Journal of Political & Military Sociology

I’ll Trade You Skittles for a Blowjob: Assessing the Role of Anti-Female Memes in Military Sexual Harassment and Assault

Caitlin Cornelius

Virginia Beach, VA

Elizabeth Monk-Turner

Old Dominion Univeristy

Humor is a foundational element of culture and can have both positive and negative effects within a group or society. One such group with its own well-defined culture is the United States military. Sexual assault has been highlighted of late as a major challenge facing military leadership, policy makers, and military personnel themselves. This study is a content analysis that examines 35 internet memes taken from a Google search of military memes and identifies emergent themes. Four thematic units were identified within the sample. The results indicate possible focal points for the future construction of education programs geared toward military sexual assault and harassment training, as well as a jumping off point for future research concerning military workplace culture and sexual assault.

 

 

Past research documents that most major branches of the US government, including major branches of the military (Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force), face sexual harassment problems amid a culture where harassment is a common occurrence (Pryor 1988; Abed 1985; Alsmeyer 1981). As Pryor (1988) writes, anecdotal accounts from women in the military suggest that sexual harassment is a common experience. Even before the issue became so widely discussed, Reily (1980) surveyed enlisted women in the Navy and reported that virtually all (90 percent) had experienced verbal harassment and that most (61 percent) had experienced physical sexual harassment at work. While harassment may differ across branches of the military, as well as between different military units, sexual harassment is widely seen as a problem in the military—it is part of military life. Jones (2014), a Marine veteran, explored connections between media outlets and anti-woman sentiments following a 2017 incident of active duty Marines posting nude photos of fellow female Marines on a Facebook Page called “Marines United.” As he (2014, 11) puts it, “that these men, these US Marines, openly engage in this behavior, openly harass and denigrate women and minorities—under their real names, their real pictures, with no fear of repercussions—reflects a perceived tolerance of their actions.”

In 2015, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter ordered the military to open all combat jobs to women who met standards with no exceptions (with a final implementation plan of March 2016) (Kamarck 2016, 14–15). As of 2016, female officers, enlisted personnel and service academy cadets/midshipmen, made up a total of 23.7 percent of the total US military population (Kamarck 2016). While women make up a significant portion of the service population, their presence is often at odds with military culture. The official message being sent is that women are in the military to stay, but the reaction to harassment and sexual assault makes for a conflicted situation.

Military culture is a well-developed, pervasive element to the life of servicemen and women. It blends tradition, sacrifice and camaraderie and serves as a bonding mechanism for members of the military community. The culture provides the service member with a sense of identity and purpose, and a sense of which behaviors are acceptable and which are not. This culture is reinforced with customs and traditions that are manifested in uniforms, social gatherings (dances/balls, picnics and bar-b-ques, “wet-downs”), behavioral codes, and humor/jokes in much the same way that other communities’ cultures are preserved and passed down.

The current study, utilizing a purposively drawn sample of military memes, explores elements of military culture that are generally classified as “humor,” which we argue helps perpetuate an environment that allows harassment in the military to continue. Internet memes are a staple of humor amongst the social media platforms. The term meme was coined by Dawkins (1976) which he defined as a unit of cultural transmission. The search engine Google Images allows for users to search for any topic and it will return images that have appeared on any website on the internet, including memes that have appeared on various social media platforms including Reddit and Twitter. When the images that Google returns in a search are found directly on military linked social media sites (various Facebook or Twitter pages created and maintained by military members) it is reasonable to conclude that the content is being circulated amongst the community linked to that specific page.

Workplace Culture and Masculine Hegemonic Conscience

After various military socialization processes (e.g., boot camp or Office Candidate School) are complete, the military workplace culture kicks in and provides the daily maintenance that is necessary to solidify the values and traditions that were instilled. Military workplace culture is ever present and is a daily reminder of why the individual does what they do, how they should go about doing it, and that they are not alone, but rather part of a devoted brotherhood. According to Bryant (1979, 49) workplace culture develops as a way of the individual coping with problems associated with working the job daily and, “it provides reasons and rationalizations for certain types of work-related behaviors as well as clarifying, obscuring, or modifying their perspective of social control and sanctions.”

Military culture has essentially split into two main parts that appear to be addressed only as one by most military sociologists; formal military workplace culture (FMWC), the culture that big military advocates, and informal military workplace culture (IMWC), the culture that the individual members of the military advocate/participate in. Each of these two aspects of military workplace culture split likewise into two parts; manifest cultural image and latent cultural image. The manifest cultural aspect of the FMWC would be the part that advocates a view that the military should be reflective of the society it serves and representative of its population. Dorn (1990, 115) and Dunivin (1994, 538) sum up this sentiment stating that, “there appears to be a consensus in the United States that the armed forces should be a reflection of the society,” essentially it should, “mirror society’s social demographic makeup (regional, economic, racial, ethnic and gender diversity) as well as its core values (e.g., equality and civil rights) . . . [E]xcluding whole groups of ‘others’ (e.g., women) from combat diminishes the pool of talent available for our nation’s defense.” This manifest culture of the FMWC is enforced via the passage of equality legislation within the military, the construction of equal representation recruitment ads, and the publicly projected stance of intolerance of all things counter to this equality sentiment. The latent culture of the FMWC, however, is still very much alive and well, via the dominant, hypermasculine combat warrior paradigm, and effectively counters the manifest culture. This is achieved, according to Dunivin (1994, 537) by individual branch slogans (e.g., the Marine Corps’ “Every Man a Rifleman” slogan), inscriptions on buildings at the service academies (e.g., the Air Force Academy’s “Bring Me Men”), or even more disturbingly, the rampant hushed sexual assault cover-ups by individual commanding officers as depicted in the documentary The Invisible War.

The informal military workplace culture, IMWC, refers to the individual level culture. It is ever present in the lives of individual service personnel and significantly impacts daily behavior—more than the FMWC. It too is split into manifest and latent cultures. The manifest IMWC refers to the more public everyday workplace cultural conditions that, while not entirely public in the sense that the civilian world would know of them, are public in the sense that anyone within the military might be aware of them and could participate without restriction. Examples would include but are not limited to displaying unit/squadron patches/colors/emblems/coins, unit BBQs/picnics/deployment parties, charity/cause centered outings and specific unit/group public Facebook pages or other public social media pages for the members of the group to post on. These all serve as outwardly unifying symbols of one’s belonging to the group and a reinforcement of the values of that group. All members of the group are invited to participate without hesitation or exclusion. It would be the equivalent of a civilian deciding to host a backyard BBQ for everyone at the office, or inviting the whole office to participate in a bowling league complete with matching t-shirts; all are equally invited and benefit on both a group and individual level.

The latent cultural elements of the FMWC take on a destructive, exclusive, closed-door, secretive feel, but are still given full credibility and acceptance by the individual service members. These would include but again are not limited to, gossip websites and deliberate scandals within the group, cliques, wives’ clubs, negative hazing, and secret or restricted military group/job-type focused Facebook or social media pages promoting inequality, anti-women sentiments and celebrating combat violence and enemy death. The ideas and sentiments expressed in these types of latent cultural elements may be unifying in nature, in that they contain ideas and sentiments that any member of the community can immediately recognize and identify with, but there is an exclusive, bullying and potentially harassing theme to them.

Latent cultural elements of the FMWC are the focus of this paper, specifically military memes, which we argue are essentially

Figure 1. The military workplace culture layout.

anti-female—and in particular against females in the military. This anti-female sentiment is perpetuated by the spreading of this brand of “humor.” While specific studies have not yet traced the exact nature of the transmission of memes or humorous content throughout the military community, it is reasonable to suppose that it is being shared amongst the community due (see, for example, Jones 2014). As mentioned above, Google Images links their search results to the sites they have taken their results from. Therefore, it is clear when an image search result is linked to a site hosted and maintained by a member or former member of the military community. It is then a reasonable conclusion that the host of a site maintained by a military community member that exists for the enjoyment of other military community members is aware of their content and is complicit in the circulation of the content they sponsor. It is also a reasonable conclusion that those visiting the site (both active members of the military community and not) are viewing and partaking in the content on the site. While on most social media platforms, this would be traceable and therefore evident by the number of “likes” or “retweets,” however, that is beyond the scope of this current study (Figure 1 summarizes interconnections in conceptualizing the discussion above).

The Traditional Masculine Role and Hegemonic Masculinity

Much of the unifying culture in the US military community revolves around the traditional masculine role. Women were allowed in service academies in the early 1970’s and into combat with full unrestricted roles in 2016. The ability to perform one’s job as a soldier/Sailor/Marine has always been linked to one’s masculinity and weeding out that mentality has proven difficult over time. Scarce (1997, 47) states that, in the military, “men’s gender roles become more rigid and narrow, heavily scrutinized for any behavior that might seem the slightest bit feminine, and therefore, considered weak and unfit for military service.” Furthermore, sexual harassment and sexual assault within the US military serves as a message to women within the ranks: you do not belong here because you are female. If you are not strong enough to protect yourself from sexual harassment/assault, how are you strong enough to help defend this country? Considering that everything in the military from uniforms to social engagements (e.g., balls), to combat accommodations, to daily language and terms is inherently male, the stalled attempts to fully integrate women in an equal manner is not surprising.

The United States in general, and the US military specifically, has a long tradition of hegemonic masculinity. The term stems from Antonio Gramsci’s ideas on how different class groups relate to each other, establish a hierarchy of power, and maintain one’s position within the group that dominates. Hegemonic masculinity, according to, Barrett (1996) refers to an idealized image of masculinity where femininity and other masculinities are subordinated or marginalized. Hegemonic masculinity encompasses characteristics such as independence, risk-taking, aggression, heterosexuality, and rational decision making (Connell 1995). Men who possess these traits are regarded as strong or proper men, men who do not possess these traits but aspire to acquire them are normal, men who neither possess, nor aspire to possess, these traits are regarded as feminine (which for a man in Western culture, particularly in a Western world military culture, would be in insult). This feminine insult status is constantly reinforced by the most common insult slurs men throw at one another, such as “pussy” and “bitch.”

These hegemonic masculine ideals dominate all aspects of life in America from work to home, advertising and entertainment, sports and especially, national defense. According to Arkin and Dobrofsky (1978), the military socializes millions of men creating the dominant adult male role. From recruiting posters that seek “a few good men” to popular media images, the cultural overlap between soldier/warrior and maleness in America is overwhelming (Barrett 1996, 129). This role of masculinity within the military serves as a basis for controlling behaviors. When the Marine Corps decided to address spousal abuse, Lt. Gen. Jack W. Klimp, the Marine Corps’ deputy commandant for manpower and reserve affairs had the following to say,

You’re a Marine 24 hours a day. You’re not just a Marine in the field. You’re expected to conduct yourself like a Marine all the time. Domestic violence is not Marine-like. It’s not soldier-like. It’s not Sailor-like. It’s not airman-like. We need to ensure that every Marine, soldier, Sailor and airman in the Department of Defense understands that this is not part of being in the United States military (Kozaryn 2000).

The implication here is that there is a gentlemanly element to the warrior paradigm, and that anything concerning violent or warrior-istic behaviors towards innocents/civilians, which spouses and children would fall under, is un-gentlemanly, and, not fit for duty in the military.

Shaming is used to control the behaviors of the individual via the bonds they have with their peers, and the community’s unwavering commitment to all things manly. This sentiment of male professionalism is reinforced every time a commander addresses a room of personnel he commands, “attention gentlemen!” “look alive gents!” and the tie between manliness and American gentlemanliness and military service is thus subconsciously reinforced. The expectation is that not only does the individual need to be manly to be effective in the military workplace, but they also need to possess elements of the traditional American concept of the sophisticated and chivalrous gentleman. The concept of the professional gentleman soldier assumes that soldiering is exclusively a male enterprise. Put more specifically, “male bonding is the cornerstone of small unit cohesion, and that the presence of women undermines this bonding, thus decreasing cohesion, and ultimately, readiness” (Savage and Gabriel 1976, 349).

Military sociologists posit that hypermasculinity is directly related to sexual assaults that the military community is currently experiencing due to either connections between hypermasculinity and acceptance of rape (both in military and civilian situations), military communities and their fostering of hypermasculinity, or some combination of both (see for example, Begany and Milburn 2002; Gruber 1997; Ilies et al., 2003; Malamuth 1986; Malamuth and Brown 1994; Mosher and Anderson 1986; Snyder 1976; Quackenbush 1989; Vogt et al. 2007). Simply put, hypermasculinity is an extreme form of masculinity based on beliefs of polarized gender roles, acceptance of stereotypical gender roles, and a belief in the value of control, power, competition, toleration of pain, and heterosexuality (Turchik and Wilson 2010, 271; Hunter 2007). This mindset of hypermasculinity is introduced to the individual, and fostered throughout their career. And as Koeszegi et al. (2014, 230; Kovitz 2003) see it, “institutionalized aggression cannot be understood without a gendered approach, as images of masculinity and femininity are central for their social organization and the inherence of aggression: Violence and warfare have been constructed as essentially male, whereas femininity is equaled with weakness and peace.”

If aggression and bullying is the method used to ostracize women in combat units, it is important to understand how such behavior shapes sexual violence. A sociocultural approach puts rape on a continuum of sexually assaultive behaviors; however, it does not view rape as a deviant act committed by deviants (Margolin et al. 1989). Sexual violence is a way of forcing women out of the group. For example, a 2014 OAFnation.com post, lays out an argument for keeping women out of combat units citing physical inferiority, destruction of the warrior mentality/brotherhood, and the threat of sexual activity, both consensual and non-consensual, within the unit. Specifically, writing under a pseudonym to protect his identity, “Nocer” says the following regarding the effect on the brotherhood and unit efficiency,

So what happens to these men who are living at the basest levels of human existence and instinct, when you insert a woman into the fold? . . . Is it realistic to expect them to live and die by their animal instincts, but completely turn off the most powerful instinct that human beings possess? When all the men in a unit are sex deprived they can turn that aggression and frustration towards more productive things like killing. . . . Now what happens if one or two men in a platoon are in a sexual relationship with the women in the platoon? Jealousy? Anger? Envy? Spite? What does that do to the fabric of that platoon? What does it do to the brotherhood? Infantrymen are about as alpha as men get. They love to kill and they love women. When as a whole, a group of men like this is saying that they want to spend years at a time with no women, they’re saying it for a reason (Nocer 2014).

One anonymous commenter going by the alias “Casey” had the following to say in response to the above, “. . . if you put a dude and a girl on post together, he’s not watching his sector, he’s thinking about getting some pussy. In addition, throwing even a half decent piece of ass in the middle of a downrange platoon comprised of type A personalities is tantamount to throwing a T-bone steak in the middle of a group of pit bulls.” The message is that if a woman dares to step into a hyper masculine military environment, sex is going to happen, consensual or not, that it should be expected, and that the only way to avoid it is to stay out. This is a sentiment that is echoed by the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Military, President Donald J. Trump via Tweet in 2013 (and confirmed in a televised national security forum in 2016), “26,000 unreported sexual assaults in the military-only 238 convictions. What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?”

Workplace Humor, Internet Memes and Military Sexual Harassment

The role of humor in military culture is widely established. It helps solidify group bonds by providing commonality amongst what would otherwise be a diverse group, and relieves tension and stress in what is often a stressful job (Dixon 1980). Humor is also identified as a significant characteristic of effective military leadership (Priest and Swain 2002). Internet memes are just the latest humor delivery device and have held a steady place on social media platforms for about as long as these platforms have existed. Memes, just like any other humor instrument, though, work by highlighting a common sentiment that the members of the target audience (or community) will universally recognize. They manifest themselves as, “quirky and situational jokes through remixing pop culture and commercial imageries . . . used to generate social commentary . . . ‘forms of persuasion or political advocacy, grassroots action, and modes of expression and public discourse’” (Yoon 2016, 97; Knoble and Lankshear 2006; Shifman 2014, 122–123).

What happens, though, when the humor or message that is being conveyed via the memes takes a negative turn? Current work analyzing racial memes aim to highlight how these memes reinforce racial divisions within the whole of society (see Yoon 2016; Williams et al. 2016; Dyer-Barr 2010; Tynes et al. 2008; Tynes and Markoe 2010). Much of what is understood about the impact of racist memes is applicable to the understanding of sexist military humor memes. As Sue et al (2007) suggest, the cumulative effect of racist memes is to discredit the lived experiences of minority individuals. Likewise, we argue that the cumulative effect of sexist military humor memes is to discredit the lived experiences of women in the military. Little research explores the impact of internet memes (Williams et al. 2016); however, mapping their existence is a vital first step.

The role of jokes in culture is well understood. Essentially, due to the symbolic interactionism of language, jokes convey specific messaging concerning social status; specifically, jokes, “serve to tell others who we are and who we think they are in interaction settings” (Bemiller and Zimmer 2010, 460; Lynch 2002). When gender is introduced to these joke scenarios, it very quickly takes on an “us vs. them” context (Barreca 1992; Ford 2000). The concept of gender in our society is socially constructed in such a way that maleness is synonymous with “normal” and femaleness then becomes “other” or even “deviant” as it deviates from the established norm. This otherness leads to objectification as females are placed in a status of lesser human (Bartky 1990; Ruth 2001). Where humanity is stripped away, a lack of respect (Ehrhart and Sandler 1985), unequal treatment and victimization can occur (Wesely 2002). What is supposed to be “just a joke” can become a power play used to subordinate and oppress entire groups of people (Bemiller and Zimmer 2010, 463). Notably, Bemiller and Zimmer (2010) identified sexist jokes arguing that sexist humor focused on women’s personal attributes (breasts, weight, intelligence, personality), women’s place in the private sphere (jokes about cooking, cleaning and childcare) as well as jokes that were extremely violent toward women (suggestions of abuse, putting them in their place, killing or raping women).

Violence Against Women in the Military

In 2012, there were an estimated 26,000 cases of sexual assault in the military compared to 19,000 in 2011; however, few are ever reported. O’Neill (2013) estimates that 3,374 assaults were reported in 2012 (3,192 in 2011) and even fewer (238) led to a conviction. Hagopian (2014) estimates that one in three women in the US military has been sexually assaulted, twice the rate for civilians. Moreover, few (7.1 percent) flag rank officers are women (O’Neill 2013). According to the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), the leading cause of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among women veterans is rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment while PTSD for men is associated with combat trauma (O’Neill 2013). The 2013 Military Sexual Assault Prevention Act excludes known sexual offenders from military service and aims to provide help to survivors of assault. To reduce violence against women in the military, sexist ideologies and practices embedded in military culture must be addressed and changed. Notably, the US has not signed the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979 nor the UN Security Council Resolution 1325, adopted in 2000, mandating the protection of human rights for girls and women and calling for measures to protect them from gendered violence rape and sexual violence.

Methodology and Results

As of 2013, the Pew Internet and American Life Project estimates that most Americans (81 percent) have access to the internet and most (73 percent) use social media (Murphy et al. 2014). Duggan and Smith (2013) write that the use of social media has grown dramatically in recent years and that most users are young (between 18–29). Media users utilize a wide array of platforms and may post what wish in a relatively anonymous way (Murphy et al. 2014). Cauldry (2008) notes that connections and ideas expressed via social media can acquire the force of nature (Bui 2016). A meme is typically defined as a humorous cultural image or video that is copied and rapidly spread on the Internet.

A collection of memes was assembled utilizing a methodology defined by Williams et al. (2016, 427) in their study on racist memes, in which, “meme images were obtained from an online google image search using keywords such as ‘subtle racism’ or ‘accidental racism.’” Similarly, we conducted a Google image search for the following terms, and the resulting images were saved directly to an image file; “military memes,”1 “military females,” “military humor.” This search was conducted between 2014 and 2016. In total, 35 memes formed our sampling frame. These 35 memes represent a purposive sample allowing the identification and mapping of themes and concepts present within the military workplace culture at question. As mentioned above, the Google search results indicate the sites from which the images were taken. From this, we can reasonably conclude that the nature of the sites hosting the images (that is, are the images posted by a military person? are the pages hosted and maintained by members of the military community?) would present evidence that the images are being circulated amongst members of the military community. As a case in point, the meme for which this paper is titled (see Appendix D) appears on Twitter, Funnyjunk.com and izismile.com. Other memes in the sample appear on (but are not limited to) theCHIVE.com, pinterest.com and imgur.com. Further demonstrating the widespread circulation of these memes, as Jones (2014) points out, at the time of his writing he identified several Facebook pages geared towards the military community that regularly hosted these types of memes; “just the tip, of the spear” had 22,000 likes, “POG Boot Fucks” had over 17,000 likes, “F’n Wook” had over 15,000 likes, and “Senior Lance Corporal” had over 20,000 likes.

The 35 memes, compiled utilizing a similar approach as Williams et al (2016, 427) were examined independently by both authors. Each meme was initially content analyzed and then theme units were identified. Next, working together, we identified four emergent thematic units: military women as second-class citizens and/or not belonging in the military; military women (or female spouses) deserving of violence; the myth of the scorned gentleman soldier and the dependapotomus; and military women as source of entertainment. We give examples of memes in the themes listed below.

It is difficult to overstate the popularity of social media and its impact on the social fabric of our society. In fact, various military branches have issued statements guiding what is appropriate for service members when using social media. For example, the Marine Corps issued a statement in 2010 setting out guidelines including the idea that Marines “should use their best judgment always and avoid inappropriate behavior that could bring discredit upon themselves, their unit, and the Marine Corps” (Clark 2014). It is important to understand as well that some of what is posted on social media, including most of the memes in our sample, are posted anonymously. It has proven extremely challenging to even take down memes from social media sites once they have been identified as problematic—they continue to reappear even if apparently deleted (Clark 2014). Thus, it is difficult to identify the author or various memes in our sample of where they originated.

Military women as second-class citizens

The first depiction of women in the military as second-class citizens—typically as sexualized second-class citizens—who do not belong in the military, was defined as the perception that women are simply not up to the military job (see Appendix A). Typically, this perceived lack is attributed to either physical inferiority or sexualized vulnerability. The message conveyed by such memes is clear and concise: women are not strong enough to serve in the military. Rather, women belong in other, “womanly” jobs—they are too weak. Thus, one meme depicts a female with the caption “I Must Go—My Kitchen Needs Me.” This white female, clad in a pair of jean shorts, hose and boots, is running (about to jump) holding a military assault weapon yet her mind is on the home front, in the kitchen. Yet another meme shows a male and female together in the trenches and he points to something in the distance with the following caption “You see that—it means get the fuck back to the kitchen.” Many of these messages of not being up to the job are overt. For example, one meme has a split image with the top showing Bigfoot riding the Loch Ness Monster, with the bottom imagine of one white male in military uniform in profile and two white females facing forward with the caption “More Believable Than Women in the Infantry.” Another shows a female recruit aiming to do a pull-up with this caption “She can’t do 3 pull-ups but they want her fighting on front lines.” This idea of reduced standards appears in other memes suggesting training has become so easy that women can now do it. This specific message appeared in two memes with these captions: “Blue Cords—So Easy a Lady Can Earn It” or “Ranger School—So Easy a Female Can Do It.” Some memes that fell in this category merely reinforced traditional stereotypes of females and their “female problems.” Thus, a meme shows a picture of meals ready to eat—“Menu 18-Menstrual Meal”—complete with chocolate covered Midol tablets, tampons and Prozac. Other memes reinforced the notion that women’s bodies were for sex. This sentiment was captured by a meme that depicted a triangular badge with the top half showing groped breasts and the bottom half demonstrating positions for anal sex with the caption “Immediate Action.”

Women in Military Service as Deserving of Sexual Harassment/Assault

Of the total 35 memes in our sample, five depicted the theme of women as deserving of violence (see Appendix B). This second theme is closely related to, and builds upon, the first theme. While the first theme sees women as second-class citizens who do not belong in the male military sphere due to physical inferiority and the inability to wage and win wars, the second theme suggests that women who dare to venture into military service are deserving of violence. Military sociologists and criminologists have yet to fully address the gender myth-military sexual assault connection yet some scholars have explored the gender myth sub-discipline and their findings may be helpful for an understanding of how this plays out in the military community. Howard (1984) in her study of gender stereotypes and reactions to victims argues that when women are victimized consistent with crime stereotypes, or ‘normal’ crimes, they are likely to incur blame and be judged heavily about the role that they played in their own victimization (e.g., blaming a rape victim for wearing a short skirt). Likewise, if women in the military are assaulted, they must deserve it, as they never really belonged in the military in the first place. If one does not belong—if they are second-class, not accepted as a peer—then untoward action against them is normalized.

Memes that capture the idea that assault was to be expected included a black soldier triumphantly neutralizing a white female soldier in a stranglehold with the caption “Equal Rights Equal Fights.” Clearly, she was not physically up for the fight and deserving of being assaulted. At the extreme were memes that warned military women of sexual assault. Two of these memes show a white male, with his tongue hanging out, behind a white female with one caption reading “Prepare for Boarding” and the other “Prepare for My Destroyer.” Yet another meme depicts a male with his right fist by his side with a woman sitting in front of him (face blocked out) with this caption “Women Deserve Equal Rights and Lefts.” These memes clearly suggest that women in the military are deserving of violence because they have chosen to step into a male arena and as such, sexual violence should be expected.

The Myth of the Scorned Gentleman Soldier/Dependapotomus

The myth of the scorned gentleman soldier—the chivalrous warrior wronged by the woman he has entrusted with his heart, his children and his possessions while he is away defending freedom—requires a bit of unpacking for the sake of clarity. Scholars have not really addressed this myth and role that it plays within the military community fostering anti-female sentiment and contributing to an environment that could potentially allow for violence against women. However, if one spends any length of time within the military community, it becomes clear very quickly that this is a dominant theme. It appears that at any point in time, any unit/group has at least one brother who is nursing a broken heart while another is navigating an ugly divorce. Stories of infidelity and frivolous spending of deployment pay by the spouse who is left back in the US run rampant, and any new military member will recall that one of the first pieces of advice they are given by older colleagues is, first, do not get married and, second, never give your spouse power of attorney over your affairs.

The myth of the cold-hearted military spouse who does a soldier wrong has become so strong that it has a term within the community: dependapotamus. Various military social media/blog spots have addressed this concept and this term and a few have even defined it. Probably the most offensive example of a definition comes from a March 2014 posting on www.oafnation.com which stated the following,

Dependapotamus: (noun) A shallow, heartless land mammal; preys upon enlisted military males; its natural habitat: the bars and nightclubs near military bases; its diet: government benefits, vodka and Doritos; its preferred transportation is a convertible adorned with military support stickers; its predominant predatory tactic is pre-emptive pregnancy and possessing your 1stSgt’s digits on speed dial.

Roughly translated, we can ascertain that a dependapotamus is a woman who has intentionally gotten involved with a military member for the purposes of gaining access to his pay/benefits/military housing so that she might not have to work or support herself. Further, the myth holds that she accomplishes this by either purposely getting pregnant and forcing a marriage (spousal benefits) or by threatening to file a complaint with the military member’s supervisor. This myth of the dependapotamus is not unique to this one social site. The definition may vary slightly, from site to site, but the interpretation is the same (see for example, www.oafnation.com, 2014; www.urbandictionary.com, 2008; terminallance.com, 2010; nexgenmilspouse.com, 2013; laughterpiss.blogspot.com, 2012).

Memes depicting female military spouses as cold heartless women who cheat on service members, spend all their money, and married them only for their benefits such as healthcare were popular in our sample (see Appendix C). Two memes feature the cheating wife/scorned gentleman soldier idea. In one, a woman goes to the commissary “dressed up” with her hair done nicely and appearing to be attractive (as opposed to how many people go to the grocery store in casual clothes and without giving as much care to their appearance) accompanied by her children. The text on the meme suggests that she has done this to attract someone with whom to cheat on her deployed husband while he is gone; the suggestion being that this is “typical” behavior of a military spouse. The second shows a woman who is heavily pregnant and welcoming her male significant other home from a deployment with text that says he was deployed for 18 months. The implication here is that she could not possibly be pregnant with his child, but will attempt to pass it off as his anyway because this is how all military spouses behave. Some memes explicitly use the term “dependopotomus.” One is of a “Navy SEAL dependopotomus” utilizing an underwater breathing device to bring her husband a sandwich. The humor here is supposed to come from the fact that SEALs are particularly susceptible to deceptive and predatory women, and that the woman is overweight and out of shape, not something often associated with the special warfare community. The second meme in this collection is a play on the derogatory term in that someone has used while proposing to his future wife; the humor here stemming from the idea that she knowingly accepts the title.

Women in the Military as Sources of Entertainment

The final theme, identified as cultural humor centers around the idea of women in the military being degraded, oppressed and dehumanized, which allows women to become a source of entertainment for her male colleagues. Examples of these memes include depictions of women as sexual objects who have been introduced to and incorporated within the military community for the sole purpose of entertaining male troops (see Appendix D). In the first, there is a picture of a women in a bikini hand washing a fighter jet with the text “I Googled ‘women the Air Force’ . . . I was not disappointed” written over it. This is a play on the big military cultural humor concept that those who serve in the Air Force have “lighter” duties (that is, that Air Force service is the easiest of the branches to serve in) and second, that women who would serve in this lightest duty branch would be given even more trivial duties such as hand washing aircraft while wearing bikinis. Another meme shows three women on the back of a military truck in revealing clothing and positioned on the truck in a sexually provocative way, one of whose genitalia is nearly visible as she is bent over in a thong. The text of the meme reads, “women in combat . . . what took so long?” The implication here is that women in combat could be a good thing, especially if they show up nearly naked and bending over combat vehicles to entertain the male troops they are deployed with.

The meme for which this project was titled depicts this theme. The picture is innocent enough, two military colleagues trading contents of an MRE. Those members of the military community who have ever eaten an MRE find humor in this meme because they understand MREs to be extremely unappealing. The snack-sized candies often included in these MREs are highly valued. The humor here rests in the audience’s knowledge that MRE’s are unappetizing, that the candies possess gold-like trading value in combat situations, and that if a woman is present in a combat situation, trading sexual acts for small candies could become the norm. What is not so blatant here in the messaging is the undertone that women who step into the male combat sphere might find themselves having to do things they would not otherwise do in order to successfully navigate the combat sphere.

Policy Implications and Moving Forward

In her content analysis examining current sentiments in the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard, Iskra (2007) identified sentiments that were at odds with the idea that women did not belong. While both pro and anti-female integration sentiments were expressed, the anti-group was in the minority. The anti-integration group’s argument revolved around those old stereotypes; “women are caregivers not warriors,” and “women make babies, not war.” Pro-integration proponents cited themes of American patriotism and equality as the basis of their arguments. These themes of patriotism and equality appear to also be the official sentiment of the Navy regarding the role of women in their ranks as well. Many top-ranking government officials tasked with addressing this issue state that the issue of women in all areas of service is not a question of belonging; it is the question of having the best possible person for the job filling the role to achieve the goal. Discrimination based on gender weakens the effort. Simply put, the overriding argument for the longest time against allowing women to serve appears to have been backed foremost by the social construction of gender roles. By the time women were allowed into combat situations, it was not the society catching up with the military, but rather, the military catching up with the conditions of American society.

How does this hegemonic hypermasculinity play out about women filling the ranks? In an extensive survey study conducted by RAND researchers examining the effect that integrating women into the military has on overall readiness, cohesion, and morale, Harrell and Miller (1997) found that the military personnel surveyed did not feel that gender had an effect at all on overall readiness, cohesion (unless the group was already experiencing conflict or cohesion issues), or overall morale levels. The researchers found that some factors did negatively affect the relationship between gender and readiness, cohesion and moral levels—including age/rank of the respondent, whether they were newly integrated units, whether there was preexisting problems within the units, and satisfaction levels with one’s job—but the researcher’s felt that gender could not be conclusively linked to the problem.

Koeszegi et al (2014) also attempted to answer the above question by testing six different hypotheses concerning the role of aggression in support units and combat units and the experiences of this aggression by gender, as well as gender differences regarding traditional military roles and the role of women within the military. They found that while most members of support units feel that women are effective as members of the military, most members of combat units disagree and feel that their presence is detrimental to group performance. Further, aggression experienced by women in combat units was higher and was interpreted by the authors to be the result of the need of male members of the unit to weed out the women, to solidify bonds between the male members of the unit, and to continue the hegemonic hypermasculine culture.

Can it Get Better?

Education initiatives have been at the heart of the DoD’s attempts to combat sexual harassment and assault. At first, the education was focused on women and centered around how to not be a victim of sexual assault. Recently, attempts have been made to integrate statistics with threats of harsh punishment (although those same statistics would also point to historically lenient penalties) into education geared towards telling would-be military sexual offenders not to harass or assault their female coworkers. The statistics also reveal, however, that these education initiatives are failing. They are not failing, however, due to error and poor approach/intent on the part of the DoD, but rather because of something that sociologists have recently identified as the “backfire effect.”

Nyhan and Reifler (2010) identified and defined the term “backfire effect” to describe the phenomenon that occurs when an individual is presented with facts that directly counters their held opinion on a subject so strongly that they not only refuse to believe the facts, but also cling more heavily to their factually incorrect opinion. Similar issues arise when a large room of military personnel are subjected to forced education on military sexual harassment and assault and are presented with statistics and facts to demonstrate the problem and the condition of women in the military as oppressed or abused. When presented with facts, many recall a contrary story or a memory (either theirs or a friend’s) and cling to that experience as evidence of the “truth” even if it directly contradicts the facts and expertise being presented to them in their mandatory sexual harassment/assault training. Breaking through the backfire effect depends on removing the factual battle of wills out of education initiatives, and instead, integrating an emotional component that appears to be the most effective element in changing hearts and minds.

Moving forward, policy makers could gear military sexual assault education initiatives towards combatting the acceptance of sexist based humor and language. This would be a small, but hugely meaningful step in the right direction. These types of education initiatives would involve small group discussions of real life stories that convey real victims and allow for the target audience to form an emotional attachment, and perhaps even empathize, with victims in the discussions. Discussions could include dissecting the role that humor plays in the military, both positively and negatively, and discussing acceptable and unacceptable themes of humor and language. As Dixon (1980) suggests, humor plays a very important role in military culture as a coping mechanism for dealing with the hardships that accompany the job, especially the element of danger. The key for policymakers and upper management is to help shape that humor in a non-destructive way. Furthermore, attempting to specifically combat the themes identified in this initial study could be helpful. The challenge for military leadership is to point to the themes identified in this study as destructive to overall moral and group cohesion, and find creative ways to instill values of camaraderie, acceptance and teamwork. Clearly, military administration and guidelines on how sexual assault is currently treated in the US military must be addressed.

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1.   This search term returned the meme for which this paper is titled. It was the fifth image returned in the search.

Appendix A

Memes illustrating the first theme: Military Women as Second-Class Citizens

Appendix B

Memes illustrating the second theme: Women in Military Service Deserving of Sexual Harassment/Assault

Appendix C

Memes illustrating the third theme: The Myth of the Scorned Gentleman Soldier/Dependapotomus

Appendix D

Memes illustrating the fourth theme; Women in the Military as Sources of Entertainment