Christina S. Jarvis. The Male Body At War: American Masculinity during World War II. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2004. xiii + 243 pp. $43.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-87580-322-7.
Reviewed by Dawn Ottevaere (Department of History, Michigan State University)
Published on H-War (July, 2004)
Military, Media, and America's Wartime Gender Politics
Christina Jarvis does an excellent job of combining history, gender studies, media analysis, and theory in her book The Male Body At War: American Masculinity During World War II. Well written and thoroughly accessible, this text investigates "the ways in which wartime gender ideals and particular embodied national self-representations were produced" so "we can begin to see these World War II ideals as the historically located constructs that they are" (p. 191). Jarvis hopes that through this study, "we recognize both war's true impact on the body and the countless abject masculinities that existed alongside the hypermasculinized hegemonic models offered during World War II" (p. 191). To accomplish this goal, she thoughtfully analyzes American perceptions of the male body from the Depression through the Cold War, drawing on visual arts, literature, periodicals, military regulations, and veteran's interviews. A professor of English at SUNY Fredonia, Jarvis's heavy reliance on fiction and literature analysis may give some historians pause; nonetheless, this is a satisfying book that introduces concepts from several different fields.
Jarvis chooses her periodization well, beginning with the undermined white masculinity of the Great Depression and the unique challenges Franklin Roosevelt's infirmity presented to the American "body politic." The first chapter offers the reader context to the changes that occurred as the United States mobilized for war. Arguing that the economy and unemployment jeopardized white middle class masculinity as men were less successful in traditional breadwinner roles, Jarvis looks at both popular attitudes toward male roles and ways these roles were actively constructed through government programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). She utilizes the idea of body politic to assert that "embodied symbols of the nation both reflect and influence prevailing gender, racial, and other cultural norms" (p. 14). The chapter contrasts Roosevelt's disability with the images of powerful masculinity to show the role of government in defining and utilizing the symbolic male body. Patriotic symbols such as Uncle Sam, Lady Liberty, and Lady Columbia were altered to emphasize changing values, and images of American male bodies often appeared with comic book proportions. These elements were part of the complex pre-war framework that shaped the idealized masculinity of World War II.
Chapter 2 focuses on the process of militarizing the male body, and American society, during the 1940s. Jarvis uses a detailed description of the Selective Service and induction process to illustrate the evolution of the male body from weak to powerful, private to public: "The military's classification and control of male bodies during World War II had profound effects on both individual servicemen and American culture. Three particular procedures reveal the remarkable ways that military management of male bodies operated: initial medical inspections, physical training programs, and screenings for venereal disease and potential homosexuality" (p.58). This chapter discusses the classification of servicemen and the rejection rates based upon the poor health of many Depression-era bodies, illustrating how the nation reacted and formulated ideals based on these standards. It also looks at homosexuality, promiscuity, and the feminization of venereal disease to give context to the ways the whole and living male body was perceived socially and personally.
The third chapter, "Representing Wounded Bodies," illustrates the problems involved in idealizing a powerful white male body as a wartime symbol. Jarvis argues here that "the U.S. could demonstrate its strength by rehabilitating men through superior technology and by extolling men's own self-generated remasculinizations," however, "war-wounded bodies also reveal that war produces alternative or 'abject' masculinities that exist alongside and in opposition to dominant cultural representations" (p. 88). This chapter discusses "abjection," honorable and dishonorable wounds, the reactions of both the wounded and the whole, and government control of disturbing images. It also explores the interaction of industry, work, and masculinity, offering additional dimension to the contrast between real and ideal.
Chapter 4 focuses on the issues of race and racialization in the embodiment of American masculinity. Jarvis explores the reinvention of Asian identities in relation to the white American ideal, looking at how gender, masculinity, and femininity inform popular perceptions. One of the strengths here is the inclusion of Chinese, Solomon Islanders, and Hawaiian images in addition to anti-Japanese propaganda. Included in the analysis is colonial theory that broadens the interpretation of these mutually constitutive identities. The chapter continues on to discuss the "Jim Crow military" and the dialectic between the hegemonic white male ideal and alternative masculinities.
The final chapter, "(Re)Membering The Dead," attempts to bring the discussion full circle, looking at the corporeal body, life, and death in wartime. It includes an interesting sketch of the American Graves Registration Service and the ways death was represented at different stages in the war for motivation and morale. This chapter, however, is the weakest portion of the book. First, the thesis is somewhat lost. In the previous chapters, Jarvis was very careful to link her sources directly to her main idea, clearly illustrating the evolution of masculinity, gender ideals, and nationalism during the 1940s. Here, however, she focuses on the body itself and human reactions to death, and does not satisfyingly support the previous discussions of masculinities. Second, Jarvis relies extensively on James Jones's The Thin Red Line as evidence. The literature analysis is sound, but historians may be critical of the use of sources here. The inclusion of "the dead" is necessary for the narrative, and Jarvis utilizes a strong theoretical foundation, but this chapter lacks the persuasive and focused elements of the previous four.
The Male Body At War will appeal to a broad range of scholars and students. Readers may or may not agree with Jarvis's parting comment that, "Without a more complicated and embodied account of the war, the cultural memory of World War II will no doubt be wrongly invoked time and again to engender and legitimize other armed conflicts" (p. 191). However, most will appreciate the approachable writing style, interesting narrative, and clearly presented arguments about race, gender, body, masculinity, femininity, and society. This would be a good book for an undergraduate class, as it presents several forms of media analysis and a basic introduction to gender, colonial, and historical theory. It utilizes Foucault in an accessible way and names prominent primary and secondary sources that can be a catalyst for further exploration. The weaknesses of the book involve Jarvis's reliance on fiction to represent reality. Although her use of literature, film, and art creates a well-rounded picture of the social context, there are times that the argument would have been stronger with the inclusion of other primary sources. In general, this is a good introduction to gender studies and clearly illustrates how the field can be directly applied to all aspects of human history.
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Dawn Ottevaere. Review of Jarvis, Christina S., The Male Body At War: American Masculinity during World War II.
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