I wrote a blog last Thursday, which some of you might have read. It was a big, fat feminist rant, which you can read over here, but it was actually triggered by a conversation with the husband, which was, in turn, triggered by a piece of research.
Research, for us, comes in many forms, and is often shared. We read the papers together, and often the same books, but a lot of our shared research comes in the form of movies and TV shows.
One Sunday night a couple of weeks ago, the husband and I were eating supper together, and it happened to be in front of the TV. We’d had a couple of long weeks, without breaks and were in crash mode, so we were watching The Antiques Roadshow on BBC1. To be fair, we weren’t watching it; we were eating and talking and winding down, and the TV was simply on in the background. When the program finished, a show was trailered that was due to start on BBC2. It was Special Forces: Ultimate Hell Week. Of course, the husband is always in work mode, so we switched channels and began watching this show about ordinary men and women being put through their paces by instructors from various special forces operatives from around the World.
There were women volunteers among the recruits for the program, and that’s where our conversation about women in the armed forces, and about their comparative strengths and weaknesses as frontline troops began. The debate spun out from there and formed the backbone of that first blog.
Things have moved on since then. We had come in around the third program, and it was interesting, so we checked out iPlayer and watched the show from the beginning. Last night, the final program in the series of six was aired, and, of course, we tuned in.
Special Forces: Ultimate Hell Week was all things to all people: it was a competition, beginning with 29 recruits, whittled down over the weeks to end with 6 in the final, with contestants leaving injured, being ejected by the special forces instructors, failing to complete tasks to the instructor’s satisfaction, or dropping out of their own volition; it was a reality show, showcasing personalities and characters for the viewers to love or hate, to root for and get behind, and to follow through physical, mental and emotional trials and tribulations; it was a platform for the elite forces of the World’s armies to demonstrate their skills; and it was, very loosely, a form of documentary, informing the viewer about training and instruction of the special forces. All in all, it was pretty interesting TV.
There are, as far as I know, currently no women operatives in any of the special forces represented by the seven instructors who took part in the show. They were from the United States of America, Israel, the Philippines, Australia, Russia and the UK. As of 2015, the official line in the US Navy is that there is no reason women will not be allowed to join the SEALS, providing they complete the training; there aren’t any women SEALS yet. There is a female NAVSOG training program in the Philippines, women have to be single, and training appears to be segregated, but the opportunity is there. In 2013 about 150 women began training for Spetsnaz, I can find no further reference for them. As of 2012 a number of women had passed the entry requirements for the SASR, but had not progressed further, which suggests that the Australians have ‘other concerns’, probably in line with current thinking that women are in some way a liability. It is, of course, widely understood that women are deployed by several of the World’s elite forces for specific tasks relating to secret counter-terrorism operations. In the British forces, women are currently not allowed to bear arms. An assessment in 2010 reported that women were able to meet the physical and psychological standards required for close combat, and the situation is under review. That’s a pretty long way off having women operatives in the SAS.
OK, back to the program. I’m not entirely sure of the ratio of men to women in the show, but over the twelve days of the endurance tests, recruits of both genders fell away pretty quickly, and, it seemed to me, evenly. It was hard to predict who was prepared to suffer what struggles or indignities, or what would break a particular person. For some it would be hunger or sleep deprivation, for others it would be facing their fears. Some simply couldn’t complete a task, others couldn’t keep their attitudes in check, or just tried too hard. So-called ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ personality traits seemed to have very little to do with anything.
Some of the women were fierce and great leaders when the men struggled, and some of the men were patient and long-suffering when the women weren’t. All of the recruits were complex characters.
I can’t help thinking that all of the instructors, and everyone that I saw was male, including the six specialists, and the presenter, Freddie Flintoff, expected the women recruits to be the first to leave. I can’t help thinking that all of the men running the show were surprised when the women began to find their feet and get on with the jobs at hand. It showed all the time in the comments they made about the women and to the women. I realise it wasn’t their intention, but they were often a little condescending when talking about what a great job the women were doing, and how they’d never seen such tough women. Those women are people, guys, as tough and prepared and resourceful as the men. They knew what they’d signed up for, they knew what they were getting in to, they knew what they had to prove, and they were ready to do it.
|Clare Miller and what the Telegraph reported before the show aired|
Many of the women recruits… Many of the recruits were athletes. Murphy was a firefighter and a soccer player, Martlew was a specialist in obstacle course racing as was Clare Miller, who also rowed for her university. They were also mentally tough. I wonder whether it isn’t rather easier to be mentally tough when society makes you the underdog in every aspect of your life.
No one expected women to do well in Ultimate Hell Week. Miller weighed in at 55kg, but no concessions were made for her small size or for her gender when it came to the competition. She carried out exactly the same tasks as the men, and that included carrying the same bergen at the same weight, with the addition of the same water bottles. At one point, I noted that she was carrying more than 40kg. The man standing next to her probably weighed 90-100kg. She was carrying 73% of her body weight, while he was carrying between 40% and 45% of his body weight, putting her at a huge disadvantage. And the woman never wavered.
It would be easy to expect that the final six contestants would be men. I don’t know what the ratio of men to women was at the beginning, but two of the final six recruits were women, and I think that roughly represents the original ratio. On the final day, Clare Miller was left with Danny Bent and Huw Brassington. If it had been about the physical test on the final day, the woman beat both of the men with the fastest time on the run, fully loaded with that bergen, but other factors were also taken into consideration, including responses to capture and interrogation.
Clare Miller came out top on those tests too, showing greater resilience than Bent and Brassington to being hunted down, humiliated, sleep-deprived and a whole host of other stressers.
Clare Miller is a great role model; She took on physical and mental tests of endurance and mettle, and she accomplished things that most people, irrespective of their gender wouldn’t even try to do. Not only that, but she competed with twenty-eight other people to prove that she was the best in the field. Anyone should be proud of such an achievement. We should all applaud her.
The instructors on the show applauded her, as did her fellow contestants, and Twitter went wild for her.
It was a bitter-sweet victory, however, for me, at least.
This was not a person being applauded for doing a good job well. This was a woman, and this was a woman besting a field of men. The men on the program had grown to know this woman and to appreciate her for who she was and what she had achieved. They were clearly surprised by the outcome of the show, but it was the Clare Miller they had come to know, and she was brilliant and exceptional and that was good enough for them.
Women love Clare Miller, and I’m one of them. She is a role model for us and for our daughters, and we badly want her there as a great shining beacon, and why wouldn’t we? Of course we want women like her to shine a light… Of course we do! But Clare Miller was just doing what she does, what she loves. She’s a smart woman, and a little bit of her might just have been doing it for the rest of us, but, honest to goodness, is that her responsibility? And should it be? I rather think not. It shouldn’t be anyone’s responsibility.
If the World was a friendly place for women to exist in we wouldn’t need these heroines, these role models, because life wouldn’t be so damned hard, and we could all just get on with it in our own sweet ways.
And then there was the Twitterverse. Women love Clare Miller, and they said so all over Twitter… But where were the men? For all of the hundreds of women who posted positive comments celebrating Clare, where were all the fans of all things military congratulating the winner of Ultimate Hell Week? Where were all the male fans of the show? And why did they all seem to go quiet when the winner was announced?
OK, not all of them went quiet. There were some lovely men who applauded and appreciated Clare Miller, and good on them. But the ratio of men to women tweeting about the show was hugely overbalanced. There were dozens of women congratulating Clare for every man that showed support.
And while the number of men showing support was small, a good proportion of them weren’t showing support at all, because they were aggrieved. They didn’t like the result, they didn’t like it one little bit, and they said so. Here is just a small sample of the tweets from unhappy men after the show aired:
Liam: Bullshit should Miller have won
John-Paul: She could not carry the weights and should have gone out weeks ago
John-Paul: She failed on weight challenges every time and saw it all as a game. BBC being PC.
Nathan: Brassington should’ve won that for me.
Tim: Miller won because of some sickly pro women BBC agenda. Awful.
Calvin: Absolute travesty that Brassington didn’t win.
Aj: “He’s the perfect soldier for special forces, couldn’t find a single flaw.” Yet Brassington still lost. We all know why.
John-Paul: Another politically correct fix by the BBC? Miller never was the best and could never be special forces.
C: The right man won.
Clearly John-Paul has got problems, and as for C… Seriously… Clare is now an honorary man, because, after all, a woman couldn’t possibly do this, so let’s just take her under our wing and make her one of us, let’s welcome her into the boys’ club. Yeah… right!
Men say ‘prove yourselves’, so we do, and some man calls shenanigans. So, I’m going to refer you back to that blog that I wrote on Thursday and remind you all that this is a choice. We can come onto your playground and beat you at your games; Clare Miller just proved that. Or we can bring our own strengths to the table and we can create a better world with more balance that will benefit all of us.
Take your pick.