Shim, David and Stengel, Frank A. (2022). ‘Militarizing Antimilitarism? Exploring the Gendered Representation of Military Service in German Recruitment Videos on Social Media’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 24(4): 608–631. [Open Access] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14616742.2021.1935289
Scholarship on masculinities illuminates the intricate entanglement of gender identities with experiences and practices of violence. It also illustrates how institutions such as the state or the military reinforce hegemonic masculinities, obscure women’s labour and roles in political processes, and ultimately justify militarism and violence through gendered and racialized tropes. The study of recruitment narratives and visuals promises to shed light on the strategies of those institutions but also on society's wider understanding of those roles and a possible change in that understanding over time. Shim and Stengel, in their contribution to a thematic issue of the International Feminist Journal of Politics (2022, No.4, 'Rethinking masculinities, militarization, and unequal development') analyze the gendered representation of military service in the German YouTube series Die Rekruten ('The Recruits'), a popular web series produced on behalf of the German Armed Forces (Bundeswehr) for recruitment purposes, which accompanies 12 navy recruits during their basic training.
The authors are interested in this series because, according to them, the construction of military masculinity here is distinguished from recruitment ads in the United States or the UK by 'a markedly civil character'. In their analysis, Germany after WWII displays an 'antimilitarist culture', as characterized by the German Armed Forces' principle of 'inner leadership' (Innere Führung) and an understanding of its members as 'citizens in uniform' (Staatsbürger in Uniform). This gives room for a more flexible understanding of (the male) gender role while at the same time risking that the violence committed on behalf of the state becomes hidden. This media analysis of specific scenes of Die Rekruten is informed by a poststructuralist understanding of gender as a relational category (with a reference to Judith Butler). Those videos come across as documentaries but they also apply techniques typically used in corporate videos such as commenting on background music and by mocking and mimicking protagonists as well as introducing elements of entertainment or blogger aesthetics. Hierarchies between experienced soldiers and recruits, while seemingly dissolved, re-surface in the display of physical skills. But after a while, those skills are acquired by recruits as well. The message: it's not out of reach. Die Rekruten basically communicates to the audience a coming-of-age story, primarily about self-improvement and pushing one’s own limits. This is an appeal to subjects for whom patriotic duty might not be as strong a motivator. There is also that (male) shop talk, the usual detached and neutral talk about the tools of killing. Shim and Stengel cite with some unease an argument that was less easily uttered after the Bundeswehr's out-of-area operations had started, namely that it is necessary to acquire the skills to kill to never need to use them. There seems to be an element of suppression (Verdrängung) in this attitude. The central point of critique here is that while appealing to a broader audience with a less heroic model of masculinity, the recruitment documentary also contributes to 'concealing the violence that has for the past two decades also been a very real part of what the Bundeswehr does'.
In analysing a successful recruitment narrative of the German Armed Forces, Shim and Stengel identify a strategy to appeal to a broader audience in contemporary German civil society while arguably tapping non-military motivations for military appeal. These ambivalent findings, first published in 2021, obviously call for a follow-up research in light of the current debate about the changing role and purpose of the German Armed Forces in a much-challenged European context, where those 'complicated masculinities' likely will not remain untouched.
Frank A. Stengel is a Research Fellow in the Research Group on International Political Sociology at Kiel University, Germany. His research focuses on international political sociology. He tweets at @frankstengel.
David Shim, an Alumni Fellow of the Centre, is Senior Lecturer in the Department of International Relations and International Organization at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, and Visiting Researcher at the Chair of International Politics and Conflict Studies at the Bundeswehr University, Munich, Germany. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.