A guest post on military gender in popular culture from Harriet Gray. Harriet is a PhD student in the Gender Institute at the London School of Economics, working on intimate partner abuse in the British military. She has also written on female combat roles in the American military, consent, and celebrity intimate partner violence, and can also be found on Twitter.
The five part BBC drama series Our Girl (and the 90 minute TV film which preceded it) centres around the experiences of Private Molly Dawes, a young medic serving in the British Army. Molly is assigned to a unit referred to as ‘2 Section’ as a combat casualty replacement, and with them deploys to Afghanistan. Her colleague in 2 Section, Private Dillon “Smurf” Smith, and their leader Captain Charles James, an experienced officer on his fourth tour of Afghanistan, form the two other principle characters in the series.
Our Girl was broadcast at a time when women’s roles in the British armed forces are once again under review. At present, women – who make up 10% of British regular military personnel – are able to serve in most roles in the British military with the exception of ‘combat roles’, defined as “ground combat units where the primary role is to close with and kill the enemy”. Previous reviews of the ban in 2002 and 2010 have concluded that while many women may well possess the physical and psychological capacities to serve in any military role, the impact of women’s presence on unit cohesion and therefore on combat effectiveness cannot be fully understood without taking the risk of sending mixed combat teams into battle; a risk which the MOD and the armed forces were not at the time of these reviews prepared to take. That is, women’s continued exclusion from combat roles was justified not on the basis of what women were capable of doing, but, as I have argued elsewhere, of who (what?) they are.
The current review, ordered by (then) Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond in the spring of 2014 and due to conclude by the end of the year, will once again prioritise the delivery of operational effectiveness in deciding whether women will be admitted to combat roles, but it is widely expected that this time, the ban will be lifted, in particular because the review has been brought forward to report earlier than the 2018 deadline required under EU equality laws, and following the lifting of a similar ban in the US armed forces in early 2013. While women are soon likely to be able to serve in all roles in the British armed forces, however, this is unlikely to mean that the masculinised culture and male domination within the British military itself will be undermined any time soon; it is likely that it will continue to be the case that, as Victoria Basham puts it, “it is gender-conforming for men to want to join the military or engage in paramilitary activities, but gender-nonconforming for women”.
As Cynthia Enloe also suggests, the definition as ‘combat’ of the roles from which women are excluded has long been largely ideological as opposed to practical – and Molly’s experience in the series reflects this. While as a medic, she is not in a combat role – indeed, as could be considered gender-conforming for a woman since her primary purpose is to preserve life rather than to end it – she is certainly not portrayed as a “beautiful soul” and her role requires her to be very much in the thick of the action. She is shown on patrol with her section, firing her weapon, and being on the receiving end of gunfire with the men alongside her, although she, unlike her comrades, shows some anguish and regret at her own perpetration of violence. While Molly’s role is not a combat role, then, her experiences with 2 Section illustrate many of the well-hashed arguments both for and against the growing presence of women in Western militaries.
“One of the Lads”
Molly’s deployment with 2 Section does not begin well, and she finds herself initially incapable of slotting into the tightly bonded team. Molly’s female embodiedness, and her difference from her male colleagues as a result of it, is repeatedly emphasised throughout most of the first episode. She stands out in the entirely male group, physically much shorter and slighter than them, nervous, giggling inappropriately, out of place. She finds herself humiliated when she tries to claim a bed at Camp Bastion in the tent with her section and has to be escorted out to find the female quarters, to a backdrop of wolf whistles. When she mistakenly appears at morning physical training wearing her civilian gym kit of a t-shirt and short-shorts and not the full military kit of her colleagues, Captain James jibes that “I suppose we should be grateful you’re not wearing your stilettos”, again, unsurprisingly, to a backdrop of wolf-whistles. Her body is sexualised by the general sexual banter of her section-mates and also, in particular, by her relationship with Smurf, with whom it transpires she had a previous one night stand. Molly is anxious that this sexual encounter be kept secret from her new colleagues for fear of humiliation – a fear that is realised when Smurf, angry with her for sharing her fears for his mental wellbeing with Captain James, tells 2 Section that she is both a “grass”, and (in Molly’s words) a “dirty slag”. She finds herself alienated from the team, who mock her, avoid standing near her at briefings, and toss her mail towards her in disgust. Hyper-visible in her femininity, she is incapable of joining in with the closely bonded combat unit that Captain James identifies as of fundamental importance to the success of the British army (“It’s why the British Army can never lose. It’s what separates us from the enemy”).
By the end of the first episode, however, Molly has proven herself to her colleagues by going above and beyond the call of duty, performing many of the characteristics traditionally associated with militarised warrior masculinity such as bravery, calmness under pressure, and a willingness to put the good of the team above one’s own life. Smurf wanders into a field mined with old Russian explosives – taking the section’s metal detector with him – is shot in the leg by an unseen sniper, and begins losing blood at a dangerous rate. Declaring that “Just because I’m a female, Sir, I don’t want special treatment,” Molly calmly lies down on her front and pulls herself forward, performing a mine encounter drill to seek out explosives in her path by checking the sand before her with her knife. Her miraculous survival, unscathed, of an exploding mine set off by her knee as she passes, coupled with her disregard of Captain James’ orders to bravely take Smurf up on the winch of the medevac helicopter and save his life despite the risk of snipers, wins her the acceptance of her comrades in 2 Section.
Returning after taking Smurf safely to the hospital, she is greeted with a rousing chorus of “She’s one of the lads.” From this point on, Molly is accepted into the bonded team, engaging in their banter, her gender unimportant and in many contexts completely disregarded. Molly’s ability to fit in while interpreted as “one of the lads” despite her female body does nothing to challenge the status quo of British military in which (presumed) heterosexual men continue to be seen as the norm, the most “operationally effective” category of person, whose “ways of being” in Basham’s words, continue to be privileged over all others. As “one of the lads,” however, Molly is able to fit into 2 Section in a way which she could not when her femininity was hyper-visible, and as a result, we see her as both capable and happy – a fact which no doubt encouraged the British Army Jobs twitter account in their use of Molly as a recruiting tool:
The Female Soldier as Humanitarian Actor and Symbol of Modernity
While Molly does prove herself capable of acting as “one of the lads” and so fulfilling her military role, elements of her apparently essential femaleness do emerge. Firstly, Molly fails to retain the emotional detachment expected of her by her colleagues from the Afghan people she encounters. She develops a close friendship with an eleven year old girl called Bashira – complete with secret handshake and claims to be “soul sisters” – who just happens to be the daughter of Badrai, local leader of the Taliban insurgency.
Both the characters and we as viewers are left ambivalent about whether or not Molly’s “involvement” with Bashira is a bad thing. Such involvement is not the normal or approved way of operating, and Captain James berates Molly for it on several occasions (“Repeat after me, do not get in-fucking-volved. Because I need you 100% by my side. You can’t be if you’re worrying about an individual child”), labelling her as “soft” for her attachment. The friendship results in Bashira experiencing violence from her father, and pulls 2 Section into dangerous encounters with Badrai that might otherwise have fallen to another group of soldiers; it also, however, provides 2 Section with vital intelligence about a planned attack.
Molly’s relationship with Bashira allows for an alternative image of the soldier as humanitarian actor to come to the fore. If the soldier’s contemporary role is to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Afghan people – less for the good of the population than for the purpose of reconstructing Afghanistan along the lines of a Western, secular, neoliberal state and thus to ensure it cannot constitute a ‘threat’ to ‘us’, natch – then Molly’s approach has a particular role to play:
Captain James: You’ve taught me more in the last few months than a year at Sandhurst and four tours ever did… You’ve made me engage my brain. We need to fix the small cogs on the wheel so the whole, huge Afghanistan can work… You were right all along. We do need to get involved, look after that little girl and give her a life. The only way we can fix the big things is by fixing the small, you taught me that… You should be proud of the soldier you’ve become.
The other soldiers in Molly’s unit could not have had the same relationship with Bashira, it is assumed, because they are male and therefore such a relationship would be considered suspect. Molly’s relationship with Bashira and the intelligence and ‘hearts and minds’ benefits it engenders thus fit into a discourse in which women are valued as soldiers in Western militaries specifically for being women; a condition which traditionally they have had to transcend in order to qualify as a ‘real’ soldier, as suggested above. Women’s (natural?) abilities as carers and their non-threatening status – not perhaps the most obviously necessary qualities in traditional ideas of the ideal soldier – have in recent years been institutionalised in the British military in the form of Female Engagement Teams and reflected in Army recruiting advertisements; apparently feminine skills are now essential for mission success.
Women’s presence as women is considered to be particularly important in places – such as Afghanistan – in which “local culture forbids their male colleagues” from building relationships with women in the local community. In such places, in addition, women’s presence in the British military functions as a legitimating factor in Western popular discourse, signifying the modernity and progressiveness of the British military in comparison to the people of Afghanistan, including those in the Afghan National Army whom they serve alongside. In Episode Two, Captain James is seen in conversation with Molly and Sahal, an ANA soldier, who gives Captain James a cup of tea.
Captain James: Have you got a chai for our medic?
Sahal: A female?
Captain James: Well, we let them drink tea where we come from.
Molly: I know. Mental or what.
Molly’s presence as a woman thus functions to illustrate the differences between the Brits and the Afghans, a difference which is identified largely around a pathologisation of Afghan masculinity (a discourse which obscures, of course, the many inequalities which women in Britain continue to experience). Once again – women’s ultimate value as soldiers is judged not on the basis of what they can do, but of who they are.
Who Will Win Molly’s Heart?
While Molly’s essentialised femininity in relation to her friendship with Bashira and her symbolisation of the apparent modernity of the British military could be seen as a positive, however, the love triangle which emerges between Molly, Captain James, and Smurf is a textbook illustration of one of the classic arguments against women’s presence in front-line military units. While Molly’s feelings for Smurf never progress beyond close friendship, Smurf declares his love for her, promising her a trip to Las Vegas and even giving her his mother’s engagement ring, “no strings attached,” hoping perhaps that when the two are no longer on active service in the same platoon (and therefore not permitted to be romantically involved by army regulations) their relationship can develop. With Captain James, on the other hand, it is Molly who pursues the relationship, choosing a moment of particular danger as the two carefully approach a possibly booby trapped body to ask, “do you love me?”, prompting one Twitter user to comment,
While Molly and Captain James agree to “wait on” until the end of the tour, a moment of fear when thinking they are under mortar attack leads them to give into their feelings and share a brief kiss – a kiss which is unfortunately witnessed by Smurf shortly before the team must go into contact with Badrai. Shortly afterwards Smurf loses his cool, shooting dead the sheep of a nearby farmer in an attempt to goad the main into drawing his weapon and starting a fire fight. Challenged by James, Smurf goes into a passionate tirade about James’ betrayal of his trust:
Smurf: I would have laid down my life for you boss… For the first time in my life I found love, and then suddenly everything felt right, everything felt like it should, and what happens? The man that I trust more than anyone else in this world smashes me in the face with the shit end of the stick.
In the ensuing chaos Badrai, who was attempting to slip past the checkpoint disguised in a burqa, fires on 2 Section, seriously wounding both James and Smurf. Calm and collected under fire, Molly once again puts herself in danger to treat both men, administering battlefield first aid, calling for the medevac helicopter, reassuring the casualties and, when necessary, pulling out James’ handgun to shoot dead the insurgent leader as he prepares to launch a further attack against 2 Section. While the men around her lose control and fall apart she copes, both physically and mentally, with the horrors of conflict. Her abilities are not up for question. Despite her capacity to do the job, however, her very presence as a woman in a group of men is shown to be almost inevitably problematic – although through no fault of her own. The characters in 2 Section do not blame Molly (or indeed Smurf or James) for what happens and we, as the viewer, are not called upon to so do either. The attractions felt are portrayed as inevitable and, therefore, not really anyone’s fault.
Smurf: I guess you can’t help your feelings any more than I can help mine
Molly: Nothing happened between me and the boss, I mean nothing actually happened.
Smurf: It didn’t need to, did it.
Molly: Well, if I could have my time again…
Smurf: What? Seriously, what would you do different?
Molly: All of it. I’d do everything differently.
Smurf: You’d still love the boss.
The heteronormativity which underpins the relationships between the members of 2 Section is so engrained and predictable it is almost too obvious to mention – and it forms not only the presumption that, as all personnel must be heterosexual and there is no risk that attractions may form between, for example, male soldiers Dangleberries and Baz Vegas, but also the inevitability of the attractions between Molly, Smurf and James – you throw an attractive young woman into a group of male soldiers, and of course romantic feelings are going to arise. On Twitter, fans of the show are encouraged to show their allegiance by aligning as members either of #TeamJames or #TeamSmurf – the parameters of the debate are already decided as one (heterosexual) romantic partner or the other – there is no space at all for #ThinkOfYourCareerDevelopment or #SingleGirlsRule, or, indeed, for #TeamPolyamory.
While the attractions and therefore the formation of a romantic relationship between Molly and Smurf or James are inevitable, so are its devastating outcomes. The closely bonded combat unit is torn apart at the moment when it is most important. However well Molly performs under the pressure of the contact with the enemy – and she does perform above and beyond the call of her duties – her presence as a woman has functioned to tear apart the relationships between men. In the context of the war in Afghanistan, as we see, this has devastating consequences.
Our Girl and the Depoliticisation of War
The rescue of Bashira and the focus of the narrative on the love lives of the British military personnel provide the lynchpins around which the depoliticisation of the war in Afghanistan – and indeed war itself as a gendered project – is achieved within Our Girl. The politics of the war, the rights and wrongs of invading Afghanistan and of the particular ways in which the conflict has been conducted since, is glaringly, and at times explicitly, absent from the narrative. Captain James, on several occasions, makes statements along the lines that the future of Afghanistan beyond their deployment is “Not for us to worry about Dawes. We just do what we’re told until we get back on that plane to Brize Norton.” But more than this, the focus on romance and on Molly’s attempts to help an individual young girl expunges the political backdrop of war; to quote a recent book chapter by Rachel Woodward and Neil Jenkings concerned with the literary genre of military memoir, “It is as if the politics and the rationale of engagement are squeezed from the frame.” The focus on the personal as detached from the political is reflected in the lyrics of the programme theme tune by Alex Clare: “The war rages on, you’ll be at my side through it all; through hardships unseen we still survive, fortified”. In the narrative of Our Girl, the causes of the raging war and of the hardships themselves are by the by; largely irrelevant as long as long as ‘you’ are by my side, and ‘we’ survive.
Whatever the outcome of the upcoming review of the role of women in the British military, it is unlikely to herald a significant change in the gendered politics of the British military or the ways in which it deploys militarised force overseas. As demonstrated by the popular discourses embedded in Our Girl, heteronormative and essentialised conceptualisations of gender are too engrained into ideas about militarism to be transformed by the simple addition of some female bodies into masculinised space. If women do enter the hallowed ranks of the ‘combat role’, it is unlikely that the gendered politics of militarism itself will disappear; rather, these women will continue to be understood and responded to on gendered terms. One way or another, the war will rage on.