Despite the expansion of peacekeeping and combat roles for women in both the British and American military, the debates played out since at least the Second World War about whether women can be soldiers remain significant today.
Prof Yvonne Tasker has traced the portrayal of military women in British and American cinema and television since the Second World War, across genres including musicals, screwball comedies, drama and action thrillers, and relates female soldiers’ provocative presence to contemporary political and cultural debates and to the ways that women’s labour and bodies are understood and valued.
The findings of her research are revealed this month in a new book, Soldiers’ Stories: Military Women in Cinema and Television since World War II, published by Duke University Press.
Prof Tasker explains how, during the Second World War, women were portrayed as auxiliaries, temporary necessities of “total war”. Later, nursing, with its connotations of feminine care, offered a solution to the ‘gender problem’. From the 1940s through the 1970s, musicals, romances, and comedies exploited the humorous potential of the gender role reversal that the military woman was taken to represent.
Since the 1970s, female soldiers have appeared most often in thrillers and legal and crime dramas, cast as isolated figures, sometimes victimized and sometimes heroic. This shift is in line with political and cultural debates, which more recently have seen scandal and intensive media interest frame the military woman.
“From Skirts Ahoy! to M*A*S*H, Private Benjamin, G.I. Jane, and JAG, films and television shows have grappled with the notion that military women are contradictory figures, unable to be both effective soldiers and appropriately feminine,” explained Prof Tasker, professor of film studies in the School of Film and Television Studies at UEA.
“By the end of the Second World War women’s services were no longer defined as fundamentally auxiliary, either in the UK or US, though they remained more vulnerable than the men to job cuts. Yet contemporary popular culture and media imagery continue to reiterate the lack of fit between woman and soldier. The high visibility of contemporary military women has not swept away the intensity of that cultural common sense which tells us that women are not really soldiers.”
Prof Tasker drew on resources, such as film footage, stills, promotion and recruitment materials, from the film archive at the Imperial War Museum, the National Film Archive in London and the National Archives in Washington.
The book reveals that a concern with the military woman’s image, a desire to exploit and contain her association with modernity occurs in policy debates, recruitment materials and other forms of official communication. In popular imagery and accounts too, the military woman represents a particular sort of gender trouble. Physical appearance remains a constant concern, whether it is emphasizing the conventional femininity, even glamour, of military women, showcasing their sexy or thereby problematic bodies, or underlining their physical strength, capacity for endurance and capability
“My goal is to make the military woman a more visible figure within film and television history,” added Prof Tasker. “At times normalized, at times deviant, often peripheral, and typically controversial when she takes centre stage, the military woman is a contradictory icon of modernity and continuity. In many of the examples I explore we find an accompanying underlying anxiety that the military woman might escape such limits, tipping ordered military life into anarchic misrule.”
Films and television shows featuring military women tell stories about women who step outside familiar roles. While Soldiers’ Stories looks at military women, there are implications for the way in which popular culture presents working women much broadly, particularly when women are taking on roles once performed almost exclusively by men.