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All's not fair for women at war

PUBLISHED: 09:20 14 November 2011

For military women, being a Marine means an auxiliary role. An American recruitment poster.

For military women, being a Marine means an auxiliary role. An American recruitment poster.

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How cinema and popular culture portray women in the armed services. tell us more about our society's attitudes than is immediately apparent, says Norwich academic and writer Yvonne Tasker. KEIRON PIM reports.

Women are now an established part of the British and American military, taking on an expanding number of peace-keeping and combat roles, but according to research by a Norwich academic they are still unfairly represented in films and television.

Film expert 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. 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.

Prof Tasker explains how, during the second world war, women were portrayed as auxiliaries, temporary necessities of ‘total war’. Later, military nursing, with its connotations of feminine care, offered a solution to the ‘gender problem’. From the 1940s through to the 1970s, musicals, romances and comedies exploited the humorous potential of the gender role reversal that the military woman was taken to represent.

The book reveals the striking ways in which film, television and posters have portrayed military women, and a selection of the images are included on these pages.

Since the 1970s, women soldiers have appeared most often in thrillers and legal and crime dramas, cast as isolated figures, sometimes victimised and sometimes heroic. Prof Tasker’s work charts these changing attitudes, relating female soldiers’ provocative presence to contemporary political and cultural debates and to the ways that women’s labour and bodies are understood and valued

“From Skirts Ahoy! to M*A*S*H, Private Benjamin, GI 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,” said Prof Tasker, professor of film studies in the school of film and television studies at the 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.”

Films and television shows featuring female soldiers tell stories about women who step outside familiar roles, she says. While Soldiers’ Stories looks at military women, there are implications for the way in which popular culture presents working women more broadly, particularly when women are taking on roles once performed almost exclusively by men.

Prof Tasker drew from resources such as film footage, stills, promotion and recruitment materials at the film archive at the Imperial War Museum, the National Film Archive in London and the National Archives in Washington.

In doing so, she found that the armed services woman “represents a particular sort of gender trouble”. In popular imagery of military women, physical appearance remains a constant concern, whether it is emphasising 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,” she added. “At times normalised, at times deviant, often peripheral, and typically controversial when she takes centrestage, 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.”

■ Soldiers’ Stories: Military Women in Cinema and Television since World War II is published by Duke University Press, priced £16.99.

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