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From Debbie Reynolds to Dallas Cheerleaders: Until Every One Comes Home

December 17, 2009

“Until every one comes home” is the motto of the United Service Organizations,  the partnership that organizes entertainment for U.S. troops domestically and overseas. The USO proclaims that its number one aim is to boost troops’ morale.

In the traditional war scheme where men fight and women manage the home front, women take on hefty symbolic weight as the sacrosanct population. In this situation, women stand in for all that is missing in a war zone, and by extension, all that is being fought for. As symbols, they encase lofty or abstract ideals in sensual form. From the bare-chested, Amazonian “Liberty Leading the People” encouraging the rabble to depose a king (and promptly seat another, presumably better, one) in nineteenth-century France to the raunchy women gamely adorning the noses of WWII jets, representations of the female form multitask in combat environments.

It makes sense that the rich potential of women’s images to trigger strong feelings in the (presumably – don’t ask, don’t tell, of course) heterosexual and (historically, largely) male members of the military has been put to use for various purposes. Images of women explicitly provide sensual attraction, reminders of home, and even a call to arms – serving as an emblem of the lifestyle troops are fighting to maintain.

In their heroic forms, women are equated with peacetime America. Silent film superstar Mary Pickford — one of the world’s first celebrities when mass media, that incomparable vehicle of celebrity, was truly new — while herself Canadian, was the original “America’s Sweetheart.” With the various technological developments that made image consumption (film, more massive printing and distribution) boom around the turn of the century, film fans felt an intimacy with their idols that had never been possible before. The ability to sit in a dark room seemingly inches from a star (in a movie theater) or to tack their signed image on a wall at home was sincerely new. “Little Mary”’s solid place in Americans’ fantasies of the ideal could be used as a tag for other purposes – such as patriotism. Pickford promoted war bonds, her image appeared as the personification of American spirit, and as her nickname suggests, she was generally touted as part of America’s national identity.

Although the acronym may not ring a bell, the work of the USO is familiar to many of us, even if only in grainy, black-and-white form. Bob Hope’s comedy tour in Vietnam; Marilyn Monroe cooing, on her tiptoes, over the heads of adoring soldiers; war-movie scenes of fresh-faced nurses swing dancing with beaming troops in smoky rooms.

The USO was Congressionally chartered early in the US’s involvement in WWII, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt served as its first honorary chairman. The USO was a joint child of six interesting bedfellows (including the Salvation Army and the National Jewish Welfare Board).

My curiosity about what had ever happened to those Camp Shows – the performances given by celebrity actors, comedians, and musical performers who toured overseas with troops – led me, as all nagging questions must, to Wikipedia. In the entry’s assembled quotes and historians’ evaluations of the USO’s services there is a clear thread – the theme of home. The accounts of WWII-period performers and soldiers, particularly, reiterate the impression the female performers left on them: that of “the girl next door,” an idealized snippet of their alienated home, paying them a visit.

A stash of letters addressed to actress Donna Reed (“It’s a Wonderful Life” and “From Here to Eternity”) from troops evidence this sentiment. From a New York Times article on the nature of the letters:

“Donna Reed probably came closer than any other actress to being the archetypal sweetheart, wife and mother,” said Jay Fultz, author of the 1998 biography “In Search of Donna Reed.” Since she was also slightly younger, newly graduated from ingénue roles and therefore closer in age to the average fighting man, they often wrote to her as if to a sister or the girl next door, confiding moments of homesickness, loneliness,

privation and anxiety.

Of course, the splashy heights of the USO corresponded with a sea change in the American workforce demographic. WWII famously ushered in a period where, on an unprecedented scale, women filled jobs formerly available only to men (for a great documentary on that change, check out “The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter”)

The role of women in the USO has changed over time, as the onus for bringing a taste of home to troops is spread more evenly by modern technology, as the demographics of the troops and of the at-home population continue to change, and as the circumstances of war shift. According to William Robert Faith’s book “Bob Hope: A Life in Comedy,” during Hope’s 1990 Christmas Tour at Operation Desert Shield in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, the female contingent of Hope’s tour did not perform, since they would have had to appear veiled in public.

In an anecdotal video, from the Times, on women and PTSD, the main subject – who served as a medic in Iraq – says that “The frontline is everywhere. It doesn’t matter whether you’re on a post or not because nothing is secure over there.” That fact of contemporary combat, in urban locations in the Middle East in particular, is now familiar from various news reports.

Correspondingly, today’s USO provides a techy alternative for troops in areas too remote or dangerous to  host live performances: “USO In A Box” (yup).

USO in a box: Mike Theiler / USO.org

I browsed the USO’s website’s calendar of entertainment events going back to January 2007, and over that period the focus – at least for headliners – hardly seems female anymore. Familiar male celebrities like Gary Sinise, Toby Keith, various “NFL Football Stars,” DJ Skribble, Stephen Colbert (who taped four episodes of “The Colbert Report” in Baghdad in front of a very enthusiastic audience this past June) outnumber the mentions of female stars, although Anna Kournikova makes repeat appearances.

On the other hand, the USO site is replete with pictures of the perky, pantyhosed Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. These are the performers whom the USO itself calls “America’s Sweethearts.”

While for troops  overseas such sights may not be a dime a dozen, the USO site offers others more precious on the home front, such as an  image of Nancy Pelosi and Dr. Jill Biden personally stuffing the USO’s “first-ever care packages for women” (among the recognizable goodies are Maybelline mascara and Kleenex) in November.

While Colbert’s taping in Baghdad garnered a lot of press, it seems clear that USO performances fly much more under the radar, at least for civilians, than they did in the past. Still, while the attending audience may have whittled down to solely the troops, the participation factor, with the help of technology (isn’t it always?), has widened. The USO’s website is quite media-rich, and seems geared toward potential volunteers. It’s fairly encouraging to see the relative diversity of entertainment offered through the USO. Perhaps that indicates a more encompassing acceptance of what home might look like to participants in the military. Morale is not one-size-fits-all, and while the current USO may not be making hot cultural history, it does seem to be changing with the times.

Abigail B. Colodner is the Performance Arts editor at Gender Across Borders. You can contact her at performancearts@genderacrossborders.com

2 Comments
  1. farley griner permalink
    December 18, 2009 2:29 pm

    Interesting! Is entertaining the troops becoming a rite of passage for celebrity status? I remember when Mariah Carey filmed the “I still believe” video, and mimicked the footage of Marilyn Monroe entertaining the troops in Korea.

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