Like a lot of families who don’t know what to do on Christmas Day, mine went to see a movie. Somewhere between a trailer for “Pain and Gain” and “Django Unchained,” an army recruitment advertisement filled the screen. This wasn’t like many of the advertisements on TV: It wasn’t a son informing his dad of the army’s tuition benefits over a game of backyard basketball or a weepy mother gushing about the pride she feels for her golden boy. This ad was unusual to me because it only featured women.

One shot showed a woman in battle fatigues running through dry terrain before diving into a whirring helicopter. Another woman bore glinting Medals of Honor as she paced before a lecture hall packed with men in uniform. A female doctor stitched up soldiers in a dusty medical tent while triumphant music blared through the theater’s surround sound. Each woman was powerful, satisfied and in charge.

When the commercial was over, my aunt, a decidedly anti-war liberal, leaned toward me between bites of unbuttered popcorn and whispered, “Wow, that was a really good ad.” And it was.

Its grand shots made me marvel at the strength of female soldiers and women in general. Not too long ago, girls could hardly dream of being physicians, let alone receive medical training on the government’s dime. Here, however, was an advertisement promising exactly that.

I already knew enlisting has its benefits. I live with a girl whose dad has helped build their family’s life with his career in the military. I’ve also known troubled kids who have bettered themselves immeasurably from the army’s structure. But these military women radiated with a new sense of possibility.

For a moment, I felt like the advertisement was administering an injection of hope to its chosen audience. Movie trailers and commercials are targeted to specific areas, and it’s no accident that this ad was being shown in Benzie County, one of the poorer parts of Michigan. Growing up, I commonly heard about guys enlisting in the military for steady employment and the hopes of affording a college education. And while I was applying to schools, many girls my age were taking full-time jobs at the local Best Western and Papa John’s to help their families pay the bills. It probably didn’t occur to them that they could do what the boys were doing, and I liked the idea of women around me realizing their options.

However, my pride receded once I realized the advertisement wasn’t giving hope to Benzie county girls as much as it was manipulating them with vivid shots of these bold beauties at war.

If you ask any feminist if women should fight in wars alongside men, the answer would probably be a tentative “yes.” It’s a common understanding in the interest of progress that women must populate every field that men do, from urology to presidency, and that includes being respected as soldiers and officers. But in an effort to recruit from a relatively untapped source of warm bodies, this advertisement used feminist ideals to its advantage by exploiting the rare successes of women in the field.

It also left out the harsh truth: War is a practice that has historically included women in its carnage. Its history is full of civilian girls taken as war brides and sex slaves. While focused on shots of women striking punching bags “Million Dollar Baby”-style, the advertisement failed to mention that it’s even less safe for women to be on an invading team than the average male at war. Women can be war heroes, but they also risk facing sex-specific dangers that male soldiers are less likely to experience.

Last year, Ms. Magazine’s blog published an article about “The Invisible War,” a documentary about sexual assault overseas. The article says that there have been some reports of male rape victims, but the number is nowhere close to the Department of Defense’s estimate “that during 2010, as many as 19,000 women were raped in the military.”

Even worse, many of those survivors did not receive the physical and psychological treatment they needed after coming forward about their trauma. According to CNN, victims have said the military’s “conflicted chain of command structure did not protect them from avoidable harm or support their need for justice.” In other words, if the rapist was a superior officer, the event was often negated or ignored, making the victims feel crazy rather than comforted.

Though awareness of these issues is increasing, it’ll take a lot of change for the military to become a truly safe environment for female soldiers. However, if a friend of mine told me she was thinking about signing up in order to gain education or a career, I wouldn’t try to stop her. I’d only implore her to seek out female veterans and ask them about the story behind the glory displayed in ads like the one I saw. Women need to know that they could face special dangers that go beyond bombs and night terrors before they decide to ship off for basic training.

Emily Pittinos can be reached at

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