The military has been a powerful and compelling theme in pop culture since…well, as long as there’s been pop culture, because militaries play an integral role in society. Members of the military show up in texts, art, songs, film, television, and other expressions of pop culture, and in nations around the world, people have many ideas about military life and culture from their exposure to pop culture. They see veterans having flashbacks and signs of PTSD on television shows, listen to patriotic songs about military service, commemorate important battles on film, witness the aftermath of war in works of art, read books about the military experience.
A huge spectrum of views and experiences in the military are highlighted in pop culture. Training, active duty, returning from war, working in a variety of positions from Humvee driver to combat surgeon, and more. Throw a stick in a bookstore and you’ll stumble across a dozen memoirs by military members and veterans describing their experiences, and anthropologists have spent years exploring and writing about military life. Chances are that if you turn on your television and flip through enough channels, you’ll see a representation of the military. Maybe it’s a M*A*S*H re-run, or Dr. Owen Hunt on Grey’s Anatomy, or the close-knit band of comrades on The Night Shift, or an ex-military competitor on Masterchef.
There’s one aspect of the military experience that’s notably missing from pop culture, though: Women’s.
Women in the military are almost never shown, let alone women veterans. When they are depicted, it’s often in fleeting glimpses or afterthought characters. Maybe a woman gets to be an Army nurse in one episode showing a soldier’s evacuation (not that Army nurses aren’t totally awesome, and important, and fantastic — but we have yet to see a show that revolves around Army nurses and the critical work they do, and that’s the problem here). Perhaps she’s relegated to a similar stereotyped ‘women’s role’ within the framework of the military (as though nursing or cooking are somehow lesser professions or contributions thanks to their traditional association with femininity). More often, though, she doesn’t appear at all.
There are no women soldiers at basic training. There are no women enduring grueling physical tests and bonding with their fellow recruits. There are no women living on base — except for the wives of soldiers. There are no women on active duty deployments. No women on patrol. No women take live fire. No women return home from war with their own complex set of emotional issues to work through. No women struggle with rejoining society after military service. Women are entirely absent from the pop culture discussion of the military, and thus, it’s not surprising that many people don’t understand the real-world role of women in the military — especially in recent years, where the scope of women’s work in a military context expanded radically.
Even before women were officially allowed in combat, they were taking fire, firing back, and playing an active role in combat. Whether they were programming and operating missile systems from cruisers in the Gulf or on the ground in places like Fallujah, they were working, and falling, side by side with their male companions. Their role was just as dirty, messy, and complex as that of the men they worked with, and they came home with many of the same questions, struggles, and concerns. So why are they absent from pop culture? What’s so scary about women in the military?
Frustratingly, if military women aren’t being used as quick props (the nurse who flits in and out of Donna’s room in Germany on The West Wing, for example), they’re used as more extended metaphorical devices: The military woman who endures rape, for example, or who is captured and needs to be rescued by her heroic male comrades. Military women are often deprived of agency in pop culture, and presented as people who need to be protected — distracting men from their real work as serious soldiers.
Despite the fact that women have been serving in militaries for centuries (often in disguise, courtesy of sexism), modern pop culture refuses to acknowledge the role of women in military history and modern militaries. This doesn’t just do a disservice to the military — it’s also an injustice to the women who serve their countries all over the world, who come home to and live in a society that doesn’t understand what they do, and doesn’t acknowledge the importance of their role. Women military and veterans alike aren’t accorded the same respect, understanding, and status that men in the military are, because they’re positioned as less important and less meaningful.
Obviously factors beyond pop culture play a role in the treatment of women in the military. We do, after all, live in a sexist society where it is difficult for women to achieve equal footing with men. And the military itself contains many sexist structures and underpinnings that serve to undermine the role of women in the military and devalue the contributions of female veterans. But pop culture does have an impact on the way people think and interact with the world. Because people believe the images presented to them in pop culture, they see a military absent of women, and a world without female veterans, and think that this is how the world really is.
And then they’re shocked and surprised to learn that women are in the armed services, that women come back from war, that women veterans need support and respect. Why can’t we have pop culture about military women, featuring them as prominent characters? Who’s afraid of the big bad GI Jane?
Image: An interactive discussion on the theme of ‘Women in Combat,’ United States Forces Iraq, Flickr