In this article we examine the debate preceding the most recent war in Iraq to show how gendered framing can compromise the quality of debate. Drawing on a sample of national news discourse in the year before the war began, we show that both anti-war and pro-war speakers draw on binary images of gender to construct their cases for or against war. Speakers cast the Bush administration’s argument for invasion either as a correct “macho” stance or as inappropriate, out-of-control masculinity. The most prominent gendered image in war debate is that of the cowboy, used to characterize both President Bush and US foreign policy in general. The cowboy is positioned against a diplomatic form of masculinity that is associated with Europe and valued by anti-war speakers, but criticized by pro-war speakers. Articles that draw on gender images show a lower quality of the debate, measured by the extent to which reasons rather than ad hominem arguments are used to support or rebut assertions.
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The selection of keywords was based on examination of the gendered images in the representative sample. The full list included: pansy, fag*, girly, feminine, unmanly, limp, or impotent, stud, heroic, tough, strong, and manly.
The preponderance of balanced articles shows the strength of the balance norm in American journalism, but a “balanced” article is not inherently a better one by our coding.
The majority of articles from the New York Times (54%) are anti-war, while most articles from USA Today, Fox News, and National Public Radio are balanced (65%, 48%, and 59%, respectively). The highest percentage of pro-war articles comes from Fox News (38%).
We therefore collected 6,822 (gendered and non-gendered) utterances of which 402 (6%) were gendered.
Searches in Lexis/Nexis for “Iraqi,” “women,” “women’s rights,” “oppress*,” and “liberation” showed that framing the Iraq war in terms of liberating Iraqi women did not begin in our news sources until November of 2004.
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The authors wish to thank all those who provided invaluable feedback and support at various stages of this project, including Pamela Oliver, Charles Camic, Cameron Macdonald, Hae Yeon Choo, Chaitanya Lakkimsetti, UW-Madison’s gender brownbag and writing group members, and the Qualitative Sociology anonymous reviewers.
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Christensen, W.M., Ferree, M.M. Cowboy of the World? Gender Discourse and the Iraq War Debate. Qual Sociol 31, 287–306 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-008-9106-0