... And war's leading man

Geeta Kothari

February 20, 1991|By Geeta Kothari

THEY'RE calling him the "Scud Stud." NBC's Arthur Kent, reporting from Saudi Arabia, has a fan club. Women tape his reports and spend time finding out such important facts as his marital status (single) and age (37). War, the movie, now has a leading man. Given our geographical and emotional distance from this war, our interest in Arthur Kent (or any other correspondent) makes sense. Wearing his leather jacket, pen and pad in hand, Kent has the glamorous and intellectual familiarity of an Indiana Jones. He is attractive, with the classic all-American looks most people find reassuring. He is young enough to be someone we could have gone to school with, dated or even married. Furthermore, he's white and sounds and looks Ivy League-educated.

In short, he's an image we're accustomed to, one we identify with authority and power in our culture. And, for women for whom there is no emotional, tangible connection to the war -- no enlisted relative or friend -- he becomes that connection.

While the troops remain an anonymous mass, the war correspondents have become our human link to this abstraction called war. With the government restricting press access to information, our images of the war are limited to missiles falling across the sky as remote as comets; dry, suit-clad men analyzing a situation that, ironically, has been conveyed in words, not pictures; lifeless maps; and finally, the familiar faces of war correspondents, donning gas masks in the middle of a report.

But Kent is just an image. We tend to invest such images with those very qualities that we -- as women in a society where feminism is still a dirty word -- lack. By and large, our media portray women as bimbos, bitches or bored housewives, while images of men such as the Marlboro man persist. Naturally, the men in the news appeal to our emptiest part, the part that wants to go out and do something. Being Arthur Kent is not possible, but making chicken soup for him is. Although we express our fondness for Kent in terms of sexual attraction, we really want to be him, not with him. This Arthur Kent Fan Club is not about Arthur. It's about us.

Kent appeals at once to our desire for security and our desire to take care of our man. Most days, the war correspondent is in control. He relays the news with the authority and assurance that so many of us crave in this time of chaos and uncertainty. On those days when he is facing a Scud missile attack, scrambling for a gas mask and letting the cliches fly, we can feel for him and trust that this break in the facade shows the real man, the one who can be strong and vulnerable at the same time.

More troubling, however, than this sample projection of desires is another way we use Kent. Suddenly, the war has become the thing to watch, like a favorite George Michael video. We come home to an image that fulfills not only our deepest needs of reassurance but our erotic needs as well. Thus, we eroticize a painful event, making it pleasurable. This may be a reaction to the anxiety caused by the war. It is so painful that we keep it abstract by turning it into a movie with Kent as the leading man and us as the heroine. Or perhaps this has less to do with war than the way women connect to it through men. When we watch a basketball game, are we watching the game or Isaiah Thomas? At what point do we, if ever, become part of the sport?

We've always talked about war being a man's game. Arthur Kent delivers on that score, too, dramatically counting off air strikes as they happen. With all its technological advances, the weaponry of war doesn't seem to change its basic shape and will always have an erotic appeal to men that most women don't get. There must be something deeply satisfying about launching your missile into space and seeing it bring the enemy down. Thanks to Kent, women can now participate in the game with some satisfaction and pleasure. True to form, TV seduces the viewer with its images of missiles and daring men.

And where are the troops in all of this? Are we going to be so eager to turn on the TV when it's just Arthur Kent's voice over the image of some grunt bleeding to death? No more missiles over the relatively santized Dhahran airport, no more counting each Scud as it is hit. Will our response to a dying soldier depend, too, on whether he has a well-chiseled face?

All this huzzing about the Arthur Kent Fan Club gets us nowhere if all we're interested in is his favorite food. Maybe we should ask ourselves why his age interests us more than the question of why we're in the middle of a war. If we continue to connect to complex events through the most glamorous image, turning pain into pleasure, then war, no matter how close the media bring us to the front, will always be a movie.

Geeta Kothari is a writer who tutors at the University of Pittsburgh and the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University.

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