Representation Matters

by Kate McCreery Glynn, ’98

Meg Ryan as Captain Walden, Courage Under Fire, 1996, 20th Century Fox

“It’s just tension asshole. It doesn’t mean shit!”  1996, it was my youngster-year.  Captain Karen Walden’s Blackhawk crashed under enemy fire. She survived, enemy soldiers were closing in, and a crewman was ridiculing her tears.   Remember her?

Probably not. Courage under Fire wasn’t a great movie, and Meg Ryan wasn’t the most convincing as a Blackhawk pilot. But dammit I loved her.  Captain Walden was imperfect. She cried. She was sweaty and dusty and scared. She wasn’t beautifully coifed, ready to be swept off her high-heeled (in a hangar, really?) feet by a macho Tomcat pilot like Charlie Blackwood.    She wasn’t a beyond anything I could ever hope to be Olympian who shaved her head, literally removing the most outward symbol of her femininity, to make it through BUDS like GI Jane.  She wasn’t capable, whip-tongued, but only valuable in so far as she was the foil to men’s shenanigans like Hot Lips Houlihan.

Kelly McGillis as Charlie Blackwood,Top Gun ,1986, Paramount

Of course, Captain Walden was also dead, and the bulk of the movie involves Denzel Washington investigating whether she was worthy of a Congressional Medal of Honor and handsomely brooding over his own demons.  So in the end, even Captain Walden’s story is told in terms of what she means to a male protagonist.  Even this movie, about a female warrior, fails the Bechtel test[1] with a splat.

And yet.  “It’s just tension asshole. It doesn’t mean shit!”  Those words still speak to me.  Who among us haven’t felt the sting of tears, and the gut churning panic stifle them?  It’s just tension assholes!

I used to be embarrassed at how much it meant to me to see myself reflected on the silver screen.  We are supposed to be above all that drivel, and in no way needy of external confirmation of our worth, right?

Naruto, Madman Entertainment, 2007

And then, I had a son.  And then, I had a daughter.  And I saw my son pick his first heroes (Spiderman! Naruto! Sheldon!), and bask in the glow of their awesomeness.  Their exploits were his, their adventures his own.  Spiderman taught him that with great power comes great responsibility; Naruto to fight, literally, your inner demons; Sheldon to embrace his nerdiness.  And I saw my daughter look for her heroes.  Am I Mary Jane?  Does she shoot webs?  All the girls in the Naruto have really big boobies. Penny is funny and pretty, but why isn’t she a scientists like Sheldon and Lenard?

And then, Wonder Woman.  Yes, Gal Gadot’s Diana is beautiful, but damn she is strong, and that movie is unapologetically about HER.   Chris Pine is cast as the proverbial damsel, rescued, awed by Wonder Woman’s might, and basically a prop to advance the plot.  Diana was raised by women, trained by women: no man was responsible for her abilities.    My daughter’s face glowed.  I glowed.  We glowed.

Caley Cuoco as Penny, Big Bang Theory, CBS, 2007-2019

It’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating:  representation matters.   In that fluffy superhero movie about a demigoddess with a lasso of truth, my daughter found a hero to call her own.    In a world where women are still so often defined by how they relate to men (anyone else cringe at “don’t be mean to her she’s someone’s wife/sister/mother” trope?  She’s human isn’t enough?), proof that a woman’s story is worth telling.

When I was at USNA in the mid-nineties, there were a handful of female company officers, instructors, and stripers[2], so it’s not as if there were zero examples of female leadership in my life.  What I most keenly remember though, is how easily I followed my classmates into the habit of denigrating those women.  Affirmative action—that’s how she got her job.  A woman’s high-pitched voice calling cadences just sounds wrong.   Did you hear about LT ___?  I hear her husband left her and now she sleeps in her office.

Wonder Woman, Warner Brothers Pictures, 2017

Men in positions of authority was the firmly embedded norm, and anything that diverged from that was automatically weird, suspect, lesser than. I wish I could tell you that I was ashamed for not pushing back against jabs like these.  I didn’t.  They felt normal.  Joining in was a way to earn my membership in the brotherhood of disgruntled mids.

Of course now, with the benefit of 20 years of hindsight, I recognize how harmful that normal was.  It took a long time for me to excise the gremlin in my head that would whisper, “Do you deserve it or are they just being PC?” when I achieved academic or professional success.  I know now that with every snide remark about a strong female leader’s sexuality (Look at her what a dyke!), or failure to point out that her anger was righteous, not hormonal (what is she PMSing or something?)  I was doing my part to implant that voice in other women’s brains.  Now I feel great shame, and great fear that my daughter will not be spared those same whispers.

What the hell does this have to do with Wonder Woman and Captain Walden?  We are so very used to male heroes.  The damsel, perhaps feisty and intelligent, but ultimately in need of rescue, is standard issue.  Female characters defined only in terms of their relationship to male leads, or conveniently victimized to advance the plot (think the murdered girlfriend a hero must avenge) are common.  Male heroism, leadership, bonding, is idealized, normalized, lifted up in glory, in books, TV, movies, video games.  So, male leadership is normal; it’s what we expect.  When a woman fails to follow her normally assigned role on the other hand–and something as simple as failing to smile enough can land you in this category–it is unfamiliar.  We do not like unfamiliar. It is off-putting, disquieting, tempting to point out the weirdness of the situation (I cannot with a woman raising her voice. So shrill!).   As Caroline Criado Perez points out in Invisible Women , “When Thor was reinvented as a woman by Marvel Comics, fans revolted… although no one uttered a peep when Thor was replaced by a frog.”[3]

Little girls and little boys need heroines.  Unapologetic bad-asses like Diana, and complex imperfect ones like Captain Walden.  Maybe then, when they see women in leadership positions, it won’t seem odd.  Maybe they will know, instinctively, that the timber of a drill instructors voice does not reflect to her competence.  Maybe they will understand that tears are just tension asshole, it doesn’t mean shit.[4]

[1]  The Bechtel Test is a measure of the representation of women in fiction. To pass the Bechtel Test, a work must feature at least two named female characters talking to each other about something other than a man.

[2] A “striper” is a midshipmen in a leadership position, company commander, battalion commander etc.

[3] Caroline Criado Perez, Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, (New York, NY, Abrams Press, 2019), 14.

[4]  Of course, representation matters to everyone, not just women.  In good news on that front, Mattel recently announced a line of gender non-binary dolls.  Lashana Lynch who is next line to portray James Bond is female AND black.  The comments under articles describing those happy developments, on the other hand, are enough to make you disconnect your Wifi.  We have a long way to go.

 

Be There (Part II)

by Shannon Martin McClain ’98

Being there. I have often put the word out to others or “been there” for my classmates, peers and sailors.  And while so many people have been there for me throughout my life – family, professors, leaders, and friends, it is always difficult to admit to myself – let alone others – that I need help and support. I dislike pity parties and hate not being able to solve problems on my own. However, I have always felt a strong obligation to be open and honest with those who depend on me. As one of the team at Sisterhood of Mother B, I found myself at a crossroads last May. I had received difficult news in March, and I knew I would need to share it with the Sisterhood HQ – I was going to have problems fulfilling my end of the bargain as Chief Editor.

Unsure of how to even talk about my troubles, I sent an email to the other ladies of the Sisterhood of Mother B:

“So, I have been reminded multiple times this weekend that I might love to talk, but I am a terrible communicator.  Doesn’t matter whether it is great news, good news, or really devastating news. . .

“The bad news.  So Carlton and I are pregnant (well, I am) and due in September.  That should be awesome news, but unfortunately, I’m the number 1 in 1 in 26. 1 in 26 pregnancies at the maternal age of 44 have a chromosomal defect (that’s less than 4%).  And I won the lottery of the worst kind that might make it to term (Trisomy 13). The good news is that I’m healthy.  The bad news is that there is a high probability she won’t make it to term; if she does, she has a high probability of dying during birth; and if she lives through that, her life is more likely to be measured in minutes, hours, or days than months or years. We chose to continue, because we really just want to meet her. . .”

“The day I found out the results of the first test, a friend’s father passed away.  She said, we miss him, but we are choosing joy, as he would have wanted.  Carlton and I are choosing joy. Joy that we might get to meet her and joy for whatever time we have with her.  So, if I seem a little distracted or not as responsive as I might be this week or as time goes on, you might know why.”

As you would expect, these brilliant, and wonderful women rallied around me. In separate emails, letters and through group texts, they lifted me up and gave me an outlet to share the normal things you share when you are pregnant.  They bought into Carlton and I’s philosophy of taking the joy we have in the moment. They also picked up the slack on articles and planning for the Sisterhood of Mother B Blog. They were there for me.

Our daughter, Yara Ani, was born 1 August and passed away on 15 August.  She beat the odds and gave us more than hours and days. She gave us two full weeks of love and memories.  My Sisterhood was there for me during that time, as well – in addition to the ladies of Sisterhood, with the birth of our little girl, I shared our news with our wider world – to celebrate our amazing girl, but also because we needed help.

The morning after Yara’s birth, a friend surprised me at the hospital with clothes and a blanket – a blessing since we had nothing. Yara was impatient to join us and arrived seven weeks early. The wider Sisterhood came to our rescue with a carseat to transport Yara home from the hospital, homemade meals (healthier than I can generally make), restaurant gift cards, and grocery deliveries. One fellow officer taught me about Door Dash and another about Uber Eats (I had never used either). Friends, former shipmates, classmates, and complete strangers reached out to lift us up in word and in prayer. All of these things enabled my family to focus our limited time on our Yara.

After Yara passed, our Sisterhood continued their support.  At Yara’s Memorial, I was shocked to walk into the room and see the Sisterhood of Mother B (only Jeannette was absent) sitting in the pews. Michele had mentioned that she would be there, but it helped so much to see the others there as well.  It bolstered my courage as we celebrated Yara’s life and mourned her death.

After the service, we spent hours reminiscing and sharing stories on my front porch – and we used modern technology to FaceTime with Jeannette. Those ladies helped me concentrate on my joy and helped me to laugh – something I very much needed on that day.  And these women and the wider Sisterhood continue to offer opportunities to find joy and purpose.  They inspire me to the work at hand. They always seem to know when I need a little bit more – a note in the mail, an email, or just a text.

I would not have had any of that support if I had not shared my vulnerability.  I struggled to share it with most of my world, but I am so glad that I felt the need to share it with these women with whom I share the Sisterhood of Mother B. They were and are there for me. Just as we hope to be there for you.

If you need someone, I encourage you to reach out to your circle of friends and family.  If you are like me and hesitate to burden those closest to you, I encourage you to find an outlet.  One tool you can use is the  #objectivezero app. This application connects veterans with support in their local area or around the country, and you can filter by location, school and class year among other options. The goal of Objective Zero might be suicide prevention, but you don’t have to hit rock bottom to reach out for help. #USNABeThere.

Be There

by Michele (Cruz) Phillips, ’98

The Sisterhood of Mother B online community was started by members of Great ‘98 and is a result of the camaraderie felt during our 20th Reunion Women’s Brunch. Many of us felt that brunch was the highlight of the weekend, which it was – a happy one. But there is another event from that weekend that has been just as memorable and with lasting effect: our Memorial Service held at the World War II Memorial.

At the top of the hill with our academy in view was a wonderful place to honor, celebrate, and mourn our Fallen Classmates. It was a reminder that all life is unpredictable, but for those in service, the risks are especially high. Our Brigade Commander, Reuben Brigety ‘95, was our guest speaker.  He reminded us to not only celebrate our accomplishments together, but to support one another in life’s toughest times. Many of us have already experienced career failures, illness, divorce, the loss of a spouse or child. It’s during these times we need to show up and be there for one another.

After his speech, Jenn Marino bravely took the stage to read the names of those we have lost.
18 names.
4 operational losses.
7 of the remaining 14 chose to take their own lives.

When we think of those classmates who felt there was no other way to stop the way they were feeling, we have to ask: How? Why? What can we do? And from here, the ‘98 Suicide Action Group was formed. Under the leadership of our Class President Dave Foreman, Great ‘98 partnered with Objective Zero. Objective Zero is the top suicide prevention, behavioral and mental health, wellness, and peer-to- peer support mobile app for military veterans. One feature it did not have was the ability to search by school and class year. Thanks to those who donated close to $15,000 to our class fundraiser, Objective Zero added this feature, and it is now available. We invite you to join us.

The app allows a person to instantly connect with an OZ ambassador with a background of their choosing; filters include branch of service, MOS, school, gender, age, distance and others. To be an ambassador, you need to watch a 30 min training video and take a short quiz.  You then commit to make yourself available for 30 minutes a week should someone find themselves in need of personal support. Even if being an ambassador isn’t for you, we encourage you to get the app and log in.  There are amazing resources for both prevention and crises, and the theme is that we never know when we may need some help.

The Sisterhood of Mother B and the Suicide Action Group were results of the bonds reclaimed at our 20th Reunion. Both remind us how connection is so important to our emotional wellbeing. I am excited to see what else our class will do, but for now we commit to BE THERE.

download OZ App here: https://www.objectivezero.org/app

Waltzing Around Change- Recollections of Plebe Year Ballroom Dancing

by Jillian Danback McGhan ’06

Culture is a pervasive, powerful force in organizations that can divide or unify. It is undeniably amorphous, but no less real than other more visible factors.

Which brings me to ballroom dancing.

Allow me to explain.

On a slow work day, my colleagues and I struck up a conversation about talents we wish we had. A few of my co-workers agreed upon ballroom dancing.

“How elegant would it be to just glide through a crowd like that,” sighed Emily,visions of full gowns and gentlemen in sashes reflecting in her eyes.

“Ugh, they made us ballroom dance in college” And by college, I meant the US Naval Academy.

“Did they? Oh my gosh, that must’ve been great! Did you dress up?” Laura squealed in enthusiasm, practically conjuring beaded bodices and glittering jewelry.

I paused to consider the compulsory Plebe year PT uniform: the blue rim t-shirt made of pitted, cheap cotton that was too short in the torso and too tight in the arms; blue, knee length mesh shorts with a weak elastic waistband that lacked any discernible crotch; white tube socks pulled up to the mid-calf; and white trainers with large, stiff laces that formed awkward loops.

“No.”

“Wait, aren’t there only, like, five women who go to the academy every year? You got to dance with all those men?” Emily asked, no doubt imagining tall, strapping men in dress whites bowing low before taking my hand and whisking me around a marble floor. I barely had the heart to tell her we practiced in an old gymnasium with faded basketball court lines.

“Well, yeah, that was the problem.” I replied, shuddering as I recalled the rows of clammy palmed guys either squeezing the blood from my hand out of nervousness or taking such a loose grip I thought I was holding a dead rodent. The best dance partners would make a joke about the absurdity of the situation and just avoid talking. Others would let a hostile awkwardness sink between us.  One partner avoided eye contact throughout our sad attempt at the foxtrot, lest looking directly into the eyes of a female Mid turn him to stone. An odious, and thankfully few, attempts at lascivious or insulting comment commentary were met with vicious retort. Few of us female Mids were in any mood for that, conscripted dance dummies or not.

“I will rip your arm off and work my way through the rest of your limbs,” I recall hearing my roommate threaten one particular partner after he made an indecent proposition. Jane Austen certainly never wrote that into her dance scenes, but I’d like to think she’d approve.

The jarring recollection of this bizarre chapter in Academy life seemed so strange that I started to believe that I imagined the whole episode: lining up early on a Saturday morning, our shorts hiked up to our rib cages, to do the waltz and cha cha under the disapproving glare of our (possibly hungover) company officers and two overly enthusiastic dance instructors who would always cheerily encourage us to “limber up before you step it out”. Well-intentioned or not, I still possessed the strong urge to hit them both over the head. And while there were a few more than five women in our class as Emily suggested, we were outnumbered by about 15:1. Which meant we had to dance with them. All. Of. Them. A literal battalion of men.

Later that evening, I texted several of the women from my company to confirm these memories. Their responses arrived in quick succession:

“Ugh… what made you think of that?”

“Yeah! So awkward!”

“Remember when I told that guy I’d rip his arm off :)”

I breathed a momentary sigh of relief that I was not, in fact, losing my grip on reality. Yet that relief was quickly overcome by angry incredulity. Who on earth thought this was a good idea? Were we preparing to welcome the second coming of Napoleon with a soiree?

In 2002, when the great class of 2006 was plebes, ballroom dancing was one part of our larger etiquette-training curriculum. Many a pre-liberty weekend hour was dedicated to the intricacies of stationary font and embossing, which fork to use at formal dinners, and what titles to use for high-ranking military and civilian officials, foreign diplomats, politicians, and orthodox shamans. In retrospect, as much as we groaned at the prospect of attending these sessions, many demonstrated their value as our careers progressed. After all, the military is perhaps the world’s last true social equalizer, and these skills offered a type of privileged pragmatic value. Many of my classmates later admitted their appreciation for these sessions years later. But… ballroom dancing? Even John Paul Jones rolled his eyes in his crypt.

For added context, we were plebe ballroom dancers barely a full year after the events of 9/11. The nature of warfare itself was evolving, and the intersection of culture and combat in brighter relief than ever before. This desperate attempt to cling to the last anachronistic vestiges of “what it meant to be an officer” was as wasteful as it was impractical. Not to mention that the dated, platonic ideal of a Naval officer we were instructed to replicate was, highly problematic. By being relegated to the ranks of dancing partner, the women in my class were rewarded for their passivity.  We were being “good sports”, per our instructors’ compliments, acting as props for our male counterparts’ edification. This sent the message, however subtle, that their learning was prioritized over ours. We were being trained to enter a world where men led on the dance floor, and everywhere else, and our most valuable contribution was to be a good sport and accept the next sweaty hand extended in our direction.

To their credit, nearly all the men I spoke with on the topic found ballroom dancing as ridiculous as we did. These men resented that they were the inadvertent instruments of our embarrassment. Some even admitted feeling helpless to do anything that improved the situation: hence, the feeble attempts at humor we were not in the mood to accept. One classmate mentioned a time he started dancing with his roommate as a joke, to be instantly shut down by a hovering company officer. A male-male coupling in 2002, even in jest, was no joking matter: many a career- and many a life- was ruined over it. Besides, this was supposed to be our professional education. As he chagrinned, “Ballroom dancing was a serious business.”

Even as Plebes, we intuitively recognized this focus on etiquette as a faultline in the Navy’s culture and responded with our only weapon against authority: mockery.

What my classmates and I observed in these lesson was an organization standing at the precipice of cultural change. Over the next few years, our class would witness several initiatives intended to instill greater gender equality. Some yielded visible change, such as the advent of sexual harassment task forces and greater attention to gender representation in Midshipmen leadership positions. Others invoked more ire than influence, such as changing to the lyrics of “Blue and Gold” and adopting gender neutral covers. At that moment, what we observed was an institution so tightly tied to its heritage that it refused to surrender even the more ridiculous nuances of its past. Perhaps it was a reaction to the portents of change that would occur over the next four years. The squeaks of our sneakers in time to the scratchy music playing on the cheap speakers signaled our outward compliance. But our rejection of this model of a naval officer we were expected to emulate was an incremental step in gradually constructing a new one.

In my post-Navy work as a management consultant, my clients are frequently troubled by cultural disconnects within their organizations. These organizations struggle with tensions between their past and their future: who they think they are and who they need to be. They are right to be concerned: cultural disparity between employees and organization directly contributes to diminished employee satisfaction, lower job performance, and increased staff attrition. Yet all my commercial clients combined do not have nearly as much at stake as the Navy does. The Academy, much like the Navy, will always possess its own unique culture formed by its years of rich tradition and heritage. No one is suggesting that this history be abandoned, but for better or worse, that culture is also shaped, and changed, from within. As such, our collective rejection of the waltzing Naval officer represented a small act of subversion; our own contribution to shaping the Navy’s culture long before we were ever commissioned.

The truth is, cultural disparity within an organization need not manifest as a battle at all. When it comes to our values, we’ve been conditioned to perceive everything new as an existential threat (after all, we did seem to enjoy boxing much more than dancing). What choice exists but to fight change to the death? Perhaps this should be the lesson we take away from our profoundly absurd ballroom dancing lessons. Cultural shifts need not be a sparring match, but rather a dance. There is an inherent give and take for both parties involved, a productive tension that, much like a waltz, can create something beautiful… That is, when not performed by Plebes in PT gear.

Did your class have to participate in etiquette training? Did you actually enjoy ballroom dancing? Let’s hear from you in the comments below!

Two Pairs of Shoes

by Captain David S. Forman, ’98
(As published in SHIPMATE March 2019, pg17)

“You’ve been shot by a girl!” rang out in the submarine control room after we heard a woman’s voice on the underwater telephone call out the codeword for “I just shot a torpedo” during a submarine versus submarine exercise with the Australians. I was a junior officer, and the Officer of the Deck was quite embarrassed.

Years later, as a department head, my wardroom discussed women eventually joining the U.S. submarine force. I childishly stated to my fellow officers, “The day women join the submarine force is the day I get out of the Navy.”

Well, thankfully, women joined the submarine force, and I’m still in the Navy. In fact, when I received orders to command ALASKA (BLUE), I was disappointed I would not have the opportunity to serve with an integrated crew. What changed my mind? The Naval Academy did.

After my department head tour I became the Flag Secretary for the Superintendent. In preparation for follow-on orders as executive officer, when I could have been assigned to an integrated crew, I listened to senior female Academy leaders and attended several symposiums about women in the Navy. I came to fully appreciate what women offered and better understood the Navy from their point of view. That education mattered.

Fast-forward to our 20th reunion. Classmate Susan Balcirak ’98 ask for my help adding a women’s brunch to our reunion itinerary. As class president, I was happy to help, and the event was an overwhelming success. By reconnecting as a group, ’98 women felt a synergy that none anticipated.

Their inspiration to continue to support each other and other women associated with USNA led them to create “The Sisterhood of Mother B.” They will be thought leaders for women in military through blogs, podcasts, social media and outreach events.

The need for such a group is clearer than ever. The Navy is competing for talent against myriad forces, and we need every capable sailor and officer we can get. Despite how far we’ve come on many equality fronts, we are not done yet.

As one example, a female colleague of mine is an essential contributor to a national security project. While working with her in the Pentagon, I noticed that she had two pair of shoes…one for walking at a hurried pace (like we usually do in that building), and another for the actual meeting. It’s a small anecdote, but she’s not the only woman who does that. Something is not right if men get by in the workplace with one pair and women need two.

Between two pairs of shoes, along with my more than 20 years of submarine service, I know first-hand that good people matter. The only way we’ll maintain a preeminent Naval Academy and Navy/Marine Corps team is to support and develop the few people who are qualified and agree to serve. I’m honored to call myself a classmate of the amazing women who started “The Sisterhood of Mother B” who will help do exactly that.