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"Accentuate the Positive" and Ignore the Real: Representations of WWII Nurses in Movietone Newsreels
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As a means of reassuring home front audiences that despite constant interaction with the masculine world nurses will remain feminine and attractive to men, women are shown attending to their usual beauty rituals. In a number of scenes, groups of women apply make-up, wash their hair, and preen themselves. Particularly striking are two moments: one following a training session, the other when debarking from a military truck. In both scenes the nurses attend to themselves in a mirror, wiping off dust and reapplying powder. The inordinate number of times women perform these tasks suggests that there is not much work for the nurses to do and that it is important for women to maintain a certain level of attractiveness for male soldiers.

Newsreels frequently show nurses applying make-up.

A nurse shows off the latest in army attire.

The women were a supply of prospective wives for the male soldiers, which may account for the newsreels emphasis on beauty and attractive clothing styles. Several newsreels feature fashion clips, where women display new uniforms. The implicit message: women want to look nice for their men. These uniforms were not the most effective for the terrain they might be exposed to, but they did play a large role in making the women "attractive" and "feminine."

The glamour appearance of nurses is the theme of one entire newsreel clip titled "Navy Nurses Look Good to the Boys of Guadalcanal." In the clip, nurses walk down a long runway from the ship and a cameraman stands near the bottom as they approach. The camera shifts noticeably to look up the skirts of the debarking nurses. After a voice-over comment concerning their nursing abilities, the narrator playfully says the "nurse can pose for a soldier as a pin-up girl!" and she obliges, leaning against a tree to show off her curvaceous figure for a man who photographs her (see Fox Movietonenews, "Navy Nurses Look Good to the Boys on Guadalcanal," May 1944, 51-775 V. 26/72).

A navy nurse strikes a cheesecake pose for a soldier. View an animated GIF of the Guadalcanal newsreel. (5 frames, 50KB)

In a sense this scene reinforces the gender roles John Berger has defined: women appear and men act (Berger, 47). Women are supposed to be feminine, men masculine. When there is a crossing of those highly guarded gender definition, there is confusion. To ensure the boundaries remain in place, activities which both feminize and masculinize the appropriate sexes are performed, replacing doubts of women becoming too masculine and men too feminine before a female presence (Butler, 133).

Interestingly enough, many scenes were filmed and later ignored in the assembling of footage to be seen by the public. In these outtakes, masculine women carry heavy objects, dig trenches, take part in gas attack training, assist men in setting up camps and eat, using closed lid toilets as makeshift tables (see Fox Movietonenews, "Women Soldiers on Italian War Front," January 20, 1944, 51-253A). In another interesting clip, the women are involved in an extensive training session. After what appears to be hours of hiking, the women fall to the ground underneath a shade tree and remove their shoes and socks. The barefoot women lie on their backs and smoke, taking long drags off their cigarettes, allowing their arms to fall lazily to the ground.

This nurse struggles over a fence during a training exercise.

Another nurse takes a breather and attends to her blisters.

What is common in these clips is that they do not necessarily fulfill the appeals I discussed earlier. The scenes suggest that women will not always be in the sight and protection of men, they will likely experience unpleasantness they are not accustomed to, and finally they will take on masculine characteristics. In a time when there is both a concern about the masculinization of women and women becoming too permanent in any traditional male sector, it is not surprising the choice was made to cut these representations for others which were deemed more "appropriate."

War time nursing offered opportunities that were not experienced prior to the war, which was not at all brought out in the newsreels. Nurses were afforded a greater degree of independence and respect for their work than ever before. Their work was expanded far beyond bedpan duty and sheet changing to administration of medication, simple medical procedures, and diagnosing of symptoms and the degree of severity of wounds. And, while it may be true that the representations of the nurses did attract nurses to the war effort, a great disservice was done to the profession of nursing. Without powerful images of nurses in critical life and death situations, working long hours, and sacrificing like male soldiers of war, the newsreels suggested nurses are lesser soldiers at best and insignificant at worst.

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Jeri Kurtzleben is a graduate student at the University of Northern Iowa.

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