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Media Portrayals of Women in the Military

April 19, 2017

Portrait of a woman in military apparel

Portrait of a woman in military apparel
Photo by Alek Seykh, Getty Images

Associate Communication Studies Professor Mary Vavrus grew up during the Vietnam War Era. Her father was a World War II veteran, and both her parents were peace-loving. Military service made her father oppose war, but enabled him to use his GI benefits to attend college and pursue a PhD. This upbringing gave Vavrus multiple perspectives into the benefits and drawbacks of military life and the toll war takes on families.

Vavrus was researching news media representations of gender, feminism, and post-feminism when the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened. She soon became critical of media coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed. The coverage, in Vavrus's opinion, rendered military women virtually invisible and left her thinking "I should do something about this."

Vavrus is currently working on a book that examines the ways that civilian news media cover women in and around the military-industrial complex. Each chapter analyzes media stories on a series of topics that relate to women in and around the military. One area of focus is on the sexual assault of service women, a prevalent problem she argues the media ignored until recently. "At times the military has tried to cover up incidents of sexual assault, and the media  have had a poor track record of covering these assaults too," Vavrus says. Her book examines news coverage of both women in combat and on the homefront—those with significant others or children in military service.

The 2012 documentary The Invisible War was a turning point in the fight for public recognition of the sexual assaults that were happening within all branches of the military, Vavrus says. Survivors of military sexual trauma, senators, and representatives were featured in the documentary, which uncovered the assaults of many service members and the lack of adequate response by the military. The Pentagon has initiated a program to eliminate the problem of sexual assault, but it has not been especially effective.

Vavrus stresses that the news media possess power to uncover injustices like these. This is where the political economy portion of her research comes into play. Many of the news outlets tasked with covering the military have strategic alliances and other financial ties to the military, a factor that may discourage them from undertaking investigations into military malfeasance. For example, General Electric—one of the world's largest defense contractors—has a 49% ownership stake in NBCUniversal; NBC News is a subsidiary of NBCUniversal. NBC News programs tend to cast military women and the military in general in a positive light. Additionally, some of the retired military generals who appear on NBC programs sit on board of directors of defense contractors such as General Dynamics—conflicts of interest that are typically not disclosed when the generals opine about whether the US should wage war. Links such as these motivate Vavrus to publish her research. "I want to see the media participate in peace journalism. This type of journalism teaches journalists how to resist militarism and write stories that don't reinforce conflict situations. If this were possible," Vavrus continues, "then my research will have succeeded."