- Gender, Nationalism and War: Conflict on the Movie Screen
Gender, Nationalism and War: Conflict on the Movie Screen, by Matthew Evangelista, is an ambitious book that seeks to analyze how gender roles have shaped national identity and promoted aggressive, violent conflict over time. The author’s premise, outlined in the introduction, is simple. Across history, he argues, men have been inherently violent, women inherently passive. Therefore, war is at its core an inherently masculine activity from which women have been traditionally excluded; hence “the basic binary between peaceful women and violent men.” A second thesis, derived from the first, centers on the issue of national identity. Since wars are started and fought by men, men stake a claim to national status that women cannot. As passive spectators, women cannot experience war as men can, and therefore have no right to status or authority within a nation state. To illustrate this idea, Evangelista uses a famous quote from Virginia Woolf: “As a woman, I have no country.” The book is thus organized around a set of hypotheses, and the author skillfully outlines and elaborates upon them in the introductory section of the book, which is well supported with scholarly evidence and discussion of competing views.
The remainder of the book is dedicated to exploring the complex relationship between gender roles, conflict and nationalism. The author uses four case studies as the source material for his argument, each representing a conflict that illustrates the confluence of national identity, gender, and violence. Each case study begins with a history of the origins and nature of the conflict, which is then followed by an analysis of how the conflict is depicted in a [End Page 96] representative film. The author also discusses how issues related to gender influenced the conflict in question. The four case studies are diverse, but all share common themes related to rebellion, ethnicity, and national identity. They are the Algerian rebellion against France, the ethnic conflict in Yugoslavia, the conflict between Russians and Chechens, and the struggle over sovereignty in the Canadian province of Quebec. Based on this varied set of examples, Evangelista concludes that there is no definitive conclusion about the role of gender in these conflicts. In the case of Algeria, for example, women played an active and aggressive role in the conflict, much less so in the case of Yugoslavia. The films he analyzes offer similar inconsistent and contradictory evidence. Based on this, the author argues that the films “illustrate the range of possible relationships between gender, nationalism and violence across time and space” and that the origins of war (and the motivations of those who participate in them) are the product of diverse and varied explanations.
Gender, Nationalism and War is an impressive book that represents a significant scholarly accomplishment. The author’s ability to connect such a diverse set of conflicts – and to speak authoritatively on their respective histories – indicates someone with significant command of history and political science (and great skill as a writer). The book’s use of the films is slightly problematic, however. The four discussions of the representative films come only after lengthy historical and political narratives, and these discussions occupy a subsidiary place in the narrative’s overall structure. The films the author discusses are also rather obscure, and he does not provide much background for them: that is, who wrote them, who directed them, how they were received by critics and the public, and how widely they were distributed. Readers knowledgeable about the films might find this omission to be distracting, and those who do not know much about them might be confused. Despite this, Gender, Nationalism and War is engagingly written and comprehensive in its scope. Readers of the book will emerge more knowledgeable about history and inspired to seek and watch the films the author discusses. [End Page 97]