“One of the things I’ve started to ponder is whether women’s reluctance to self-identify as veterans is partly linked to this absence,” Williams says. Across America, veterans’ service providers and non-profits seeking to offer services to female veterans say that they have to ask women specifically whether they’ve served because so few volunteer the information. One North Carolina non-profit actually began asking its clients directly whether they’d ever been part of the military because so few had self-identified as veterans.
How we see women in uniform matters both to them and to us. At a time when so few Americans serve, movies often offer people’s only exposure to combat, shaping the way they see who fights the nation’s battles. “For the American public, these movies are the reality of war,” Carter says. “Most Americans didn’t go to Vietnam—their Vietnam was Platoon and Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now. And more than 99 percent of Americans did not go to Iraq and Afghanistan, so their reality is Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper.”
It’s possible a shift is on the horizon. In the wake of American Sniper’s box-office success and the fact that unconventional women-driven films are on the rise (as evidenced by the success of Spy and Mad Max: Fury Road) there seems to be an increasing appetite for fictional stories in which women are heroes. Now comes the test of whether they can be real-life heroes as well.
Since March, three books about women in war have been picked up by Hollywood. TriStar pictures purchased the film rights to Shoot Like a Girl: How One Woman’s War Against the Taliban Led to Her Victory Over the Department of Defense, an upcoming memoir by Air Force Major Mary Jennings Hegar. Warner Brothers bought the war photographer Lynsey Addario's memoir It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War. And Fox 2000 won the rights to Ashley’s War, the book I had the privilege of writing about a team of women recruited to serve alongside Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, and other special operations units on combat missions in 2011.
As Adam Green wrote in the May issue of Vogue about Grounded, a play starring Anne Hathaway as a drone pilot, “Females in the line of fire now seem to be having a moment.” Of course, how Hollywood depicts women on the battlefield will be as important as the question of whether they are seen at all.
“Whether the upcoming movies featuring women in war will broaden the public's perception has everything to do with how those women are portrayed,” says Helen Benedict, the author of two book about women and war and a professor at Columbia University. “If these films push women into the stereotypes of the past—women who wimp out and need rescuing or who are nothing but a [love] interest—that won't help at all.”
But if these real-life warriors receive three-dimensional treatment, perhaps a new spate of war stories could help pry open the American definition of the hero to include more women—both fictional and real.
“It will make the biggest difference to young men and women who look to the movies for inspiration,” Carter says. “My daughter will grow up seeing these stories and hearing these stories from me and my wife, and know that she can do anything she wants.”