“And hold their manhoods cheap …”

Over a gorgon stare of steely-eyed death*, the Chief of the Australian Army, Lieutenant-General David Morrison, tells army members who degrade women in the service exactly what he thinks of them. It’s an unlikely kind of feminism. The appeal of what he’s doing is not what he’s saying (not having colleagues post demeaning material about women online is literally the least you can ask for), but who is saying it.

In popular culture, we are used to seeing men who project this kind of masculinity, wrapped in the symbols of violence and discipline, in the role of tough guy standing up for defenseless women. Morrison flips it, saying that we need to recognize that now, women are the defense.

Two great quotes in the video. First: “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept”, which is a nice, short aphorism for not tolerating cynicism about injustice. But the interesting one is this:

General Morrison finished the video with a stern warning to Defence Force members that it was up to them to make a difference.

He called on innocent members to “show moral courage” and take a stand against those who displayed degrading behaviour.

“If you’re not up to it find something else to do with your life. There is no place for you among this band of brothers and sisters.”

* Full disclosure: I would love to be able to pull off that stare. Especially in negotiations with my boss.

Which is a sly and subtle little hack of Shakespeare’s famous St Crispin’s Day Speech, from  Henry V Act IV, Scene III. King Henry (“Harry”, among friends) is about to go out to win the day at Agincourt, the crowning achievement of his military career. He rallies his troops with one of the great sermons of military male fraternity in literature. The whole thing is just, to put it technically, crazy awesome good, which is why it never fails to make even the cheapest discs of Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits. It makes me totally want to invade Poland or storm the beaches at Normandy or something. It ends on this crescendo:

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

(Here’s Kenneth Branagh being all swelling violins about it):

Note all the ways that passage collapses violence, masculinity and brotherhood together. Violence and heroism as a way to both outsmart death (becoming immortal in name and memory) and a way to become fully a man. Look at all the things Shakespeare manages to do with this material in just under a dozen lines:

This story shall the good man teachhis son

The way to be a good man is to teach your son about these values, and to keep reproducing these memories. The connection between family and military is set up, and then:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother;

Remember, this is the king talking: he’s proposing a brotherhood of shared experience among men in the army, even between the highest and the lowest in the land. Brought together by gender and battle.

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Note both the sly bit of classbaiting (gentlemen is an upper-class category) and how the “gentlemen” are in a traditionally female domain (the bed). Note how they “hold their manhoods” — both that they are not quite men, unlike the soldiers at Agincourt, but Shakespeare is also literally saying they’re left with their dicks in their hands. Shakespeare is full of dirty puns like that, and one of the greatest things about a liberal arts education is being able to get them.

Since forever, and especially since the television series Band of Brothers, the phrase “band of brothers” has been a vital part of military parlance and self-understanding. When Morrison adds the phrase “… and sisters” at the end, he’s tampering with 400 or so years of male self-understanding in one sentence. It’s a nice way of summing up what’s so jarring about the video, and of summing up the all-important difference between standing up for women and standing up with women.

Programming note: I’m back from vacation, and posting will resume after these short messages and an 8-hour nap. 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: