I was watching Christopher Nolan’s war epic, Dunkirk, and I found myself performing a familiar exercise: trying to imagine the soldiers as women. Without changing any details of plot or the actors’ essential movements, could I imagine a female in the boy-soldier’s place? What about the boat captain? The sailor? The English commander? What would it look like to see women soldiers on screen, in large numbers, realistically motivated by their own survival, in outfits that had not been made with considerations of attractiveness? The trouble with exercises like these is that, if the movie is good, the player of this game gradually loses the intense concentration needed to view two movies at once – the one on screen in front of them, and the one playing simultaneously in their head. But looking farther afield for combat stories that feature women and therefore don’t require them to be mentally superimposed is a daunting task.
War stories remain one of the most staunchly gender segregated genres. Often, historical accuracy is cited in defense of these artistic choices with little discussion of alternate accounts of history which suggest women played a greater and more normalized role than they are credited with, as well as considerations of why some war stories are chosen over others. While it is not my place to tell artists what their art should be about, the conundrum remains: telling only male combat stories when female combat stories exist, just as telling only colonial viewpoint stories when alternate accounts exist, over and over, is a form of erasure.
Laura Sjoberg, in her article Women Soldiers and the ‘Beautiful Soul’ Narrative, suggests that women may be excluded from war accounts not because they were never present, but because a heroic war narrative, in order to function, must necessarily include protection of the innocent and domestic sphere, a sphere which women have, throughout history, symbolically embodied. Sjoberg writes,
“…the victorious story that States tell about wars is one about just warriors and ‘beautiful souls.’ The protagonist in the narrative is the just warrior, who is a hero because he protects (his) (innocent) women and children from the evils of the enemy. … This story equates women with the cause men die for – the life back home. Women are at once the object of the fighting and the just purpose of the war.“
If women are what soldiers must fight for to sustain the heroic war narrative, they cannot also do the fighting. But of course, in reality, women often are soldiers. How, then, do female combat stories confront the ‘beautiful souls’ narrative?
One example can be found in Sherri L. Smith’s, Flygirl, a novel about a young African American girl, Ida Mae Jones, growing up during World War II in the Jim Crow south. Ida Mae passes as a white woman and joins the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program in order to achieve her dream of becoming a pilot. Throughout the novel, Smith presents then subverts the ‘beautiful souls’ narrative.
In the beginning chapters of Flygirl, Ida Mae’s brother lays out the ‘beautiful souls’ narrative succinctly. He states, “Take care of Mama, Ida. Take care of Grandy, of Abel, of yourself, too. There are important things in this world that a man’s got to do. But we do it for our families. I’ll fight for our country, to keep you all safe”.
The sentiment of woman as reward and object of protection is echoed by Ida Mae’s best friend, Jolene, when she says, “I’ll be alive and looking good when those boys come home again. Remind them of what they’ve been fighting for”.
Ida Mae, herself, exhibits some ambivalence over her motivation for joining the WASP. She, too, seems to desire an acceptable narrative. Initially, her justification for risking her life and joining the WASP is framed as an extension of the domestic self-sacrificing already asked of her. “I’ll be able to do something more than collect bacon fat and iron scraps if they’ll let me fly”.
But as the novel progresses, Ida Mae discovers just how fiercely she yearns and how hard she’s willing to work to become a pilot. As her deceptions multiply and the stakes rise, Ida Mae realizes that she would fight to be a pilot, patriot or not, war or no war.
In one of the pivotal final scenes of the book, Ida Mae is asked why she signed on. Taken aback, Ida Mae stammers, “my country needed me”. But later, when she ponders the question in solitude she realizes, “I remember what Audrey said to me at the officers’ club three weeks ago. When this is all over, remember why you signed on in the first place. And I do remember … I came to fly”.
Ida Mae no longer needs to find a place for herself within the ‘beautiful souls’ narrative, nor does she need to construct a narrative in which her participation in the war is a natural extension of acceptable domestic concerns. Ida Mae’s ambition to become a pilot is ultimately understood as an aim and reward in itself.
Flygirl’s protagonist subverts the ‘beautiful souls’ narrative by suggesting Ida Mae is motivated not by familial bonds, but in pursuit of personal development and fulfillment. By witnessing stories in which women partake in war and combat, female audiences are invited to a whole genre of film and literature, not to mention a grand academic history, from which they have been traditionally excluded or erased. Only when combat stories cease to equate women with the just cause and reward of war, can female soldiers join the ranks of literary and historical combatants.
Kristen Ritter is the 49 Writers Communications Coordinator. She is a playwright, writer, and comedy performer living and working in Anchorage, Alaska. Her writing has been supported by The Alaska State Council on the Arts, The Kennedy Center, The U.S. Department of State, and Theater Alaska. In the spring 2022, in partnership with 49 Writers, she will be teaching the class, Girl Walks Into a Trope.