Issues of Masculinity in World War II pows

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Rachel LeGault

EN 440: Bays

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Issues of Masculinity in World War II POWs

During the course of this class, prisoners of war have been a subject group not discussed, yet they can play an interesting role in the study of masculinity issues of men during the war. The purpose of this paper will be to highlight the feminization of World War II POWs. Two novels, King Rat (a fiction novel) and Ghost Soldiers (a nonfiction novel) will be examined for their treatment of the subject.

King Rat is written by James Clavell who was a WWII prisoner of war himself and used pieces of his experience to pen the novel. The story follows POWs in the Japanese prison camp of Changi and centers on the King, Peter Marlowe, and Robin Grey. The King runs the show – he heads all the black market trading within Changi and has a following of men to do his bidding. Marlowe gets drawn into the King’s circle of money and power, all the while, Grey is trying to stop their schemes. The novel, while dealing with issues of feminization amongst the POWs, it also deals with homosexuality and the further feminization of those characters.

Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission is authored by Hampton Sides and is about the POWs from the Bataan Death March and prison camps O’Donnell and Cabanatuan and the heroic efforts of their liberators. The novel is real life accounts from conversations, memoirs, diaries, and government documents seamlessly weaved together to form a narrative that is both enthralling and informative. There is not one main character, no definite protagonist or antagonist. This novel delves very deeply into the exact conditions and day to day activities of starved and severely beaten men at the hands of the Japanese. The issues of feminization take more of a hold in the POWs in the form of various diseases and the emaciated condition in which they existed.

Elizabeth Prugl in her article Gender and War: Causes, Constructions, and Critique points out that “the castration of prisoners, anal rape of enemy soldiers, and insults that intimated homosexuality or effeminateness effected a metaphorical feminization” (336). These actions of dehumanization against the losing side are what serve to put POWs into a state of feminization. Prugl suggests that war strips away “social norms” and actions like rape and sexual embarrassment serves to “symbolically genders the victor as male and the vanquished as female” (336). In Ghost Soldiers, the narrative tells of POWs being forced by a Japanese captor to “slap each other silly… until one of the two Americans couldn’t get up” (139). Slapping is not typically a masculine form of fighting – boxing is done with fists and most martial arts utilize punching as well. Slapping is more of a feminine means of fighting, turned gruesome by the Japanese captor. It can be viewed as a means of stripping the American POWs of their masculinity by forcing them to use female methods of battle.

In Ghost Soldiers, another way the Japanese forced the POWs to become more feminine was unintentional, yet the result speaks for itself. By starving their captives, the Japanese inflicted vitamin and mineral deficiencies upon the POWs which actually caused some of the men to grow breasts. Their “mammary tissues swelled… with a shapely femininity” akin to “fifteen-year-old girls” (153). The men in this extreme feminine state did not have shirts to wear and so were exposed and sexually embarrassed. Many of them men resorted to breast reduction to avoid the catcalls and threat of rape from the “perverts and the queens” (154). It is interesting that those men did want to separate from their breasts as soon as possible for fear of rape. In his article, Trafficking in Men: The Anthropology of Masculinity, Matthew C. Gutmann discusses this fear of rape. He says “that men commonly feel threatened by their attraction to women ‘that centers primarily on the female buttocks’” causing them to “feel anxious about their own potential anal penetration” (396). If that is true, then it explains why some of the POWs resorted to crude breast reduction to avoid rape. They wanted to separate from the other gender, to restore as much of their masculinity as camp could allow.

The physical feminization of men makes itself apparent in King Rat too. Sean, during his earlier training in acting the female for plays, had become so wrapped up in his character; he suffered through two attempts of rape. Unlike the men in Ghost Soldiers, Sean refused his masculine side and embraced being a woman. It was as if suffering through rape as a man was much too difficult a burden to bear socially, so accepting his female side became the only way to cope with rape especially, as Prugl suggests, since the rape of women is historically a more general occurrence (336).

Sean’s death at the end of the novel high lights his transformation from a man to a woman.

“He slipped off his short pants and shirt and put on the evening sarong and padded bra and belt and stockings and combed his hair and put on makeup… And then the girl stood up, confident and very happy. She put on her high-heeled shoes and walked into the sea” (396)

As Sean strips off his man clothes and dons female garbs, the pronouns of the narrative show the transformation from “he” to “the girl” who was going to end her life.

Steven also serves as a demonstration of the effeminate with his soothing “dears” and “poor boy”, much like a doting mother (339). Even his occupation of nursing the sick at Changi is feminized. He would walk around the sick wards, “all the time a lullaby, delicate and sweet” as he tended to the men as if they were his children (137).

The issue of clothing in King Rat serves to be an interesting point of feminization amongst the men. The ideal about what a man should look like becomes a point of interest, especially when looking at the way the liberators viewed their simple sarongs and their emaciated bodies. Like the POWs in Ghost Soldiers who had grown breasts without any shirts to cover them, the men of Changi were considered feminized by their liberators for wearing sarongs. A major yelled at Marlowe about his sarong that “it’s a skirt, standing in a skirt, half-naked! You POW’s think you can get away with anything… And now you’ll be taught respect…” shows that the deconstructed social values of Changi had feminized the men so far that their masculinity was a shred of what their liberators believed it should have been. By preventing the POWS easy access to western clothing, the Japanese had feminized the prisoners into wearing “female” dress.

The King had been chastised at the end of King Rat for maintaining a muscular and healthy body while the other men starved and looked like walking sacs of bones. In addition, the King was the only Changi prisoner to maintain his masculine clothing. The King declares in his defense he has to “look after number one” (387). This suggests that he was the only person to be a true man in Changi and since men are socially higher ranked then women, the King was just looking out for the only man.

The King, however, finds his downfall and is berated for not caring enough about the well fare of the other POWs. The liberators are not much kinder in their perception of the skinny POWs, however. The liberators stare at them as if they are a “side show”, a “fascinating” study on how the rules of life and death work within the confines of prison camps (398). Their feminization in terms of their physical condition can be compared to the mythical side show freak: the bearded lady. She’s maculinized by her beard and the men are feminized in their physical weakness – such as the physical weakness of women. In both cases, their physical appearance can be considered a flip on the gendered appearance binary.

In comparison, the POWs of Ghost Soldiers, received better treatment from their liberators. One of the dying POWs was “cuddled” in a liberators lap as they crossed the line to freedom (316). Even the liberators could show a little femininity toward a dying POW. After being freed, the POWs are given new clothes and watch their g-strings – their sign of femininity – thrown into a bonfire. It’s as if the liberators are burning their femaleness away through a cleansing fire and reminding them that they are men (326). In addition to issues of sexual humiliation, the men became more feminized in their means of staying alive. Both King Rat and Ghost Soldiers describe survival cliques that consisted of two to four men that looked out for each other through sickness and through meal times. They functioned, in way, like married couples do. In Ghost Soldiers, the narrative describes pairs that when one died, another followed shortly after or when both men lost their teeth, their shared a pair of dentures to chew food (146). This type of camaraderie is not typical of men under normal western social constructions, but strip that away, and the importance of survival and having someone to care for allowed men the freedom to be feminized in this way.

However, the Cabanatuan prisoners received pampering once liberated – having their nails cut and cleaned- and were gifted with the sight of seeing General MacArthur crying in relief of their safety (327). However, they were ordered to eat as much as possible to fatten up before returning home because “America didn’t want its war heroes to look like skeletons” (325). It was as the order declared their hardships were going to be pushed under the rug upon returning home. As if people did not want to know they suffered terribly.

Both King Rat and Ghost Soldiers demonstrate the feminization of the POWs through starvation and restriction which lead to the physical feminization of breast development and the clothes of a female – both a means of sexual humiliation – and sexual mutilation by cutting genitals. The solitude of the POW camps lead to a deconstruction of “normal” masculine behavior and lead to a society that was unmanly and more feminine and allotted for even further sexual humiliation by means of one prisoner raping another.

This suspension of masculinity in a prison camp does bring up the question of how much of gender is a social construct and how much of it is biological. King Rat and Ghost Soldiers demonstrate that once a side in war becomes feminized by its captors through sexual humiliation and feminization, that the men can function with compassion for the sick and share a deep sense of friendship in a feminized manner. However, it seems their masculinity was reestablished upon returning home. Gutmann points out that that highly defined parameters of “’masculine’ national character traits” were developed in the 1950s (388). It is as if both King Rat and Ghost Soldiers novels suggest that femininity can only be a reality amongst men who have suffered through blows on their socially constructed masculinity.

Works Cited

Clavell, James. King Rat. Boston: Little, Brown & Company. 1962.

Guttman, Matthew C. “Trafficking in Men: The Anthropology of Masculinity” Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 26, (1997), pp. 385-409. Nov. 2008. JSTOR <>

Prugl, Elizabeth. “Gender and War: Causes, Constructions, and Critique”. Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Jun., 2003), pp. 335-342. Nov. 2008. JSTOR

Sides, Hampton. Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission. New York: Anchor Books. 2002.

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