Image: BBC Radio Times
If there is one image from the First World War that’s more iconic than any other, it is the Big-Brother stare and jabbing index finger of Lord Kitchener.
A century after the propaganda campaign ended, it’s an image that is still all around us — the original now re-versioned and re-deployed on everything from coffee mugs and duvet covers, to jaunty student union flyers, tourist T-shirts and even for David Cameron’s Big Society.
It’s so ubiquitous, in fact, as to have morphed into kitsch; the lazy go-to stock image for anyone who wants to knock-up a quick call to action.
But that accusatory forefinger isn’t just an old bit of Keep-Calm-And-Carry-On retro irony. It stands for a unique and brutal form of discrimination. What’s more, no-one either seems to notice or even care if they do.
The shame of fear
The explicit purpose of the Kitchener recruitment poster was to shame every man of enlistment age who saw it into signing up. It was a demand by the state that men and boys risk death and trauma or face becoming a social pariah if they refused.
In short, it is an expression of ultimate, state-sanctioned, socially-reinforced gendered discrimination – total control of the state over the bodies of one half of the population.
I’d like to suggest that you put yourself in the position of a young man walking past those posters back in 1914.
As he walked down the high street, or waited for a bus, or went into a post office or a library, that finger was pointing at him.
Jab in the chest
But more than that, no matter how crowded those streets and buildings were with women, each of them remained entirely untouched by its accusation. Every man, however, would have felt that finger jabbing into his chest, those eyes boring into the back of his head.
And the young man would have felt the force of that shame from the women who stood beside him too.
Kitchener’s two-dimensional jab in the chest was made flesh by women’s unique power to shame men for cowardice, a power that was ruthlessly exploited by the state and often enthusiastically adopted by women themselves.
Take a moment to think about it. An image that makes no explicit gendered statement at all – the simple words “Your Country Needs You” makes no reference to men or women – yet it was nonetheless totally understood only to apply to men.
What else must we be blind to?
That silent image was a manifestation of society’s deep and iron-clad demands on men and the stigma that stalked them should they refuse to conform.
The shame of male cowardice must have been like the weight of the atmosphere, so close to your skin that you couldn’t feel where your body stopped and it began.
The fact that now — fully 100 years later – we glibly fail to notice that this is the core meaning of that poster says a lot about how we view male suffering and disadvantage today.
Take a look at the Radio Times’ interpretation of the Kitchener poster on its front page. Then notice the headline for Kate Adie’s two-page spread on women entering the work force as a result of WW1.
Which one of these is most sensitive to the gendered sacrifices of the First World War?
If we can’t, even today, see conscription and pervasive social stigma as a gendered injustice for men, what else must we be blind to?
By Dan Bell
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