Faulty Munitions: Effects of Wartime Propaganda on Gender Socialization

Faulty Munitions: Effects of Wartime Propaganda on Gender Socialization

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By William R. Landry for all women on International Women's Day, March 8, 2012

we can't win fig.1.jpg

One way to gauge a nation's progression toward gender equality is to analyze the historical fiction it has produced. According to Finke (1996), fiction is generally less politically coercive than government sanctioned media because authors generally focus on text as an art form rather than maintaining hegemonic agendas. There are, however, exceptions. While analyzing a series WWI and WWII posters, I discovered a female author named J. G. Sime, who, during WWI, was commissioned to use her vaguely feminist fiction to help coerce women who sought freedom from domestic servitude into serving the war effort instead. Her story was reprinted widely during the Second World War due to the effective nature of its propaganda.

Juxtaposing Sime's story with war posters demonstrates how the notion of gender equality was used to bait hundreds of thousands of women to join the war efforts. This paper describes common key elements in the posters that were supposed to have signified the empowerment of women. Further investigation reveals how phallic symbols and erotic innuendo subliminally convey the impending sexual liberation of woman workers, while serving to malign those who wished to maintain the new status once the wars had ended.

According to Arnheim (1969) the shape of a visual form is not limited by its physical dimensions but extend to the psychological forces that instruct the viewer on how to react through preconceptions to its status. For example, we know that the status of a photo is static, but that a film involves motion. We adjust our senses respectively to experience them because we are conditioned to their status. Similarly, as Nelson (2002) states, "socialization prepares persons for statuses they either now occupy or will occupy sometime in the future and for the roles attached to those statuses." He also   refutes the media's claims of being "our best friends and companions" (Nelson, 2002). The shape, or status of wartime posters makes people believe they are experiencing important and helpful truths (Jowett, Garth, and O'Donnell, 1999). The "unidirectional" mood and status of mass media inherent to wartime propaganda convinced "all the members of a demographic category" (Nelson, 2002) to rise to the occasion of improved social status, but did not tell them the status would be revoked. That type of bad form persists in the federal government to this day; Bill C-10 proposed to financially penalise films that openly disagreed with its public policy of anti-gay rights, for example.

Symbols, characters, objects, and even text are considered form. Rather than describing posters individually, this paper describes the key forms they share, thereby exposing their messages.

English: Join us in a victory job poster

Image via Wikipedia

For example, all women depicted are white, non-descript, between the ages of 18 and 35, and ostensibly represent most women for whom the campaigns were intended. They wear various labour uniforms and their heads are covered by hats or handkerchiefs. Every woman exudes the earnest countenance of pride for having enlisted their services at home while their men go off to fight. They operate machinery or hold implements traditionally used by men, such as wrenches, large drills, mallets, farming tools, voice amplification cones, swords, and munitions. The large slogans are dramatically explicit: Women In The War, We Can't Win Without Them; Women Awake! Your Country Needs You, On Her Their Lives Depend; The Girl He Left Behind Is Still Behind Him; Find Your War Job: I've Found A Job Where I Fit Best.
 

However, other posters make implicit suggestions about how women can best serve their countries. The question of satisfaction is implicitly sexual, and upon closer inspection of each poster, a pattern of phallic symbols and erotic innuendo emerges as the women are gripping or handling equipment in subtle yet sexually suggestive ways, which alludes to the idea that sexual liberation can be attained by taking matters into their own hands, so to speak. If men have the capacity to be "happy and satisfied" away from the company of women, then women should have this freedom as well by striving to become more like men. This is definitively illustrated in a poster that states: I Wish I Were A Man.

This "agency-transmitted" gender socialisation falls under the precepts of the "media outlet[...] determin[ing] the specific expectations and skills they wish to endorse." Although Nelson (2002) states that the consequence of this is either "mutually reinforcing or contradictory and conflicting," in this case, it is both; women did find a level of unprecedented liberation and status, though not all of them achieved this by becoming more like men, rather, by promoting the reality of feminist strength. It is the latter group, according to Woollacott (1994), who faced the well-documented and disastrous consequences of post-war vilification. Women who were reluctant to part with the liberation advertised were often labelled as loose and dangerous carriers of sexually-transmitted diseases.

Be a "WOW"-Work to Win - NARA - 534582

Image via Wikipedia

 

Sime's story Munitions! (1917), was first published in the federally funded Saturday Night magazine which according to Keshen (1996) practiced hegemonic and biased dedication to wartime propaganda. The story's form is closely linked to the poster campaign; narrative is replaced with a manipulative form of social realism where nothing occurs except getting a job manufacturing munitions. Much like the figures in the posters, the main character, Bertha, is a blank slate - a flat, stock model with whom the average female reader was expected to sympathise and emulate. She is living a "half-dead life" (Sime, p.44) as an "excellent servant" in the "well-ordered house" of domestic servitude (Sime, p.38). Upon learning of the opportunities provided by the local munitions factory, she leaves her housekeeping job for a position at the factory which is "insistent and creative." Bertha labels those who choose to produce munitions as a means of achieving a "sense of freedom" as "self-respecting girls," while those who do not must forgo the possibility of being "extraordinarily happy" (Sime, p.33). Much like the posters, the story makes vague allusions to the sexual liberation of the "munitionettes" by hinting at, but never describing their "masculine" behaviour and the "unprecedented candour" that came "streaming out" on the bus-ride to the factory (Sime, p.40). Sime relies heavily on slogan-like platitudes of "[i]t's time we lived," and "...it's great out there" (Sime, p.42), while downplaying the "noise and discomfort and strain" of the work as a small price to pay for such "liberty" and "joy" and "relief" (Sime, p.43).

The story makes no mention of the copious women who became infertile or contracted debilitating illnesses from poison at the factories; who were killed or irreparably maimed in explosions of faulty munitions; who promptly lost their jobs and were relegated back to domestic servitude and second-class citizenship upon the men's return. Most women who tried to resist were quickly denigrated as unfit mothers, unworthy wives, and social rabble-rousers. Many of these feminists were institutionalised, because who but crazy women would want the jobs of men? The women who resisted this hegemonic duplicity have paved the way for true gender equality, yet it is writers like Sime who get touted as part of our literary heritage.

 

 References.

 Arnheim, R. (1969). Art and Visual Perception: The Psychology of the Creative Eye. Berkely, CA: The University of California Press. Print.

Finke, Ronald A (1996). "Imagery, Creativity, and Emergent Structure : Consciousness and Cognition." 5.3: 381--393. Print.

Jowett, Garth, and O'Donnell. (1999). Propaganda and Persuasion. 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications. Print.

Keshen, J. (1996) Propaganda and Censorship: During Canada's Great War. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press. Print.

Nelson, A. (2002). "Development and Socialization in Childhood and Adolescence." In Gender in Canada (2nd Edition). Toronto: Pearson Prentice Hall. 112-160.

Sime, J. G. (1917) Sister Woman. Ottawa: Tecumseh Press. Print.

Woollacott, A. (1994) On Her their Lives Depend: Munitions Workers in the Great War. Berkeley: University of California Press. Print.

Many other posters were described than appear in this blog.

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