March 20, 2020
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
Dr. Deborah Deacon, a former Dean of Harrison Middleton University, co-authored a book entitled A Century in Uniform; Military Women in American Films, published earlier this year. Stacy Fowler and Dr. Deacon’s book dedicates a chapter to each decade (or so) since the introduction of film. They selected films that depict a woman in the military in some form or other. It is a fascinating look at the ebb and flow of social norms in a society that, over the past one hundred years, has experienced a number of incredibly challenging military engagements. Not only has the image of military changed during this time, as it did during and after Vietnam, for example, but the image and roles of women have changed in unexpected ways too. Therefore, this book examines shifting perspectives on bodies that themselves continue to shift in perspective.
One thing may be obvious: that gender (now as always, perhaps) begets a lot of anxiety in the conversation of American armed forces. Humans continue to have great anxiety about changing roles, even ones which do not challenge the status quo. Unknowns always confuse the public, which causes anxiety. Historically speaking, the military has incorporated women into service when the need is great, such as during either of the World Wars or after September 11, 2001. Think of Rosie the Riveter as one example (though there are many others). However, what happens when the critical engagement is over? Traditionally, men return home to resume these roles and women are relegated to the home, whether they wanted to be or not.
A Century in Uniform by Deacon and Fowler looks at the onscreen portrayal of these women, however, which expresses not the actuality, but underlying cultural tensions. In fact, in many cases, they note that the movies in no way reflect actuality, explained by the fact that either the writer/director were ignorant of the military regulations, or that achieving a true representation was unimportant to the film producers. This, however, often perpetuates stereotypes and misnomers. They noted a number of films which play into tropes such as reinforcing romances (even ones that would cause court martials), dim-witted or bimbo-like characters, and the woman who wants nothing but to raise a family.
The book counters these Hollywood experiments with research, however. Each chapter begins with an analysis of the numbers of women actually in the military during the decade in question. They include outside historical markers (such as conflicts, wars, or political rhetoric) which may affect the data, and they even discuss societal trends, such as hippie lifestyle, etc. Overall, their book offers an excellent view of this piece of culture which has shaped, whether knowingly or not, much of our American lifestyle. It asks questions about our notions of home, safety, honor, heroism and duty. For example, during the 1940s, one movie, So Proudly We Hail, shows a female figure dying in order to save others. They posit the idea that a heroine is not equal to a hero. In fact, the heroine must die in order to become a hero. The story revolves around nurses stationed in Bataan. One of the nurses ends up sacrificing herself and Deacon and Fowler explain that “a female changes from a heroine to a hero when certain criteria are met.” In other words, the main character is judged based upon both her gender and her action. They explained that few women die onscreen, unlike depictions of men in battle, calling into question what it takes to be a hero, and how we assess that culturally.
In the conclusion, the authors explain how these films interact with the reality of women in war. They write that:
“In the twelve decades that women have officially been members of the U.S. military, their roles within the military have changed significantly. Initially restricted to traditional ‘women’s work’ such as nursing and office work, over time, their roles have expanded into non-traditional arenas as well, such as mechanic, ship driver, and aviator, as military needs dictated and societal ideas about women’s roles changed. As Hollywood has progressively portrayed military women in a greater variety of roles, women in more recent films serve in a wide range of positions from pilot to intelligence specialist to combat soldier, reflecting the shift in opportunities made available to actual American servicewomen in the last three decades.”
Furthermore, they discuss disparities not only between women as portrayed in the films and statistical roles in the actual military, but also between minorities. They conclude that “Although minority women are well represented in the actual U.S. military, it is apparently still a foreign concept in Hollywood.” Moreover, military women with families and children are all but absent from films. They claim that “The percentage of women with children shown are not anywhere near the actual numbers either. Currently, approximately 45 percent of military women have children, but less than twenty films in this survey depict military mothers.” Overall, Deacon and Fowler explain that while some things have changed, like increasing roles for women in the military, some things have not changed. They conclude that, “In fact, in only nineteen of the films surveyed does a female military character die, indicating that Hollywood still believes that the American public is not ready to see its wives, mothers, or daughters dying in battle, even in a movie.”
Overall, this book analyzes the interesting intersection between popular culture and reality. The ways in which films depict women in the military often reflects more of American customs and convention than to the military itself. This book investigates all genres (except science fiction, which is their current project) and, for that reason alone, makes an entertaining read. It includes some exceptional films and rare photos, and is well worth the walk down memory lane. It demonstrates to us just how important it is to learn from our past.
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