A woman poses seductively on the nose of a B-29A bomber, aptly named “Raz’n Hell.” She appears ready for action, bust accentuated as she perches atop a warhead. The prolific use of such nose art provides a latent window through which to examine the interplay between nationalist, male-dominated notions of liberated femininity and their connection to justifications for violence, particularly in the context of 21st-century geopolitics.
The female form has long played a role in conceptualizations of war, with an important relationship between sexuality and violence. In ancient Babylon, the goddess Ishtar represented the duality of love and war, with her oft-nude depiction garnering a cult following among male warriors. This tradition was emphatically embraced by British shipwrights in the 18th century, as female figures in ancient religions were repurposed into mastheads, usually depicted with their breasts exposed. The female body was a perceived dual talisman of maternal protection over long voyages and projected power with its overt sexuality. This co-option coincided with the expansion of the extant tradition of gendering vessels; the heavily militarized ships of the Royal British Navy came to the permanent pronoun “she.”
As World War II proved to be a conflict more dependent on aircraft combat than ever before, US Air Force squads came to embrace this tradition. Though innocuous at first, nose-art paintings grew increasingly lurid in their depiction, as articles of clothing became scant and poses became more seductive. These “pin-up girls” followed normative beauty standards of the 1940s: They were white, skinny, and often blonde. Soon, artists began incorporating the architecture of the plane into their craft, with the curvature of the fuselage and rivets of guns accentuating a hyper-sexual view of the female form.
Within the context of all-male Air Force squads, nose art became a point of fraternal pride, a reminder of what they were fighting for. Crews engaged in ritualistic practices surrounding the artwork, touching the image for good luck before entering the plane. One pilot recounts, “I often think that these girls I painted saved my life.” The artwork acquired a significant meaning within the frame of the Pacific Theater. Japanese men, and Asian men more widely, were perceived by American culture to be notably desexualized, not seen as sexual equals, but a predatory threat to white womanhood. In this way, pin-up girls represented a strike back at Japanese imposition, a loud, violent declaration of feminine sexual freedom in the face of a supposed animalistic enemy, far removed from the idea of sexuality.
However, the apparent sexual emancipation in these images was not unconditional. The US Public Health Service ran a campaign, parallel to the pin-up girl movement, attempting to prevent the spread of venereal disease. The images depict women, not men, as the harbingers of sexually transmitted diseases, and warn of the dangers inherent to sex with women. As female sexuality was proudly touted across the globe as a mechanism of power in the World War, an internal war raged on, repressing any notions of true sexual liberation.
In the case of WWII and its pin-up girls, female sexuality became a weapon. It was a rallying point in what was perceived as a war on American ideals, even as they faced continued repression on the home front. Some post-feminist critique positions nose art as empowering for American women of the time, a celebration of femininity. However, it’s important to remember its role as a mechanism of war, a literal figurehead for the destruction and dismemberment of men, women, and children. How do we reconcile this idolization of female sexuality with the violence it engenders?
In a statement following 9/11, President George Bush addressed the nation: “They hate our freedoms—our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other. …These terrorists kill not merely to end lives, but to disrupt and end a way of life.” In positioning American freedom as precarious, Bush recast further conflict as a defense of core values, a nationalistic ferment that pushed the United States into sustained war in Afghanistan and later Iraq. First Lady Laura Bush elucidated the nature of these values months later, claiming that “the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.”
First coined by rhetorical scholar Michael McGee, the term “ideograph” refers to the political use of certain words or phrases to solidify a certain ideological position. The emphasis on the social emancipation of women under Taliban rule acted as a significant ideograph of the Bush administration in garnering bipartisan support, particularly from the left, for aggressive military policy in the Middle East. As Middle East Studies scholar Nadje Al-Ali concludes in her book What Kind of Liberation? Women and the Occupation of Iraq, “By highlighting the plight of female victims in faraway lands, US officials not only provided a pretext for military invasion but also restored the image of the United States as the strong hero rather than the victim of terrorist attacks.”
In examining the saviorist rhetoric of the United States in regard to the Middle East, clear discontinuities exist in its line of reasoning. Saudi Arabia, one of the closest US allies in the region, harbors a notably appalling track record on women’s rights, which includes the massively prohibitive male guardianship system. Furthermore, the US invasion of Afghanistan—under the pretext of defending the American way of life—threw the nation into uncertainty: Institutions collapsed and the economy crumbled. Amid this chaos, emergent factionalism and warlordism contributed to a rampant increase in sexual violence against women, all while Laura Bush heralded “the world helping Afghan women return to the lives they once knew.” This hypocritical, sweeping declaration of saviorhood is a reminder of the potency of female liberation as an ideograph.
The depiction of women in need of emancipation in combating extremist Islamic rule in Afghanistan drew important parallels to WWII’s pin-up girls. It lauded a presupposed ideal of liberation and expressed femininity of American women as a rallying point against exotic enemies and cultures largely represented to have enormously different relationships with female sexuality. While the two campaigns echo their cultural settings in ways specific to their time periods, both present wars of values, wherein hypocritical notions of female liberation are used to justify violence. In both cases, meaningful progress on women’s rights was pushed to the side, while idealizations of the liberated woman, importantly through the male lens, were amplified. The pattern reeks of American exceptionalism.
The American public must continue to challenge wartime imagery and rhetoric propagated by the US government. While careful consideration must be given to the unique effects of war on women, history has proved the importance of evaluating the ideographic motivations of neoliberal framing. America’s tendency to weaponize femininity and exploit cultural differences as they relate to gender inequality to further its own militaristic agenda is an ongoing trend with dangerous repercussions that must not be underestimated.
On International Women’s Day, First Lady Jill Biden issued a statement in support of the women of Ukraine, positioning the female voice as powerful in “toppl[ing] tyrants and demagogues.” Though arguably innocuous, the statement places the United States squarely in opposition to Putin’s positioned megalomaniac regime, with women as the linchpin. This may open the door for US leaders to leverage similar devices of military intervention as those used during the War on Terror. In our current political climate, we must be cautiously and continuously critical of the ways in which the male-dominated rhetoric of American foreign policy utilizes a moralistic high-ground of feminism as a mechanism for violence.