When soldiering gets sexy: the militarization of gender equality and sexual difference

Up in Arms continues to track the figure of the soldier in contemporary culture as a consequence of NATO’s wars. How does militarism – the belief in the superiority of military values and methods – shape or perhaps even challenge gender stereotypes in countries that send troops off to war?

Regardless of what they say about a man in uniform, it’s clear that some of them have a particular appeal when they’re half naked and preferably holding a gun.

The UK charity Go Commando which raises money for Royal Marines and their families, has recently launched its third successive calendar featuring marines in various stages of undress. The calendar went through official channels before being launched with acclaim in the national media. Its first print-run sold out within days.

In this now familiar genre, the black and white portraits of the calendar boys reveal them to be as muscly and virile as their female counterparts – who now include military wives – have tended to be demure and coquettish. Whether their nakedness is concealed by rifles, rugby balls, boxing shorts or the bottom halves of their uniforms, the marines’ rippling chests and arms suggest that the male military body represents new standards of idealised masculinity.

The appeal of the original calendar girls was that they were older women with real (that is to say, ageing, not thin and non-airbrushed) female bodies, consciously parodying the pin-up. But this latest generation of copycats celebrates the cultivated toughness and brotherly solidarity for which marines are famed. They appear to be as pumped up and waxed as male supermodels, strangely reminiscent of the old-fashioned Action Men often found languishing in junk shops. 

Sporno

Mark Simpson has analysed the ‘homoprovocative’ convergence of sporting prowess, fashion photography and the glamour of pornified bodies of male celebs like David Beckham. In fact he coined the word ‘sporno’ to capture this development, and suggests that, ‘The uninhibitedness of rugby players, in part a function of the physical intimacy of the game itself, ends up being deliciously suited to the visual uninhibitedness of our times’.  

The word ‘uninhibited’ does not begin to capture the soldier response to Captain Harry Wales’ pre-deployment spree in Las Vegas where he was snapped in his birthday suit after a game of poker. A Facebook site called ‘Support Prince Harry with a naked salute’ was inundated with hundreds of pictures of women and men, their genitals concealed with anything from a pistol to a flag. The photos, many taken in Helmand, were duly relayed to the British public via the tabloids with predictable headlines such as ’21 Bum salute’ and ‘Peace-offering: these girls are willing to show their loyalty to the third in line to the throne’. 

Turning to the other extreme, the Olympics provided an occasion to feast on voyeuristic images of athletes’ physicality – male and female, able-bodied and variously impaired. There’s a fascination with bodies that have been pushed to their physical limits, sculpted by diet and exercise under strict medical supervision, and even repaired with technological precision, all with the aim of winning medals for one’s country.

Meanwhile gyms and parks are full of ordinary citizens panting under the barked orders of military fitness instructors whom they pay to subdue their bodies into better shape. This is another example of soldiers setting the bar for the most desirable physique. 

The special calendar forces who strip for charity are not so much claiming that whatever women can do, they can do better. But this form of exhibitionism both naturalises and emphasizes the very qualities that return gender difference to the physical form. Interestingly, they are doing this to raise money for the predominantly female communities that support them, without which they could not function.

The brass ceiling

How does militarism change social and cultural expectations of gender roles and relations? This is a huge question, but initially there are three areas to consider.

The first might be the most obvious: the role that women play in state militaries and the degree to which exclusions from certain forms of combat and other fighting-related roles reflect attitudes towards gender equality on the one hand, and citizenship on the other, 

Last month saw the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) file a lawsuit against the Pentagon with the aim of ending its exclusionary policies on women in combat.  If successful, this challenge would overturn what has been called the last barrier to gender equality. It will undoubtedly have repercussions in other NATO and European militaries for whom the chaotic reality of counterinsurgency practices have created new roles as well as new risks for female soldiers on the ground. 

The ACLU is representing four veterans who have served both in Iraq and Afghanistan, some of whom have been decorated for their achievements. They argue that the ban harms the armed forces by eliminating a whole section of the population from certain jobs. It also means that female soldiers are at a disadvantage in terms of training and promotion. 

It is instructive to look at this debate in different national contexts.

In 2011, Australia was one of several countries that ended restrictions on women serving in all direct combat frontline roles. Swedish women comprise only 4.5% of their military, which partly reflects the end of conscription and the subsequent remodeling of a professional national defence force. However, the Nordic Centre for Gender in Military Operations is a prime example of the successful intervention by feminists in a country that leads the world in gender-mainstreaming.

In the UK, where the MoD’s ‘Diversity Dashboard’ indicates that there are currently 9.7% females in the armed forces, the speed of integration has been relatively slow. In 1998, the British Army increased the number of jobs open to female recruits from 47% to 70% with the exception of units whose primary role was to “close with and kill” the enemy. This situation is periodically reviewed. Interestingly, thanks to Harriet Harman, recruitment into the Gurkha contingents (which offer a range of jobs outside the infantry) has been opened up to women in recent years. However, the selection process in Nepal acts as a deterrent since thousands of young men are prepared in specially set up crammers run by veterans who know the ropes.

As the ACLU has argued, US women have been taking part in combat duties in Afghanistan for some time and running comparable risks to men. For them, the lack of recognition that females face inside the military has symbolic resonance outside. ‘Nearly a century after women first earned the right of suffrage, the combat exclusion policy still denies women a core component of full citizenship—serving on an equal footing in the military defense of our nation.’ 

The low profile of women in the wider defence and security sector, across all NATO countries, is often referred to as the ‘brass ceiling’. In 2011, an international conference organized by RUSI and sponsored by Raytheon, BAE Systems and Boeing, reflected concern about the relatively meagre gains made by women in a field that is completely dominated by men. 

The pink picture 

The second dimension relates to public perceptions of the changing roles that women play in military operations, whether they are pioneers in all-male units or cast as ‘heroes’ demonstrating female expertise. Domestic populations are presented with a constant stream of information intended to shape their understanding of the missions in which their national and collective militaries are engaged. In this scenario, armies become adverts for the civilised societies that they supposedly represent. 

During the first days of the No Fly Zone imposed on Libya, the UK media reported that first female British Typhoon pilot was deployed in a small contingent of Royal Air Force (RAF) jets. Described as ‘the flame-haired ‘top gun’’ in one report, the pilot’s gender was used as an occasion to note that there were no bars to women becoming pilots in the RAF. Meanwhile, during the same month, the military media operation in Afghanistan posted an item about the ‘heroine of Helmand’, a 20-year-old member of the Royal Military Police, who had ‘made history’ by arresting 17 members of the Taliban in ‘a single DAY’.

The following week, however, both these stories were eclipsed by news from the US media machine boasting that an all-female crew, The Strike Eagles of ‘Dudette 07’, had ‘made history’ by carrying out an air mission on the border with Pakistan. It turned out that ‘Dudette 07’ was set up to mark Women's History Month, and to celebrate the cause of equality in order to counter damaging reports that rape and sexual harassment were ‘rampant’ in the US military.

Diversity has a high value in counterinsurgency too, particularly in the field of “cultural competence”, a new buzzword that encompasses the military skills required to communicate with civilians. One example might be the creation of Female Engagement Officers (FEOS, sometimes known as Military Outreach Teams or MOTs). 

The UK public was recently introduced to this aspect of women’s work through an exhibition called the White Picture held in London this autumn. The exhibition was commissioned by the Royal British Legion, the largest veterans organization, and ran during the fortnight leading up to Remembrance Day. The term the ‘white picture’ was defined as ‘that which doesn’t fit into the tactical or strategic considerations of a war zone’.

Photographer Alison Baskerville’s work illustrated the role of Britain’s FEOs who are placed with predominantly male regiments. Her images were widely available on media websites along with interviews with Baskerville herself and quotes from the women she photographed. In one report, Captain Crossley said that a highlight of her tour was, “seeing the absolute fascination of women in the compound when I removed my helmet and glasses to speak to them in their own language.”

The pictures were remarkable in that they focused on daily life as a way of emphasizing the soldiers’ femininity. Pictures of female toiletries, the outside of the makeshift shower tent, the inside of the gym and a glimpse of a woman sleeping in her underwear testified to the difficulties of keeping up standards expected of ‘our’ women. Meanwhile another photo showed a uniformed officer ‘getting to know’ an Afghan family. The group, which consisted of an elderly man and ten small children, was seated around the soldier whose rifle was strategically placed on the ground beside her.

This representation of the FEOs is remarkably similar to information describing the Swedish equivalent, known as ‘MOT Juliette’. A short documentary available on Youtube takes the viewer into the sleeping areas, pointing out the range of deodorants and shower gels kept in the lockers. One woman points to a picture of a colleague and jokes: ‘even if Bettan is a real martial women, she is a real puma back in Sweden’. 

Many writers have noted the way that feminism has been made instrumental in modern warfare, both as a way of selling occupation as ‘peace-keeping’ or in presenting a gentler ‘feminine’ alternative to shooting and killing. Laleh Khalili has identified the strategic deployment of women to gain access to and information from civilian populations as a defining practice of modern counterinsurgency. It is one that must be assessed in the context of the infamous Human Terrain System in which anthropologists are employed to advise the US military on the cultural habits of the civilian population. 

Annick T. R. Wibben and Keally McBride have argued that the work of the FEOs “is also a way of marking U.S. civilizational superiority—and the attention lavished upon women soldiers deployed in Afghanistan is a significant aspect of this gendered narrative”. 

But you don’t have to be a feminist theorist to make sense of the way the British Army itself advertised Baskerville’s photos on their own website. The image they chose to highlight the exhibition showed several rows of women’s underpants, mostly pink, drying on a line in camp. It is hard not to see this as a trivialisation of FEO work by drawing attention to what makes women really different from men. This is not about the uniform and what soldiers do professionally. It’s about what happens off duty and when the uniforms come off. 

Military Sexual Assault

Sexual abuse is integral to the culture of militarism which both thrives on and reproduces the division between the strong and the weak, the tough and the vulnerable. The conditions of armed conflict, in whatever guise, exacerbate the deep patterns of sexualised violence and inequality that exist in all societies.

This brings us to the third zone where the status of the soldier can either sanction or excuse behaviours that are normally condemned in civil society. This is notoriously the case within the US military, where incidents of rape and sexual abuse have been identified as being of ‘epidemic’ proportions. The defense secretary Leon Pancetta has recently ordered a review of all basic training across the different services although the phenomenon, known as MSA (Military Sexual Assault), has long been identified as a target for institutional reform. 

Last month an internal report into bullying and harassment in the British Army found that every single woman among the 400 questioned had been the victim of unwanted sexual attention. Bullying was revealed to be rife, despite the official policy of ‘zero tolerance’, and many women explained that they did not want to complain as they did not trust their superiors to take them seriously. 

In August it emerged that one rape or sexual assault is reported by members of the armed forces every week, the implication being that many more victims do not come forward because of a ‘culture of silence’. This information was released just months after the death of Anne-Marie Ellement, a Royal Military Police corporal who hanged herself after accusing two colleagues of raping her. 

Harassment predominates in all organisations where women enter male preserves. While this remains a matter of institutional reform for military employers, the effects of abusive behaviour have to be kept from public scrutiny so as not to impact on recruitment. The exception is when the most severe cases come to court and the media are allowed to comment. 

It is in the employment tribunals that we see mainstream British attitudes to soldiers as particular kinds of workers who conform to fixed gender stereotypes. When an individual receives compensation for discrimination as a single parent and a migrant, for example, like Tilern Debique, or claims sexual harassment as a lesbian, like Kerry Fletcher, no holds are barred in depicting complainants as traitors, spoilsports or shirkers. 

For many commentators, the application of human rights legislation to armies is the inevitable excuse to sound off against the domination of political correctness enforced by European courts. The tabloid media is content to support ‘Our Boys’ for as long as it takes, but women must know their place as well as their limits if they want to be heroes too. 

Here again, it is the figure of the humble squaddie that provides the benchmark. This point was made when Daniel Craig was flown to Helmand where Skyfall was being screened for the troops. Under the heading ‘007 Bonds with heroes’, the Sun showed Craig standing arm in arm with ‘proud soldier Stevie Williams’. The text read: ‘James Bond star Daniel Craig comes face to face with some real action men’.

Although celebrities routinely perform morale-boosting trips to Afghanistan (notably Cheryl Cole’s ‘tour’ in 2011) Craig is not any old film star nor Bond any old icon of Britishness. When Bond parachuted into the Olympic stadium in Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony it could be read as an ironic citation to Britain’s heyday as the empire in which the sun never set. The Cold War character may now be something of an anachronism, but against the backdrop of the live conflict zone, his superhuman attributes restore the imperiled centrality of heterosexuality at the heart of military power. 

About the author

Vron Ware is a research fellow at the Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance (CCIG) and the ESRC Centre for research in socio-cultural change (CRESC) based at the Open University. Her book Military Migrants: Fighting for YOUR country was published in 2013. Her openDemocracy column is called Up in Arms.