Dozens of news outlets worldwide have reported on Miss Ukraine Anastasiia Lena’s viral Instagram story.
The conflict in Ukraine is one of the largest Europe has seen since World War II. While warfare has changed a lot in 80 years, the way we perceive women’s roles in wartime has remained largely the same. When it comes to their role in the conflict, women in Ukraine are still fit into gender-appropriate boxes, removed from the main narrative.
One of the foundational works on the study of women and war is “Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Women’s Violence in Global Politics,” which theorizes that the study of women’s roles in conflict is often reduced to the archetypes, removing their agency to choose violence over peace. In the western media’s coverage of the Ukraine conflict, we are seeing the women of Ukraine broken up into three basic archetypes. On one end, we have the provider of peace—removed from the conflict, women play the role of truce-maker. On the other end, we have the female soldier. She may carry the same weapon as the man, but she’ll never be a real warrior. Then, we have the victim. With the men gone, they are the women who struggle to support their families without the men at home.
How we talk about women in foreign policy and security is important. When we frame women in a way that makes them tangential to the conflict, we erase the very real contributions that they make to the situation. While women may not be actively drafted to fight in this war, they are also experiencing it. They have a real role in the conflict and the solution.
Below the surface, above the archetypes, what does the portrayal of women in war say about what their place is in conflict?
La Femme Fatal.
While there are thousands of women choosing to fight for Ukraine on the front lines, coverage of female fighters reduces them to toy soldiers. There has not been a shortage of coverage for women’s roles in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
On Twitter, a single photo of a female soldier has gone viral because “women joined defense too.” Captions like this miss the point: the image of a woman dressed for battle is not an indicator of the severity of the conflict, but the severity of this woman’s individual determination to defend her country. When we report “Even the women are joining the fight,” we pass on the damaging message that even when women are soldiers, they are victims.
It gets worse. New York Post published a piece called “Meet Ukraine’s gun-toting female soldiers fighting the propaganda war with Russia.” The story neglects the individual stories of the women behind the front lines and instead details young women in Ukrainian fatigues dancing for TikTok. Another piece by the Washington Post explains how Miss Ukraine Anastasiia Lena posted a picture with a weapon with the caption #handsoffUkraine. Instead of serving as a symbol for real women who are deployed in the war, the image circulated widely, and Lena’s photo was the subject of online debate about whether her gun was real. There’s also a handful of stories in circulation about babushkas training to use rifles and practice self-defense.
These stories are typically treated as novelty ones. They are not hard news—they are written by features editors and social media columnists. They make headlines not because they depict the soldier’s experience, but because they emphasize the extent of the tragedy by demonstrating that even the women are fighting.
War is considered a masculine realm. So, when a woman is portrayed as warlike, she is not feminizing war. She is becoming more masculine. In this way, she is a pseudo-soldier—in costume. Stories about gun-toting babushkas and sexy troops are, therefore, fascinating. They subvert our view of women as peacemakers without directly challenging the cultural understanding that war is a man’s game.
Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.
This archetype comes in conflict with a different narrative: one of the women, regardless of their side in the conflict, as neutral peacemakers. Just before the breakout of invasion, The Nation published the article “Independent American and Russian Women Call for Peace” in which women of both nations call for “peace, diplomacy, and respect for all.”
This isn’t a false narrative by any means. In many conflicts around the world, groups of mothers often lead the way in calling for peace negotiations. Notably in Russia, the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia is one of the country’s most politically powerful interest groups. Following the Russian invasion, thousands of Lithuanian women protested outside the Russian embassy calling on Russian mothers to stop the war.
While it is true that many women’s groups are calling for peace, the female gender itself does not represent peace, as the headline implies.
But we don’t see many Ukrainian women clamoring for the men to put down their arms. In fact, many are determined to fight alongside the men. While most definitions of womanhood don’t include picking up guns, the reality in Ukraine is that many women are doing just that.
Narratives like “Women call for peace” harmfully differentiate men and women in their determination to fight for their country. It groups all women into a stereotype of nonviolence. In doing so, the headline removes women’s agency in the choice to fight and minimizes women’s roles in the conflict.
As Ukraine has currently banned all men of age for military service from leaving the country, there’s also been a surge of stories about women fending for themselves as men go off to fight. Women take care of their families, many of them emigrating west, as the men stay behind. Here we see a third woman: with no power to change her circumstances, she is ravaged by war. She is a victim of circumstances, and watches powerlessly, far from the front lines.
In the parade of news coverage, this is perhaps the most common. Take this excerpt from an Al-Jazeera piece entitled, “On Ukraine’s front lines, women endure the war alone”:
“‘My husband died of a heart attack and my only son has disappeared. In my family, I am now the only woman left’… She cries as she recalls the last time she had hugged her son Oleg, who disappeared shortly after he had joined a paramilitary group in 2014… ‘When there is no heating, I put all my clothes on and pray. I have only one wish: that my son hugs me once again.’”
Again, these stories are not falsified. They are not dramatized. Yet, when they are the only perspective we see, they perpetuate something that is problematic: that women are objects upon which the act of war occurs.
It is important to critique the role of the media in war and geopolitics. After all, the way we talk about issues determines whether these issues are prioritized or securitized. The issue of gender remains de-securitized in much of the international affairs conversation. Women’s stories are still side-shows. We still live in a world where “Woman Defends her Country” makes a headline.
Worldwide coverage of women in the Ukraine crisis follows a narrow genre. “Women in the war” reporting is generally seen as a sub-topic or a puff piece–niche content. It is seldom front-page news. Yet, half our population is women, so why are women-centric stories still niche content?
Reality is far from these archetypes I have laid out. No one woman is but a victim, a pseudo-soldier, a peacemaker. They contain elements of all these things and more. When we operate under the assumption that women in their natural state are peace-loving beings, we ignore their agency in the conflict.
Many women may be happy to avoid the draft. But others, and this is clear, are choosing to fight alongside men. When they do so, they are not victims of the circumstances, but agents of action.