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What Does Torture Have to Do With It?

randersens Icon Posted by Robin Andersen

April 2nd, 2007

I really want to thank Jennifer Pozner for taking on the “beautiful corpses” spread and the new low in Reality Television demonstrated on America’s Next Top Model. Those pictures seem to say that we are in the midst of an unusually unpleasant mean streak in American culture. Have you noticed that TV’s hour-long dramas are also especially seedy these days? In some deep cultural register of fear and loathing, we know we are living through a time of brutal, unresolved war, and women have become targets. This may sound like a reach, but stay with me for a minute and I’ll explain.

Though we don’t talk about it much, hundreds of thousands of civilians have died, and we know that our own soldiers are not getting what they need to heal. We also know that military officers had to ask the TV producers of the popular Fox show 24, to stop their hero Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), from torturing people, because their young recruits and interrogators where taking those scenes way too seriously. And what about all those viewers? Scared to death by nuclear bombs in terrorists’ suitcases and learning to acquiesce to horrible brutality in the name of entertainment and security? The ugly, mostly unacknowledged truths of this war are leaving something vile slinking around the edges our culture, and since these commercial media folks, who promoted the war with such gusto, can’t or won’t, take those responsible for this horror to task for what they’ve done, their growing sense of collective guilt needs a scapegoat. In the midst of a constitutional crisis, in an era of some of the sleaziest corruption the republic has ever known, who better to direct blame toward than women, especially models who are too skinny and too sexy. Some ugly media scapegoating jumped out at me when I was writing my book, A Century of Media, A Century of War. For an activity so dominated by masculine myths, women sure seemed to take a lot of the blame for some of the worst aspects of war. Take for example the torture at Abu Ghraib.

Those horrifying pictures had to be explained, and it was talk-show personality Rush Limbaugh who successfully diverted their meaning away from war’s brutality to more familiar cultural references against women. Limbaugh said the images “looked like standard good old American pornography.” Limbaugh reasoned that soldiers “were just having a good time” and that the pictures were “just like anything you’d see Madonna or Britney Spears do on stage….” What became the most notorious of the pictures from Abu Ghraib featured Private Lynndie England in sexually dominating poses, one with a male Iraqi prisoner at the other end of her leash. When featured on the front page of the New York Post, the headline blared: “Leash Girl in Sex Pics.” The visual representations of sexual assaults against Iraqi males merged with pornography’s imagery of sadism and the dominatrix. This framing easily distracted media commentary from the questions of official military policy on torture. Instead, focus was directed toward the violations of gendered notions of power and sexuality in American culture.

Speaking of war always involves a process of negotiating meanings in a cultural context: the characterizations layered between the language and visual spectacles common to popular media. The brutality of war was being understood as adult entertainment and the excesses of consumer/celebrity culture with Limbaugh’s signature misogynist attitudes included. The images of Lynndie England were disturbing departures from the familiar place held by women in the long conventional history of war narratives where women have occupied a set of narrowly defined roles. The pin-up girls so iconographic of WWII, are passive visions that provide the promise of rewards for the warriors who risk their lives. The sexualized woman-as-sight displayed for male pleasure (not her own) is the traditional woman of war. When men go to war wielding its weaponry, their actions are motivated by the promise of this idealized feminine mystic. Thus contained, female sexuality is appropriated to the war effort. The pin-up is still referenced in such films as Black Hawk Down and contemporary versions include a Talk magazine (Feb 2002) fashion layout with pictures of Carmen Electra in a Versace dress with 2 Victoria’s Secret models standing in alluring poses for enlisted men at Fort Irwin.

When Limbaugh associated the pictures of Abu Ghraib with pornography, he was drawing attention to the violation of passive female sexuality. The sexual deviance of Lynndie England became the news focus as criticism was directed away from investigations into the official memos and policies that led to the detestable images. The dangers of female sexuality took the blame for torture, not the imperiousness of an executive branch determined to act outside long-standing legal statutes and the Uniform Code of Military Justice that bans cruelty and inhuman treatment of any prisoner.

Those poses of Lynndie England were disgusting, but she was just that, a poser. She did not write the memos that set the new Bush policies on prisoner abuse, making torture the new American virtue. Like the memo Janis Karpinksi saw in that cell block signed by Donald Rumsfled. Karpinksi was the highest-ranking officer to be demoted and discharged because of Abu Ghraib, but she was not involved. She was just another female scapegoat.

And so we live with torture, and an uneasy sensibility that condones some of the worse brutality as we spiral downward to new cultural lows and glossy-photo shoots that present dead models as the highest aesthetic achievement of an empire in serious decline.

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