The recent flurry of critical commentary provoked by the photo featured here set my New Feminist nerves on edge. What could possibly be wrong with a US Marine detailed to the White House holding an umbrella for the President of the United States?
The real story is not in the photo. It’s in the Marine Corps regulations. Umbrellas, it seems, are for females. Male marines are instructed,, “never to carry an umbrella from the earliest phases of training.” Female marines, however, are allowed limited use of regulation umbrellas “during inclement weather.” There is unquestionably a gender specific “double standard” in the US Marine Corps when it comes to umbrellas and, like any gender differentiation these days, we are not suppose to mention these differences in politically correct company. Blathering is often a telltale sign of an underlying gender issue. I’ll get back to this.
The photo itself seemed remarkable to me, not as a breach of military uniform policy, but for the utterly amazing umbrella-holding technique demonstrated by the buff US Marine, 25 year old Nathan Previti. This fellow has clearly practiced holding an umbrella so that he looks terrific in a photo of himself holding an umbrella, even though he is standing out in the rain and has his arm in exactly the same position bad boys in my 7th grade class had to balance a telephone book when Mr. Bailey got very pissed off at them. I mean, could anyone possibly look more competent and in charge of an umbrella than Marine Previti?
Frankly, I would let this Marine hold my umbrella anytime. Most men are pretty good at positioning the umbrella over their own heads, but negotiating where to put the umbrella to keep another person dry, is not normally in their umbrella skill set. Most fellows end up badly miscalculating the direction of the wind and the rain and you end up getting drenched. It’s better to have no umbrella holder than a poorly trained one like this useless fellow – which is to say that handling an umbrella for someone else is not all that easy.
But most of the social noise about President Obama and Marine Previti utterly ignored umbrella-holding technique and, instead, focused on Marine Corps Uniform Regulation 3035 which provides:
3035. UMBRELLAS (Female Marines). Female Marines may carry an all-black, plain standard or collapsible umbrella at their option during inclement weather with the service and dress uniforms. It will be carried in the left hand so that the hand salute can be properly rendered. Umbrellas may not be used/carried in formation nor will they be carried with the utility uniform.
From this provision – which “does not expressly [delineate]” umbrellas as authorized for men – one commentator spurred a charge that “The commander in chief of the American armed forces today forced a violation of Marine Corps regulations, so he wouldn’t get wet.”
Reactions (primarily from men) immediately grew emotional, leading Cynthia Enloe, a professor at Clark University, to note, “They seem to be very nervous what constitutes un-manly behavior.” The fact that the Marine in question was detailed to the White House for service in ceremonial duties which, sometimes, means hoisting and holding steady an umbrella – and looking fabulous while doing so – were facts largely lost in the rising gender jitters. One (male) writer went so far as to agree that the President had forced a Marine to violate the umbrella regulation but he insisted that the umbrella “rule is dumb,” an example of “macho B.S,” in other words, umbrellas are not just for girls!
Is the gender-specific umbrella double-standard in the US Marine Corps “BS”? Why do different protocols based upon gender make us so nervous we cannot even stay focused on the actual facts at hand? Umbrellas, actually, are only the tip of the Marine Corps iceberg of gender differentiation. A quick glance over the Table of Contents of Chapter 3 of the Marine Corps Uniform Regulations spots subtitles like “cuff link sets (men),” “earrings (women)” “handbag/purse (women)” and “suspenders (men)” in addition to the now well known, “umbrellas (women)”. In fact, from the hair on their heads to the tips of their toes, every US Marine is highly regulated in appearance and choice of attire and accessories and, more, those regulations vary significantly based upon the gender of the Marine.
But allowing variations in gender dress and appearance, is not, in my estimation, the sole reason these differentiations pervade the US Marine uniform regulations. Rather, I suspect that the regulations actually operate to restrict and prevent much more overt expressions based upon gender which, left to their own choice, US Marines would pursue as readily as civilians. Notably, rule after rule targeting certain gender specific issues restrict the choices Marines can make in selecting apparel and accessories. There is no rule, for example, requiring women to wear earrings. But there is a 3 pronged regulation, with sub-parts, describing the size, shape, material and proper fit of permissible earrings if a woman decides to wear earrings. The many, detailed restrictions on male and females expression of gender in their dress and personal appearance suggests that, even highly disciplined individuals like Marines, can drift toward expression of gender differences to the point of overshadowing the military identity a “uniform” is aimed to cohere.
Here are two examples.
Who can forget this May 2012 photo?
The photographer, Crystal Scott, who organized the photo shoot on the Fairchild Air Force Base and subsequently lost her civilian position on base, planned to feature in a show and posters her photographs of “a pair of Air National Guardsman breastfeeding their children in unbuttoned airman battlefield uniforms.” While the mothers apparently were not disciplined, there was widespread agreement that the photos misused the military uniform by creating an over-the-line, gender specific image in which the gender identity of the women out shadowed their identity as Guardsmen. How remarkably chipper and comfortable these nursing moms seem to be with their boobs on display, literally expressing the life-giving nurture women hold dear, while wearing combat fatigues! This was an image of “women in uniform” that made even the most supportive “difference” feminists a bit uneasy.
Men just as naturally drift toward unambiguous expressions of their gender identity, given the option. Consider the resources the US Marine Corps spends devising and educating members on appropriate hair styles. Women are told cut it short or wear a bun. Men’s style “short and tight” should be even easier to comply with, right? Apparently not. Bad ass mohawks, for example, are not permitted unless they measure out to the appropriate width of coverage. Variations like a “horseshoe” or a “teardrop” have all been tried, only to be caught, captured and tossed out.
In case any ambiguity remains, there are detailed drawings of permitted styles available.
Differentiation in permitted hair styles was, incidentally, the first “right” to gender difference litigated after women successfully challenged the male only admissions policy at The Citadel. The “equality means sameness” litigant, Shannon Faulkner, who insisted that the male only admissions policy was discriminatory against women, nevertheless, refused to have her head shaved as required for all incoming cadets. The very same lawyers who had demanded “equality” in the admissions policy became, as New Feminist Elizabeth Fox-Genovese observed, “passionate” about “a woman’s right to have an attractive head of hair.” (Feminism Is Not The Story of My Life, p. 38).
All of which brings us back to umbrellas.
Whether an umbrella, any umbrella, is a unique expression of femininity within Marine culture, I am not sure. What I am certain of is that umbrellas can be, and often are, a fun statement of female sensibilities, both in the use of them to protect against rain and sun and, more, in coordinating them as part of a woman’s statement of feminine fashion. If you leave it up to us, most women will make a gender statement of some sort with their umbrellas.
Or like this:
Or even like this:
And, well, if we can’t make that feminine statement with our umbrellas then, for most of us, the next best thing would be a well trained umbrella handler, like U.S. Marine Previti for example. But that takes us to a different topic which I’ll save for another day.
Whether Regulation 3035 makes sense or not, two things are clear. Marine Previti did a darn good job with that umbrella when his President called upon him – and he broke no uniform regulation in the process. Second, the Presidential umbrella provoked gender anxiety and I think it is just fine to say so out loud. Some men, it seems, are trying to be heard, in a blathering kind of way, about what they would like to do with that accessory. Sometimes, pictures speak better than words.