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One of the most prevalent exercises of US sovereignty can be seen through the United States’ so-called War on Terror that launched after 9/11 and involved the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. However, with its aims disguised and its implications heavy, this war breached the sovereignty of the invaded nations and the Arab collective as a whole for decades to come. Though it is apparent to many that the US media complex played a major role in shaping the narrative during the War on Terror, the tools and ideologies employed are often overlooked. Such is the case with former President George Bush Administration’s evident, yet publicly disguised use of gender dynamics in order to justify the war. Because the War on Terror was highly publicized, the media complex had to appeal to the patriarchal mindset that exists in 21st century US in order to reinforce the status quo. By framing all the female actors in war into gender stereotypes and presenting US sovereignty in a narrative of masculinity, the Bush Administration was able to construct a fantasy in which the US takes on the role of the masculine hero – justifying the Iraq war as a fight to protect feminine fragility. Ultimately, this fantasy played out in various spectacle forms: speeches, viral videos, villainization, and, most importantly, scandals.

To explore how the media machine fed into this fantasy, one must first examine the fantasy itself and understand how the sense of masculine statehood occupied the public’s mind. To put the situation into context, the United States’ fundamental macho-culture is humorously, yet accurately displayed by the popular music video, “AMERICA F*#K YEAH!” It portrays the irreplaceable American values of recklessness, guns, women’s breasts, and explosions – all staples in the stereotypes of masculinity (Team America 2004). As such, when this masculine state was spontaneously attacked in 9/11, it was at the receiving end of these explosions. For once, the US was no longer the state that thrives on objectifying others but, in the words of the renown feminist philosopher Bonnie Mann, it was now the “American phallus” that was being “penetrated and castrated.” (Mann 5) This bred an urgent need to regain the lost sense of masculinity, providing a backbone for the reactionary stance it took towards the explosions. Thus, what the United States was trying to redeem in the wars after 9/11 was what Bonnie Mann terms “sovereign masculinity.” However, this sense of gendered state masculinity could not exist without a binary counterpart: fragile femininity. Thus, the American military-industrial-media complex was engaged in a two-way fight of reenforcing the US as a father figure with its male soldiers and establishing Arab nations as the fragile damsel in distress, with its helpless females who are deprived of rights. To construct this, Western media stripped female figures of their agency, even going as far as to represent Arab female suicide bombers in a gendered perspective – such as when Wafaa Idris’ suicide bombing was portrayed as an outcome of her infertility (Naaman 936). Nonetheless, many female figures emerged throughout the course of the war and challenged these normative gender categories, threatening the media’s narrative of sovereign masculinity, only to be addressed by the media in a constrictive light. 

Inevitably, numerous stories emerged in Western media of females who strayed away from the preconceived normative gender categories, none of whom was accurately portrayed. In contrast to the gender archetypes that gender scholars Howard III and Prividera provide, Lyndie England broke all normative categories with her Abu Ghraib scandal, in which she was depicted as a cold-blooded torturer of Iraqi prisoners (292). Threatening the entire fabric of the US sovereign masculinity narrative, England was not only able to capture the face of a female war criminal, but also that of a woman who was being exploited by the US military. As such, her multifaceted narrative of simultaneously being both a villain and a victim completely overturned any notion of the US being a manly, heroic force in the Middle East. However, the media industry entirely disregarded this multi-layered story by objectifying England and infantilizing her – causing the entire story to revolve around her feminine image and figure. In fact, Howard III and Prividera’s study found that she was most often described as “pixie-like” and “petite” (297). Another demographic that strayed away from the enforced gender categories were the Arab female suicide bombers, who ignited the “cultural imagination in Western societies” (Naaman 941). The fissure between the stereotypical nurturing female role and the extreme notions associated with suicide bombing heavily clashed with the image that Western media projects about helpless, oppressed Arab women. This “stereotypical gap” is beautifully illustrated in Dorit Naaman’s essay title: Brides of Palestine/Angels of Death (933). Nevertheless, much like how US media addressed Lyndie England, this stereotypical gap was overshadowed by focusing on the suicide bombers’ personal lives, casting violence as only a form of performance. Ultimately, it is this nation-wide cognitive dissonance that enables the military-industrial-media complex and allows the Bush Administration to maintain its patriarchal reins over the War on Terror.

Not only did the US media invalidate and objectify females who strayed away from gender norms, but it also played a major role in the construction of a “damsel in distress” archetype to aid in the portrayal of the United States as their heroic, masculine savior in the War on Terror. Such a constructed narrative was that of US soldier Jessica Lynch who, as the profound Indian scholar Deepa Kumar describes, is portrayed as “both a victim in need of protection, and a hero,” due to her story when she was rescued by US soldiers from an Iraqi hospital, where she was supposedly held hostage; this story was later found to be a fabrication, as Lynch confessed (300). By portraying Lynch as a vulnerable woman, the US media was exploiting her story to produce an example of what the ideal American woman should be: a vulnerable “little thing” willing to be rescued; Lynch’s physical features of being white, petite, blonde, and blue-eyed more so conformed her to the stereotype of the traditional Western female. These descriptions tie in starkly close with Lyndie England’s objectification, proving how US media was willing to exploit the femineity of any female figure in war (Howard III and Prividera 298). As shown earlier, this manipulation did not only occur for the ideological pleasure of the patriarchal establishment, but it was also done in order to prevent what Bonnie Mann terms as “[the United States’] falling into womanhood” (8). When the media paints these pure, vulnerable females and objectifies even the fiercest of women, it can prop itself up with a sense of sovereign masculinity and reassert itself in the geopolitical sphere.

The Western portrayal of the silent Arab woman goes hand-in-hand with the above narrative, since it displays a sense of superiority that Western women have, enjoying greater rights and privilege. In fact, even amongst feminist circles, Western feminist academics associate female suicide bombers to the oppressive patriarchal structure of Arab society, whereas Palestinian feminists profess that the female suicide bombers are acting upon their own agency (Naaman 944). Thus, Western media enfeebles female figures in war and constructs narratives of “damsels in distress” to feed into the gender archetypes and paint the US as what Bonnie Mann describes “bastions of tolerance when it comes to gender” (9). Furthermore, this fuels a sense of binarism since not only are females forced into a dichotomy, but the role of males during the war is also conformed and stirred by the media.

Since the US engaged in the War on Terror on the premise of being attacked and seeking to subdue a “terrorist threat,” it also had to construct a narrative of victimization in order to justify the brutal acts in the war – further complicating the gender dynamics in the media, since it sought the image of a father figure as well. This victimization takes on two forms: the depersonalization of male figures in the war and the exercise of soft power – two sides of the same coin. To project the image of a sexually liberated United States, the media heavily engaged in the “feminization” of male soldiers during the war through music videos that “complexly eroticize the dancing male soldier” (Pramaggiore 97). This displayed a sense of faux-vulnerability to contrast with the inhumane violence that the male soldiers were committing while in action, overshadowing the “hypermasculine standards and priorities in the post 9/11 world… on military personnel” (Howard III and Prividera 308). As such, it is no surprise that these viral music videos are an exact contrast to the music video discussed above, “AMERICA F*#K YEAH!” Hence, one could observe that the victim/villain dichotomy was not only used to limit female figures in the war, but male ones as well. In fact, the binary opposite of the feminized dancing male soldiers are the Arab soldiers in the war, portrayed as dangerously masculine with the stereotypical Arab beard. One of the clearest examples of how this dichotomy influenced Arab male soldiers is the case of Omar Khadr, framed in Western media as a villainous terrorist for the longest time – despite being a child soldier. Once more, religion played a key role in this construction given that – in the words of gender scholar Dr. Natalie Kouri-Towe – “tropes of terrorist embodiment racially construct the Arab and Muslim male subject as a dangerous threat to civilization” (261). However, this depiction was eventually overturned, transforming Khadr from an Arab villain to a Canadian victim in a case of “national amnesia” (Kouri-Towe 259). Omar Khadr’s entire story feeds directly into the dichotomy enforced by Western media, especially given that Khadr lived through both sides of it. Therefore, by exercising soft power in the form of dichotomic media manipulation, the US was able to maintain its victim role and justify the War on Terror – all while simultaneously constructing narratives of female helplessness to project US sovereign masculinity. 

To conclude, the United States exploited gender ideologies and social constructions in order to divert light away from perspectives that threaten its narrative in the War on Terror. To reinforce sovereign masculinity, the US media complex objectified and invalidated all female figures in war who challenged normative gender categories. In fact, this objectification went as far as to create a sense of binarism where females were stripped of all agency, while males were depersonalized. Inevitably, this media manipulation generated a sense of dichotomy where figures such as Jessica Lynch and Lyndie England were limited to either the role of victim or villain, dismissing the intricacies of their personal recollection. However, this constriction was not only limited to female figures during war since this dichotomic lens was also applied to male soldiers, where Western ones were portrayed as heaven-sent heroes, while Arab male soldiers were framed as dangerously masculine terrorists.

Works Cited:

Howard III, John, and Laura Prividera. “The Fallen Woman Archetype.” East Carolina University 31.3 (2008): 287-311.

Kumar, Deepa. “War propaganda and the (AB)uses of women.” Feminist Media Studies 4.3 (2004): 297-313.

Kouri-Towe, Natalie. “National (in)security and the shifting affective fields of terror in the case of Omar Khadr.” International Journal for Masculinity Studies 13 (2017): 250-264. 

Mann, Bonnie. Sovereign Masculinity: Gender Lessons from the War on Terror. Oxford, 2014. Oxford Scholarship Online. 

Naaman, Dorit. “Brides of Palestine/Angels of Death.” Journal of Women in Culture and Society 32.4 (2007): 933-955.

Pramaggiore, Maria. “The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness.” Taylor & Francis Group (2016): 95-111.Team America. “AMERICA F*#K YEAH.” Team America: World Police. YouTube, 2004.

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