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

The plight of prisoners of war can play an interesting role in the study of masculinity issues of men during the World War II. 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. He was a WWII prisoner of war himself and used pieces of his experience to pen the novel. The story follows POW in the Japanese prison camp of Changi. The central characters are the King, Peter Marlowe, and Robin Grey. The King runs the show – he heads all the black market trading within Changi and gets Peter Marlowe to join his circle of money and power. All the while, Grey is trying to stop their schemes and the influences of the King.

Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission is authored by Hampton Sides. The novel concerns POWs from the Bataan Death March, prison camps O’Donnell and Cabanatuan, and the heroic efforts of their liberators. The novel threads together conversations, memoirs, diaries, and government documents to form a narrative that is both enthralling and informative. This novel delves deeply into the exact conditions and day to day activities of the POWs.

In her article Gender and War: Causes, Constructions, and Critique, Elizabeth Prugl points out that “the castration of prisoners, anal rape of enemy soldiers, and insults that intimated homosexuality or effeminateness effected a metaphorical feminization” (336). As she suggests, these actions of dehumanization against the soldiers of the losing army are what serve to put POWs into a state of feminization. Prugl suggests that war strips away “social norms” and such actions as rape and sexual embarrassment “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 could be viewed as means of fighting typical to females, especially calling forth the pop culture image of “cat fights” in which females slap and scratch each other until the victor emerges. In comparison to boxing and numerous martial arts that use punches and jabs, slapping could perhaps could be viewed as an un-masculine form of fighting, 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). For fear of rape, those men wanted to separate from their breasts as soon as possible. They turned to crude, painful, and unsanitary breast reduction surgery. In his article, Trafficking in Men: The Anthropology of Masculinity, Matthew C. Gutmann discusses this fear of rape. According to him, “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 what Gutmann says is true, then it explains why some of the POWs resorted to rudimentary breast reduction to avoid rape. They wanted to separate from the other gender, to restore as much of their masculinity as they could.

The physical feminization of men in King Rat makes itself most apparent in the character Sean. Sean was a play actor and had received training for portraying female characters. There were times when he 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 social burden bear, and 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 male clothes and dons women’s vestments, the pronouns of the narrative show the transformation from “he” to “she”, the girl who was going to end her life.

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 cared for each other through such obstacles as sickness and 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.

This type of caring can be found in King Rat through the character Steven, a nurse in the POW camp. With his soothing “dears” and “poor boy”, much like a doting mother, he cares for the sick and dying in the camp (339). 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 hard treatment they received from the Japanese had created a situation where it was normal for a man to be gentle and comforting to another man.

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 considering the manner in which liberators viewed their simple sarongs and their emaciated bodies. The men of Changi were considered feminized by their liberators for wearing sarongs, much like the POWs in Ghost Soldiers who had grown breasts and possessed no shirts to cover them. Marlowe had been told by an army major he was wearing “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…” Though King Rat is a fictional novel, it demonstrates the deconstructed social values of prisoner camps. The men were so far feminized 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 liberators are not much kinder in their perception of the skinny POWs. 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).

Despite their criticisms on being too thin, the King had been chastised for maintaining a muscular and healthy body while the other men starved. In addition, the King was the only Changi prisoner to maintain his masculine, western clothing. The King declares in his defense he has to “look after number one” (387). His western clothing might suggest that he was the only true man in Changi since men are higher ranked then women in patriarchal cultures.

His argument that he had to protect himself could be viewed as masculine behavior in comparison to the other men who all cared for each other. The King, however, reaches his downfall and is berated for not caring enough about the welfare of the other POWs.

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 softer, compassionate side toward a dying POW. After being freed, the POWs were given new clothes and watched as their g-strings were thrown into a bonfire. It’s as if the liberators were burning away the POW’s femaleness through a cleansing fire, restoring them to men (326).

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). Essentially, the pain, the sexual humiliation, the very struggle to survive was going to be pushed under the rug upon returning home.

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 allotted for even further sexual humiliation by means of one prisoner raping another as in Sean’s situation.

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 when soldiers becomes feminized by their captors through sexual humiliation and feminization, it creates a social breakdown that allows these men to 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 and when they return to their previous lives, their manliness is restored.

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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