Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Want to succeed in the Army? Be masculine, but not too masculine.

I was struck by the bizarre way the New York Times article reported on Sgt. Major Teresa L. King's success.  It seemed to be grasping for justification, as if no ordinary woman could ever achieve this high honor in the military.  The article ends up portraying Sgt. Major King as a sort of freakish amalgam of male/female, and doesn't do a lot to congratulate her on her well-earned promotion.  

There was a lot of focus on Sgt. Major King's distinctly 'male' traits; as a child she preferred tractors and basketball to cooking lessons, and volunteered to take spankings in the place of siblings who were in trouble; she is "gruff" and "imposing"; a drill sergeant at heart.  On the other hand, the article is compelled to explain that Sgt. Major King is still a women; showing tenderness and calling soldiers "her children"; "soul-searching" after a failed marriage and a pregnancy that ended in tragedy; and in one instance, hugging another soldier who needed comforting.  The article points out that she is "confident, no nonsense" but also "compassionate".  In short, Sgt. Major King is manly, but not too manly.

My favorite theme in the article was the feminisation of a distinctly military trait.  Even though tidiness is ubiquitous in the male dominated Army, Sgt. Major King's ability to spot a "cigarette butt under the mattress" or a trash bag out of place doesn't sound like a soldier's strict adherence to rules.  It sounds like mommy went off to the Army and somehow became a commanding officer.   

The bottom line is that Sgt. Major King could not have become a high ranking officer without assuming a masculine stereotype.  The military is still a hostile place for women (as the previous post aptly points out), and Sgt. Major King reads like a man on paper.  But acing every training test and driving a black corvette still isn't enough to send her into combat, a fact that Sgt. Major King says is one of her regrets after 29 years in the Army.  How demoralizing to be in charge of training men to do something the Army still thinks you're not capable of. 

I'm not exactly sure why this article struck me as so condescending.  Maybe because it would have read so differently if it was a man appointed as the Army's top drill sergeant.  Or the fact that it wouldn't have made the news at all.  

1 comment:

student said...

I remember playing basketball in elementary school. I played my heart out, had fun, and thought I was a valuable member of the team. I remember the sting of hearing I was "pretty good for a girl."

This article stung in the same way. As I sit here, I'm collecting years of stinging remarks in my mind. It's really too bad. There are so many things I enjoy, that I will just never be very good at, simply because I'm a girl: driving, BBQ-ing, woodworking, surfing, guitar playing, math, argumentation, thinking...you get the picture.