MILITARY WOMEN IN CINEMA AND TELEVISION SINCE WORLD WAR II
By Yvonne Tasker
Duke University Press
Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One AUXILIARY MILITARY WOMEN
To the extent that they were auxiliaries, women were not fully members of the armed forces in the Second World War. Yet the term also clearly has a metaphoric significance—one not lost on politicians at the time—which serves to qualify the potent image of the military woman as a sign of modernity. Feature films, newsreels, documentaries, and recruitment materials relating to the war repeatedly underlined the supportive role of the military woman. From a contemporary vantage point, this coding of the military woman's agency as fundamentally supportive of male and national endeavors emerges as the key contradiction of the wartime imagery which entreated women to enter the services or gave contemporary audiences glimpses of their lives after enlistment. Put simply, the military woman is cast as a figure of agency and modernity simultaneously framed by traditional, patriarchal cultural assumptions. Thus the modern woman is also in the parlance of the time a "girl." Consider, for instance, an Auxiliary Territorial Service recruitment poster depicting a young female soldier astride a motorcycle, the text informing us, "The motor cylist messenger, roaring across country from Headquarters to scattered units is now an ATS girl" (figure 6). Previously, we must assume, such a task would have fallen to a male soldier. The image underlines the novelty of the role and celebrates the uniformed ATS girl-woman calmly conducting her duty under difficult circumstances.
A rhetoric of girlishness works to mediate the shock of the military woman in such imagery, both infantilizing her and emphasizing her status as not yet a woman. She is not neglecting the responsibilities of adult womanhood, but rather channeling her youthful energies into the (temporary) service of the nation. Such images were produced by teams mindful of a contemporary context in which many responded to the idea of women's military service with skepticism and even hostility. Some characterized women as unsuitable and unqualified for military duties; others were repelled by the supposedly unfeminine character of such work, whether that was manifest in mannishness or in sexual immorality, both of which were attributed to military women in the U.K. and U.S. at different points during the war. In short the military mobilization of women was regarded by many as deeply problematic, with military women themselves doomed to failure, whether in their performance of soldiering or of femininity, or both. Ambivalent responses to women's military service were prominent features of the war period in both Britain and the U.S., informing policy and shaping popular representations in a number of important ways. In the debate over legislation to establish the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), Leisa Meyer reports, "Republican Congresswomen Rogers (Mass.) and Bolton (Ohio) assured their male colleagues that military women would not be usurping the positions of male soldiers. They and other supporters depicted women's role in the military as one of 'assisting,' not 'displacing,' those in combat, particularly by filling jobs considered 'women's work' in civilian life." Such rhetoric underlines the extent to which the work performed by military women and men needed to be distinct in order to maintain sexual difference. To this end, roles such as driver and dispatch rider could be, and indeed were, recast as women's work, defined as auxiliary to and supportive of the manly endeavors of command and combat.
At issue here is the fundamentally contradictory character of discourses of femininity, discourses in which women are both weak and frivolous figures in need of male protection and yet powerful when supporting men or defending their home, children, or nation. Such discourses allowed politicians to claim that they were "protecting" women's femininity by denying them the benefits of military status, for instance. In the process, we might argue, policymakers also sought to ensure that women would not gain equality as citizens (or as subjects in the British context) through their service. Equally they allowed advocates of military women to press their case on terms clearly less threatening to male interest and privilege. These contradictions are clearly in evidence in the British short film Airwoman (1941), which depicts the day-to-day work of women in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force; WAAFS are seen working as messengers, drivers, secretaries, and telephone, wireless, and teleprinter operators. They also prepare food for male aircrews who are about to depart on a bombing raid. We see them cooking and waiting at table on the men's return; in an evocation of more traditional domestic responsibilities, a male voice-over describes this activity as one of the many "worthwhile jobs an airwoman can do: look after those hungry men." Sponsored by the Air Ministry and the Ministry of Information, Airwoman is organized around the story of one woman and the success of a bombing raid in Bremen in which she has effectively played a part. ("Behind every story," we are told, lies "woman's cooperation.") While the drama of the mission itself is enacted, the WAAFS relax and wait; waiting, as we will see, is a key function for women (both military and civilian) in wartime representations. The closing recruitment appeal describes the WAAF as a "vital part of the Royal Air Force," its personnel sharing in the men's trials and triumphs. In the film's stirring final declaration, "Airwoman, we salute you!," the WAAF is lauded and included but also clearly auxiliary to the work of military men, remaining firmly on the ground, never threatening to displace these heroic figures.
In this chapter I consider the representation of the military woman as auxiliary in terms of the rhetoric of support she provides the (male) institutions of the (male) military and the individual soldiers, sailors, and airmen. During the war period such rhetoric is central even when the narrative focuses almost exclusively on the training or work of military women. I also address the construction of military women in supporting roles, focusing in particular on a routine association with romance. In focusing on representations of the Second World War I explore in detail a historical moment associated with unprecedented levels of female military service in both the U.S. and the U.K. I deal directly with the peripheral status of the military woman as enacted on screen, exploring how she is addressed and constructed as war worker, as part of a romantic couple, as a figure who waits, and as one who works close to the field of battle. I consider the alternately, or even simultaneously, celebratory and trivializing or patronizing treatment of military women in recruitment and other film materials, detailing the ways the military woman functions as a contradictory sign of modernity (her public role, the iconicity of women in uniform, the potential for romantic and sexual encounters) and continuity (feminine service, ideologies of romance, military service as a temporary disruption of domesticity). As much as my analysis points to the visual and narrative work put into containing military women within a supportive or auxiliary role, so evident in Airwoman and numerous other instances of representations of the war, I also foreground the aspirational and glamorous connotations of this figure.
Consider in this context the controversial wartime satire The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), in which Deborah Kerr plays three women, each encountered by the protagonist at different stages of his life. One of her incarnations is Angela "Johnny" Cannon, a driver for the Mechanized Transport Corps. Questions of woman's place in relation to men, the home, and the nation during war pervade Colonel Blimp. In a film that stages the drama of a man (Blimp) who has been left behind by history, Kerr's three characters function as signs of both continuity and modernity: as a governess in Berlin in 1902 she is frustrated by the limits placed on middle-class women; as a nurse during the First World War she is dreamy rather than feisty; as a driver during the Second World War she is a masculinized and militarized modern woman.6 Johnny is associated with technology and a novel female mobility: "I never drove before the war," she remarks. She is also plainly an auxiliary figure, supportive and caring for the sentimental, outmoded Blimp.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp suggests how much can be gleaned from a consideration of military women in such supporting roles; indeed both in cinema and on television military women are frequently found on the periphery rather than at the center of the narrative. A. L. Kennedy writes of the film that Johnny has "taken a male name and does a male job," suggesting a sort of transvestism. Yet I believe this figure highlights not only the gender confusion that regularly accompanies the military woman (her implicit manliness), but also the extent to which she thematizes and embodies a powerful trope of transformation. Before the war, we learn, Johnny was a photographer's model, a spectacle of femininity; her movement from model to driver is nicely evocative of wartime mobility and of the transformative character attributed to military service. Moreover although Kerr plays Johnny with appropriate military bearing, she is also a vivid, lively figure, dodging furniture in a scuffle, employing exaggerated facial expressions and body language. Johnny signals female mobility at a number of levels: in her role as a militarized driver; in Kerr's lively performance; and in her construction as emblematic new woman (figure 7). Colonel Blimp is both deeply critical of the British class system and marked by a sense of profound loss at its seeming dissolution. Kerr's modern manifestation as military woman is equally ambivalent, simultaneously a figure of energy and vitality against Clive Candy's aging body and ideals and a cause for lament. The war has transformed Johnny just as, the film implies, Britain must be transformed and modernized.
In addressing the various ways the military woman is imagined as auxiliary, this chapter lays the groundwork for the analysis presented in the book as a whole. The understanding of the military woman's role as auxiliary depends on her status as not male and not a soldier, an equation that has been challenged by subsequent demands for armed services that are more equal and effectively integrated but that remains very much in evidence. I address the conundrum of the military woman, the ways in which she poses a culturally troubling figure even when her service is called for unequivocally. Unsurprisingly that problem of representation centers primarily on gender, but it also turns on other important categories of identity, most particularly class, but also national, regional, racial, and ethnic identity. The chapter begins with an exploration of the imagery and rhetoric of American and British recruitment campaigns directed toward women, analyzing the ways gendered discourses of respectability and duty frame appeals to self-interest and personal opportunity. I then explore themes of transformation through an analysis of films which describe the forging of disparate groups of women into soldiers. Finally I turn to themes of romance, exploring war films that center on a military woman's developing romance with a military man. Overall I aim to elucidate the ways representations of the Second World War figured the military woman in relation to gendered norms of appropriate femininity.
RESPECTABILITY, OPPORTUNITY, AND DUTY: RECRUITING WOMEN IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR
Wartime recruitment materials framed an invitation to and inclusion of auxiliary military women in rather contradictory and intriguing terms. As forms of official discourse such recruitment materials provide insight into the emergence of an institutionalized and culturally acceptable place for military women. The rhetoric of the Second World War insistently emphasized that the enlistment of women would enable more male soldiers to serve as combatants, thus reinforcing the distance between the roles of male and female personnel. The invitation "Be a Marine: Free a Marine to Fight" typifies this strategy (figure 8). The poster effectively captures a scene of action and movement; under her marine-green cap, the woman's hair billows out behind her, giving the image dynamism even as the clipboard and pen she holds emphasize the clerical or administrative tasks undertaken by the female soldier. There is a significant distinction between a (military) woman becoming or being a Marine and the male Marines who are "freed" to fight through her work. The imagery and language of substitution and support were also widely used in the U.K. Such appeals clearly imply that women are a temporary and lesser substitute for men. Yet even a cursory look at recruitment materials addressed to women in the war period suggests that a more complex set of appeals is at work. True, recruitment materials appeal to duty and patriotism, but they also promise personal opportunities, speaking directly to the self-interest of potential recruits. While military life is by definition routine and subject to discipline, recruitment materials were not slow to pick up on the adventurous and even glamorous associations of service in the forces. A poster for the Women Appointed for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES) from July 1944 prominently features an urban skyline, suggesting a life involving female companionship, smart uniforms, and personal opportunity (figure 9). Such a presentation of service as a route to travel and excitement is indicative. Given the voluntary nature of women's service, recruitment appeals needed to manage the promise of worthwhile labor and opportunity with some care. (Even under conscription in the U.K. women could opt to work in industry.)
A fascinating insight in this regard is provided by a pamphlet published in 1943, "How to Enlist More Women in the U.S. Navy," designed to supplement the training of naval personnel involved in recruitment. The pamphlet makes explicit use of civilian marketing techniques in the form of "selling psychology." It includes a summary of the benefits of naval service which the recruiter might offer to her "prospect." The first of these is, of course, serving her nation and contributing to the war effort. Next in line comes shared responsibility with men, involving an implicit invitation to full citizenship for women. Third is material benefits, and fourth opportunity. The fifth advantage relates again to public esteem: the new recruit will be both recognized and admired. Advantages six and seven relate to personal development and appearance. Two final and provisional advantages are included, the italicized may indicating that these are only possibilities: the recruit "may receive valuable technical training" and "may be assigned to an exciting, thrilling job." Recruiters must clearly be careful not to promise excitement, but to offer it as a possibility.
Contradictory demands and cultural forces are clearly in play here, since many people believed that women's military service was simply inappropriate, in part due to the consequent mobility of young women who, away from their families, lived and worked in proximity to military men. (In contrast to military women, the sexual promiscuity of military men was, if not encouraged, at least sanctioned.) In this context Meyer traces the extensive internal conflicts over WAC recruitment campaigns, in which the director, Col. Oveta Hobby, argued consistently that "military service for women should not be portrayed as 'glamorous,' but rather as a 'selfless' act consistent with women's traditional patriotic duties." Hobby's concerns seemed to stem from personal conviction and also, crucially, from a desire to establish the legitimacy of the WAC, an endeavor for which the patriotic motivation of young servicewomen was vital. By contrast, the advertisers who advised WAC recruiters insisted that "'duty' is not an effective advertising appeal." Meyer consequently reports an effective shift in late 1943 from Hobby's favored strategy of patriotism combined with guilt to a stress on "the attractive jobs and material advantages women gained joining the WAc."
Excerpted from SOLDIERS' STORIES by Yvonne Tasker Copyright © 2011 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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