- Manipulating Masculinity: War and Gender in Modern British and American Literature
In Manipulating Masculinity Kathy Phillips analyzes a sweeping range of British and American war literature to explore why men consented to serve in twentieth-century wars despite the incredible carnage of these conflicts. Drawing on a rich body of critical and gender theory, Phillips contends that strongly polarized social gender constructs ultimately compelled many men to go “to war to prove they were not ‘sissies’” (3). Phillips’s central thesis is that “societies which arbitrarily label a number of purely human traits ‘feminine’” can effectively manipulate male citizens to go to war because “men are bound to detect some of these human traits in themselves—and then worry that they have strayed into a feminine inferior realm” (2). Ultimately, Phillips suggests that the U.S. and British militaries repeatedly drew upon these anxieties and polarizing gender discourses not only to inspire men to fight but also to create increasingly brutal models of military masculinity over the course of the twentieth century.
It is important to note, as Phillips herself points out in the introduction, that Manipulating Masculinity examines neither the causes of various wars nor the actual attitudes or emotions of veterans who served in these conflicts. Instead, Phillips’s study analyzes novels, plays, poems, short stories, and memoirs to investigate how servicemen’s consent to war is imagined along with the ways literature helps transmit “many socially assumed connections between gender definitions and war” (5). Thus, despite Phillips’s intention to engage the fields of military history, international relations, and political science (10), the book’s scant use of military sources or other archival materials limits its potential usefulness to scholars in these areas. Phillips’s almost exclusive focus on literary and selected cinematic texts, however, allows her to investigate many noncanonical works alongside classic war novels, opening new directions of study for the fields of literary and war and gender studies.
To organize her examination of this extensive body of war literature, Phillips offers separate chapters on World War I, World War II, and Vietnam and includes a sizable epilogue on the Gulf War and the recent war in Iraq. Following a chapter on scientific, religious, and educational discourses linking sexuality and war, chapters 2 through 4 are structured according to four rubrics designed to analyze the dominant gender ideologies that fueled men’s consent to war: “(a) I fight to prove I’m not my sister (but I suspect I am). (b) I fight to prove I’m not attracted to men (but I do want to see male bodies). (c) I fight to prove I’m not emotional (but I love my comrades). (d) I fight to protect my sister (but I hate my sister—so as not to be her)” (16). More than an organizational schema, the rubrics allow Phillips to explore [End Page 192] the flagrant and complex contradictions of wartime gender ideologies that simultaneously condemned homosexuality and encouraged homoeroticism. They also enable her to connect her primary argument of consent with a secondary thesis that “a continuing devaluation of the pleasures of sex also contributes to war” (13).
Although well supported with numerous literary examples, Manipulating Masculinity’s central claims about the polarizing nature of wartime gender ideologies and the military’s denigration of the feminine tread on territory well worn by scholars such as Cynthia Enloe, Susan Jeffords, Joshua Goldstein, Leisa Meyer, and others. It is through the book’s secondary thesis that Phillips uncovers promising new ground. Building on previous studies of wartime prostitution, sexual behavior, and venereal disease management, Phillips locates three key ways that cultural institutions exploited discourses of sexuality to further war aims: “by encouraging the displacement of sexuality into violence; by fostering titillation in combination with guilt and its accompanying need for self-punishment; . . . and by defining sexual orientations so as to provoke self-doubt and manipulability in everyone” (14). While Phillips’s analyses of key early twentieth-century sexological, psychological, and religious texts in chapter 1...