Women and the Military: Could pushing female representation do more harm than good?

Women and the Military: Could pushing female representation do more harm than good?

OPINION + WOMEN

Women and the Military: Could pushing female representation do more harm than good?

Women and the military representation
Aoife Burke

Aoife Burke

2nd October 2020

From female CEOs to LGBTQ+ visibility in films, the participation of under-represented groups in powerful institutions has been widely praised as both a reflection of and a catalyst for, social progress. However, to what extent individual representation should be prioritised is a matter of serious contention within social justice movements. In the age of tokenism and performative allyship, many are now asking: how useful is representation in and of itself? If individual members of marginalised groups are in positions of power, will the necessary changes for their community be achieved, or do we need a collective movement of oppressed groups to attack systems of inequality from the outside? These questions have been particularly divisive in feminist discussions on women and the military.

 

Some women’s rights advocates argue that in countries such as the U.S. and Britain, the army is an instrument of patriarchy and imperialism that cannot be participated in from a feminist perspective. However, the argument generally put forth by liberal feminists is that progress in this area cannot be gained without female representation in the military. For instance, when all U.S. military positions became open to women in 2015, the move was praised by some as a victory for women’s rights; but some left-wing feminists argued that this development widened the reach of the American military, an institution that ultimately perpetuated violence against women of colour in other countries. In Britain, there was a similar discourse about whether the opening of combative roles to women should be interpreted as a feminist milestone. Today, the use of feminist language in British Army PR campaigns has raised scepticism again. When Laura Whitmore defended her appearance on the British Army podcast, she argued that “every industry and body is bettered by… a balance of all sexes”. While this is often true, is possible that the push for female recruits may do more harm than good for women’s rights?

 

 

There are undeniable benefits to promoting female representation in many contexts. Increasing the number of women in decision-making roles can lead to more gender-sensitive policies being adopted and improve institutions as a whole. For instance, when women are involved in negotiating peace processes, this not only increases the likelihood of gender provisions being included in peace agreements but also increases the sustainability of peace in general. The importance of female representation in influential roles is often discussed in the context of critical mass theory. This theory argues that having a very small percentage of female decision-makers is unlikely to progress gender equality. However, once a critical mass of female representation is achieved, usually estimated at 30%, women’s interests are more likely to be defended. This theory can be applied to boards of directors, political offices and any position involved in policy-making. However, does it apply to army recruits?

 

In considering this, it’s important to remember that the advancement of women’s rights through representation can only happen when women are actually given decision-making power. Entry-level cadets and lower-ranking members of the military have no say over the rules they follow. Moreover, even the highest-ranking members of the military ultimately do not determine their nation’s foreign policy agenda, and how it may impact female civilians. Therefore, when the army pushes for female recruits, be it through making more positions available to women, or using feminist talking points in their recruitment campaigns, this does not necessarily present an opportunity for women to shape military policy. Of course, it could be argued that a higher level of female participation at entry level will eventually lead to more women in higher ranks. However, gendered barriers and widespread discrimination make it unlikely for a critical mass of women at the top to be achieved through the normal course of promotion. If the British military actually wanted to include a female perspective, they wouldn’t be using media campaigns – they would be adopting targeted internal policies such as quotas for high ranking positions. Given that the army has only recently allowed women to even apply for all roles, it seems unlikely that affirmative action is on its way any time soon.

 

“If the British military actually wanted to include a female perspective, they wouldn’t be using media campaigns – they would be adopting targeted internal policies such as quotas for high ranking positions.”

However, even if there was a large minority of women in the higher ranks of the military, recent research suggests that this would not actually guarantee the progression of women’s interests. While some studies show that increased female representation will lead to more gender-sensitive policies when over 30% of decision-makers are women, other studies have shown the opposite to be true. Increased representation sometimes hinders women’s interest; while a small number of women may be accepted within an establishment, a large minority can be perceived as a threat to male dominance and thus face a negative response. This kind of backlash could be of particular concern in the military, where there is a long history of male dominance and ongoing issues of discrimination and abuse against women.

 

A lack of understanding of civilian women in war is another reason why female participation in the army might not be effective in bringing about change. The reason female representation at the top can sometimes advance the position of women more broadly is not that every woman is necessarily committed to feminism – but because female leaders often have shared experiences with their female subordinates, and can understand and empathise with what it means to be a woman in their institution. However, servicewomen in the British Army are unlikely to have experienced the gendered impacts of war or understand the experiences of female civilians in conflict. Furthermore, the disproportionate effects of conflict on women are often indirect and may not be witnessed first-hand by foreign soldiers. Because of this, increased female participation might lead to some advancements in the internal workings of the military, but is unlikely to make war safer for female civilians, the most vulnerable group in this context.

 

British Army 2020 recruitment Campaign Women Confidence

British Army recruitment campaign targeting women (Ministry of Defence, 2020)

Overall, the British military pushing for female recruits could lead to improvements for servicewomen at some undefined point in the future. However, these benefits are ultimately uncertain and indirect. Unfortunately, the harms of this kind of campaigning are more concrete. When the British Army uses feminist rhetoric to sell militarism, it is intended to sanitize their public image and make war seem more palatable to those who value women’s rights. This situation can be described as “woke-washing”, and serves to drown out concerns about the oppressive impact of militarism on female civilians. In practice, this means that the lived experiences of marginalised women are shoved to one side, while images of the military as a driving force for empowerment circulates mainstream media. This situation could make people being less likely to fight for justice because there has been the illusion of progress but no meaningful change. From the army’s perspective, if they can reap the benefits of being perceived as feminist either way, there is no incentive to acknowledge women’s rights abuses in the past or to work towards change in the future. These damages exist even if the military is unsuccessful in recruiting more women because the affiliation of the army with feminist talking-points is powerful in of itself.

 

“Prioritizing the individual ambitions of white women over the collective needs of women of colour is a defining feature of “white feminism”, and yet another issue with the military co-opting feminist language”

On the other hand, if this kind of campaigning does attract more women, it means that the army can expand its reach and power. If history is anything to go by, this looks like a greater capacity for unnecessary military interventions that disrupt civilian lives and perpetuate gendered violence. It is of course true that some women may find military service empowering and want the chance increase to improving conditions for servicewomen. While everyone should be free to choose their career path, praising these cases as a win for feminism is misguided. An increase in female recruits could someday benefit the predominantly white population of British servicewomen, but these gains would ultimately rely on an institution that oppresses and kills women of colour. This is particularly problematic given that servicewomen choose to be in the army, while civilian women don’t consent to how their lives are impacted by military intervention. Prioritizing the individual ambitions of white women over the collective needs of women of colour is a defining feature of “white feminism”, and yet another issue with the military co-opting feminist language.

 

For as long as civilians shoulder the cost of imperialism, and empty rhetoric is used in place of real change, the military will continue to be a patriarchal force. As feminists, this is not a system we should strive to participate in or strengthen, but rather something we should refuse to accept. Whether it is in the ballot box, in the streets or in the media, feminist action needs to incorporate an anti-war perspective and raise the voices of civilian women in conflict throughout the world.

 

Check out part one and part two of Aoife’s ‘Women and the Military’ series. 

 

 

Featured photo by Wallpaper Flare

 
 

 

Women and the Military: The unequal burden of war

Women and the Military: The unequal burden of war

OPINION + WOMEN

Women and the Military: The unequal burden of war

Women and the military representation
Aoife Burke

Aoife Burke

4th October 2020

In recent years, the relationship between women and the military has become topical in countries such as the UK. In 2018 all positions in the British Army became open to women for the first time, and since then the army has been using increasingly feminist rhetoric in their PR and recruitment campaigns. However, during the same period, government reports and individual testimonies have shed light on the level of discrimination, abuse, and sexual harassment experienced by women in the British armed forces. These issues have fuelled important discussions on the compatibility of feminism and the military – or lack thereof. These discussions have been largely focused on the experiences of female soldiers, questioning whether army service can be empowering to women on an individual level. However, the stories of female civilians (the group that has historically been most affected by war) have been consistently left out of the discourse. Women who have witnessed the reality of imperialist military intervention and shouldered the true cost of war should be at the forefront in discussions about gender and the army. Instead, both historically and in the present day, female civilians in conflict have had their voices spoken over and their stories twisted and misused, for the benefit of imperialist powers.

 

As we can see in the British Army’s current PR campaign, particularly in their podcast episode with Laura Whitmore, feminism is being appropriated in order to paint military service as empowering to women. Another, perhaps even more dangerous way in which feminism has been misused is in the portrayal of Western military interventions as liberatory to civilian women. Both of these narratives are used to expand the military reach and both erase the lived experiences of women who have suffered at the hands of militarism. The image of Western military powers as an emancipatory force for women has been promoted for over a century, yet ultimately could not be further from the truth.

 

Historically, Britain and other European powers have attacked the rights and undermined the autonomy of women in colonised countries. In the process of colonisation, the social, legal, and economic structures of patriarchy were often forced upon native societies. For instance, in pre-colonial Canada, indigenous society generally valued women, and indigenous women often held leadership and decision-making roles. Furthermore, because of strong kinship systems, women were not economically dependent on men. However, colonial settlers ignored the position of women in indigenous culture, refusing to engage with female spokespersons and enforcing the patriarchal norms that had been well-established in Europe by that time. The lasting impact of patriarchal colonialism can still be seen in Canada today, where indigenous women face the highest rates of violence, poverty, and poor health.

 

“The image of Western military powers as an emancipatory force for women has been promoted for over a century, yet ultimately could not be further from the truth.”

The colonisation of Africa also saw the European ideals of patriarchy imposed on native women. The arrival of cash crops and the exclusion of women from the marketplace meant that African women generally lost power and economic independence during the colonial period. Because colonial authorities relied on the testimony of men to establish customary laws, the legal systems that developed under colonialism disadvantaged women. Furthermore, the pre-colonial political activity of women was largely disregarded and colonial agents worked exclusively with men in establishing political offices. For instance, in many parts of West Africa, associations run by and for women had deciding authority in disputes related to markets and agriculture. However, because these institutions were completely disregarded by European colonisers, they tended to lose power after the late 19th century. Overall, Britain, alongside other imperialist powers, has a long history of reversing the rights and freedoms of civilian women in colonised countries.

 

Despite this reality, the subject of women’s rights was used to defend British imperialism. This phenomenon relied on the portrayal of women in the Global South as victims, who need to be saved from their own culture by “civilised” Westerners. This paternalistic and racist narrative has been used time and time again to justify devastating wars and exploitative invasions, particularly in Islamic countries. As scholar Leila Ahmed discusses in her book Women and Gender in Islam, the late 19th-century British coloniser Lord Cromer used the veiling of women in Islam as evidence of the inferiority of Islamic civilisations, and ultimately as justification for the colonisation of Egypt. Lord Cromer actively opposed women’s suffrage in Britain and hindered the progression of women’s liberation in Egypt – yet none of this stopped him from using women’s rights as a pretext for his colonial endeavours. Disturbingly, a similar pattern is still playing out in the 21st century.

 

Since the early 2000s, Britain and the United States have used “feminist” rhetoric to help justify imperialist military invasions in the Middle East. In 2001, George Bush pushed the idea that war in Afghanistan would free “women of cover ” – reverting to the same patronizing portrayal of Muslim women that was used to defend British colonialism over a century prior. Concerningly, women were also complicit in promoting this storyline, with both Laura Bush and Cherie Blair being wheeled out to speak on the plight of Afghan women in the lead up to war – as though Western military invasions and bombing raids would somehow help liberate them. Yet in 2011, ten years into the war, Afghanistan was named the “most dangerous place in the world to be a woman”, with ongoing conflict and NATO airstrikes among the primary reasons cited. In a similar fashion, the narrative of rescuing women was used to legitimise the Iraq war. Bush repeatedly made vague, non-committal statements about women’s rights in the lead-up to the invasion. “Respect for women can … triumph in the Middle East and beyond”, he said in a speech to the UN in 2002 in which he urged action on Iraq. While Iraqi women were granted some benefits on paper during the war period, in reality, they were disproportionately harmed by conflict and left with less security and economic autonomy than before. The vast suffering of female civilians at the hands of British and U.S. military action highlights the utter emptiness of feminist language in this context.

 

George W. Bush gives a speech on war in the Middle East, focusing on the rights of women (videocafeblog, 2008)

The trend of world leaders appropriating feminism to sell militarism ultimately contributes to public ignorance about what war really means for women. According to the United Nations, war and conflict exacerbate pre-existing gender inequalities and leave women at a heightened risk of human rights violations. During conflict, women and girls are increasingly targeted through the use of sexual violence, including as a tactic of war. In late 2019, the British government and army were accused of covering up war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, including sexual abuse. As well as a serious increase in the risk of gender-based violence, women are also disproportionately impacted by unstable access to essential services. Access to healthcare, including sexual and reproductive healthcare, can often be disrupted during conflict, leaving women and girls at risk of unplanned pregnancy, maternal mortality and STI’s. Furthermore, due to additional domestic responsibilities and fear of targeted attacks, girls’ right to education is disproportionately threatened during war. Continued instability in post-conflict periods means that the threats posed to women’s rights can last long after war officially ends. These issues, and the immense suffering they cause, are too often swept under the rug in discussions about gender and the military.

 

In conclusion, despite the empty words of political leaders and the vague sentiments of military PR campaigns, war poses a threat to women’s rights throughout the world. The suffering of civilians has always been inherent in the military action of countries such as Britain and the U.S., and women have shouldered the brunt of this injustice. The use of feminist rhetoric in a pro-war context is not only hypocritical but serves to erase the experiences of civilian women in war, including those who have lost their lives.

 

Stay tuned for episode 3 of this series which will explore whether or not gender representation in the military actually promotes equality.

 

 

 

Featured photo by USA Today

 
 

 

Oatly Facing Boycotts Following Unsustainable Investment Links to Deforestation and Trump

Oatly Facing Boycotts Following Unsustainable Investment Links to Deforestation and Trump

BUSINESS + POLITICS

Oatly Facing Boycotts Following Unsustainable Investment Links to Deforestation and Trump

oatly boycott blackstone
Elizabeth Quinn

Elizabeth Quinn

29th September 2020

Oatly has made headlines recently for accepting an investment from Blackstone, one of the largest private equity firms in the world, which has links to deforestation in the Amazon, the Trump administration and the commercialisation of the housing market. The case of Oatly raises the question – is it possible to be 100% sustainable within our current economic framework?

 

Oatly is a plant-based milk alternative which has at its core a message of environmentalism. Oatly state that their mission is “to make it easy for people to turn what they eat and drink into personal moments of healthy joy without recklessly taxing the planet’s resources in the process.”  Now Oatly has made headlines for accepting an investment of $200 million from private equity firm Blackstone. This means that Oatly is now 10% owned by Blackstone and receives financial support from them.

 

Blackstone has been criticised for their links to investment in the Hidrovias– a Brazilian infrastructure company that has been accused of contributing to deforestation in the Amazon. Blackstone denies this. Blackstone’s CEO has also been a prominent supporter of Donald Trump. The UN has accused Blackstone of contributing to the global housing crisis through the commodification of housing. In letters from the UN to Blackstone, this financialisation of housing focused on the Czech Republic, Denmark, Ireland, Spain, Sweden and the US. Blackstone dispute this claim. However, this means Oatly now earn money from a private equity firm which appears to be at odds with Oatly’s goal as a company wishing to create sustainable change for the good of the environment.

 

This case brings to mind the question of the role businesses should play in our society. Should businesses aim only for-profit maximisation or should businesses also have some social aspect to them? Do they have a responsibility to conduct their actions in a socially conscious way? Those believing the answer to be yes led to the evolution of corporate social responsibility (CSR). One of the most famous economists, Friedman, argued against CSR as he saw it as moving money away from profit maximisation. What Friedman fails to acknowledge here is that being socially responsible and engaging with stakeholders could actually provide for better business and may deliver profits.

 

Being socially responsible has, until now, worked for Oatly. Oatly’s total growth for 2018 was 65%, and a turnover of 1028 million Swedish SEK. This point shows that the sustainable message Oatly gives is one which is resonating through the population. Many people believe in Oatly’s mission and thus bought their product. Oatly’s high turnover gives the impression that Blackstone’s investment is not money which is needed for Oatly to survive, rather it is extra venture capital needed to expand. The argument that if Oatly does not accept these types of investment it will completely fail as a company falls short.

 

“This case brings to mind the question of the role businesses should play in our society. Should businesses aim only for-profit maximisation or do they have a responsibility to conduct their actions in a socially conscious way?

 

Oatly states that they wish to show Blackstone that sustainable investment is the future. At the same time, they have acknowledged that they will have no control over what Blackstone invests in outside of their partnership. Therefore, their idea that they will have an influence on Blackstone’s investments in the future is naïve. Blackstone owns over $538 billion dollars in assets. Oatly is part of a $200 million deal. Blackstone cannot wave a magic wand, invest a fraction of what it is worth and become a sustainable investment company.

 

Rather, becoming sustainable takes work- work which Blackstone does not seem to be willing to do. Oatly needs to judge Blackstone not by their words but by their actions. Oatly states that the decision to engage with Blackstone was an intense thought process. This is very vague. Companies like Oatly have access to toolkits such as human rights impact assessments to gauge the impact their decisions would have adversely on human rights. Whether Oatly has completed this kind of assessment is not clear. If it had, I doubt that it would have come to the conclusion it did. Blackstone now shows on their homepage that they are supporting growth and sustainability. Private equity firms can, on the one hand, state they are supporting environmental goals, while on the other hand directly contribute to the opposite goal.

 

The language of corporate social responsibility has evolved. The UN guiding principles on business and human rights are responsible for this language change. This means that rather than the vague CSR, which is not based on international standards, that companies have guidelines on what they need to do in order to respect human rights in their operations and supply chains. These guidelines should be used in assessing whether there are human rights risks involved in projects. Companies such as Oatly should, in their operations, carry out impact assessments in order to deal with risks which may occur to rights holders.

 

An interesting fact with regards to Oatly is that it is not a publicly-traded company, meaning that the general public cannot own shares in Oatly. The only way for Oatly to be informed by the public that this behaviour is not seen as acceptable is through a boycott, which some have already called for. If the general public own shares in a corporation which they believe need to improve its human rights standards, then this may be an easier way of putting pressure on a company to conform to the human rights standards which the public sees fit.

 

This investment with Blackstone appears to go against what Oatly’s CEO stated in 2019- “If you say you’re ethical you have to back it up”.

 

 

Featured photo by Oatly

 
 

 

parisa
“Women’s Rights are Human Rights” – a Muddy Business in 1995 at Beijing

“Women’s Rights are Human Rights” – a Muddy Business in 1995 at Beijing

 WOMEN

“Women’s Rights are Human Rights” – a Muddy Business in 1995 at Beijing

Hillary Clinton at Beijing 25+ 1995
Cassie Roddy-Mullineaux

Cassie Roddy-Mullineaux

28th September 2020

The Beijing World Conference on Women, took place in September 1995, 25 years ago! Those born after 1990 are probably too young to remember the conference and its significance. But Beijing was a true landmark event. It resulted in more than 30,000 activists, representatives from 189 nations, unanimously adopting the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action – a vision of equal rights, freedom, and opportunities for women that continues to shape gender equality and women’s movements worldwide (UN Women).

 

This was the event at which Hillary Clinton made the famous declaration, “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.” The Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security recently hosted an online conversation with Hillary Rodham Clinton and Madeleine Albright where both women recalled their experience of attending the event, discussed the legacy of the Beijing Platform for advancing women’s rights globally, and identified areas where we still need to see significant progress. Their conversation merits watching in full. This article focuses on a few key moments from their discussion, which serve to symbolise the struggle women face – then and now – in working towards full equality.

 

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Remarks to the Fourth Women’s Conference in Beijing, China, 1995.

In marked contrast to how it is typically portrayed, and despite Hillary’s pink suit, Beijing in 1995 was not always an easy or glamorous experience. Many people wanted to shut down the message of women’s rights are human rights and the practices that obstruct women from claiming those rights. Clinton recalled how during her speech, when she was criticising certain practices towards women (some of which applied to the Chinese regime), the sound was cut off (they had initially been piping it out the conference hall into a big convention centre). Ironically, the sound was suddenly diverted into a department store in Beijing – a site where a lot of women would have been shopping. In a recent article for the Atlantic, Clinton wonders what subversive person managed to achieve that turn of events.

 

Furthermore, many people might not know there was actually a separate conference by and for NGOs in Huairou, a small town 30 miles outside Beijing, at which Clinton delivered a version of her speech. Both women recollected how this NGO conference was originally intended to be held in the centre of Beijing; however, Chinese officials decided to move it to Huairou in a thinly-veiled bid to make the conference as inaccessible as possible to those attending it. In order to get to the conference, the NGOs and women activists (including over 400 women in wheelchairs), literally had to wade through fields of mud to get to the conference tents! However, despite the mud and the teeming rain, Clinton and Albright said that they had never seen such enthusiastic, energised people at the event. They both acknowledged how crucial Huairou was in addition to the publicised formal work, which resulted in the famous Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. This was because Huairou was the key moment that enabled the NGOs and activists to collectively meet and engage in action around what was being formally agreed and, critically, to bring it home to their networks, their local communities and imbed it into their work.

 

Huairo, Bejing 25+ 1995

Women discuss the issues at the Non-Governmental Organizations Forum held in Huairou, China, Sept. 3, 1995, as part of the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing. (U.N. Photo/Milton Grant)

Clinton’s and Albright’s recollections of the events serve as a microcosm of the issues women face in claiming equality. Many people (read: powerful men and patriarchal systems and institutions) are threatened by the idea of women gaining power. For example, the Chinese authorities recognised the power of the message that was being shared at Beijing, and at Huairou, and the threat it posed to their power and regime. This is the reason why they felt a need to censor, sideline, and marginalise this message. Even as both Clinton and Albright were emphasising the “pragmatic” case for women’s participation and representation, e.g. the myriad research that demonstrates that gender equality helps to grow economies (amongst other benefits), those in power still didn’t want to listen.

 

While many feminists are understandably exacerbated that an economic case has to be made to justify women’s inclusion (shouldn’t the fact that we make up 50% of the population and are human beings be justification enough?), the mudslinging, backlash, and censorship that women face as they seek to participate, even in the face of all of peer-reviewed scientific evidence making the case for their inclusion, illustrates the depth of the problem women face in claiming power. The patriarchal system colludes against women’s inclusion, even against its own best interests. We might think money is all-powerful but, in many cases, culture and tradition are still stronger than financial capital when it comes to keeping women subjugated (expect more on why changing culture is all-important to empowering women to claim their rights in Part 2).

 

The recollected events also serve to illustrate the resilience and determination of women in fighting back against the many obstacles that are put in their way. In this case, literally wading through mud – in many cases, in high heels! – in a bid to realise their right to equally participate at all level of society and be valued as citizens. Because women have traditionally not been allowed into the political fold, much of women’s organising of necessity has come at a grassroots level and from informal action, often happening in parallel to formal efforts. While clearly women need to be – and deserve to be – represented formally too, this informal action also has huge power to bring about change and deserves greater recognition and support in its own right (consider, for instance, the incredible activism of the women of Sudan and South Sudan). Further, it highlights the vital role that NGOs and grassroots activists play in translating formal commitments into action on the ground and the need to value and join up formal and informal efforts more.

 

The United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing on Sept. 15, 1995

The United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing on Sept. 15, 1995 (U.N. Photo/Yao Da Wei)

As both speakers emphasised, Beijing wasn’t just about having nice conversations; it needed to be about commitments and action. This included implementing the Beijing commitments on US soil. To do this, a tight “tag-team” relationship was formed between Clinton’s and Albright’s roles as First Lady and Secretary of State respectively, and other key figures in the Clinton administration. This network helped them to continue pushing for women’s participation and representation in positions of power such as the Senate and keep a weather eye to ensuring US laws at federal, state, and local levels did not impede women’s equality. Both women emphasised the perennial need for women to work collectively, help one-other to rise up through systems of power, and ensure platforms and networks exist for women to come together globally to share strategies for getting the work done. This is an evolutionary process – not something that happens overnight – and the torch needs to be passed on from woman to woman, including across political parties, because women’s rights are not a partisan issue. Both women discussed the recent setbacks during the Trump administration with dismay. However, their overall message rang loud and clear – these push-backs have to make women even more determined to challenge cultures that prioritise fiction over fact and the subjugation of women over their full inclusion, participation, representation, and flourishing as human beings.

 

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article which discusses the progress made since the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action and where our attention must be focused going forward.

 

 

Featured photo by White House Photograph Office

 
 

 

Miss Representation (2011) Reveals a Glaring Reality Still Relevant in 2020

Miss Representation (2011) Reveals a Glaring Reality Still Relevant in 2020

WOMEN

Miss Representation (2011) Reveals a Glaring Reality Still Relevant Today

Miss Representation Documentary
parisa

Parisa Zangeneh

14th September 2020

 

The documentary film, Miss Representation, came out in 2011, yet it remains shockingly resonant today. The film exposes how mainstream media and culture contribute to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in America. As an American woman, Miss Representation strongly resonates with mebut its message is relevant to women and girls everywhere.  

 

The film makes several vital points: that the media poorly depicts women; that it creates a culture of misogyny; and that it harms women’s and girls’ health, development, and their ability to be seen as intellectuals, rather than sex objects. The first two minutes of Miss Representation features dozens of images showcasing the way mainstream American media portrays women. In response to this visual barrage, a young girl (who reminds me a lot of myself at that agesums it up: “There is no appreciation for women intellectuals. It’s all about the body and not about the brain.”  

 

The poor representation of women in and by the media permeates all aspects of women’s and girls’ lives, including the interests that girls develop as they grow up. The film highlights the many obstacles women face in political participation, not least the searing criticism, objectification, and subjugation. Young girls who have political aspirations are depicted alongside obstacles women face in political participation and the searing criticism, objectification, and subjectification of women in roles of power. This link between the depiction of women in the media and women’s participation in the political process is made clear as the film provides abundant evidence of prominent female candidates for political and judicial office, women in public service, and in hard-hitting news programs who have been reduced to their appearances in media coverageChris Matthews, for example, said of Sarah Palin: “She’s irresistibly cute, let’s put it that way, in the way she presents herself, obviously she’s attractive and all that”Michael Savage  asked“Do you know that ugly hag Madeleine Albright, remember her, the psycho, she was Secretary of State under the Clinton, like a fat moron.” Nancy Pelosi, the former Speaker of the House, was labelled the “Wicked Witch of the West” by one commentator (a google search to track down the commentator reveals too many hits referring to Pelosi as the “Wicked Witch of the West to result in identification), while Lee Rogers stated, “Look at these ugly skanks” (referring to the female Democratic leadership). Chris Baker observed that Pelosi’s perceived facelift was another reason “why it’s very rare to find a woman worthy of serving in political office.” Another, Jay Thomas, stated “I think if you waterboarded Nancy Pelosi she wouldn’t admit to plastic surgery.” 

 

In the years since Miss Representation was first released, progress has been questionable at best.”

 

Some of the language is also racialized: “Cynthia McKinney, the former Congresswoman from Georgia, was another angry black woman“. Notably, Miss Representation does not contain any reference to the negative, racialized media depictions of Michelle Obama, another prominent African American woman, in the 2008 presidential race, which directly relate to Miss Representation’s message. A greater focus on the impact of racialized language and negative media treatment of women of colour would have enriched and added depth to Miss Representation and is a missed opportunity to include the African American community to a greater degree in the film. For example, the 2020 documentary film, Becomingdepicted Michelle Obama’s vilification in the press during the 2007/2008 Presidential campaign. At one point, it cites negative media attention over the fist bump, which was alternatively called a terrorist fist jabbetween Michelle and Barack at a rally, an image of an angry-looking Michelle on the National Review with the headline “Mrs Grievance”, and voices of commentators calling her an angry woman, not warm and fuzzy, among other jabs 

 

In the years since Miss Representation was first released, progress has been questionable at best. One manifestation of this is how women are treated in the political arena. In 2016, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump described his opponent Hillary Clinton as a nasty woman. Recently, Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez recounted on the House floor how Representative Ted Yoho “had put his finger in [her] face” and had called her disgusting, crazy, out of her mind, dangerous, and publicly, “a f****** b****”On the other hand, women made considerable gains in representation in Congress (the legislative branch of the U.S. government) during the 2018 elections. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib were elected to Congress, making history as the first two Muslim women elected.  

 

However, women still face a long battle aheadAccording to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, as of August 1, 2020the United States came in at 85th in the world in a ranking of the percentage of women in parliament. Afghanistan ranked 69th. Recent headlines include coverage of racialized and sexist press attention directed at Kamala Harris, named as Democratic Presidential hopeful Joe Biden’s running mateRupert Murdoch’s The Australian published a cartoon of Biden and Harris, in which Biden states “It’s time to heal a nation divided by racism so I’ll hand you over to this little brown girl while I go for a lie-down”. 

 

The issues depicted in Miss Representation are clearly coming to the fore again in the U.S. election race. Hopefully, more women will be elected to office this fall and women will continue to make strides in the direction of equality. However, systemic barriers, such as the media coverage of female candidatesare very real problems that need eliminating.

 

 

Featured photo by Miss Representation (2011)

 
 

 

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Women and the Military: Harmful ‘Feminist’ Recruitment and Whitmore

Women and the Military: Harmful ‘Feminist’ Recruitment and Whitmore

OPINION + WOMEN

Women and the Military: Harmful ‘Feminist’ Recruitment and Whitmore

British Army 2020 recruitment Campaign Women Confidence
Aoife Burke

Aoife Burke

4th September 2020

 

Love Island presenter Laura Whitmore faced major backlash last month following her sponsored Instagram post promoting her appearance on the first episode of the British Army podcast ‘The Locker’. While Whitmore denied that she was trying to recruit people to the army, many condemned the paid partnership as insensitive and tone deaf. Her tribute to John Hume on twitter the same day was the subject of particular scrutiny, with some accusing her of hypocrisy and ignoring Irish history. Despite the controversy, Whitmore defended her decision to appear on the podcast, arguing that the episode presented an important discussion on gender. Although issues such as body image and being female in a maledominated industry were covered, some have questioned whether the British Army podcast is an appropriate platform for these discussions.  

 

As is the case with most military bodies, the British Army has a poor track record when it comes to women’s rights. The prevalence of sexual harassment within the military, the disproportionate effect of military conflict on female civilians, and the historic impact of colonialism on women’s liberation are all defining issues in the relationship between women and the army. With this in mind, it is clear why many were sceptical of Whitmore defending her collaboration with the army in the name of feminist discourse. While the British Army’s use of feminist language in their PR campaigns could be interpreted as a sign of progress, it is important to question the intentions behind this move and, most importantly, who benefits from it.  

 

While discussion on this topic has been focused on Laura Whitmore personally, there has been little scrutiny of what the military were trying to achieve with the collaboration, or what this controversy says about their recruitment tactics more broadly‘The Locker, the podcast that Whitmore appeared on, is dedicated to “lifelong confidence”- the theme of the 2020 military recruitment campaignThe campaign, released at the start of this year, is targeted at 18 to 24-yearolds who believe that confidence holds them back. The primary message of the campaign is that while today’s society offers youth shortterm confidence boosts, military service provides confidence that lasts a lifetimeA marketing tool that plays on the insecurities of young people is highly questionable in and of itself, but is particularly concerning in the context of military recruitment. 

 

British Army recruitment campaign advert for 2020 – ‘Army confidence lasts a lifetime’ (The Telegraph, 2020)

Through their podcast, social media and other marketing platforms, the 2020 recruitment campaign has presented young people with a deceptive image of military service. Far from being the beacon of confidence and stability that is portrayed, there is much evidence to suggest that army service can have a devastating impact on mental wellbeing. A study published in 2018 showed that 17% of UK military veterans who were deployed in a combative role in Iraq or Afghanistan presented symptoms of PTSD – over three times higher than the rate for UK civilians. Furthermore, while the UK does not keep records on suicide rates amongst veterans, evidence from countries such as Canada, the U.S., and Australia suggests that the risk of suicide for army veterans is far higher than it is for the general public. These issues may partly explain why the UK military is facing a crisis in both recruitment and retention, with figures released in mid-2019 revealing the army had fallen in size for the ninth consecutive year. The charity Forgotten Veterans argue that this shortfall has arisen in part from public recognition of the severe mental distress experienced by veterans.  

 

Given the harsh reality of military service, the British Army’s “lifelong confidence” campaign can be seen as an attempt to manipulate and exploit vulnerable youth in the name of hitting recruitment targets. Troublingly, women may be disproportionately harmed by this kind of campaigning. Women, particularly in youth, face intense social pressures and harmful patriarchal narratives that can be detrimental to their self-confidence. These issues contribute to the self-esteem gendergap, wherein women tend to be less confident than men. Because of this, any marketing campaign that is intended to play on insecurity has inherently gendered effects. As well as this, the Laura Whitmore controversy reveals that the army may be specifically targeting women’s insecurities as part of their campaign. 

 

“Sexual harassment, the disproportionate effect of conflict on female civilians, and the historic impact of colonialism on women’s liberation are all defining issues in the relationship between women and the army.

As Whitmore herself suggested, the podcast episode she appears on discusses the issue of confidence from a specifically female perspectiveIt is hosted by three women who speak on topics such as body image, imposter syndrome, and underrepresentation in the workplace. While this kind of discussion has the potential to be productive and empowering, it arguably had the opposite effect in this case. Underneath the language of female solidarity, the episode is essentially an advertisement for the army. Military service is continually framed as a solution to the challenges facing women’s self-esteem. It is suggested that women can be empowered by joining the army, as this proves others wrong and demonstrates that they are as competent as men. This individualistic approach masks the reality that lower confidence in women is a product of systemic misogyny that must be tackled through collective feminist actionIt also promotes the harmful idea that in order to overcome the psychological harms of being stereotyped, women need to prove themselves to others, instead of fighting the system of patriarchy that creates these stereotypes in the first place.  

 

Laura Whitmore British Army Podcast The Locker

Laura’s Instagram post for ‘The Locker’ podcast (@thewhitmore, 2020)

However, perhaps the most damaging part of the episode is what is left unsaid about the experience of female soldiers in the British military. In May of this year former senior officer Diane Allen spoke out about the widespread issue of sexual harassment and abuse experienced by female soldiers both historically and in the present day. She argued that power in the military is still held by a toxic cohort of senior, misogynistic, white, middle-class males.” Allen’s statements are in line with the findings of a 2019 report by the British government that revealed unacceptable levels of sexual harassment, bullying, and discrimination facing female and minority soldiers. As well as these issues, women in the army face disproportionate risks to their mental health. The 2019 Ministry of Defence report into mental health in the armed forces revealed that servicewomen were over twice as likely to present with a mental disorder than servicemen. Research from the US also suggests that female veterans are significantly more likely to commit suicide than their male counterparts. When the true experiences of female soldiers are brought to light, it seems unjustifiable that the army are advertising to young, insecure women with the promise of empowerment.  

 

Ultimately, female liberation is about more than individual women occupying roles that have been traditionally held by men. Liberation is about tearing down entire systems of inequality and holding those who have perpetuated them accountableIt is therefore a step in the wrong direction when institutions that have consistently undermined women’s rights are allowed to co-opt the language of female empowerment for their own gainThe recruitment of young women into military service by preying on their lack of confidence is to the benefit of the British Army alone. This PR move appears without any recognition of the experiences of female soldiers; it comes without any promise of change and, despite what Laura Whitmore might suggest, it is anything but feminist.

 

Stay tuned for episode 2 of this series which will explore the disproportionate effect of war and conflict on civilian women.

 

 

Featured photo by Ministry of Defence