Comes Naturally #63 (September 19, 1997):
Girls Will Be Boys

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Spectator Magazine - September 19, 1997 (c) David Steinberg. All rights reserved.

Girls Will Be Boys

Reviving the All-American Hero(ine)

Ok, I have to admit it: I got seriously tweaked when I went to see G.I. Jane.

I thought I was the all-time lover of irony. The deeper the better. The stranger the apparent contradictions, the greater my glee. I loved Silence of the Lambs because Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins), the ultimate pervert, also turned out to be the ultimate gentleman, the Zen teacher, the voice of reason and sensibility, when treated with respect on his own terms. I hated Cape Fear for the same reason. I wanted Robert de Niro to be another weird hero, to be the crude, working-class ex-con who, with his crazy wisdom, shows smug, arrogant, middle-class suburban hypocrisy to be what it is. Despite some wonderfully clear, shocking and subtle initial steps in that direction -- the scene in which he sweetly and insightfully seduces the teenage daughter by understanding and manipulating her sexuality, and then doesn't abuse her is brilliant --the film instead makes him just one more stereotypeconfirming psychotic maniac thinking he is inspired by the Lord and talking in tongues as he is swept to the violent death that justly awaits all such lunatics.

So I should have loved G.I. Jane, a film in which all we good feminists get to stand up and support every woman's right to be just as mean and nasty as the guys get to be, every woman's right to kill and assassinate and all that other good stuff that the boys get to do, every woman's right to be treated as an equal by getting the crap beat out of her, just like all the male recruits who are going through the most hellish training program known to man... I mean, humankind. I mean talk about irony! It's the next best thing to finding yourself fighting for Lieutenant Kelly Flinn's right to drop bombs on the civilians of Baghdad.

Well, if this is what feminism has come to, or even a significant part of what feminism has come to over the last thirty or so years, I guess the joke's on all us starry-eyed advocates of gender equality for thinking we knew what we were letting loose when we fought so hard to open that particular Pandora's Box. Not so, sweet child, and in fairness I suppose I just have to say, "Touche'" and laugh at the strange twists that life and history offer us. If capitalism can co-opt socialism down to withering economic safety nets for the elderly and unemployed, if manipulating the strings of international trade and a global network of sophisticated terrorist training can subvert any otherwise successful third-world social revolution, why shouldn't a patriarchal social structure thousands of years old be able to co-opt feminism as a force to defend its most cherished values and institutions?

Did we once think that bringing the disenfranchised into the power structure would change the nature of power itself? Wrong again. Business women who have struggled their way into positions of power get to be just as ruthless in the pursuit of profits over people as their male peers -- and just as harassing, sexually and otherwise, of their underlings. Gays and blacks climbing a thousand different corporate ladders get to be just as vacuously materialistic and just as staunchly and selfishly Republican as their heterosexual and white co-executives. And Demi Moore gets to stand up, straight and proud, for the Holy Grail of heroism under fire, patriotic love of country, keeping control of one's emotions at all times, gaining respect by taking physical, emotional, and verbal punishment without flinching (and dishing out the same), to the cheers of audience men and women alike (mostly the women). In G.I. Jane she is a veritable Jane Wayne. Unmovable. Rock of Gibraltar. Stoic. Hard. Cold. And we get to admire all this about her and feel like we're being radical at the same time.

Excuse me, did I miss the boat somewhere? Sure, I got taken in by all that cowboy stuff when I was eight years old and well into being indoctrinated into the traditional male hero role, but then -- thanks largely to feminist social critics -- I saw through all that crap. I thought that, these days, everyone of even a vaguely progressive bent was laughing at guys like that -- the John Wayne's, the Dirty Harry's, the Rocky's. Maybe we're only laughing at guys like that unless they're women.

Striking a Blow (and a Kick) for Equality

The movie, as I said, did tweak me, did take me into its spell, blindfold me, turn me around three times, and then set me loose to wobble around and try to figure out which way to go to pin the tail on the donkey. I'm easy that way; I do suspension of disbelief embarrassingly well. So I took the G.I. Jane ride because it was there asking to be taken. I embraced Jordan O'Neil (Demi Moore) as one more Great American underdog hero and wanted her to triumph over the odds and get to be treated as a full and equal human being instead of as the runt of the litter. No handicap for her on the survival course just because she's a woman, she tells the commander in chief, and I admired her strength and her pride and felt a sense of triumph when he reluctantly gave her the right to be mistreated just as completely as everyone else.

When it was her turn to be tortured into submission by the thoughtfully and ideologically sadistic Master Chief (Viggo Mortensen), I cheered as a feminist and felt her feminist satisfaction as she got beaten and kicked just as viciously as the Master Chief had just beaten and kicked the guys. Every blow she took was a feminist victory, every drop of blood on her face a symbol of gender equality. Don't go easy on her, I wanted to cry out. I jeered at the guys in her unit for caring about her pain any more than they cared about the pain of the guys in the same circumstance. Don't be condescending, I wanted to tell them. Don't let any enemy exploit some vestigial sympathy-for-woman that might die a little harder than sympathy-for-man to weaken anyone's resolve about cracking under pressure.

Of course, at the same time, somewhere, I also felt the raw brutality, the viciousness, the pain, as nothing more than what it is: awful, brutal, vicious, numbing, and humanity destroying -- anything but heroic. That's the dilemma, the division, the emotional contradiction around which these All-American macho movies build their tension. But in the gestalt of the film, these are the feelings to be overcome. Everything human is standing on its head. War is peace. Abuse is the emblem of respect.

(As it turns out -- stop now if you don't want to know how this scene turns out -- the film lets us off this painful emotional hook by having O'Neil get the upper hand in the situation, which then entitles her to loose on the Master Chief all the rage, all the payback, all the joy-incausing -hurt that has been built up over the course of the training, over the course of the film up to that point. That moment of epiphany, the ultimately righteous opportunity to get even -- to get even for all the abuse she has taken, for all the abuse everyone in the unit has taken -- is capped to perfection when O'Neil stands over the Master Chief's broken, bleeding, defeated body and crows "Suck... my... dick!" with such conviction and such perfect anatomical irony that the line is immediately seized as the group's chant and anthem. It is a moment that is at once both the Master Chief's defeat and his victory, where the painful tension of the film is resolved once and for all. O'Neil has won Master Chief's respect fair and square by beating him at his own game. By acknowledging her triumph and giving it to her as her reward, he wins her respect as well. He is tough, even brutal, but in the end he is fair, and by extension we are being told that the military establishment is, in the end, fair as well. They have -- Master Chief and O'Neil, military tradition and the upstart woman soldier -- consummated their long, tendentious love affair by beating each other bloody, true to the codified rules of righteous violence, even as men so often enact their forbidden erotic attractions by stepping outside.

The Defeminization of Demi Moore

"Suck my dick" it is. The military woman becomes the military man, thus making the grade, even as men in the military must make the grade by beating down, shaming, and banishing the woman within. When Moore, staring into the mirror, shaves off her long hair with strong, sure strokes, we watch and exceptionally visible aspect of her transformation, her defeminization. And a stunning transformation it is, stroke by stroke, as mesmerizing as watching a drag queen put on makeup -- the gradual nature of the change emphasizing the depth and power of the transforming visual image. It is a moment brilliantly filmed. Director Ridley Scott draws the tension out, lingering with the aid of a wide variety of camera angles, and Moore does the same, letting the moment stand on its own without unnecessary fanfare -- her face quietly both determined and amazed to witness what she is doing.

Later, the Master Chief confronts O'Neil while she is standing in front of him, naked, drying off after a shower. It is a familiar form of traditional male-female power imbalance -- the clothed man face to face with the naked woman. We wait for the cruelly efficient Master Chief, controller of all power dynamics, to exploit his obvious advantage, to take advantage of the vulnerability of her nakedness. Surprisingly, he does not. Instead, he speaks to O'Neil almost as if she is fully clothed. There is no discomfort, no embarrassment, no hesitation or manipulation of any kind. He is not unaware of the fact the she is naked, but he seems unaffected by it, and Moore stands before him equally unintimidated by her lack of clothes. She refuses to allow herself to be made any the more vulnerable because of her physical nakedness, and he refuses to allow himself to become vulnerable by being drawn to her sexually. These are two tough birds, and they have their sexual feelings strictly under control, even as they control every other aspect of what they feel.

Indeed, except for one brief and entirely gratuitous scene of Moore doing one-handed pushups, where the camera specifically emphasizes how beautiful she is, Moore's famous body is downplayed throughout the film. Even the shower scene is filmed from behind her. She is a woman, but not a woman, and the men around her respond to her with a strange asexuality. They whistle at her and make a few generic babe-stupid remarks when she first appears on the scene, but she is not subjected to any serious sexual harassment, anything that would suggest projected sexual attraction. Nor is there any sexual tension between O'Neil and the men, even when she is sharing their bathroom and shower.

On the issue of sexual harassment -- the major gender issue slapping the news-conscious face of the military these days -- G.I. Jane is a total whitewash. If the Pentagon didn't pump money into the making of this film, they should have. According to G.I. Jane, all that women in the military need to do to be treated fairly (if brutally), is to not ask for any special favors, play by the rules of the game, be as strong and strong-willed as the guys, and go over the head of their immediate superiors if they are not being treated fairly. Men in the military, we are told, are understandably confused when women show up in arenas where they have not been present before, but once the women are there, the men pretty much give them respect and even emotional support. Men certainly never touch their bodies in unwanted ways, make them walk any gauntlets, intimidate them into sex, or rape them.

Tell that to the woman whose shirt was burned off during hazing week, or to the various women abused during the well-publicized but hardly exceptional Tailhook incident. When women in the military protest discriminatory treatment from their superiors or their fellow recruits they are hardly, as G.I. Jane would have us believe, listened to respectfully and sympathetically. Indeed, if women in the military were treated as Jordan O'Neil is treated in G.I. Jane, we would have to conclude that those who complain and drop out are simply the weak-willed who aren't up to the rigors of military discipline.

Equally offensive is the film's general valorization of tough military training as a brutal, but necessary, process of turning young geeks into elite fighting forces, i.e., real men. It is a long way from G.I. Jane to films like Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, or Apocalypse Now that show much more realistically the disparity between the theory of military discipline and the actual way in which this discipline is used to break the spirits and individuality of soldiers. Soldiers, after all, are being trained to do what is entirely unnatural -- go out and get killed -- without rebelling, or even thinking twice.

In place of trying to humanize the military to spare millions of young men and women from the brutal effects of learning to submit blindly to arbitrary authority, G.I. Jane defends traditional military thinking, and then advocates subjecting women to the same treatment as men in the name of equal-opportunity degradation.

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
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