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.