Victory is in the Kitchen: Consuming Tokenistic Portrayals of Women in War

A review of the Imperial War Museum North (Manchester).

The Imperial War Museum is as much about art as it is about war. Most of us are only used to experiencing war through films, yet the museum wants to provoke our emotions by indulging us in an even more interactive and artistic ‘experience’ of war. Often the museum disrupts a traditional understanding that war, characterised by battle-field violence in non-Western lands, pertains only to men. This is what we might be led to believe when the only story-lines we watch are those of male heroes such as Private Ryan. However, this reframing is gendered and focuses too narrowly on war as a vehicle for women’s liberation. Applying Enloe’s (2014) ‘feminist curiosity’, I argue the museum reproduces masculinised, Western-centric fascination, glorification and objectification of death and destruction. It tries to include women within its narratives, but fails to address its racialized gendering of militarism.

The purposeful inclusion of women began, surprisingly, at the entrance. Greeted by a giant steel spotlight from World War II I was intrigued to see an adjacent photo depicting two women operating heavy machinery. Noticeably, this first reference to gender is a photo of working women performing traditionally masculine roles. Next, many propaganda-style photos of women are sprinkled throughout the gift shop, consumable in the form of postcards, mugs and cook-books. I certainly felt that there were more overt references to gender in the 15 minutes spent in the gift shop than in my two hours exploring the main gallery.

Yet, these photos of women at work appear juxtaposed to the telling of men’s stories. The first item on display at the beginning of the main gallery is a sculpture by artist Gerry Judah. It depicts his personal response to the museum’s portrayal of global conflict, characterised by urban destruction. Whilst acknowledging my gendered assumption of how war should look, this seemed like a macro or masculine perspective. Recalling the second-wave feminist revelation that ‘the personal is political’ (Moller Okin, 1989, pp. 124 - 133), it is curious that this initial reaction failed to portray war as personally scarring and its infrastructural ruin as a signifier of family separation, for example. This is significant as Sylvester (2013) notes that understanding personal experiences is essential for understanding war. By artistically introducing a subjective yet de-personalised narrative, the museum disrupts traditional conceptual methods whilst portraying women as ‘to-be-looked-at’; their participation as tokenistic, supportive or ‘othered’, and men as the narrators, orators and authors of war. 

Judah’s sculpture was created as a response to the museum, which renders the museum itself an art form with clear mandate to interpret its depictions of war, pain and struggle as compartmentalised and fragmented. Judah’s description of his artwork: “The beauty…contrasts with the darkness of the subject matter” reflects frequent glamorisation of war, precipitating pleasure and morbid curiosity. This pleasure and curiosity is something we may gain by watching war films, for example; the museum notes on a plaque in the ‘Impressions of War’ room that visual cinema perpetuates endless fascination with war. But when does fascination become morbidly curious and objectifying? 

In some ways the journey that the museum takes you on reflects Anthropologist Haltutten’s (1995) discussion of the ‘pornography of pain’, used in the same way we often hear the phrase ‘poverty porn’. By repeatedly showing privileged people objectified images of pain and poverty, we are asked to feel something and care more. It has historically been deemed fascinating, progressive and ‘woke’ for white people to travel to Africa and take photos with orphaned black children. Some aid-focused television adverts make poverty and pain seem pornographic, by repeating homogenised victim narratives of starving ‘African’ women and children in order to make you empathetically donate money. Ultimately, porn is designed to entice the viewer into increasingly voyeuristic activities. These are made hard-to-resist so that the user spends more money and becomes excited by viewing taboo topics. Laura Mulvey (1989) has critiqued objectification of women embodied by the ‘heterosexual male gaze’, which is catered for in visual cinema and pornography.

Just as pornography can draw its viewers into ever-increasingly voyeuristic activities ranging from the seemingly mundane and harmless to violent, misogynistic and sadomasochist, the museum begins by enticing its audience through mere fascination. By making the viewer an increasingly willing participant in the scrutiny and feeling of artistically-embodied displays of war, the museum provides a physical and conceptual framework for darker, more objectifying displays. For example, I was disturbed to see a steel beam from the World Trade Centre destroyed during 9/11. As I began to make notes about the commodification of death and the arbitrariness of steel beams representing the loss of human life, the lights went down and an ‘immersive’ experience engulfed the gallery. The male narrator told us in soothing, poetic tones that we were about to experience the sights, sounds and details of war, and that ‘somewhere in this destruction, there is a work of art’. As the performance ended, I realised the displays were portrayed as objects to be consumed. This echoed bel hooks’ (1989) assertion that Imperialism forms the foundation of militarism; its erasure relies on diminished commodification and consumerism. The museum’s shock-value breeds a morbid fascination, desensitising viewers from their own positionality. Why is it that we may question the hyper-sexualisation of young female pop stars rather than the appropriateness of viewing or consuming their objectification? This museum seems to suggest that an item of war is intrinsically more shocking than viewing, or ‘artistically’ portraying it. Akin to the ‘heterosexual male gaze’ in cinema and pornography, the ‘artistic’ framing of exhibits in the Imperial War Museum legitimises masculinised voyeurism, consumption and objectification of war and militarism.

The fascination we are slowly encouraged to develop throughout the museum is linked to traditionally male perspectives of war as grand, heroic and ‘cool’.  A huge replica fighter plane towers above the main gallery, and below stands a former fighter pilot delivering short presentations to keen, mostly male, passers-by. As he eagerly shows videos of the plane and exclaims “that’s what I used to do!”, he embodies military pride and provides a unique opportunity to personally engage in militarism. How many of us have actually met a war hero in person, bar perhaps our great grandparents? However, his excitement and pride seems strange, beginning to make you wonder why the museum depicts war as entertaining rather than disturbing. For those of us who are sceptical of valorising war rhetoric, or for women who may have been socialised to believe that artillery and aviation are ‘men’s interests’, the museum certainly starts to feel exclusionary and distancing - even if these assumptions rest on biologically deterministic notions of gender.

These sentiments of valour, heroism and pride were reproduced in gendered embodiment throughout the museum. Behind the pilot was a mural of Douglas Clark, a young male soldier who overcame war wounds to become a world-class wrestler, emblazoned: ‘As legends go, he was the genuine article’. This draws on Raewyn Connell’s notion of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ in relation to ‘militarised masculinity’; Clark demonstrated masculine ideals of physical invincibility, revered for bodily suffering and triumphant sportsmanship. Throughout victims are depicted as male whilst women are objectified, demonstrating ‘ideal’ (white) femininity. The wounds acquired by disabled veteran Charlie Hankin are described in the ‘after war’ section, alongside a photo of him with a woman called ‘Miss World’. Her name becomes insignificant against her white, Western and youthful beauty. A man’s resilience to physical injuries, notwithstanding those inflicted onto another’s body, merits praise, and the acquisition of ‘trophy’ women as symbolic markers of status. Women are not bodily victims of war; they become decorative physical and symbolic objects.

Rarely mentioned is the physical and emotional toll of war on women’s bodies. Only once were a female soldier’s wounds described, reflecting a gendered realisation of Elaine Scarry’s paradox: bodily injury incarnates war, yet the embodied effects of war are rarely discussed (McSorely, 2012). Instead, women’s war-time valour is largely depicted as that which upholds the pinnacle of femininity whilst embracing militarised notions of female empowerment: women as morale up-lifters and emotional, sexual and domestic servicers of men at war. Akin to Moller Okin’s (1989) theorising that Patriarchal gender roles are entrenched through the depoliticisation of the family, Enloe (2000) argues that the militarisation of women as supportive family members contributes to the war effort and thus enforces the militarisation of their sons and husbands.

This militarisation of women may be sexual or domestic. For example, one war-time poster advertises a dance contest using a sexualised image of a woman labelled the ‘Task Force Sweetheart’, designed to raise the morale of soldiers. It is widely known that during World War 2, Korean women were used as sex slaves for use of soldiers in the Imperial Japanese Army. These ‘comfort women’ were not mentioned throughout the museum, yet the misogynistic undertones that men are inherently sexual beings who require women’s sexual services is normalised and somehow celebrated through propaganda posters presented as nostalgic. In the gift-shop it was made obvious that militarised women were characterised as the domestic servers of men. Cookbook memorabilia sporting the tagline ‘Victory is in the Kitchen’ reminds us that a woman’s domestic ‘duty’ is still internalised by many today. This was nowhere better evidenced than on the blurb of Georgina Landemare’s ‘Churchill’s Cookbook’, stating that “[she] was told by the Prime Minister on VE night that he could not have managed through the war without her”. 

However, these militarised and non-militarised bodies are racialized. Those women depicted as sexual and domestic servers of men were white, and white-British women mainly appeared as pacifist activists or industry workers in the ‘Women in War’ room. Non-white, non-British women were those actually shown in combat, indicating a binary-solidifying paradox. White, ‘beautiful’ and peaceful women venerate archetypal femininity, worthy of British nostalgia and pride; whilst non-white women embody masculinised capabilities deemed empowering and worthy of ultimate glory. Yet, it is dangerous - and false - to suggest that non-white women gain reverence from association with masculinity. Recalling the dehumanising colonial exploitation of Saartjie Baartman, a South African woman named the ‘Hottentot Venus’ objectified in British ‘freak shows’, or the obsessive scrutiny of Caster Semenya’s athletic but black, intersex body, it is clear that non-white, female bodies are often hyper-sexualised or depicted as deviant and freakish. 

Taking into account Kimberlé Crenshaw’s notion of ‘intersectionality’, it is clear that the celebrated masculine traits attributed to non-white women in combat can never afford these women true legendary status. If a woman’s body has become ‘the martial body’: trained to kill despite her supposedly ‘feminine’ natural instincts (McSorely, 2012), her gendered transgression can only be performed, not embodied, because she is not socially permitted to bear the physical and emotional brunt of war. The bodily suffering of a woman serves proof against ‘feminine’ capability whilst the breaking of a man’s body or mind invokes pride and fascination; glorified as ‘legendary’ despite its fallacy of hegemonic, militarised and masculine ideals (Hutchings, 2007).

The museum demonstrates that both white and especially non-white women are not protagonists of war: their stories are presented sporadically, their agency trivialised and their contributions resigned to one, small, ‘othering’ room. Women are depicted as empowered in war when they service men, or when they equal a man’s capability of killing without displaying physical or emotional damage. The juxtaposition between women as strong but passively beautiful or sexual, and men as strong through disfigurement, exemplifies the gendered roles attributed to each sex conceptualised as ideal, good or real citizens (Enloe, 2000). We can see this happening in real time. For example, when we watch a war film the spilling of male blood is expected and venerated. Yet women menstruate monthly, but our blood is seen as disgusting and taboo. When the objectification of women’s bodies is linked to the pornography of death and destruction, portrayals of war and terrorism as fascinating, entertaining and consumable are inherently masculinised. The Imperial War Museum certainly celebrated the contribution of women to the war effort. But even the labelling of these as 'women's' contributions denotes their perception as extra-ordinary, tokenistic and; ultimately, inferior.


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Enloe, C. (2014). Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. 2nd ed. California: California Press.

hooks, b. (1989). “feminism and militarism: a comment” in Talking Back: thinking feminist, thinking black, Between the Lines Press, pp. 92-97. 

Haltutten, K. (1995) ‘Humanitarianism and the Pornography of Pain in Anglo-American Culture’, American Historical Review, 100(2), pp. 303–334.

Hutchings, K. (2007). Making Sense of Masculinity and War. Men and Masculinities, 10(4), pp.389-404.

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Moller Okin, S. (1989). Justice, gender, family. [New York]: BasicBooks, pp.124-133.

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Sylvester, C. (2013), War As Experience, London: Routledge