On Culture: When Women Write About War

Kathryn Bigelow on the set of The Hurt Locker.

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of books by women. This isn’t newsworthy, obviously (everyone should be reading a lot of books by women; it ought to be unavoidable given that half of all writers on the planet are women), except that this has been a bit more deliberate than usual because I’ve decided to read all of the winners of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. A few of them I’d already read, but the four I’ve read recently have made an interesting introduction to the project. Each and every one has featured a war, although most have dealt with that war obliquely.

Creating, as a woman, means that you will be judged and held to standards that you were not permitted to help build; creating, as a woman, about war, doubly so. For war is one of the great artistic subjects: if you are writing about it, you have staked a claim to be taken seriously. You are playing with the boys, and, as Claire Vaye Watkins has noted in her incredible essay “On Pandering”, that is, on a subconscious level, the height of success for a female artist raised in this culture that despises women. And yet if you are a woman making art about war, you will also have to contend with the scorn of critics who believe that you know nothing about it, that your portrayal is weak or ignorant or wrong or all of the above. Even if you choose to create art about war only from the perspective of non-combatants—as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie primarily does in Half of a Yellow Sun, for instance—you will still have to contend with critical derision: you are shirking the far greater task of addressing Real War. Or, perhaps worst of all, critical indifference: you will escape scorn only because your attempts do not acquire a high enough profile to be accorded the attention.


War is not just about shooting people, like history is not just about kings. Much of the most lauded and successful art made by women about war focuses on the way it diffuses through a country’s veins, affecting everything: civilians, markets, food prices, the relative friendliness of your neighbours. There is a lot to be said, though, for looking at war culture—military culture—from the inside. Kathryn Bigelow made The Hurt Locker in 2009. It’s about a three-man bomb disposal team. They neutralize IEDs. It is work so precise, so finger-curlingly tense, that “dangerous” and “difficult” seem too weak to describe it. The bomb disposal officers get more respect than almost anyone else; it’s the macho job par excellence. Bigelow’s movie is, in part, about that cool insanity. There’s a scene where Sergeant James, the team’s leader, deals with seven bombs in the trunk of a car, laconic and nonchalant, taking his time even as his second, Sanborn, tries to hold down an increasingly volatile set of onlookers. It’s both fascinating and horrifying: James is very good at his job, but he doesn’t seem to register the danger he poses to his entire team. Yet he’s also charismatic, witty even; he is the bad boy, he appeals.

The movie is also about pain: about the crippling fear that another soldier, Specialist Eldridge, is experiencing daily, and about the damaged nature of James’s own soul. There’s a beautiful nuance to his cavalierness. He’s not a complete psychopath, convenient though it would be to paint him as one. He is devastated by the death of a boy he thinks he knows from the compound, and the film’s final set piece, where James tries and fails to rescue an Iraqi civilian from a padlocked bomb vest, is a miracle of crazed emotion: James’s conviction that he can do it, then mounting uncertainty, then—at last—fear and helplessness. The moment when he looks into the doomed man’s eyes, the moment just before he runs, is brief, but like a flash of lightning.

And yes, there is a sense—a big sense—in which this is White Man’s Pain, written on the bodies of the brown men and boys who are neither hajjis nor US Army employees, but simply shop owners, or children, trying to live. But there is another sense in which it is totally radical. Not only is Bigelow taking on the horrors of war; she’s also taking on its addictiveness. There is a thrill to what these men do that no amount of stability or home-life comforts can replace. Risk-taking, deviating from protocol: James does it because he needs the fix, and the uncertainty of urban guerrilla warfare is obliging. And that culture of edging ever closer to the brink is backed by a culture of male silence. After the civilian’s padlocked belt blows up, Sanborn and James are driving back to the base together. “Do you want to know what made me this way?” James asks. Sanborn looks at him for a moment. “No,” he says.

Critics, on the whole, fell all over themselves to applaud The Hurt Locker. It won Best Picture—the first film by a woman to do so, and also the lowest-grossing. There is a theme to the criticism, however: almost universally, approval for the film is based on the director’s decision to privilege action, and taciturnity, over emotion and explanation. Take the review from Time Magazine, for instance, in which Richard Corliss refers approvingly to the film’s tone as “strong but not shrill” (never shrill, ladies). He also dismisses that scene I mentioned with James and Sanborn, above, as “a conversation about what it all means”, the deletion of which would have brought the film close to perfection. It’s a curious scene for a critic to object to: those moments of eye-to-eye communication between two men trained to kill and struggling to bear the weight of that burden create an essential space in which the audience can see and understand them. Nowhere else in the film do we get the chance to enter so fully into the humanity of these men. But for Corliss, a mere conversation about “what it all means”, about feelings and signification, is a weak link. Such a feeling from a critic comes from a deeply internalized conviction that emotion has no place in a movie about men Doing Stuff, and it’s a fundamentally sexist response even if the critic truly believes that the scene damages the film’s coherence.


I’m typing these words less than nine hours after the government of the United Kingdom decided to go to war again. It’s an odd phrase, “go to war”. I think it still conjures up, for many of us, a sense of order: think the companies of men and elves, in rank and file, marching to Mordor, a clearly defined enemy who has the good grace to stay behind an easily identifiable gate. Two lines, meeting in the middle of a field. That’s not how it works anymore, but it’s still our mental default.

This war won’t be like that. It will be a bizarre mix of the impersonal and the intimate, as our conflicts have been since 2003. Men and women will pilot drones from rooms thousands of miles away. Families will be hit by shrapnel in their front yards. There will be no field of battle; everywhere will be the kill zone. IS assets will be targeted, not civilians per se, but civilians will die. Civilians always die, and in this case particularly so. Terrorists are happy to put their bases among non-combatants. That is why they are terrorists.

Art will be made about this war. There will be writing and drama and film and song. It would be wonderful—revolutionary—if some of that art engaged with “what it all means”, not just in a superficial political sense but in a profound emotional one. What does it mean to kill someone with the slightest pressure of your finger from a building in another country? What does it mean to know that being a civilian does not protect you? That you could be killed in your sleep or at work or in your kitchen preparing dinner?

Women who make art about war are, I think, uniquely positioned to ask these questions. We have to answer them a lot in our daily lives. We are encouraged to think about the ramifications of behaviour, even of tone of voice, in a way that men are not, and we are well aware of what it is like to be on your guard against a violence that, we are trained from puberty to know, could come from anywhere, from anyone. If a woman wants to make art about a war—and despite the absolute legitimacy of Watkins’s point in “On Pandering”, it is equally legitimate to say that a woman should make art about war if it is what interests her artistically—here perhaps is one way to do it without pandering too much: tell the stories of what it all means. Be unflinching not only in the face of brutality and courage, but of human vulnerability, too.

Eleanor Franzén

About Eleanor Franzen

Eleanor Franzén is a London-based writer and editorial assistant. She blogs about books at Elle Thinks (https://www.ellethinks.wordpress.com).

Eleanor Franzén is a London-based writer and editorial assistant. She blogs about books at Elle Thinks (https://www.ellethinks.wordpress.com).

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