Rachel Teukolsky on Gendered War Journalism

At a recent Women’s Studies Colloquium, Rachel Teukolsky, associate professor of English at Vanderbilt University, discussed the use of gender roles in Crimean War journalism from the Victorian period.

PROVO, Utah (Feb. 10, 2017)—Could shifting modes of media coverage during the Victorian era play a part in changing traditional Victorian values and class systems? At a Women’s Studies Colloquium, associate English professor Rachel Teukolsky from Vanderbilt University discussed how new media technologies during the Crimean War helped middle-class journalists use subverted portrayals of traditional gender roles to the advantage of the middle class.

Teukolsky, who specializes in nineteenth-century British media history, demonstrated how the new visual realism of the Crimean War during the Victorian era worked to elevate the working and middle class through photographs and engravings of the amputee soldier and female “war angel.” “This was the first war where newspapers sent independent reporters to the war zone,” Teukolsky said. “I think you can see how these events would have troubled traditional definitions of masculinity and heroism, especially because there was a strong class divide that opened up between the military leaders and the working class men who fought the war.”

Teukolsky explained that at the beginning of the Crimean War, working class soldiers were considered “the most destitute and uneducated of the British and Irish male core.” This was starkly contrasted with aristocratic war officers, whose wartime experiences differed significantly from the working class soldiers. Rather than manning the trenches and freezing on the frontlines, war officers enjoyed feasts, balls and daily horseback riding.

Yet as the war progressed, many of these working class soldiers died futilely under the incompetence of their upper-class war generals, and it was in this moment that middle-class newspapers shifted their focus on wartime imagery to portray a new vision of what war and masculinity should look like.

“Newspaper coverage of the war, with its grimly realistic details, forced British audiences to confront narratives of shame and defeat following mistakes made by leaders who didn’t know how to win battles, orchestrate supply lines or care for the wounded,” Teukolsky said. “These failures amounted to what might be described in more modern terms as a crisis in masculinity.”

She continued, “The working class Crimean veteran came to embody a new form of heroic British masculinity, shifting away from the aristocratic generals who previously would have embodied the nation.”

Who was this new war hero, then, and how did middle class newspapers use working class soldiers to change traditional representations of masculinity? Teukolsky said that this new masculinity was demonstrated through the vulnerability of the working class soldier, and newspapers often used photographs of amputees to suggest manly, heroic sacrifice for nation while at the same time garnering sympathy for the wrongs working class soldiers suffered under inept, aristocratic military leaders.

Another gendered figure who appeared during the Crimean War was the skilled, maternal nurse, who Teukolsky called “the war angel.” The most prominent archetype of this figure was Florence Nightingale, Teukolsky explained, who took it upon herself to aid wounded soldiers in the obscene conditions of the Crimean war front.

Teukolsky said that examining the media of middle-class war journalism and the ways in which journalists portrayed men and women from the lower and middle classes is crucial to understanding the power of newspaper propaganda in shaping class and gender ideologies. 

“You have wounded veterans, who might have embodied a defeated, feminized, or even castrated masculinity, but these are re-inscribed as manly heroes.” Likewise, Teukolsky said, “Nurses are portrayed as saintly, ministering angels, even though they are creating a new profession for women in the public sphere – and this is an era in Britain where no respectable woman worked for money or left the home.”

“It isn’t really a surprise that gendered portrayals contribute to the power of [propaganda’s] appeal since gender itself always invites us to respond deeply and passionately, touching our core beliefs in defining self and other,” Teukolsky concluded. “Even today, the gendered figures of the nurse and soldier have strong feelings and controversy in ways that suggest the Victorian moment is far from over.”

—Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)

Sylvia covers events for the women’s studies program for the College of Humanities. She is pursuing an English and French double major with a minor in women’s studies.

Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Image one: Crimean War soldiers

Image two: Florence Nightingale