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Last Updated: 04/05/2006
Stand By Your Man
Monica Henry

American war movies have a tendency to slip themselves into time-honored gender role clichés - women as comforters, women as patriots, women as whores. In doing this, they not only ignore the rich and varied roles that women have played in times of conflict, but they reinforce certain stereotypes that are best either broken down or left out. In some cases, lessons can be drawn from examples of African film and literature.

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The vast majority of war-related films have been produced in America and, as a result, are dominated by Western concepts of masculinity and femininity. The lack of African films in this genre is noticeable and may be explained by the lack of a strong African film industry. This has led to a dependence upon foreign funding which has produced a large number of development-related films focusing on issues such as education and HIV/AIDS (Hungwe, 2000). Perhaps as the film industry in Africa grows, the number of war-films will increase and we can then gain a better understanding of the perceived role of women during war. Based on Western war-films and novels, as well as African post-conflict films and novels, it would appear that the dominant role of women in this genre is that of caretaker, peacemaker, victim or whore. There are very few films that depict women as warriors and films that do so generally relegate these women to minor characters or background action. While this is a misrepresentation of women during conflict throughout history and the world, these films are simply reflecting the masculine and feminine stereotypes that dominate our societies.

Women and men are socialized from childhood on to adopt specific gender roles – man as warrior, woman as caretaker. These gendered roles, strongly influenced by cultural expectations, are reflected in both film and novel. In so doing, they are presented as “natural” and thus reinforced. Femininity is often associated with such traits as emotionality, prudence, co-cooperativeness, compliance, affection, gentleness, sympathy, dependence, support and nurturing. In contrast, masculinity tends to be linked with rationality, power, strength, competitiveness, ruthlessness, aggression, assertiveness, independence, risk-taking behavior, courageousness, and adventurousness. Based on these cultural stereotypes, in both film and novels, male characters are predominantly depicted as being more dominant, violent and powerful than their female counterparts (Chandler, 2002). While this is largely a white, middle-class heterosexual, “Western” concept of masculinity, it spans across a variety of cultures including many of those in Africa as depicted in both The Lord of War (Niccol, 2005) and Black Hawk Down (Scott, 2001) in which arms dealers or American soldiers encounter the hyper-masculine militias of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Sudan. This type of masculinity often devalues characteristics associated with the feminine and opens the door for hero worship and the glorification of war.

Cynthia Enloe, an expert in feminist international relations, asserts that the international political system is dependent upon “patriotic wives” to play a specific role, and that power relations would be jeopardized should they refuse to conform (Enloe, 2000). Whether consciously or not, at some level policy makers and military officials are aware of this and encourage stereotypes that will allow for them to carry out foreign policy, including military action. This is evident in war films whether made for overt propaganda purposes, such as the 1942 award-winning Mrs. Miniver, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 anti-war film Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979), or the hyper-masculine entertainment oriented Rambo (Kotcheff, 1982) films, all of which embrace traditional gender stereotypes and honor the “heroic” masculine.

Monica Henry is a Master's candidate, studying Gender and Peacebuilding at the Unversity for Peace