2009)

In the early 2000s, in the wake of the Iraq and Afghan war, whistleblower films returned to their Watergate-era focus on government, this time looking at the state's secret operations as a criminal conspiracy on the same level as widespread, in-the-open corporate malfeasance. Here, the focus turned to American military secrecy and the failure to disclose key information that would compromise the image of the United States as a global moral authority. This was rendered in particular detail across a number of films about the WikiLeaks organization (e.g., "We Steal Secrets," (trailer linked below) "The Fifth Estate," "Risk")  and the Snowden PRISM program disclosures (e.g., "Snowden" (trailer linked below) and "CitizenFour"). These cinematic representations similarly sought to complicate the conventional whistleblower narrative by suggesting that whistleblowers themselves were complicated characters. Their conflicts with the nation state also generated questions about whether whistleblowers are always moral agents and whether information learned about whistleblowers after-the-fact is motivated propaganda. These films represent a distinct complication of the melodramatic narrative conventionally associated with whistleblowers. Less obvious but still relevant is that these films also concern a volume of information that is entirely unlike the disclosures of the 20th century. Whistleblowers today are associated with "troves" of information, in the sense that they deal with information that is so voluminous that it cannot be easily 'released' without the additional mediation of journalists, data scientists, or other experts.

Trailer for "The Whistleblower" (2011)
Trailer for "We Steal Secrets" (2013)
Trailer for "Snowden" (2016)
Trailer for "The Report" (2019)

Whistleblower films and documentaries have steered toward a dedicated focus on gender violence and sexual assault most often affiliated with the phrase Me Too (2006) and the initially Twitter-based #MeToo movement. In the late 2000s, Me Too/#MeToo whistleblowing cases were associated with high-profile abusers such as Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, and Larry Nassar, and frequently featured not one heroic whistleblower but many whose collective testimony functioned as copious proof of unpunished or protected violence over decades. Volume is a crucial rhetorical aspect of this movement because of the fact that many people stepped forward as whistleblowers and there were clear discrepancies between the voices that were and were not popularly represented as the 'public face' of the movement. As shown by the film "Bombshell" below, the cinematic and popular representation of these movements featured cases that were very publicly prominent and represented primarily white women whistleblowers despite the prevalence of sexual assault among minoritized and its origins with activist Tarana Burke and Black Lives Matter activist Patrisse Cullors.

Trailer for "Bombshell" (2019)

Gendering the Whistleblower

* This section is adapted from a presentation by Jasmine Baxter, a media studies scholar who composed this segment as a presentation at the University of Minnesota, Twin-Cities.

In the article "Blond Queens and Red Spiders," for instance, Olmsted addresses histories of espionage, particularly as it relates to women spies and their eventual uncovering by the state. She takes note of the ways that sexualized images are projected onto women spies even before they are known, so much so that the media disparages and discredits those who turn out to be anything other than an idealized “sexy.” Given the way the media relies on the notion that women spies only gain power by seducing powerful men with secrets, women who are older and less attractive to the public are seen as less capable of being a spy. Important, too, is the recognition that when women don’t fall into line with patriarchal gender norms, it becomes their supposed reasoning for turning a traitor.

Importantly, the stereotypes of feminity associated with women spies often narrowly define public expectations about their appearance and motives. During the prosecution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, for instance, Olmsted addresses the popularity of the "femme fatale" in cinema and the way that film representations of Mata Hari (famously played by Greta Garbo) created an archetype of the woman spy as a deceptive seductress. Despite the fact that Ethel Rosenberg did not conform with this representation, popular journalistic accounts described her as hiding her true self beneath a veil of ordinariness and regularly drew attention to her appearance in order to justify accusations of her traitorous character.

Trailer for "Mata Hari" (1931)
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed by the United States for spying on behalf of the Soviet Union in 1953. The Rosenberg trial was a major moment during the "Red Scare" that targeted alleged communists, led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. 

Another example of how gendered expectations are tied to official secret-keeping is the story of Alan Turing, as depicted in the clip below from the film The Imitation Game. Turing was a closeted British mathematician whose discoveries anticipate the invention of the modern computer. Turing is famous for "the Turing Test," which offers parameters that would allow a human to tell whether they are speaking to a computer or a human. Less publicized about the Turing Test is the way that it was modeled after a parlor game that Turing himself played during dinner parties, where one person (whose identity was unknown) would hide in a closet and messages were passed beneath a door. After a series of back-and-forth messages, the guests gathered in the parlor would guess the gender of the person hiding in the room. In the Turing Test, a computer takes the place of the person whose gender is being guessed. Although there have been many other versions of this test, the general assumption is that even this computer, which does not neatly fit into categories of biological sex or gendered performativity, may be 'discovered' as a computer by using Turing's procedure.  

Gender is also prominently represented in the film The Imitation Game, which tells the story of Turing's life, how he cracked the "Enigma" code used by Germans during World War II, and his chemical castration after being exposed as a gay man. In the clip below, Turing is shown at the moment he allegedly discovers the Enigma 'key.' He does this while listening to a stenographer, who tells the people gathered that she thinks of the Germans' secret messages as 'love letters' where the nonsense word CILLY – which appears at the beginning of every message – is imagined to be the name of the sender's paramour. By placing the coded wartime message into the metaphorical terms of a romantic heterosexual relationship, Turing suddenly has a flash of insight that leads to the successful cracking of German cryptography.

Fischer's "Pathologizing and Prosecuting a (Gender) Traitor" is concerned with how transgender whistleblower Chelsea Manning’s gender history got taken up in the media as the basis upon which she committed her “crimes” against the state. More explicitly, the news latched onto the fact that Manning’s peers bullied her from grade school to the military because of her (previous) gayness and unremitting femininity; this circumstance led journalists, among others, to speculate openly about how her perceived emotional state caused her to leak classified videos and documents. The postulating continued for a while, despite the wealth of evidence demonstrating that she was in complete control of herself, and that she actually exposed the files out of frustration with the military itself.

These readings may speak to differently gendered subjects, but they also
speak to how bodies, gender, and sexuality are always interpellated into conversations about surveillance, and they can never be separated from surveillance practice, even if the connection between them appears subtly. Put succinctly, gender deviance, which includes non-normative forms of sexuality, is “produced, coded, and monitored” as a part of the everyday foundation of our lives, and as such, the scope that gender encompasses is nothing short of expansive (Beauchamp 5). According to Toby Beauchamp's book, Going Stealth, “Bodies, identities, and behaviors,” to quote Beauchamp, “may be read as gender deviant in relation to perceived or actual racial identity, religious affiliation, nationality and citizenship status, class status, disability, or sexuality” (7). In other words, gender regulation positions many people as gender non-conforming and polices them accordingly whether they explicitly identify as trans or not.

The surveillance of gender non-conforming people (i.e., those who do not fit within the categories of heterosexual or cis-gender identity) is about the perception that people who present in gender transgressive ways are deceiving others (9). In fact, the rationale for intense airport security is grounded in deception, and it appears as an objection to concealment--one which collapses the covering up of weapons with the covering of sex or gender (10). Questions regarding surveillance in instances like these often rely on the conception of “safety as something that requires losing--or willingly giving up--privacy,” so much so that full disclosure becomes the only way to achieve security (3, 10). For gender non-conforming folks, the tension between their requirements for safety and the state’s become abundantly clear; “full disclosure” requires submitting to invasive searches and
making peace with the systems of surveillance that dictate that only threatening or
fraudulent people have something to fear when being monitored (10). These points are best illustrated by the following American Express commercial:

In this case, a person not specifically marked as transgender is nonetheless subject to gender regulation because of the ways his gender is interpreted through consumer objects. The introduction of a latex glove (notably edited out of later versions of the commercial) suggests that this person is also subject to a physical form of state violence for his gender transgressions. That the security guard wearing the glove is a woman adds another gendered layer to this scene: in response to public anxieties about inappropriate and non-consensual physical contact during security checks, government officials have repeatedly issued assurances that physical searches will be conducted by an officer of the same gender as the individual being searched. Along with the too-feminine credit card design, the gloved search conducted by a woman positions this airline customer as breaking from normative gender in ways that provoke (and, the commercial implies, justify) serious scrutiny. Importantly, the second customer — the man with the properly professional and masculine credit card — is also part of this system, as is the at-home viewer, for whom these regulatory practices may be internalized. Here, the privileges of good citizenship are arrived at through normative gendering, which is read in part through class status and consumer practices. (Beauchamp, Going Stealth, p.9)

The accusation and policing of gender affects a wide range of people, and can effectively expand its net to capture a cisgender white man with a kitten credit card, as well as people who are trans-identified, to borrow Beauchamp’s language. Though it is undoubtedly worse for trans folks because the air of deception clings more tightly to them (especially if they are nonwhite), normative gender is produced and enforced on everyone (10). The goal of airport surveillance, as well as many books, TV shows, and other media objects is to (re)present gender non-conforming folks as hiding secrets that the general public are sometimes literally “meant to uncover” (15). Here, the sexual dimensions of surveillance are made plain once more.

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