Women at War

The subject of Mary Douglas Vavrus’s Postfeminist War: Women in the Media-Military-Industrial Complex are media representations of American military women in the twenty-first century. Vavrus is not so concerned with actual accounts by women who have served—as in memoirs and first-person articles and essays—nor is she much interested in artistic-entertainment portraits in art, film, and literature. The evidence she analyzes are network news and major print-and-online accounts of high-profile subjects associated with women-in-uniform, such as their struggle to serve equitably, free of sexual harassment and assault. News media is a separate realm from the actual lived-lives of real people and different too from the art-world of imaginative and dramatic portraiture, but it is not unrelated. The trick, then, is parsing Vavrus’s argument for its connection to events as they unfolded in the military institutionally and historically, personal accounts by women who experienced those events first-hand, and the artistic-dramatic rendition of the same.

Vavrus’ argument is that the media, sometimes unwittingly but often as if in consort with the military itself, has played up stories highlighting women’s achievements and downplayed those that depict difficulties, to include the problems of harassment and assault. “Media” is a big term, of course, and by it Vavrus primarily means what right-wingers would sneer at as “the mainstream media.” Vavrus’ vantage point is from the left, but her evidence is largely drawn from and her argument is aimed at traditional outlets such as The New York Times, Time, and the evening news giants. The consequences (and possibly the motivation, too, at least insofar as the military is concerned) of journalistic complicity with military-governmental desire are two-fold: 1) positive reports help recruit women to the all-volunteer service in a time of need while generating support among the American populace for unpopular wars, and 2) positive coverage normalizes the escalating saturation of American life with what Vavrus terms “banal militarism” by extending the historically masculine martial realm to the domestic and feminine spheres.

In the 19th-century, Herman Melville wrote, “All wars are boyish and fought by boys.” Not so fast, argues Vavrus: 

I titled this book Postfeminist War because my research shows that since 2001, war- and military-themed media exhibit a mixture of resistance and capitulation to racialized patriarchy as they work to naturalize women’s support for martial values and actions. In this context, narratives about women use feminism selectively to focus on gender equality as they preclude examination of structural problems that differentially disadvantage women both inside and outside the military: chiefly racism, economic inequality, and misogyny. In so doing, such discourses advance what I call martial postfeminism, an ideology that both pushes military solutions for an array of problems that women and girls face and endorses war by either glorifying or obscuring the forms of violence it entails. Postfeminist War thus argues that martial postfeminism discourages critical investigation of the military as an institution, the wars U.S. troops fight, and the military-industrial complex that both drives and profits from war.

Chapter One of Postfeminst War uses the Lifetime television series Army Wives to illustrate how even the ultra-feminine realm of soap-opera has been militarized by the “media-military-industrial complex.” Vavrus writes, “Because Army Wives was successful by so many measures—including serving as a vehicle for Army propaganda—I start with its constructions of military marriage and family… then examine strategic alliances between the Lifetime Network, its commercial partners, and the DOD to consider how they mutually constitute meaning around military life and war for an audience of women.” Chapter Two examines several “super-Mom” public figures who use their identity as mothers of soldiers to shape national debates about war, military, and soldier issues. The first two chapters are interesting, but Postfeminist War for me really starts percolating with Chapters Three and Four.

In Chapter Three, “‘No Longer Women, but Soldiers’: The Warrior Women of Television News,” Vavrus describes positive portrayals of military women in major media in the years after 9/11, especially as women achieve a series of “firsts”:  first helicopter pilot, first Ranger, first West Point first captain, etc. The author’s argument is complex:  though she is a feminist, she doesn’t think these positive portrayals and associated claims that the military has demonstrated its commitment to women are very satisfying. Rather, Vavrus takes aim at shibboleths that the military is a healthy venue for women’s growth, empowerment, and accomplishment, and that women can compete and be accepted for who they are and their own worth within it. She finds these conceits contrived and overly hopeful, whether they in fact may be true for any individual woman (which she admits they can be). In Vavrus’s way of thinking, journalists who run feel-good stories about women in uniform should be ashamed of their complicity in helping construct media-military-industrial-complex ideology. And yet, the author is far from a conservative Phyllis Schlafly-style anti-feminist who believes a woman’s place is at home. The author’s critique comes from the far-left, and her overarching questions are to what ends are women being asked to serve and how does incorporation of women in the military instantiate militarism within the greater society.   

Journalism’s complicity in promoting the military by emphasizing its transformative potential for women is especially nefarious, according to Vavrus, in light of the armed service’s shameful lack of attention paid to military sexual discrimination, harassment, abuse, and assault. In Chapter Four, “‘This Wasn’t the Intended Sacrifice’: Warrior Women and Sexual Violence,” the author claims that the media failed to hold the military accountable for gender discrimination and sexual assault and abuse for years until the release of Helen Benedict’s groundbreaking documentary film about military rape The Invisible War in 2012. After Benedict, media coverage sharpened, but has still not achieved what it might. The biggest problem identified by Vavrus is that the press focuses on high-profile cases rather than widespread events and enduring patterns, and they care more about punishment of transgressions than analyzing toxic cultural elements that permit rape (to include man-on-man rape) to occur. A truly feminist media in Vavrus’s eyes would extract itself from its embedded sycophantic relationship with the military and expose its systematic patriarchal and misogynist shortcomings, rather than treating sexual crime with the same rote, feeble patterns of breathless finger-wagging it devotes to women’s issues as they manifest on college campuses and in the civilian workplace—a tendency that helps instantiate the military and militarism as fundamental components of American life.

I’ve taken the time to lay out Vavrus’ argument in some detail not because I want to shoot it down. Most of it seems intuitively obvious: the mainstream media over the last twenty years has clearly pinged between moments of “you go girl” celebration of milestone achievements by military women and strident denunciations of high-profile examples of military misogyny, with long periods of not-so-benign neglect in-between. Vavrus believes that a hard-hitting, left-leaning media sphere with an emphasis on long-term investigative journalism is needed, and that in regard to women in the military it is foolish to think that we are “post” the need for a thoroughly feminist approach. No doubt that’s true, but to say we’re not there right now as a country is putting it mildly, which raises the question of the possibility for real change. The obstacles being so formidable, frankly I’m just glad that the media (broadly construed) is no worse than it is, as long as I sense it’s aligned with the interests of women who are actually serving or contemplating serving, and mostly determined by women themselves. As for the military itself? It can always do better, a lot better.

One strong virtue of Vavrus’ claims, however, is they set the stage for productive follow-on lines of inquiry I’m going to unfortunately only give short-shrift to here. As I stated above, Vavrus’ subject is more media coverage than it is the military itself, if that makes sense. Though Vavrus obviously is not impressed by military efforts to, say, end sexual assault and abuse, she doesn’t go into great detail about actual military efforts to do so. Nor, as I’ve also stated, does she examine or even introduce as evidence accounts by women who have served and have negotiated in real-time the tricky swirl of ideas and imperatives she outlines. By now there is a robust collection of memoirs by women veterans—Kayla Williams, Shoshana Johnson (with help from Mary Doyle), Amber Smith, Laura Westley, Brooke King, Anuradha Baghwati, and a forthcoming one by Teresa Fazio, to name a few—as well as books about military women, such as Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s Ashley’s War, along with first-person articles and online accounts such as those featured on The War Horse website. From what I know of these women and their writings, none are dupes who have naively absorbed and regurgitated ideological constructs, though by their own admission they may not have not been totally immune to them, either. Read carefully, individually and collectively, analysis of their authors’ wrangle with “martial postfeminism” would be most welcome as they corroborate, contradict, and complicate Vavrus’s claims.

I’ve chosen not to review memoirs on Time Now, but another body-of-work we might turn to in order to test Vavrus’s claims is right in Time Now’s wheelhouse: the aesthetic realm of fiction and film. Below are links to posts about stories and movies in which women warriors serve as central characters in narratives about war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Within each post, I feel, is plenty of grist for contemplating how women have fared in the military since 9/11, and the books and films themselves of course contain even more. There’s still more work to do examining them in granular detail, teasing out patterns and implications, and synthesizing competing ideas and claims. It won’t get done here now, but the work awaits.     

Fiction:

Fire and Forget III: Mariette Kalinowski’s “The Train”

No Thank You For Your Service: Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen

Who’s Catching Who Coming Through the Rye? Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You

Iraq by the Numbers: On the Road with Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty Fives

Tim O’Brien’s “Story Truth” and “Happening Truth” in the Contemporary War Novel (more about Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty Fives)

It’s Complicated: Whitney Terrell’s The Good Lieutenant

War Stories: Helen Benedict, Brian Van Reet, David Abrams

Inside the Puzzle Palace: Kathleen J. McInnis’s The Heart of War

Movies:

Zero Dark Thirty I: The CIA Goes to War

“So Many Expectations”: Fort Bliss

Let Us Now Praise Mine and Megan Leavey

 

Mary Douglas Vavrus, Postfeminist War: Women in the Media-Military-Industrial Complex. Rutgers UP, 2019.

Explore posts in the same categories: Art and War

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