The Complex Relationship Between War And Manliness

Gender, virility, violence and fear: warmaking has long been thought to have a very specific and masculine identity. But a French researcher has shown that it's not so simple.

Action shot
Action shot
Nic Ulmi

LAUSANNE Back in the 19th century, young French conscripts who passed the army's physical would attire themselves with a lapel pin they'd bought for a few cents, inscribed with the words "Fit for the ladies." A sticker would sometimes accompany it, showing a private fondling a prostitute's breasts.

"This was true in all Western European countries in the 19th century," explains French historian Fabrice Virgili, whose research for the past 20 years has consisted of studying how wars have influenced relationships between men and women.

"With the arrival of universal suffrage and of compulsory military service that replaced a formerly professional army," he explains, "so too appeared an equivalence between being a citizen, being a warrior and a manly man, including with regards to sexuality."

Still, considering armies and wars as showcases for triumphant masculinity would be too simple. Virgili believes that the truth is instead more complex, more paradoxical and more subtle. Between World War I and today's drone wars, the representation of manliness in war has progressively changed, for two primary reasons.

"In 1914, soldiers were men and men only," he explains. "Woman were excluded from the front. But little by little, a certain number of women got closer to it, not just as nurses but also as drivers and ambulance women. From that point, the male monopoly on war started to dwindle."

The second factor is that the image of the alpha male boasting his weapons received an unprecedented reality check. "The heroic, fearless warrior still lives in propaganda, but we notice that it corresponds less and less to reality," the historian says. "When they're at war, all men have their body and their psyche bruised."

OK to be scared

Fear in particular has gained a rightful place in the representation of manliness. In the accounts of those who have spoken about it, whether in literature, in military speeches or among army psychiatrists, a crucial turning point came in the middle of World War I. "The idea is that, not only can men be scared, but that they actually can't help it," Virgili says. "Which shows that there's also a certain weakness in masculinity. That was the beginning of the flaw in a representation that until then was uniform. From then onwards, the image of manliness became more diverse."

The same thing happened during World War II, only in a more amplified way. "In the case of France, the defeat in 1940 was perceived as a male rout," Virgili says. "They failed because they couldn't do what their national anthem tells them to — prevent the enemy from coming "right into our arms to butcher our sons, our wives.""

What's more, a lot of men were taken prisoners, and women had to cope on their own through the German Occupation and bombings. There was a large proportion of women in the Resistance, and some networks were in fact created by women.

The situation was similar in Germany. The fall of the Third Reich was seen as the defeat of Germany's men, and this defeat continued for many years after the war, with prisoners being held in North America, in France or in the Soviet Union.

Photo: yngvardo

The country's reconstruction therefore began in what was mostly a society of women. They were called Trümmerfrauen (literally, "ruins women"). "Generally speaking, World War II showed that there wasn't much difference between how men and women experienced war," Virgili says. "Under the bombs, all are pretty much equal."

Women in war

This "reorganization" didn't happen without reactions. Virgili believes that the wave of public shavings of women across Europe at the time was a symbol of restoring a weakened masculinity. After a prelude in the Francoist camp during the Spanish Civil War, men of all European countries shaved women's heads during World War II, in acts that the historian reads as much as a retribution as self-reparation.

"There is a punitive side to it because in France most women targeted were accused, wrongly or rightfully, of having collaborated with the enemy," the historian explains. "But I believe that there's also the idea of putting right the male humiliation of defeat. These were not the men who had fought and lost in 1940, and most of the prisoners had not yet been returned. These were younger men who sought to reaffirm their power over women, which their fathers and big brothers had lost."

Still, this didn't prevent French women from obtaining the right to vote after the liberation.
War creates precedents and exceptional situations that don't always last, but they designate possibilities that can develop over the long term.

Does this mean that we should praise armed conflicts as catalysts for equality? "Don't make me say that!" he says. "No, what happens is that instead of the false image that wars reinforce manliness, they fall within a long process that sees equality rise."

War today has posed its own issues. In March 2013, war veterans and U.S. senators criticized a plan to rank medals for drone pilots and cyberwar soldiers above those for combat fighters.

In a 1997 article for the book Of Violence And Women, French historian Danièle Voldman wrote that airstrikes were a sort of termination of the fighter during the two world wars, as they allowed soldiers to kill remotely, away from the frontline. "One-on-one fighting disappeared with World War I, in which 80% of the dead were killed by artillery fire," Virgili says. "Drones nowadays are symbols of a similar trend."

And once again, it's only the latest development in a long process.

Women have progressively entered the army thanks to technical development. In fact, there were women drivers in World War I who offered a skill that was rare back then. And shortly before World War II, the French army created a corps for air pilot nurses. In 1914, the military hierarchy thought the army was no place for women and fought tooth and nail against the idea. But it's now widely accepted that the army is mixed. So much so that the last stronghold of male domination, submarines, will be open to French female soldiers starting in 2017.

"It's the end of a cycle," Virgili says. "Of course, hypermasculine icons will continue to exist in war propaganda, movies and video games. But video games and reality are two different things."

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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