Posted in censorship, gender studies, masculinity, material culture, military, photographs, propaganda, WWII

The Male Body at War: American Masculinity During World War II

Jarvis, Christina S. The Male Body at War: American Masculinity During World War II. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2004.

Jarvis explores images of masculinity during World War II and the years leading up to war in The Male Body at War.  Proposing that America’s idealized vision of the militarized white male body was a national symbol, her study compares connections between the emerging “powerful male ‘body politic’” and the United States’ “rising status as a world power.”[1] During these years, Uncle Sam was transformed from his slender World War I form into an imposingly broad-shouldered figure during World War II.[2] Images of Uncle Sam, America, and its men were transformed into powerful fighting machines.

Her argument is based on the idea that men were emasculated by the Great Depression. New Deal employment programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Work Projects Administration (WPA) aimed to reinvigorate the image of American manliness. Efforts intensified as the nation acquired a new sense of national purpose with its entry into the war.

Jarvis sheds light on how military medical boards implemented massive screenings to sort and categorize men in terms of their usefulness to the war effort. Relying on Michel Foucault’s definition of “technologies of power” that literally measure and codify “normality,” Jarvis shows how new understandings of deviance were constructed through medical examinations and how these classifications impacted larger society.[3]

The government restricted images of wounded and dead soldiers during the first two years of World War II.[4] Even though there were fewer than 300,000 battle deaths and approximately 671,000 servicemen suffered combat wounds, there were over 24 million hospital admissions during the war attributed to a wide range of maladies, such as malaria, dysentery, and “jungle rot.”[5] However, the true extent of the horrors of war were concealed from the public for much longer.  Jarvis notes that “American soldiers did not shed any blood in print” until May 14, 1945.[6]

Images of wounded soldiers that appeared in posters and advertisements tended to valorize warriors while simultaneously shaming citizens into giving more.[7] Images of wounded soldiers were also used to recruit women to enlist as nurses.[8]  Nevertheless, representations of wounded servicemen continued to be perceived as a threat to national manhood, so were tightly controlled by the OWI in cooperation with Hollywood studios. Representations of the physically disabled president were likewise controlled.[9] America’s soldiers and leaders represented the health of the nation and needed to stand strong.

[1] Jarvis, 4.

[2] Ibid., 35-44.

[3] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punishment, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1977).

[4] Jarvis, 97.

[5] Ibid., 91-92.

[6] Ibid., 89. Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945 and Germany surrendered on May 8th.

[7] Ibid., 100.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 30-33.

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