On 22 October 2011, Army 1st Lt. Ashley White was sent in to search and interview Afghan women. She and three of her fellow soldiers in a special operations force were killed by an improvised bomb. White was – according to LA Times – the first female US soldier to die in combat in that theatre, as part of an elite cultural support team. I do not recall anybody questioning whether she was using lipstick…
Last week a US Col. Christian Kubik, chief of public affairs for the US Army’s Training and Doctrine Command was fired after the press disclosed an e-mail he had readdressed to his PA community. This email had been originated by Col. Lynette Arnhart, who was leading a team of analysts studying how best to integrate women into combat roles. In her intention, she was providing guidance to Army spokesmen and spokeswomen about how they should tell the press and public about the Army’s integration of women.
What was in her advice that prompted Politico to make it a big news story? In a nutshell, she recommended that the Army should use photos of “average-looking women” when it needs to illustrate stories about female soldiers, as images of women who are too pretty undermine the communications strategy about introducing them into combat roles.
“There is a general tendency to select nice looking women when we select a photo to go with an article (where the article does not reference a specific person). It might behoove us to select more average looking women for our comms strategy. For example, the attached article shows a pretty woman, wearing make-up while on deployed duty. Such photos undermine the rest of the message (and may even make people ask if breaking a nail is considered hazardous duty),” Arnhart said.
Based on this opinion, Col. Kubik added in his cover note: “A valuable reminder from the TRADOC experts who are studying gender integration — when [public affairs officers] choose photos that glamorize women (such as in the attached article), we undermine our own efforts. Please use ‘real’ photos that are typical, not exceptional.”
It is not clear who took the initiative to disclose the email to the press and why. What really matters is the reaction it generated. A flurry of stories in the US press mainly focusing on the appearance of the female soldier mentioned as an example. The now called ‘pretty soldier’ is Cpl. Kristine Tejeda, who was deployed to Iraq when the photo was taken in 2011. Stories went deep into what kind of makeup or lipstick she was using, and on whether the photo had been improved with Photoshop.
Here is a comment in the blog Military Times: “In the original photo, the soldier’s lips are a neutral shade, while in the photo used in the magazine, the female soldier seems to have brighter pink lipstick. “
And here is one of the harsh comments from readers to the same story :
Colonel Arnhart is making the transition harder for women to move to combat arms. With a female saying that “ugly” women are perceived more competent than “pretty” women leads to more trouble. These statements put women in the military at a higher risk. The women, who are left in garrison, are being setup to be sexually harassed and raped. The women who are allowed to join combat arms are being told that they are not pretty enough, and will lead to higher suicide rates. Both of these situations lead to failure of the mission. I would like to think, that I am judged by my competency and not by how well I attract men. My recruiter told me when I joined that “Women are only allowed in the army to boost morale for the men.” Is the army ready to let go of these fifties ideals?
But there were also comments like:
Do your looks have anything to do w/ ur competence? Every other magazine in America uses a glorified/ prettier version of the average. It makes sense that they did this. I personally am not offended nor do I feel it hinders our sex. America’s version of a male soldier is Tom Cruise.
Please run a photo of Col. Lynette Arnhart as well. If she’s ugly we’ll take her seriously.
If she’s really hideous, then we need to get all over this issue and adopt an Army Regulation. If the colonel is attractive, then we can disregard her comment, right?
Here is the photo. You draw your own conclusion.
Even political figures did not mis this opportunity to draw consensus: Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, called the email “backward” and “offensive” and said it offers an insight into how the military still perceives women.
A few days ago Col. Arnhart stepped down from her position, and Col. Kubik was suspended pending the outcome of an investigation.
The press coverage should have better focused on ethical considerations. There is an expert stating that it is unethical or inefficient to use images of non-average looking women in the Army’s PR campaign. And a senior PA expert endorsing this view in an internal document. The drawn conclusion was that both offended gender equality sensitivity.
It is a fact that in the world of advertising, men and women have consistently been portrayed in stereotypical ways. Thanks to “G.I. Jane,”women in the military are expected to look like Demi Moore. While the woman stereoptype in the publcity field is definitely not the average looking woman. According to Callen Gustafson of the University of South Carolina “ Because men have an increased liking and are more responsive to sexual content, most sexually based advertising targets them. Using attractive women in ads results in higher visual recognition and recall as well as enhances ad-like, product-like, and purchase intent for men.”
It is therefore somehow ‘natural’ that even the military use sexual appeal in the promotional images. I do not recall a single campaign to boost recruitments with pictures of ugly men or women. In Italy, the public TV networks use Air Force meteorologists to announce weather forecast: guess how they look like…
So, is it ethical to use non-average images to achieve promotional aims? If you look at the Ethics Codes of main PR organizations (i.e. the Public Relations Society of America) you find nothing about this aspect. But this case refers to a government organization and ethics of advertising are irrelevant if compared to the ethics of public administration authorities. For them it is of paramount importance also to remember that ethics is also “concerned with developing virtuous persons and civic-minded citizens” (Ethics in a Nutshell).
My conclusion is that everybody is wrong. Col. Kubik, even if he was in bona fide while expressing his candid endorsement, should have been aware of the implied risk of damage to the Army, should his email be forwarded outside. He should have been gender-sensitive enough to use a different language. Many of those who reported the story seemed to ignore the reality we live in. No matter if gender equality is a recognized human right. We are all treated as ‘consumers’ rather than citizens and the information world still reflects almost unchangeable stereotypes.
It is however true that at least from government officials we expect better.
I somehow agree with Shawn Paul Wood when he states about Col. Arnhart: “After all, she has lived female perception in the military in a way people in this industry can only fathom from watching movies. That said, she really does have an understanding about how to reach the heart of women for military service and sacrifice. However, is that on exhibit here? It can also be argued that Col. Arnhart is not talking to “those women” who prefer a Louis Vutton satchel over a camo backpack… I would like to add that looks shouldn’t matter, but in the world of advertising, it always does. How we choose to look at this particular “comms strategy” is another story — the good, the bad and the ugly.”
What was missing in this debate is the role played by women within the US armed forces. According to the Los Angeles Times, the first three women to complete Marine infantry training graduated Thursday as ‘ national symbols of the growing push to integrate women into front-line combat units — and potent reminders of the barriers that remain… But unlike their male counterparts who graduated Thursday, the women will not be assigned to infantry units. They will be placed in staff and support jobs while the Pentagon continues to to study how many of the thousands of combat-related jobs now reserved for men should be opened to both sexes. That process could last two more years or longer in some branches of the armed forces, despite an announcement by the Pentagon in January that it was lifting the ban.
© Franco Veltri