If you’re interested in metaphors and how powerfully they can affect not only our everyday lives and personal selves but our country and culture, you’ll be intrigued by Susan Faludi’s The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post- 9/11 America (2007). Faludi has meticulously researched the US and, in particular, the media’s response to the terrorist attacks in the days and months that followed. What is astounding…and frightening… is how ardently and ruthlessly the powers-that-be sought to promote and protect their comforting metaphors/myths of male heroes of the day, exaggerating both their potential and actual effectiveness, and marginalizing the efforts of women, both those that helped that day and those that raised uncomfortable questions afterwards.
What I found even more intriguing was Faludi’s theory as to why these deliberate misrepresentations were perpetrated—consciously or subconsciously. She looks at several hundred years of US history when traumatizing Indian attacks on the homesteads of early settlers repeatedly found the men unwilling or unable to protect themselves and their families. Faludi concludes that the myth of the American hero, tough and resourceful, saving the weaker women and children, evolved as a way to assuage the hurting male egos. Faludi backs up her theory with plenty of historical facts and examples that make for a fascinating read.
Included in the book is Faludi’s description of solider Jessica Lunch’s ordeal in Iraq in 2003. A dramatic rescue that was plastered all over the media for weeks turns out to have been basically a staged event. I was reminded of the story recently when America was horrified by yet another mass murder, this time in Fort Hood, Texas, where Major Nidal Hasan killed 13 people. He was shot by Sgt. Kimberly Munley, a civilian police officer, in a gun battle during which she was shot three times.
I happened to be watching the news coverage on MSNBC. Two female reporters gushed over the heroism of Officer Munley. How astounding that a small woman should stop this killing rampage (as if being short and small is a disadvantage when you’re dodging bullets; you might think it would be an advantage not to be a large target!) Nevertheless, their honoring of her heroism seemed genuine. But it was a final comment that got my attention, and called to mind Faludi’s theory. Noting that Officer Munley is the mother of two young children, the reporter added, “As fine a cop as she is—she’s an even better mother!” She offered no information to support this claim beyond the fact that Munley has children.
Now, here’s a civilian police officer, a former solider trained in ‘active shooter scenarios’, a firearms instructor, and a special response team member whose quick and aggressive response is credited with saving a significant number of lives (based on the amount of ammunition found on the suspect)—and this reporter emphasizes her mothering abilities?! I certainly don’t mean to downplay Officer Munley’s courage, skill or heroism, but then, this is what she is trained to do. While I respect all officers for their willingness to put their lives on the line, I would expect no less of a fine and dedicated officer. That she is a woman and mother has nothing to do with it.
All this made me curious: was the MSNBC reporter’s response typical of the media’s, similar in ways to what Faludi describes post 9/11? This time the media was not minimizing Munley’s role in stopping the rampage. If anything she was a media darling, her picture appearing repeatedly, the story on every newspaper’s home/front page. But was it common of the media to maintain a slant to the story that emphasized Munley’s exemplary motherhood? I did a brief and informal survey on the Internet, and while I did indeed find numerous headlines or first sentences of articles that read something along the lines of “policewoman and mother Kim Munley…”, overall I did not find an overemphasis on Munley’s sex, parental status or stature or which had a patronizing tone.
Unlike in Faludi’s description of the media’s response to 9/11 or to Jessica Lynch, the media this time did not minimize this female’s officer’s role in incident. If anything, they seized on the opportunity as ‘great copy’. In fact, I feel for Munley’s partner, Sgt. Mark Todd, who responded to the scene with her. In some articles, no mention at all is made of him; in others he is simply identified as “her partner”. Perhaps because he wasn’t shot, he was overlooked. Or maybe it was because he isn’t a 5”2” and 120 pound mother.
So, I’m left with the question: are the times a changin’? Is America rewriting its metaphors of the female ideal–or at least broadening its parameters? Eight years ago, the media airbrushed the female firefighters, EMTs, etc. out of the 9/11 rescue efforts. Six years ago, Pvt. Jessica Lynch became the Army’s poster child for the weak female needing to be rescued. Today, Sgt. Munley is hailed as a brave heroine, but there still seems to be a compelling need to assure ourselves that this female icon is both a solider and a mother.
If you notice other examples of current media mythology about women in the news, please share it with us. Meanwhile, here are some links you may find interesting if you want to read more.
To get a flavor for Faludi’s book, read http://susanfaludi.com/commentary/2007/09/americas-guardian-myths.html
An article here by a BBC reporter gives you an idea of how Jessica Lynch’s rescue was staged. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2003/may/15/iraq.usa2