Thursday, May 13, 2004

On Monsters, Princesses and Cruella DeVille

They are sometimes all the same, as in the case of one Lynndie England, the poster-girl for everything that has gone wrong with the U.S. military in Iraq. The photographs of her leading a naked Iraqi detainee on a leash received frontpage coverage in all the best papers. What's the world coming to, the message seems to be. How can women abuse people? And how can the same women then get pregnant? Where did we go wrong?

As Richard Goldstein points out in the Village Voice, England is the symbol of the Torturegate even though the vast majority of those accused of torturing the detainees were male for the very reason that many don't associate women with the ability to commit violent acts. It's the man-bites-dog view of what's newsworthy, or as Goldstein expresses it: the bitch-bites-man.

The overall reaction to the women in Torturegate is naturally sexist in the sense that it is based on the assumptions that violent acts are not something the group 'women' engages in and that all women act the same in this respect. But there is also a subtler kind of sexism in some of the articles about England: that women should know better, given that women so often are the victims of sexual abuse. This is sexism because it implies that men would not have such moral prior knowledge.

What does the media make of the fact that some women played an integral role as torturers at Abu Ghraib? You can probably guess that it depends on the political slant of the writers: the right-wingers see in this the evidence of what eight years of Clinton administration and the don't ask - don't tell policy have wrought. Feminists are widely blamed for now celebrating the utter humiliation of men by women. George Neumayr in the Spectator goes on a wild and totally illogical rant about the whole escapade being a science-fiction movie created by Betty Friedan, and Elaine Donnelly, that little girl who doesn't want any other little girl to play with her guns, is quite sure that some feminists in the academia are salivating over the England pictures. I have not found a single feminist source for such celebrations, and I doubt that Friedan had anything to do with the Iraq war in general. But this doesn't matter in the wingnut world.

In fact, evidence in general doesn't matter there: the earlier right-wing argument against having women in the military at all was based on women's inability to act violently. Yet when the reverse seems to have been proved, it is this very reverse which is attacked as proof of the earlier argument. I guess that's why they are called wingnuts. It's the conclusion that matters, not how to get there, and the conclusion is always that women should not be in the military, but if this cannot be avoided they should be totally segregated from men. Otherwise the evil spectre of sex will appear somewhere in the forces, and we all know what comes from that: detainees on leashes, pregnancies and rapes. This point was repeatedly brought up by Deborah Simmons in Washington Times and Gary Aldrich at the Never mind that the military has always somehow obtained access to women for sexual purposes, just consider the prostitutes around the Philippine bases for an example, and never mind that abuse and torture of military prisoners has been common for centuries; ruling out unisex military forces would miraculously cure all these problems.

The left-wing writers don't arrive at the same conclusion, of course. But neither are they totally able to stay away from the question of gender and torture: Goldstein's article argues that the pictures of women as torturers allow the readers to engage in homo-sadistic enjoyment while somehow transforming this into seemingly heterosexual musings. He also links the pictures to the idea of the evil dominatrix, the Cruella deVille, if you like. Ta-Nehisi Coates believes that the Torturegate is bad news for women in the military, because it allows people like Linda Chavez to argue that women don't improve the tone of the military at all and that unisex troops were a big mistake. But Coates also wonders if women shouldn't have known better, given their victim status in the sexual field, and suggests that maybe the masculine ethos of the military makes women act much tougher than they otherwise would, just to be accepted as 'one of the guys'. One of the experts interviewed in this article thinks that women might be inherently less likely to torture than men, though no evidence is brought to support this claim.

Why is it that we can't focus on the torture as a whole, whether committed by men or women or both? What is it about Lynndey England and the other women accused of torture that pricks our curiosity so much? I don't think that the man-bites-dog explanation is adequate alone. I suggest a slightly wider reading of the whole phenomenom: a certain mythology of the genders which is well and flourishing in the extreme political right, but which also has subtler effects on all of us through tradition and popular culture.

This mythology assumes that women and men are defined by a small set of simple and extremely dualistic characteristics. While reality is, I believe, complicated, messy and full of exceptions and overlaps, the sex mythology doesn't allow for these. Rather, it defines a man by what is defined as 'not-woman' and vice versa. The easiest way to describe the relevant myths are by looking at what the extreme right believes to be true about men and women, as it is there that the myths have been retained in their purest forms. Their support bases are two: fundamentalist Christianity and a sort of quasi-scientific theory of evolutionary psychology. Somewhat astonishingly, these result in the same convenient view of the purpose of men and women in this world:

-men are protectors and providers, women are birth-givers and nurturers
-men are meant to be dominant over women, and women are meant to be submissive to men
-men are naturally more sexual than women
-men can't control their sexuality; thus, women must do it for men

I call these myths because of their power on the believers, and because of their extremist either-or formulation. Whether there is any scientific truth in any of them, in terms of tendencies, is clearly an empirical question almost impossible to answer given the simultaneous influence of culture, environment and any biological basis for behavior. What can be safely said, though, is that none of these dual classifications is true as a general unchanging rule.

Consider now the questions of women as torturers and of a unisex military force in the light of these myths: If women are supposed to give birth and nurture, how can a woman abuse someone? It's not nurturing. And how on earth can she then get pregnant? Moreover, what does it do to our definition of men if women act as protectors? (An abuser is a protector gone wrong, after all.) Also, if men are meant to dominate women, what does a picture of a woman leading a naked man on a leash do to us? Where does this woman belong in our classification? Either the classification falls apart, which is very painful for the believers in the mythology, or the woman must be labelled as a pervert, a deviant, a 'not-woman'.

And if men are naturally more sexual than women, yet can't control this sexuality, what will happen when women and men serve together in the military? The men will 'naturally' attack the women all the time. It is up to the women to refuse this, somehow, and if they can't then the idea of a unisex force has failed. Moreover, it is the women's fault that it failed.

I think that these ideas are in the air when people discuss Lynndey England and the other women involved in Torturegate. They explain most of the right-wing articles I have read and even some of the left-wing views. They explain why women's ability in the military is all the time questioned: women can't be good providers and protectors, because this is not in the mythology, and should they actually prove to be good at the job this will affect the definition of masculinity, take away the basis on which 'a man' is defined. Either way, the news are bad for those who believe in the myths.

The news are also bad for the women in the military. Practically everything they do, whether actually a success or not, will fail the mythology and provide grounds for getting rid of them or at least for isolating them from the 'real military'. They'll all be seen as monsters who torture men or as princesses incapable of hurting a fly, yet far too delicious to be let out alone.

Thanks for the links to (a good new blog) and mousewords (also a good new feminist blog).