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.