Stereotyping Women in War: Bomb Girls
When Bomb Girls aired on Reelz in 2012, both feminists and LGBT audiences lauded the show for its portrayal of women. The TV show follows a group of women as they leave their typical women’s roles to enter the male dominated workplace during the Second World War. Upon closer examination, though, Bomb Girls continues to foster traditional women’s stereotypes. This paper will examine the stereotyped characters that Bomb Girls presents as liberated women of the 1940s.
Bomb Girls is a serial ensemble piece that follows the stories of five women who are employed to work at a Canadian bomb factory in 1941. Lorna Corbett works at Victory Munitions as the supervisor of the female blue shift workers. Gladys Witham, Betty McRae, Kate Andrews, and Vera Burr are the primary workers on Lorna’s shift. In the first episode, Vera Burr is injured when her hair gets caught in a machine. Lorna is married to a paralyzed WWI veteran and has a tryst with one of the men in the factory that leaves her pregnant. Kate Andrews is haunted by her abusive preacher father, but befriended by Betty McRae, who helps her out of several difficult situations. Betty eventually serves time for the murder of Kate Andrew’s father. Gladys Witham is assigned to the office because of her class status, but eventually wins the right to work on the factory floor.
Examining the television show Bomb Girls through the feminism lens reflects on what is feminist today, as well as the desire for equality during the war era. Feminism as a theoretical lens started with the suffragettes in the 1800s. During WWII, feminism took a huge step forward as women were needed for the war effort. Women for the first time were encouraged to take on many typical masculine roles. The wearing of trousers and other masculine clothing became commonplace for the first time. However, such strides in equality were short lived. Job shortages and a post-war economic slowdown, combined with a strong wave of conservatism forced women returned to their pre-war roles.
Despite the fact that the female characters in Bomb Girls are presented as strong, modern women, the show actually depicts women in traditional or stereotyped roles. The character Lorna is set up with many of the traditional stereotypes that were considered normal behavior for women of the 1940s. Lorna’s factory title is given as floor matron. This title is a historically accurate factory position that a woman would hold during the war. A Canadian WWII newsreel paints the floor matron as a cross between a babysitter and a chaperone. “The matrons also accomplish wonders in keeping up morale…it’s merely necessary to recognize them and provide intelligent, likeably friendly women to help and advise the girls” (NFB). Since the show portrays Lorna as the most traditional of the characters, it’s not surprising that the character doesn’t find her role as floor matron demoralizing, even though there is no male matron to chaperone the men. What is strange, however, is that none of the other female characters in the show find the role of a floor matron insulting. Actual WWII women factory workers, on the other hand, have reflected that the presence of a floor matron was condescending (WWII and the NFB).
Vera Burr starts out as the male gaze of the show. During her first scene, Vera points out that she’s been dying hair a blonde color by letting it slip out of her turban so that she could look sexy. A real WWII war worker from a bomb line described the experience very differently. “The chemicals turned your skin and your eyes yellow. It was horrible. When my turn came in the powder house, the front of my hair that stuck out under my hat turned orange” (Rossington). In the show, however, Vera desires masculine attention and is content to risk her life for an advantage. Vera’s vanity becomes her undoing when her loose hair gets caught in a machine, and yet, strangely, the focus is on Vera’s foolishness and not the lack of factory safety procedures. Once she’s injured and deformed, Vera feels she has no reason to live. Instead of finding another reason, the character’s injuries heal to the point that she is once again sexually attractive as long as she combs her hair the right way.
Betty McRea yearns for equality in the workplace and the ability to buy herself a home without the help of a man. By the fourth episode, however, trouser-wearing Betty is redefined as a lesbian, explaining away her independent desires.
Betty’s tryst with the only female soldier that appears on the show continues to reaffirm the feminine stereotype that feminists with any masculine behavior are lesbians. The published U.S. Army report on the WWII Women’s Army Corps addressed the stereotype as an unfounded public perception. “The only explanation that could be found for such accusations appeared to be the vague and erroneous nature of popular ideas on the subject: any woman who was masculine in appearance or dress, or who did not enjoy men’s company, was apt to be singled out for suspicion. Medical authorities pointed out that the true female homosexual was only occasionally of this type, and more often just the opposite” (Treadwell, p. 625).
When a 2007 article in The Psychology of Women Quarterly asked women the question “if there is an image of what a feminist is in society…a feminist is some butch woman with all the masculine qualities” (Roy). Bomb Girls chooses to exploit the stereotype of the strong masculine female by making Betty a lesbian.
The characters of Bomb Girls were billed as strong female characters for their time. However, when examining primary source texts and interviews of real war workers, it becomes clear that the characters are far more based on stereotypes of the time period. It is important to make the comparison to see how women in the past were really treated verses the myth that continues to permeate historical pieces.
The show’s portrayal of a lesbian relationship could be construed as controversial, due to its subject matter and historical context. Unfortunately, the controversy overshadows the traditional roles and stereotypes that are being passed off as true feminism. Feminism continues to be a trending conversation, even as some critics argue that feminism is dead. This argument shows that feminism is not dead, and that stereotyping is still prevalent on television.
There is much historical evidence to support that Bomb Girls is based more on stereotypes than on real characters. The weakness is that several of the characters do, at points in the show, echo feminist opinions. However, feminist behavior is not the dominant arc of the characters.
Roy, R. E., Weibust, K. S., & Miller, C. T. (2007). EFFECTS OF STEREOTYPES ABOUT FEMINISTS ON FEMINIST SELF-IDENTIFICATION. Psychology Of Women Quarterly, 31(2), 146-156. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.2007.00348.x
Rossington, Ben. Remembrance Day ‘The chemicals turned skin yellow’: Women heroes of perilous WWII munitions factories finally honoured. (2012, November 9). Retrieved March 14, 2015
Treadwell, Mattie E. United States Army in World War II Special Studies: The Women’s Army Corps. (1953). Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army
World War II and the NFB: The Home Front. (n.d.). Retrieved March 14, 2015