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My very belated response to this insufferable article published by The Daily Telegraph on 21 April 2012.

Just in case you haven’t seen enough Huggies ads lately, The Daily Telegraph published a stirring reminder of women’s ovary-induced weakness for things like cuddles and babies. The condescending little memo came in the form of an article about the “fight for equality” in Australia’s armed services, which, rather than being a neat bit of good PR for women’s rights, instead came out sounding something like “rah rah rah, women might cry if we let them have a gun”.

The article doesn’t get off to a good start:

AUSTRALIANS are not ready to see women kill or be killed in combat and some females serving on the frontline live in fear of being raped or tortured if captured.

Maternal instincts could also hamper fighting abilities and operations may be put at risk by mentally fragile troops looking for a shoulder to cry on, potentially igniting a battlefield romance.

The first sentence is mildly annoying; the second sentence is just awful. Apparently women, those silly PMS-ing young things, might get distracted by their uterus mid-battle. Quelle risque ! Or else they’ll have an emotional breakdown, no doubt brought on by the final season of Sex and the City, and need a dashing military officer to make out with them in the trenches. All this is DANGEROUS, don’t you see? Dangerous!

This flight of journalistic fancy recycles the classic vision of the fragile hormonal woman in direct opposition to the emotionally steely macho man, which, needless to say, isn’t very helpful for dismantling the patriarchy and all that. It isn’t an accurate depiction of a lot of women, nor is it a very flattering one: women as frivolous and flighty workers, more likely to be ovulating or daydreaming about romance than paying attention.

Next up, The Daily Telegraph decides not to use any legitimate evidence to back up its gross generalisations:

These aren’t the findings of the latest government study. They are the real-life opinions of female Diggers currently serving in the army, including in Afghanistan.

More like the real-life opinions of a small, conveniently-selected sample of women soldiers who all seem weirdly anti-gender equality. They have this to say:

In a series of revealing interviews with The Daily Telegraph, female officers have spoken about their fears of bullying, “big boys clubs” and giving up “almost everything that it means to be a woman” to maintain the necessary physical fitness.

It’s a shame the article doesn’t care to expand on the issue of bullying, or the armed forces being described as “big boys clubs”, because those totally sound like Things We Should Actually Be Worried About. Unfortunately, the article goes on to elaborate on the less pertinent part of the sentence: “almost everything that it means to be a woman”, also known as “having a baby”. “Warrant Officer Class 2 Claire Parker” reminds us that women ought to get a-reproducin’ so as not to waste their “physical peak”:

Warrant Officer Class 2 Claire Parker doubted women were up to the job physically.

“The infantry soldier has a very hard life. They must be at the top of their game. To maintain that physical peak you are almost giving up everything that it means to be a woman – including having children,” she said.

Another interviewee alludes to the cultural anxiety around women in combat:

Medical officer Flight Lieutenant Lisa Maus, 31, based at RAAF Williamtown north of Newcastle, said the nation was not ready for women to die fighting.

“I hate to think what will erupt when a woman dies for the first time,” she said.

“I’m sure there is a minority of women who are capable of killing but I don’t know any who would be up for it. It’s not the norm.”

It seems like a reasonable hypothesis. Being seen as “fragile” has the side effect of sentimentality. There’s a reason ladies got first dibs on the Titanic life boats. There’s a protector complex, wherein men are given all the responsibility of fighting the people, ice bergs, whatever, in an effort to “save” the weak. Of course this complex disadvantages both men and women (conscription, yo), but here it means women aren’t taken seriously in the military as they continue to be seen as victims, not aggressors.

Seems legit, but this is all awkwardly backed up with the testimonial of a single woman (oh Daily Telegraph, you have a way with research methods). She doesn’t want to join the infantry, so apparently all women are afraid of joining the infantry:

“I would be quite happy to go and defuse bombs but I would not want to join an infantry battalion,” the mother-of-one said.

Also note the reference to motherhood (no male interviewees referred to as “father-of-one” – so gendered ugh).

At least there’s actually some acknowledgement of more genuine and important issues concerning women in the military. Lisa Maus talks about the dangers of women entering war zones in culturally-conservative places:

She said women may be an asset to special forces in some cultural settings but a risk in others.

“The risk of torture and rape is a huge concern. Culturally, in the Middle East they don’t have the same values and respect for women,” she said.

Yay, two whole sentences of greatness. Unfortunately “Coalition defence spokesman David Johnson” then goes on to invisibilise female experiences of oppression with the claim that all the challenges identified are not “gender-related”, but rather “cross the gender divide”. Check yo privilege.

Coalition defence spokesman David Johnson said many of the issues raised by the women were not gender-related but were challenges that all people in the forces faced.

“Issues such as bullying, balancing family and career, risk of injury from heavy equipment – they are issues that cross the gender divide.”

After all that, I took a deep breath and tried to settle my rattled feminist nerves (“You take delight in vexing me! You have no compassion for my poor nerves!”). Alas, such a spectacle of wildly gendered analysis. I know, I know, I shouldn’t really expect quality journalism from a newspaper that publishes stories like “Rihanna’s date night, with a woman” under ‘Breaking News’, but I think deep down, I always had hope.

A fool, I was!

Michelle

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