As part of my PhD research, which looked at how ideas around military heroism circulate in popular culture and everyday life, I did some work focusing on the UK’s bestselling Military Wives Choir (you can read more about the choir here).
For this aspect of the project, I was really interested in seeing how the women of the choir engaged with some of the dominant representations of military wives that circulate through popular culture. The prime example of this is Gareth Malone’s BBC television programme The Choir: Military Wives. I was interested in how the experiences of the women of the choir might chime with or challenge the story told through things like television programmes. I spent roughly a year doing fieldwork with the Plymouth branch of the choir, not only chatting with them but going along to rehearsals, watching performances, and attending fundraising events.
Below are some of the conclusions that came out of this research. The quotations (which I’ve kept anonymous) are taken from interviews with the women.
The most striking research finding was the way that women talked about attending the choir as something which had given them a voice, one which had previously often been hidden behind concerns for the struggles of serving members of the armed forces.
“…you can belt it out and that could be the only time that week that your voice is getting heard in a way, especially if your husband is away and you’ve got two children and you don’t talk to many people.”
Being a choir member had unexpected impacts on the lives of some members, empowering them to leave dead-end jobs, start college courses, and do new things with their lives.
“It has been very empowering, a lot of the girls have started to do things like they’ve started courses, so like for me I’ve wanted to train to be a counsellor for a while and going to the choir and doing the gigs and having the support and stuff I’ve finished my course. Other girls have started up businesses, other girls have changed jobs or gone for jobs that they’ve always wanted to go for, and I think it’s been really empowering for everybody to have this voice, that’s a big thing that the choir has given us. It’s given us this voice together but also individually, so like OK I want to go and change my job so I’m going to change my job.”
Being in the choir also, for some members, helped to disrupt some of the conventional roles the women found themselves in, and this disruption to gendered household dynamics was important. Attending rehearsals or performances for some meant that their husbands had to stay at home and look after the kids.
“It’s enabled me to be like ‘OK I’m going out and doing stuff now, my husband can stay home and look after the children’.”
For others, though, attendance was challenging and put strain on relationships.
The empowering aspect of the choir is not one reflected in wider media representations, and was suggested to be paradoxical to the image of the military wife that the choir represents. This image is of the military wife as a rather docile, faceless woman who exists to support her soldier husband.
Despite some media representations, which suggest that the Military Wives Choir is just women singing sad songs about their husbands, attending choir often had little or nothing to do with their partners. There were diverse reasons given for attending choir, but none of them included wanting to sing about their husbands’ heroism or bravery.
“It’s strange, all of the soppy love songs that we do sing don’t remind me of my partner. They more remind me of my family back home, like last year my mum found out she had breast cancer, so I was always singing for her it was nothing to do with him”
Community and Therapy
Many members attend the choir as a way of meeting other women in similar situations to their own, and making new friends.
“It was a way of meeting other ladies as well who had similar interests and who would understand the life I lead”
Other members felt that the choir was a way of remaining attached to the military community during periods of transition in their lives.
“…the choir keeps me [in the military community]… I am a little bit removed and I think I miss it, that’s an important part of being in the choir, the community is more like an extended family and now I get my little fix of that each week”
The community that is generated by the choir between military wives helps to challenge the notion that military wives can only be recognised in relation to their husbands. They are their own distinct community.
In private rehearsals, many members felt that singing sad or melancholy songs helped them to connect with other members who were going through difficult times. Singing these types of songs in public performances also helped military wives to connect with their audiences.
Attending choir was often very therapeutic to members, and gave them an emotional release. This emotional release was tied to singing both happy and uplifting songs, and sad or melancholy songs. The latter often helped members to connect with their emotions, as well as each other.
“music is very therapeutic, and what’s quite nice is that people feel they can cry, they don’t feel stupid for having a good cry”
The choir is seen first and foremost as a support group.
Media representations of the choir were not necessarily reflective of the diversity of military wives choir groups, who often include not only wives but girlfriends, sisters, mothers, daughters, and serving or veteran women. (Catherine Baker has some interesting observations on the public image of the Military Wives Choirs here).
The BBC’s The Choir: Military Wives, while shedding an important light on the lived experiences of military wives, told a particular ‘story’ which was not always accurate or sensitive to the needs of the military wives themselves.
“We felt really uncomfortable like we shouldn’t be there but they were just like THIS IS FANTASTIC LETS GET IT ALL ON CAMERA”
The songs that are chosen for public performances often appeal to audiences, but again only tell one side of the story. Many members expressed a desire to sing more upbeat songs in public performances, in the hope of challenging representations of military wives as, in the words of one woman I interviewed, ‘poor sad women’.
“Because of the media coverage of Wherever You Are and cos of the style of the song and the lyrics, and because of all the stuff we do at gigs, how sad it is how sad the lyrics are, and you know there’s a lot of ‘Oh look at those poor sad women’ [laughs]”
Another woman pointed out,
“we would also like to sing stuff that we enjoy singing that’s happy and upbeat… when you go you want to be uplifted, you don’t want to be stood there like ‘I miss my husband’”
Overall, the image of military wives portrayed through media representations of the choir was one which research participants wanted to change.
A key findings report based on this research will be available to the Military Wives Choir Foundation in the next few weeks.
This research was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council.