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Representing Women Soldiers in the Media: Stop Exploiting, Start Empowering

written by Anu Bhagwati
on March 24, 2010

Let me begin by saying that this post is a departure from convention. There's a lot to say about the changing roles of women in combat, and it's being said in this series and elsewhere. But in the interest of public education and dialogue about women and war, I'm concerned with something more personal. I'm in the business of trying to heal veterans' trauma. And it makes me feel uncomfortable and disingenuous to participate in what I believe is an industry of "talking about war." All women (and men) joining and leaving the military during war time today are being exploited, fetishized and manipulated by the American media and society at large: the left, the right and everyone in between. If we want to honor and understand the experiences of veterans, and of female warfighters in particular, we need to rethink the way we approach this topic.

I like to avoid philosophical and academic discussions when we're talking about people's lives. Yes, women are at war and history is being made on today's battleground. But there's more at work here than the Pentagon's obsolete Combat Exclusion Rule, and the fantastic creation of Lioness and Female Engagement Teams. If, with good intentions, we are going to tell other people's stories well (and that is a big "if"), the way we tell women's narratives is as critical as telling them at all. More often than not, women warfighters are becoming prey to sensational headlines for today's cable news networks. This does nothing but inspire society's short attention span, and reinforce shallow stereotypes of women in the military. More importantly, it does little to help women heal or readjust from war.

For a moment, let's remember the context behind this discussion on "women and war": war is ugly, messy and painful; it changes the lives of participants — and those who love them — forever; uniformed personnel, those they are at war with, and the masses of civilians who suffer and bear witness, go through hell during wartime.

So once we admit that trauma is an inevitable side effect of war fighting, we need to start talking about agency. When journalists, writers and others report on "women and war," are their representations helping military women or furthering an industry of exploitation and sensationalism?

Let's begin by breaking down some beloved myths about women and war. Women who join the military are not America's victims. This is hard for most Americans to digest, because it is much easier to feel sorry for young women and girls instead of allowing them the dignity of owning complex personalities and personal histories. Women join (and leave) the military for a variety of reasons, both simple and complex, and have a variety of experiences during their time in service. To recognize that there's no single experience of women in war is just the beginning. To recognize that, much like in civilian society, there's no single way military women behave, function, appear, or act is the next step.

Having said that, military women aren't much different from military men in a lot of ways. The uniform is a great equalizer, as are today's military campaigns in the Middle East. Lots of servicewomen want to "get some;" they'd like to "kick down doors," "shoot the bad guys" and "kill terrorists" alongside the grunts. And because women are, in fact, doing just that on the battlefield, we need to start shedding our perception of women as somehow naive, innocent or "other." If you're shocked by young American women being the perpetrators of violence, the first step in learning about women at war might be to notice your own shock. Servicewomen are trained for war, and that's what we're talking about.

And if you're already feeling unsettled, here's where I want to go deeper. As long as we're talking about the muck of war, let's talk about why narratives about women and violence seem to be something we just can't shake as a culture.

Picture it: Girls with guns. Girls with big boobs and big guns. Killer moms. G.I. Jane. Combat Barbie. The list is endless. Can you pretend these sensational, highly sexualized images have never crossed your path during childhood, adolescence and beyond? Those images are a lot for us to acknowledge and sit with, if we're being honest with ourselves. Despite women's integration on the battlefield, American policy makers, pundits and run-of-the-mill citizens rail against the use of women in combat; and yet they — we — have all partaken in and fed off, consciously or not, the exploitative, voyeuristic and pornographic industry that fetishizes women with weapons and exploits or victimizes military women. At the extreme, we're talking about the widespread use of actual pornography throughout society, and the voyeuristic exploitation of sexual assault survivors by reporters; we're also talking about the disturbing curiosity our society has with women who hold mortal power and the closely-related thrill induced by an industry that thrives on highly provocative images of "gangsta," vigilante, militarized women. As a society, we are more obsessed and concerned with what sexualized women do with machine guns than what empowered women could do with actual political power.

Don't fool yourselves into thinking society's conscious or unconscious obsession with women's sexual and physical power is irrelevant to our discomfort with women in combat, or that men are solely to blame here for the manipulation of women.

Lots of innocent and not-so-innocent voyeurs end up settling into this war-reporting industry of exploring and, unfortunately, exploiting U.S. military women. Journalists — especially mothers and women who've "reported" on women in the past — often falsely believe themselves to be above exploitation of our women in uniform. They often fail to consider each opportunity to write about women soldiers a learning opportunity, and the article might reflect the writer's desire to keep military women in the comfortable roles of mother, caretaker and spouse, or diplomat, liaison and peacemaker. Sometimes the writer might have the opposite desire: an unresolved desire to break down walls of institutional male oppression, gender-based violence and misogyny; that desire might prevent reporters from reporting with respect for their "subjects," and with accuracy. Also, beyond the media's habit of labeling and simplifying women, human or professional insecurity often leads journalists to proclaim themselves the newest "experts" on a sensational topic, and that prevents those journalists from empowering the military women they interview or properly educating the public about the diverse realities of military women. Not only are journalists unlikely to understand the subtle narratives that occupy the mental space of a diverse group of women who enlist in the armed forces (because most journalists haven't served in the military, or forget what it's like to listen, rather than assume), they also don't necessarily care to make room for the voices that don't fit their preconceived narratives about women and violence. Unfortunately, there's always an "angle" with journalists. And with an angle, journalists often end up sensationalizing the very personal experiences of military women, triggering trauma in their "subjects," manipulating veterans when they are already exposed or vulnerable, or editing down narratives to unrecognizable versions of the original story.

There's no book of rules on respectfully "reporting" on military women or veterans, or any other lesser-known or marginalized group of human beings. But to deliberately avoid exploitation, you must give the microphone and the pen directly to military women if you hope to learn anything about their experiences, or if you hope to gain any insight into the policies that shape or ought to shape our military.

These days I see the beginnings and ends of deployments. I see women and men beyond the specter of chain of command, without the security of their rank and uniform, or the detached lingo and operational vocabulary of the battlefield. And I see women veterans, in particular, who lack the voice or the know-how to speak because their traumas are too personal to share, or their version of events don't add up to someone else's perfect narrative of either the proud and noble servicewomen or the poor victim of institutional violence.

I see women who have never gotten the microphone, and who never will. I see women who have told their stories to journalists — embedded and unembedded alike — only to be exploited to make a point about the politics of war: whether we should or should not be in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the tragedy of sexual violence in the military. And I see women who so desperately want to be recognized for their service that they spend most of the waking hours of their day, and often, years of their lives, justifying to themselves and others why they deserve to be called "veterans," or even convincing themselves that they're not worth any love or attention at all.

Let's not forget the privilege we assume in writing about all of this stuff, while women veterans without the connections, authority or capacity to write or speak in the "right" way for public audiences are silently — or violently, but usually painfully — processing the experience of war, or why and how they should live now.

If you want to help women who have returned from war, if you want to highlight their experiences and draw any learning lessons, then help with their reintegration and empowerment — don't just write about them. It's nearly impossible to write about women at war without exploiting the warriors. Please, stop interpreting and misinterpreting. Stop editorializing. At the very least, stop taking credit for their stories, or making a profit off of their experiences. Enable women to write about themselves. The industry of war journalism and the micro-industry of journalists covering women at war would do better — and actually serve military women better — by giving voice to the quiet resident experts.

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