Military Spouse Stereotypes: They’re no joke
We’ve all heard them: Military spouses are lazy; they sit on the sofa and eat bonbons while their kids run wild. Military spouses are dumb; they have no education or ambitions beyond collecting their spouses’ paychecks. Military spouses all bitch slap everyone with their spouses’ ranks. Military spouses are drunkards. Military spouses cheat the second their spouses are more than 10 ft away from them.
Stereotypes exist, in part, because there is some truth to them. Some people are crazy, or lazy, or drunks, or cheaters whether or not they are in a military family. The military is a subset of the great US population, after all. However, this does not mean all military spouses are this way.
I remember my 2nd year as a military spouse. I had landed a job and was in the process of getting a training certification with some other new hires. I forget what I was wearing one day that caused someone to recognize I am a military spouse, but it really tripped her trigger. She began going on and on about how military spouses are drunks and how we all cheat on our spouses. I was shocked. I told her that nothing could be farther from the truth, to which she replied: “Oh, yes it is. I was married to a Navy guy for 5 years in Japan and every time the ships left, my friends and I would go to the bars, get drunk and pick up guys.” Okay, well that proves she was a drunk and cheated on her spouse. That doesn’t mean everyone does, but it didn’t matter. She had activated that stereotype within the group we were working with and people treated me differently afterward.
Situations like this have cropped up frequently over my ~8 yrs as a military spouse. I have been openly discriminated against in the job market because I am a military spouse. After all, I will just leave the company when my husband gets transferred. I have had people in my husband’s commands repeated talk down to me because I am a military spouse. It doesn’t matter that I have far more education and diversity of life experience than they do. An Ensign once told me at an event that she didn’t have to talk to me because, “you’re not on the ship.” Apparently, in her mind I was not valuable because I had no rank next to my name. Probably the most famous incident occurred when I was at IVYU. I took a Women Studies class on Ecology out of curiosity. The instructors decided that it was completely acceptable to teach the stereotype of military spouses to the students as part of the course material. In their view ALL military spouses are in the throws of patriarchy and are too indoctrinated to realize it. I got a C in the class for contesting their viewpoints. This idea was derived from Cynthia Enloe’s writing on military spouses. After all, by contesting what they said, I was just proving how indoctrinated I was. To me this proved that civilians, even women who consider themselves feminists, rely upon reinforcing negative stereotypes on military spouses rather than recognizing and supporting the diversity of women in every arena, including the military.
As a result of these incidents have deeply informed how I conduct myself in the world, because I never know when I will be recognized as a military spouse and I want to be sure that I am upholding an image (which is my true self) that contradicts these negative stereotypes. In this regard, as a social class minority (1% of American families are associated with the military), I see myself as a public figure and recognize that when I do something it reflects on the entire class, not just myself.
For the record, I am not saying I want to be on the evening news. Nothing is farther from the truth. I prefer to be honest about who I am, but not define myself by it. I want to be judged on my merits, not whom I married. However, we all know that if I did something stupid and/or noteworthy, it would be reported and repeated as “Ophiolite, Military Spouse, does something stupid and/or noteworthy.” I try to keep that in mind. For now I am tied to and identified with the military social class.
Right now I live in an area with few military spouses. I am not near a base. I am in the process of finishing my professional education and getting a job. I know from past experience how being a military spouse negatively impacts my job prospects because of the “military spouse stereotype.” I’ve lived it. As a result I have several very good reasons for exhibiting the highest level of professional conduct at all times, and in all things, and in all places.
I went to a year end party for our department, where by whatever mechanism (our department is incredibly gossipy), it got around that I had gotten falling down drunk at the party the year before. This is not true. I realize most people there looked at the party as “This is college” and thought nothing more about it. To me, it was a grave injury. I was there networking with the alumni looking for a job, for support for the club I run in the department, and of course as a military spouse. I had been named one of the University’s Women of Distinction for next year in part because I am actively working to break the negative military spouse stereotype that both civilians and military personnel enforce upon us.
I went to the source and confronted her because I know what damage this can do to my reputation and has done to me in the past and it was blown off by her as “a joke.” These issues are no laughing matter. On the internet, in print, and in real life military spouses are a social minority. There is significant prejudice against us and none of us can afford to take it as a laughing matter.
If we want to be more than “camp followers” and really come to realize our potential in the world of employment and elsewhere, we have to be openly speak up and combat these negative stereotypes. It’s not enough for the First Lady and Dr. Biden to say, “Hey, hire these men and women. They work really hard, they’re very dedicated and loyal.” We have to be willing to speak up, be counted, and show ourselves in the world for who and what we are.
As Military Spouse Appreciation Day is drawing near, it is a really great time to speak up against these negative stereotypes and be counted. In the words of another military spouse, “We have to take off our disguises and show ourselves as both heroes and humans; people who wait but also people who build communities.” By doing this we can combat the negative stereotypes thrust upon us, however innocently, and reframe the discussion of the contributions of the military community in general and military spouses in particular. In so doing, we create intellectual space for Americans to see us for who we are, not the negative stereotypes that persist about us.