The Five-Year Naval Career of Demi Moore

Twice in the 1990s, actress Demi Moore took up a brief Naval officer career on the big screen. Both films – one dedicated to the issue of women in the military, and one ostensibly not about women at all – generated a lot of attention. In 1992, Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men became a highly-acclaimed film, generating multiple award nominations at the Oscars, the Golden Globes, and a few other venues. Five years later, Ridley Scott’s G.I. Jane was far less critically-acclaimed (and Demi Moore even won a Razzie Award in 1998 for “Worst Actress” as a result of this film).

Both movies are post-Gulf War, although Sorkin’s was adapted from his late 1980s play of the same title (a story he ostensibly developed after talking to his sister, who appears to have been the inspiration for Demi Moore’s Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway). In the larger history of women in the military, the 1990s were big: you’ll find more books written on women in the U.S. military in the post-Gulf War years than perhaps in any other decade, and in addition, the Gulf War led to more changes in military women’s status and opportunity than had happened since the 1970s. The 1990s were also, of course, the era of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and increasing awareness of sexual harassment in the military following the 1991 Tailhook Scandal.

As I mentioned, A Few Good Women is really not about women in the military. It’s really supposed to be about Tom Cruise and his efforts to break out from his father’s shadow while pursuing a court-martial incident he doesn’t really want to take to court.

Yet, we begin with Lt. Cmdr. Galloway, the highest-ranking officer on the legal team, but also the most incompetent. This is theoretically because she’s just not a good trial lawyer – she’s an office lawyer. However, the first thing we learn about her is that she’s nervous and not confident in capabilities: the opening sequence, in fact, cuts from a line of Marines doing impeccable weapons drills to show Galloway walking across the grounds and trying to psyche herself up to ask to be defense lawyer for the case in question. It’s a striking contrast from the confident, well-groomed, and nicely-choreographed weapons handling. When she arrives at her destination, she blunders – and she’ll continue to blunder throughout the movie, always playing the misfit among the calm, cool military men.

The lawyer who does get the case is Tom Cruise’s Lt. Daniel Kaffee – a legacy guy straight out of law school who seems more like a flippant ass who has no interest in the people he’s representing. Despite this, he’s good at what he does.

Over the course of the film, we’re supposed to become more and more fond of Kaffee – he actually does has a heart, it turns out – and he’s really GOOD at what he does. He’s confident and he’s thorough. On the other hand, although Galloway works her way on to the legal team, she never quite gets the opportunity to look as good as Kaffee does, professionally: she blusters in the courtroom, and she utterly fails at her fact-checking, which causes a major setback for their defense.

In short: much of this film is about Cruise and Moore playing gender stereotypes: the confident male bravado and the nervous, not-as-strong woman who seems out-of-place in the nearly all-male military courtroom. With very rare exceptions, they do not deviate from gender expectations.

I was disappointed in how Sorkin wrote Galloway’s character. I simply don’t understand why we can’t have a confident senior female officer who’s competent. You could rewrite the screenplay to make her more confident and still leave her in a secondary legal role, and that would be fine – in fact, I have a feeling it would be fairly historically accurate. What I don’t understand is why your sole central female figure – and to top it off, your sole central military female figure – has to come across as relatively weak and incompetent.

But if Moore was stuck playing the military’s weakest link in A Few Good Men, G.I. Jane is a 180-degree turn. That’s the film where Moore plays – in a rank downgrade, no less – Navy Lieutenant Jordan O’Neill, who’s really good at her job (in contrast to Galloway) – so good, and so good-looking, in fact, that she becomes the test case for a new program to see if women can hack it in the most selective military combat programs. Hand-selected by Senator Lillian DeHaven, who supposedly is a feminist eager to revolutionize the all-male bastion of the military, O’Neill will become the first woman to train to be a Navy SEAL.

O’Neill, of course, succeeds. She does so by shedding her femininity, getting rid of all gender-based accommodations, and insisting that she be considered “one of the guys”. The central message seems to be that yes, women can do it (combat, Navy SEAL training, etc) – but they have to become as much like a man as possible to do so. Furthermore, the men will only accept a woman who can prove she’s virtually a man.

There’s a lot of commentary I could make on that. Yet, what struck me this time was the portrayal of feminism. DeHaven’s feminism is only skin-deep: when political interests dictate, she’ll backpedal and give up any interest she may have had in advancing women’s rights(and undermine O’Neill in the process, even bringing in suspicion of lesbian conduct). On the other hand, O’Neill very clearly notes at the beginning that she’s worried about the politics of it all and doesn’t want to become a feminist poster-child, so to speak. By the end of the movie, it’s rather clear to me who the “real” feminist is…and it’s not the one on Capitol Hill.

The main thing that troubles me in GI Jane is the powers-that-be angle, both in terms of so-called feminist efforts to advance women’s opportunities in the military and in terms of the apparent chauvinism of pretty much every military man in the movie. It’s crystal clear in this film that servicewomen do not hold any real value in the military – and they hold even less value for the politicians who see them as an opportunity to advance a supposedly feminist agenda.

I’m disturbed by this vision of “feminism,” and what it says about the status of feminism and women’s rights in the U.S. as of the late 1990s (and even into 2010). If DeHaven is supposed to be an example of feminism, who wants that? Not me – and I’m certain not any of the men and women I know who don’t identify as feminist themselves. (Rather, I’m sure most people I know would become even more skeptical of feminism, if that’s what they believe it to be.)

Women in the military do not tend to be a popular subject for filmmakers. As recently as 2009, as Tenured Radical points out, there’s even a trend towards erasing them from war stories altogether (not just in Hurt Locker, either: I’d also point to the marginalization of women’s contributions in HBO’s The Pacific earlier this spring).

In the end, this is why I found both film so troubling. Given the rarity with which women’s military experiences are explored in American cinema, it’s more than a little problematic to see such prominent filmmakers get it so wrong. In that process, I would suggest, they only perpetuate incorrect – and dangerous – stereotypes that will continue to affect how many Americans understand the modern U.S. military and women’s roles within it.

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4 thoughts on “The Five-Year Naval Career of Demi Moore

  1. I really liked this post, and will be passing it along to a few of my friends who are in the military.

    In my experience of US cinema, though, most feminism is presented as a parody of itself. It’s sad that supposedly feminist influenced movies and shows can only rarely have a woman actually state that she’s a feminist. Usually, in my experience, it’s in code – “I support EMILY’s list” seems to be the biggest thing in the US shows I’ve watched, and it’s never made explicitly clear what EMILY’s list actually is.

  2. This is such a brilliant post.

    It’s been years since I’ve seen G.I. Jane and even more since I’ve seen A Few Good Men. One thing I remember from my Navy career is that O’Neill is given to us as examples of what Navy Females can not look like and not to get our hopes up because it was fiction plain and simple. As if any of us could ever forget that we would never get the chance to become SEALs. SpecWar is only for boys, and it is the first thing on all the recruiting poster reqs “must be: male”.

    U.S. cinema has a particular way of using “feminism” as a cuss word that makes the censors. It is spat from the mouths of characters as if it tastes worse than mess hall coffee. Your point about only succeeding once she removes all traces of her femininity is apt, because that is the main argument in circles which discuss the right for women to have full career opportunities in the military: that they are too feminine. Their poor reproductive systems might be harmed. They are designed different and can’t handle to demands of the tasks.

    Thank you for this post. Two of my favorite topics: women in the military and pop-culture.

  3. In my view, your post leans a little too heavily toward the feminist ideology and fails to consider the fears of the men involved in SpecWar. While I am not and never was in SpecWar I did serve 28 years in the U.S. Coast Guard and lived through the experience of integrating women into the service. In point of fact, the Coast Guard was the first of of our Uniformed Services to fully integrate women into every phase and facet of its highly diverse missions. Perhaps my recollections and insights can provide some perspective to this argument.

    While sexism may have played a role in most military activities, I believe, as I have reflected on the topic during my own post-retirement undergraduate and graduate careers, much of the “sexism” described by women boiled down to simple fear. That fear was not of women “taking a man’s job” or of “being able to do the job as well,” but simply that she would not be able to do the job at a critical moment endangering the men involved in the operation as well as herself.

    One need not look to anything as exotic and dangerous as SpecWar for examples but rather to the more common activities engaged in by people in the armed forces none of which are common events in the civilian world.

    Take my own experiences as a Search and Rescue Boat Crewmember as an example. When women were being fully integrated into Coast Guard operations during the late 1970s, I was an active Search and Rescue Boat Coxswain, the person in charge of a Coast Guard small boat (16-44 feet in length) engaged in a wide variety of rescue missions in all weathers.

    During the period 1977-1979 while serving at what is today called a Coastal Multimission Station in the Northeast US, I served with an all male crew initially. About a year into that assignment, we received word that three women would be assigned to our station, an announcement that set the unit abuzz. The Executive Officer tasked with handling the crew, set the tone by announcing the crew would need to clean up its language while further fanning the flames by seeming to focus on bedrooms and bathrooms.

    While the Chief’s (Chief Petty Officers serve as XO’s and CO’s at many Coast Guard coastal multimission stations), warnings fanned the flames of discontent with the assignment of women to our “boys club” to use your term, the crew was concerned about other more pressing matters. As for the bedrooms and bathrooms, as a newly minted Boatswain’s Mate Third Class I managed to solve the problem with a trip to the local hardware store and the purchase of some then $.98 barrel locks with which the women could “lock the door” to the bathroom or their berthing rooms, but not so sturdy that they couldn’t not be easily battered down in an emergency. Emergencies and how the women would respond to them were the crew’s chief concern.

    Keep in mind that nearly everyday of the year, the crew at this station launched on missions into an arm of the North Atlantic one of the most dangerous pieces of water on earth. We did so on small boats, generally 40, 41, and 44 feet long with three to four crewmembers. With so few aboard the boat to accomplish the mission, everyone had to do their job and there was no room for either physical or mental weakness, for any breakdown could result injuries or fatalities. Thus, any “boot” (we had a more derogatory term we actually used) had to prove his metal riding as a trainee under close supervision. Now, the service was foisting an unknown quantity upon us, women. How would they ever fit?

    But, our concerns were not of our own making they were a product of the society in which we lived. In addition to the male dominance present in society back then, we as those who “stand on the wall” to borrow from A Few Good Men, felt those in power were putting our lives and well-being at risk to satisfy the demands of women’s groups like NOW and etc. After all, we didn’t see the Coast Guard hiring up a bunch of women Admirals, Captains, and etc., nor were women prominent within government. Oh no, the fat cats got to keep their “boys club,” but wanted those of us “standing on the wall” to be put at risk by these newcomers, of unknown capabilities, in the name of a social agenda.

    Well, women worked out well and fit into the crews. Keep in mind that it was not about fitting into the “boys club,” but doing the job for the demands imposed by the sea and our missions did not recognize gender differences and we men and women alike wanted to come back, despite our unofficial motto at the time that “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.” Soon one woman even qualified as a Boat Coxswain, although being of slight stature we had to equip one of the boats with a phone book for her to sit on so she could see through the windshield. But, phone books aside, those three women proved their metal in the trial by fire of operations in the North Atlantic. They paved the way for other women who followed who did not have an easier time, for none of the “boots” had an easy, but certainly were not feared as possible dangers to the rest of the crew.

    Soon once the bedrooms and bathrooms (this seemed to be a common driver) were worked out women were serving afloat aboard Cutters and there again they proved their metal on firefighting parties, gun crews, boarding teams, etc. Again, in those high risk operations, it was about demonstrating they good do the job and not endanger their shipmates because they lacked in mental or physical stamina and just plain toughness.

    Later, as I gained seniority, I recognized one other thing relative to women. As a husband in a long and successful marriage and the father of daughter, I recognized women and men are different no matter how much anyone wants to say otherwise. From that experience, I recognized that women should never be a constituency of one aboard any unit, an all too common occurence in the small Coast Guard that staffs even smaller units. So during my tours as a station CO I always asked that women be assigned in pairs at least in order to ensure every person on the unit had someone of their gender (someone who looked like them) to relate to. In addition, I tried to cultivate senior enlisted women to set an example for the junior women following in their footsteps recognizing it was not healthy for junior enlisted women to look up the ladder and see only men.

    Still, at the time of my retirement, while the service was meeting its ascession goals for women, try as it might it could not meet its retention goals for women. Perhaps a combination of factors conspired against us: few women in the ranks, better opportunities on the outside where the stakes are not as high (no one ever died from a failed business transaction), and maybe it was just sheer numbers, i.e. too many men in the ranks with too few women making it seem like opportunities for women were limited.

    But, whatever those causes, I can say honestly that our chief concern in the 70s was a fear of the unknown, a fear predicated above all by our own concerns with everyone coming home from a mission in one piece. I believe that fear increases with the severeity and risk inherent in operations. Furthermore, because the Coast Guard is a Federal Law Enforcement agency, we worked with other high risk professionals frequently and they expressed many of the same concerns regarding the ability of women to measure up. Unfortunately, for women, they were thrust into the breech with little if any preparation of the men who were asked to accept them, forcing the women to prove their capabilities over time and unnecessarily slowing the process, although in fairness it must be pointed out that the strides made in the sciences regarding physical capacities have moved forward in leaps and bounds over the last thirty years.

    Still the main thrust in high risk operations is that everyone, men and women, come home safely and the professionals who carry out those missions deserve assurances using the best science available that every candidate is equally qualified, to do the job.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I really enjoy learning from personal experiences, particularly from the period in which you served (since that roughly corresponds with my dissertation time frame).

      You are right: I am focusing on women here, and not on men’s fears. My sense from researching the 1940s through the 1970s is exactly what you said – men’s fears, and fear of the unknown.

      But I think the 1990s may be a little different – by that time, at least for Demi Moore’s character in A Few Good Men, it’s been nearly 20 years since the transition to the all-volunteer force, and women had been filling the role she had in that film for at least that long (if not a little longer). I’m just surprised that given how long women had been in such roles, that her character would still be the weaker.

      However, as you point out, moving into a NEW environment – such as the GI Jane movie, when Moore’s character is moving into an all-male special forces – does involve a lot of fear (but I would also argue that, to some degree, and for some people- not all – there may also be prejudice and discrimination involved). But my qualm with that movie was more the civilian portrayal of feminism.

      But – in both cases, those are movies and movies often get it wrong. 🙂 Thank you so much for taking the time to offer your perspective and experience – I learned a lot from your comment!

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