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Lady Gaga, guns and McChrystal

Guest Blogger

During the Vietnam War and long after, Jane Fonda was demonized as Hanoi Jane for her peace activism which took her to North Vietnam in 1972 where she famously – or infamously – was photographed seated on an anti-aircraft gun. Jerry Lembcke explores the nature of female perfidy during wartime in his book “Hanoi Jane: War, Sex & Fantasies of Betrayal,” recently released in paperback by University of Massachusetts Press. Hanoi Jane and her sisters in betrayal -- Lysistrata, Mata Hari and Tokyo Rose -- are worrying because their actions can emasculate a nation’s will for war. Lembcke, an associate professor of sociology at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., was struck by the recent Rolling Stone issue that contained the explosive article on Gen. Stanley McChrystal, in particular by the cover: Lady Gaga armed to the hilt. Conscious of the Hanoi Jane tradition, Lembcke asks, Is there a link between that cover, McChrystal and the U.S. war in Afghanistan?

By Jerry Lembcke

I didn’t know which way to go with it. The commentator’s remark was casual, a sort of oh-by the-way afterthought to his report on the Rolling Stone issue (July 8-22, 2010) detailing Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s criticisms of the White House. “And this just happens to be,” said the commentator, “the issue with Lady Gaga on the cover.”

Just happens to be? Here’s an article about grown men, McChrystal’s staff, giving each other the finger in public, tossing f-bombs like schoolboys, and ridiculing French diplomatic dinner hosts as f-ing Gay; this is an article about a group of men self-identified as Team America (from “South Park”) that exudes juvenile sexual insecurities of jaw-dropping quality and quantity; an article fronted by the pop-culture maven Lady Gaga sporting big guns where her breasts would otherwise be, an image destined to lead Google searches for “girls with guns: fetish.”

Girls with guns, after all, have deeply Freudian implications. In interwar Germany it was proletarian women with handguns tucked in their skirts alleged to have assaulted soldiers returning from the war they lost. Some Vietnam veterans remember a Girl Cong sniper they called Apache who pinned them down and picked them off. Stanley Kubrick even scripted her into “Full Metal Jacket.”

But these are fantasies, women imagined to have the male capacity to project power, warrior women conjured out of men’s anxieties about the wars they’ve lost -- or are losing. Western culture has twined manhood with martial accomplishments so the loss of war is experienced as a blow to sexual prowess, pride, and status. And the real dread isn’t that there might be a little warrior in every woman so much as it is the fear of the female Other-on-the-inside, the unmanly side of men that can sabotage even the most disciplined soldierly instincts.

But then maybe the connection of all this to Lady Gaga on the cover of Rolling Stone is of my own imagining.

Then again, maybe not. Author Michael Hastings frames his article with the epigram, “Stanley McChrystal, Obama’s top commander in Afghanistan, has seized control of the war by never taking his eye off the real enemy: The wimps in the White House.” The real enemy is in the White House? That’s a riff of John Birch Society post-mortem on the lost war in Vietnam: they, the Vietnamese didn’t beat us; we beat us. The real war was on the home front, the real enemy the civilian liberals who tied one hand behind our backs. Yikes.

And these aren’t just liberals but wimpy liberals. Girly-man liberals. The loyalty-challenged wishy-washy types freighting the same permissiveness that turned Vietnam-era soldiers into long-haired, pot-smoking, bead-wearing, symps of the communists they were supposed to be killing. Oh yeah, and Jane Fonda too.

So which is more interesting? That Rolling Stone editors put Lady Gaga on the cover because they knew its encoded themes would bring to readers’ minds subtexts otherwise only lurking in Hastings’ story? Or that they didn’t, and convergences of popular and political culture like this one are contingent on disparate social and economic forces only partially explainable by the intent of the people making decisions on covers and epigrams? Maybe cover-compo combos like these do “just happen.”

I still don’t know which way to go with this. But I do know that girls with guns are tonic for the imagination, and that imagined enemies play havoc in lost-war cultures.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  June 30, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: mcchrystal in rolling stone; hanoi jane and afghanistan; lady gaga and mcchrystal  
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If it were possible to waste digital ones & zeros, this blog would be such a thing.

Posted by: pmendez | June 30, 2010 2:49 PM | Report abuse

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