Gendering War Talk
edited by Miriam Cooke and Angela Woollacott (Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ, 1993) 335 pages, $49.50 hardcover, $14.95 paper
Nationalisms and Sexualities
edited by Andrew Parker, Mary Russo, Doris Sommer and Patricia Yaeger (Routledge, Chapman & Hall: New York, NY, 1991) 451 pages, $55.00 hardcover, $ 16.95 paper
“After biological reproduction,” write Miriam Cooke and Angela Woollacott in the introduction to Gendering War Talk, “war is perhaps the arena where division of labor along gender lines has seemed the most absolute and natural. The separation of ‘front’ and ‘homefront‘ has not only been the consequence of war but has also been used as its justification.”
In 13 groundbreaking essays, Gendering War Talk deconstructs the meanings of armed conflict throughout the 20th century. From Nazi Germany to World War I Britain, from 1980’s Guatemala to the armed phase of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), from the Lebanese civil war to the 1992 war in the Persian Gulf, representations of war in political discourse, film, literature and news media are analyzed and dissected.
The monumental Holocaust film, Shoah, for example, blots out the experiences of women completely, or nearly completely. According to Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer, authors of “Gendered Translations: Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, “It is clear that Lanzmann’s general discomfort and uneasiness concerning discussions of distinctions—his resolute unwillingness to contemplate and explore differences among the victims in Shoah—is most vehement when it comes to gender. Encounters with women threaten whatever precarious emotional distance, whatever control and denial of feelings [the men interviewed] had established in order to survive.”
Other representations depict women as keening mourners, forever devastated by the loss of a son, brother, lover, husband, friend or other relative. Still others—even recent others—portray us as brave, loyal helpmates, waiting at home for a return to normalcy, heterosexual coupling and childbearing.
Gendering War Talk questions stereotypes about war’s impact on women and men: “Is a soldier a soldier if he is afraid, weak and vulnerable?” asks Miriam Cooke in “Woman, Retelling the War Myth.” Which qualities make war universal, and which belong to the country and culture in which the conflict is waged? Why do men seem to prefer violent means of conflict resolution over sit-down debates or protracted, mediated negotiations?
In “Towards a Feminist Peace Process” philosopher Sara Ruddick offers an explanation of war’s masculinity. “In extraordinary circumstances,” she writes, “soldiers must control ordinary emotions of fear, rage and desire. Understandably, many rage against absent women and the emotionality they represent. They may also blame women for their own longings for women that allegedly divert them from soldierly duty, thereby endangering them and their comrades. In this strained emotional ambiance of danger and separation, commanders often encourage ‘masculine’ aggressive impulses. Given this encouragement and the pressures to which their ‘normal masculine’ defenses are subject, it is not surprising if many soldiers imaginatively elaborate or actually engage in rapes or assaults on women.”
Ruddick’s analysis is extended by writer and philosopher Klaus Theweleit, who posits a theory that is at first blush implausible, but which is later bolstered by facts that are hard to dismiss. “In trivializing women’s birthing labor,” he writes, “men got used to claiming for themselves a higher creativity. Men want to be the products of their own labor. They don’t want to be born by mothers. From Plato to Goebbels, men called that way of birth ‘the wrong way.'”
To buttress this claim, Theweleit reports on the creation of the first hydrogen bomb. Saluted as a “newborn baby,” he states that the bomb was cooed over as a miracle of life. In addition, Edward Teller was lauded as “the mother who carried the baby,” a creator needing neither womb nor egg.
Writer Carol Cohn concurs that “the entire history of the bomb project seems permeated with imagery that confounds man’s overwhelming technological power to destroy nature with the power to create.” Indeed, “the bomb is male progeny,” writes Theweleit. “Males give birth to wonderful explosions. What he sees is not a bomb exploding. What he .sees is the birth of a new world.”
The erotic underpinnings of armed conflict were nowhere more explicit than in North American representations of the Gulf War. Cartoon after cartoon depicted Saddam Hussein bending over forward as the U.S. stuck it to him from behind. “Over and over defeat for the Iraqis was portrayed as humiliating anal penetration by the more powerful and manly United States,” writes Carol Cohn in “War, Wimps and Women.”
The sexualization of war has gone hand-in-hand with the depersonalizing of modern warfare. Since World War II, writes Stanley D. Rosenberg in “The Threshold of Thrill,” “Acronyms are used whenever possible, and the sensual pleasures of the experience are emphasized.”
But to what end? Why do war stories continue to titillate and intrigue? Why do we allow ourselves to be placated with acronyms and euphemisms that distance us from reality? What political beliefs make war seem inevitable? How do nationalist ideologies and racism interface with gendered representations of warfare and conflict?
The 23 articles in this second book here reviewed. Nationalisms and Sexualities—a multicultural, interdisciplinary anthology of largely academic essays, address these and many other questions. Heavily reliant on literary presentations of cultural norms, the book looks at anti-colonial struggles, feminist movements and both mainstream and alternative culture.
The book opens with an analysis of Walt Disney’s Three Caballeros, a 1945 movie meant “to carry a message of democracy and friendship below the Rio Grande.” Yet the boundaries of friendship needed to be explicit, and author Julianne Burton describes the equally important message about sexual propriety that the film presented to Mexico. “The Disney team apparently felt the need to reassure their Latin American counterparts that they need feel no threat to their sexual hegemony from this North American neighbor, who, for all quacking up and cracking up, is clearly incapable of shacking up.”
Such boundaries have not always been as clear. In the late 19th century, for example, a mass migration of European women to Argentina saw thousands of previously “respectable” European women become sex workers as soon as they left their hearth and home. According to Donna J. Guy, the enormity of the problem was hugely embarrassing for European society, where the idea of prostitution-as-choice was inconceivable. “In one way or another these women must have been trapped and victimized. So European women in foreign bordellos were construed as ‘white slaves,’ rather than common prostitutes, and the campaign to rescue them became a glorious battle pitting civilization and home against barbarism beyond,” she writes.
While South America was surely “beyond,” so was Asia, and Ketu H. Katrak offers an intriguing look at the sexual politics of Gandhi and the impact his politics had on Indian women. In her essay, Katrak looks at the practice of passive resistance. While this strategy “feminized the usually masculinist struggle against the colonizer,” she writes, Gandhi also incorporated a notion of femininity that saw women “as the embodiment of sacrifice and non-violence.” Harkening back to ancient tales of Rama and Krishna, he helped perpetuate a mythology of passive female sexuality. As a result, she cautions readers to learn by India’s example; “When sexuality and spirituality merge, women are socialized into subsuming sexuality within a spiritual realm, leaving behind the realms of the physical, of desire, of pleasure.”
Singapore provides another example of the interconnectedness between sexual politics and nationalist honor. In that country, the state’s role in controlling reproduction, and by extension female sexuality, has been extremely overt. Throughout the last decade, the country’s Chinese population has dwindled, while Malays and Indians have stepped up their reproduction. Hysteria has ensued, and “the impending collapse of the social and economic order” has been blamed on an “unruly, destabilizing and irresponsible feminine sexuality.” Not surprisingly, Chinese women have been ordered to do their national duty: Produce children.
Nationalisms and Sexualities opens the door to a number of other compelling discussions. Some describe social constructions of femininity while others debate the relationship between social policies and concepts of nationhood. While some of the essays may be difficult reading for a non-academic audience, taken together with Gendering War Talk, Nationalisms and Sexualities provides and important range of womanist viewpoints on the intersections and overlaps of race, class and gender on cultural life, notions of nation and nationality, and the politics of war and peace.