Throughout human history, waging war has been a male prerogative. But in the past few years, the U.S. military has made unprecedented strides toward integrating women into the fighting force. Women now make up 16 percent of all enlisted personnel. Women were approved to serve in all combat roles in 2013 and in February 2019 a federal judge in Houston ruled that a military draft that applies only to men is unconstitutional.
At the same time, there is disturbing evidence that traditional gender attitudes and behaviors persist in the military. A 2014 Rand Corporation survey of 560,000 service members found 4.9 percent of women reported being sexually assaulted in the previous year, and 22 percent said they were sexually harassed.
Is the military doing all it can to change attitudes toward women soldiers in its ranks?
In the digital era, the armed forces have invested heavily in developing an online presence to reach young people and persuade them to enlist. As 64 percent of people aged 19–29 use Instagram, it is an ideal platform for reaching a younger audience. The Army has 1.4 million followers on Instagram, the Navy has 1 million, and the Marines Corps has 1.9 million. So, how do the Army, Navy, and Marines Corps portray gender on social media? Does the military’s online presence challenge—or reinforce—male stereotypes about women soldiers and how they should be treated?
To investigate this question, I reviewed 156 posts on the Army’s official Instagram account (@usarmy) between 1 August 2018 and 31 October 2018. I also reviewed 169 posts on the Marines official Instagram account (@marines) between 1 December 2018 and 28 February 2019, and 133 posts on the Navy’s Instagram account (@usnavy) between 1 September 2018 and 28 February 2019. In these samples, women rarely appear in photos on these accounts. Only 8 of the 156 posts on the Army’s Instagram, 12 out of the 169 posts on the Marines Corps’ Instagram, and 12 out of the 133 posts on the Navy’s Instagram included women—and several of those featured civilian women. One of the common patterns among the three accounts was the designation of women as members of the military family but not as soldiers, sailors, or Marines. Both the Marines and the Navy Instagram accounts had posts showing a male soldier embracing their female civilian partner. The Marines captioned this photo “Home Sweet Home” with the hashtags #Family #Kids #ReturningHome, even though there were no kids in the photo. On the Army’s account, one post was a video of a woman and children calling with their “#deployed Army soldier.”
Moreover, most of the pictures of male soldiers showed them holding weapons or handling pieces of equipment, with captions such as “Who knows what this gun is?”; however, not a single photo of the female warfighters showed them carrying a weapon on the Army’s or the Navy’s Instagrams.
The posts of male soldiers were often accompanied by hashtags like #Readiness, #Ready2Fight, #Military, #Warfare, #Lethality. One post on the Army’s Instagram had a video showing almost all male soldiers performing physical fitness tests and stated that they were “deployable, lethal and ready” (Instagram, 5 October). By showing high-tech equipment and weapons exclusively in the hands of male service members, the Army is projecting an aurora of power and superiority defined and carried out by men.
One of the posts on the Army’s Instagram was of a female lieutenant paratrooper, Anna Hodge, who was the first woman to qualify as a Ranger. This post was accompanied by the hashtags #Womensequalityday, #instaequality, and #equality (Instagram, 26 August). The “instaequality” hashtag shows how highlighting women and “women’s equality” is good for the Army’s public image. But the service does not represent female service members on social media in an equal capacity as their male counterparts—as “dangerous,” highly weaponized soldiers. However, the inclusion of women on the Marines Instagram was viewed favorably, as the post that celebrated the first female Marine to graduate from the Winter Mountain Leaders course and the announcement that the India Company had its first first female platoon were the second and third most liked posts, respectively, on the account in this sample.
Consciously or unconsciously, the people curating these Instagram accounts are sending a signal that women should not be thought of as purveyors of violence. That indicates a reluctance to acknowledge them as combat soldiers, and arguably leaves the door open to treating them as targets of violence.
Most societies remain very uncomfortable with the idea of women in combat—killing and exposing themselves to being killed. Despite efforts to promote gender equality, it looks like the U.S. military has not yet broken out of the mind-set of seeing women as passive and vulnerable, rather than promoting them as skilled and lethal warfighters.