Nov 21 2006

Spinster aunt takes stab at tiresome trope

Before I take a whack at the essay I’ve been wanting to write on Coping With the Surprisingly Daunting Scope of Patriarchy, I’ll just make a quick note of my dissatisfaction with the language used in a report I just heard on NPR. The report was on the trial of the soldiers accused of taking part in the massacre at Haditha (there have been a lot of massacres as a result of this current manifestation of patriarchy’s territorial pissings, so let me refresh your memory; Haditha’s the one with the taxicabful of innocent Iraqi students and the housefuls of innocent Iraqi civilians, all gunned down, possibly ‘in cold blood’ by bloodthirsty American Marines but most assuredly in cold blood by bloodthirsty American politicians).

My objection to the NPR report is this: that when describing the (alleged) re-staging of the murder scene to make it look like the housefuls of civilians had fired on the Americans when in fact they had been ducking for cover, the reporter sought to give credence to the innocent civilian theory by pointing out that only one AK-47 had been found, and besides, one of the houses contained only women and children. The reporter left the listener to draw the obvious conclusion: if there’s one thing you can depend on to express an entirely null value in a wartime shooting, it’s women-and-children.

Unless the story’s light on maudlin sentimentality; then women-and-children are invoked as pitiful innocent pawns to add pathos to the melodrama.

I’m not saying that these American troops didn’t just suddenly crack up and massacre without compunction unoffending townsfolk. I’m just taking issue — and no, it’s not the first time — with this “only women and children” trope so ubiquitous in reportage. It not only equates grown women with helpless babies, it more or less evokes imagery of huddled, defenseless, barely sentient beings towards whom our feelings cannot be substantially distinguished from those we might feel for a bagful of kittens clutched by a farmer heading for the pond.

You may think this a miniscule quibble, but you know, language means stuff.


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  1. I know, oh lord, it makes me dream bad things. I have fantasies of a Bizarro World or a Wishverse in which the phrase “one of the houses contained only women and children” had the power to strike terror and panic and unfathomable dread into everyone who hears it. (Except of course, quite a large segment of the population of women and children.) The various attackers would freeze in horror, and begin pulling back immediately, first in an organized manner, and then in a flat-out OMG run run save yourselves panic.

    Because when one of them houses that only contains women and children pops up, you know a hideous maelstrom of patriarchy annihilatin’ is bound to break out. Followed by a snack and a nap for the victorious.

    In that same Bizarro world of mine, rape might not be eradicated, but it would be perpetrated, or not, with the knowledge that statistically, only about 10% to 15% of all prospective rapists survive their attempts. Because, you know, sometimes their targets are only women and children OMG run run save yourselves. Suddenly attempted rape would seem incredibly stupid.

    Okay. I’m back. And yeah, language really truly means stuff.

  2. norbizness.com

    Well, you use a term like “non-combatants,” and it sounds like mechanical Pentagonal robospeak.

  3. Women-and-children, non-combatants = civilians. That ought to be shocking enough. But if you don’t live in a reality-based universe, there may not be any such thing as a civilian.

  4. hedonisticpleasureseeker.wordpress.com

    Because women and children are never armed or dangerous, right? They never resist, either. Um. OK.

    I suppose those un-armed, noncombatant men don’t count fer much.

  5. I’ve always assumed that womenandchildren = humans not permitted to think themselves capable of self-defense or self-preservation. Huddled, check. Defenseless, check. Sentient, very, and intensely aware of impending possible torture and/or death.

  6. At least “women and children” tacitly acknowledges that war is an almost entirely male activity, from the planning to the execution. Women have better things to do.

  7. norbizness.com

    I’m perfectly happy with “unarmed civilians,” although the more important goal in such descriptions, in my estimation, appears. The host appears to think that the description “women and children” is a dehumanizing one; I think that for a majority of the country (as Larkspur points out), a terrorist is an Iraqi is an Arab is an al-Qaeda member, so long as they’re male and preferably young. A massacre of people less likely in their minds to be armed combatants will hopefully shake off some of their stupor, although there are truly rabid reactionaries who have adopted an “exterminate the brutes” mentality and who are beyond reach.

    There’s a reason My Lai was an important turning point in public opinion on the Vietnam War, as opposed to the impersonal, illegal carpet bombing of Cambodia: the death of one (or ten) 5-year-old(s) from close-range machine-gun fire is a tragedy, the death of 50,000 people through shock and awe is a statistic.

  8. rasputina.com

    No way! Just this morning, I, the tender young college student, cited your July 2005 post ‘Women Children = Pathos’ for an assignment on sexism in English for my language and gender class. How queer that you should take on the topic once again hours later!

    I don’t comment often [if ever], so I’ll take this opportunity to tell you that your blog makes me a better person. I don’t want to know where I’d be without you.

  9. I heard that NPR story this morning, too, and was jolted by the womenandchildren thing. My brain has an apologist streak, so it led me down the path of wondering if, in the context of news reports focusing on burqas and adultery-based stoning and mandatory public escort of women and the whole “we’re making war to give more rights to the ladies” premise, the reporter was simply playing into the representation of the local culture constructed by American media, where, if there were any weapons in the house, the man, who was of course guarding the womenandchildren, would be assumed to have run off with the guns that he’s in charge of, or that most womenandchildren in that area actually wouldn’t have experience with guns.

    But then I realized that was idiotic. First, because most of the assumptions above are not true, and second, because it’s the patriarchy, stupid.

  10. Watch the film “City of God” and tell me how helpless women and/or children are. Though, of course, this couldn’t possibly just one more reflexive attempt to make women and children believe themselves to be helpless, effectively disarming them and thereby allowing rampaging menfolk to get away with murder (literally or figuratively).

  11. joolya.blogspot.com

    While I’d rather the scary dudes with guns would look at me as nonthreatening and not worth the trouble to gun down, I imagine that if I were – FSM forbid – in Haditha right now and I could get my hands on an AK-47, I would totally have one and be 100% in practice for target shooting.

  12. faultline.org/place/toad

    Anyone else here old* enough to remember how handy burqas/chadors/umwhatevers were for smuggling weapons and occasionally people as shown in The Battle of Algiers?

    The “womenandchildren” thing wouldn’t be so annoying if there weren’t this leaden bit of unacknowledged enforcement of the role — e.g. the foofaraw when women want to join the army, or mine coal, or such manleee arts. Not tht it isn’t annoying enough to be forcibly grafted to whatever legal minors might be handy, either socially or semi-legally.

    *or experienced, cinematically speaking

  13. I myself would flee in horror from a houseful of children, no matter what I was armed with. But that’s rather beside the point, I suppose.

    And, Larkspur: I’m right there with you on the 10% survival-rate-for-rapists goal. It would at least be a specific, if not a general, deterrent. Although it would undoubtedly lead to the televising of ‘X-Treme Rape, Urban Edition’.

  14. This is not a miniscule quibble! Language does matter. And it reflects deeply held notions and beliefs. Growing up Mormon, I was made to do a lot of scripture reading about Nephites and Lamanites (do Nephites and Lamanites exist outside The Book of Mormon? I didn’t stay long enough to find out). Lots of sentences began something like, “So then the Lamanites, with their wives and their children….” I asked my mom (yes, I was seven), “But weren’t the wives and children Lamanites too?” I’m sure it didn’t take long to figure out they were not the Lamanites that mattered.

  15. unsanesafe.blogspot.com

    The writer whom I’m studying for my doctoral thesis — Dambudzo Marechera — has a few interesting insights about the actual guerilla potential those groups have who have been dismissed by a white male warlike ideology. They may not look the goods — but all the better for their ability to ambush those who do.

  16. sparklematrix.blogspot.com

    Yes, you hear it everywhere, killing sprees or bombing raids even natural disasters. The victims are usually grouped into two categories: women and children and the invisible category. The invisibles are not usually given a title as presumably it is unnecessary to describe normal people who happen not to be female i.e. men. It irritates me

  17. When it comes to the wholesale slaughter of civilians, the Israeli army doesn’t make any distinctions between Palestinian men, women or children – dismissing them all as “militants” or “terrorists”. The IDF recently justified the murder of several unarmed women in Beit Hanoun by describing them as “human shields”, despite the fact these women had not offered themselves up for martyrdom. More likely, they believed (like Rachel Corrie) that their presence would make Israeli soldiers reconsider their genocidal mission by forcing them to confront a living, breathing human being, rather than a faceless “militant”.

  18. Seems like the elderly get the same treatment, male or female. How many times have you heard about elderly people being massacred and there being statments like “only an old man” or “only an old couple”?

  19. Having come into contact with several Iraq war veterans and teenagers enlisted in the ROTC, I am under the impression that the United States military sides with Twisty on this issue. Numerous soldiers not yet deployed to Iraq have discussed with me training that definitely warn soldiers of the “threat” Iraqi women and children possess. Basically that “insurgents” use women and children as cover and as couriers; so if you happen to kill any (and if lucky, rape as well!) no worries, that woman or child was probably planning to kill you, or at least assist in someway to your death. I wish that the U.S. military was making the same feminist faux pas as NPR so as to minimize the deaths to Iraqi civilians (or at least those most effected by the war, read: women and children). According to a recent Lancet report, 650,000 “insurgents” of all genders and age have died as a result of the Iraq occupation; you can read riverbend’s blog for insights as to the gendered oppression of the Iraqi war.

  20. I’m not entirely sure where I fall on this issue anymore. The “womenandchildren” thing irks me, but when I hear that, I also tend to interpret it as, “Soldiers killed womenandchildren, otherwise known as a bunch of people who had no say in the current situation.”

    I’m no longer tolerant of the argument that women are “just as bad” or “just as warlike” as men. Men invented war — they dropped the flag, the made the rules. Fine. They can fucking well play the game. Leave us the hell out of it. And again, not interested in the ways in which women are slightly less than angelic but nowhere near the level of gore and bloodthirstiness that men have achieved in all of human history. The face remains: they invented war. Let them play it.

    That’s what I hear when I hear them say, “Soldiers killed women and children.” Soldiers killed a shitload of people who never invented this insane pastime and had no say whatsoever in the current state of affairs.

  21. 80% of the casualties in any war are women and children. You heard me right. 80%. So it is not a fluke or an aberration when women and children are massacred. Au contraire. It is business as usual under the patriarchy. It’s more of an aberration when men are killed. Not women and children.

    Funny how the boys don’t like to talk about this. But then, they don’t count or talk much about the cows and pigs they slaughter either. Animals don’t count. Women and children don’t count. In order to count, one must be considered human. So men only like to count and talk about one thing. Themselves. Nothing else matters. Men are the sun and everyone and everything else are just the planets that revolve around them. What else is new under patriarchy?

    Needless to say, whenever I hear the phrase “brave and heroic” in association with our military boys, it sets off my gag reflex. Brave and heroic, my ass. How brave and heroic is it for trained and armed to the teeth soldiers to slaughter unarmed women, children and animals? Cowardly bullies, is more the phrase that comes to mind.

  22. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m9A_vxIOB-I&NR

    Take a look at our “brave” soldiers.

  23. Violence is cowardly.

    In the movies and television, at least half of the violence you see is brave.

    In reality, 99.99% of violence is cowardly, to enforce domination. Most violence takes no risk, is a gross mismatch, by much stronger against much weaker.

    I read in a very conservative survey that 75% of women who reported being physically attacked: punched, kicked, slapped, beaten, stabbed, shot at, etc. Were attacked inside their homes. Now that doesn’t talk about number of incidents. But I think it’s a fair assumption that the ones who were attacked outside the home weren’t attacked on a regular basis the way women are attacked inside the home. I’d say home beatings are far more common. Say a parking lot attack happens to the 25% maybe once a year, and a husband beats the 75% once a month (a conservative estimate) that means the 75% gets beaten 12 times more than the 25%, which if you work it out is 97% of the violent attacks against women occur inside the woman’s home.

    This is a guestimate, but I hope my point comes accross.

  24. yeah, I had the same involuntary response upon hearing the report: who says women & children couldn’t possibly be shooters?

    this didn’t have anything to do with the substance of the report, just a prick of the ear to the manifest assumptions the reporter was making.

  25. I had a friend who served in Cyprus as a Peacekeeper, he had a profound fear of children between five and seven. The only time that his unit saw the smaller children was just before an attack.

  26. Obviously women and children couldn’t be shooters, since they are all effectively beaten into submission by the worldwide patriarchical conspiracy. This should be common sense.

  27. Another video showing your boys in action here:


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