Though most of the military guards charged with abusing prisoners are men, the public face of Torturegate is a woman. And the press has had a field day insinuating that “tomboyish” Lynndie England is something other than a natural lady.
“Leasher gal” was how the New York Post referred to England in a headline last Saturday. The high-end papers were more tactful, but the fact that her picture made the front page of both The Washington Post and The New York Times is hardly incidental. Much has been made of England’s willfulness, her nerviness, and her fondness for hunting. Never mind that many women hunt in England’s neck of the West Virginia woods. Hers is not the attitude of a proper Southern maiden.
But then, England is no maiden, as the media duly noted by reporting that she’d been knocked up by her military boyfriend Charles Graner. He’s also been named in the torture case, and many stories about him mentioned that he had been accused of abusing his former wife. But when a dude acts out, it’s dog bites man. When a babe misbehaves, it’s bitch bites man—and unfortunately that’s a story.
Say what you will about sexism in this coverage. It’s definitely true. But there’s another reason why England’s face is so ubiquitous in the press. Many acts depicted in those awful photos resonate with certain erotic fantasies. To admit that images of forced sodomy and pyramids of naked men are arousing is to understand why guards can do such things when ordered to, and then smile for the cameras. But because these fantasies clash with acceptable sexuality, they produce revulsion. The media show just enough flesh to rivet our attention, while blurring the holes in the prisoners’ rectums as a signal of what we need to repress.
But offer an image of a woman grinning at the humiliation of men and you allay any homosexual anxiety while tapping into the permissible kitten-with-a-whip fantasy. You can blame her for being unnatural even as you project yourself into her gaze. By fostering this reverie, the press helps to transform a horrible story into a source of pleasure. That’s where Lynndie England comes in. She’s not just the face of Torturegate; she’s the dominatrix of the American dream.
England is also the product of a generation in which women compete on the playing field and on the job. That sense of agency is bound to unleash the capacity for aggression, especially in a military setting.
So it’s no more perverse for a female guard to smile at the sight of suffering prisoners than it is for her male comrades to give a thumbs-up sign. But when a woman holds the leash, she becomes a phallic female, and that spells trouble—as well as temptation.
No wonder the image of Uma Thurman wielding a sword in Kill Bill is so exciting and terrifying. No wonder the Bride’s behavior has to be couched as a reaction to trauma. It’s a shame that Quentin Tarantino wasn’t called on to film the torture at Abu Ghraib. Then we might have had a dramatic explanation for England’s grin. As it is, we can only call her leash lady—and get off on that.