Published August 1, 1997
. . .And, speaking of propaganda, there can be few more spectacular recent examples of the same than Ridley Scott’s G.I. Jane. Here is a film which has no single bit of characterization or plotting or dialogue which is not designed solely to persuade us that putting women into combat is right and reasonable and in keeping with the liberal ideal of racial and sexual equality. Any conceivable objections on behalf of what, hitherto, has been the virtually universal practice of keeping them out are raised only to be shot down (if you’ll pardon the expression), and the vexed question of “gender norming” —the means by which women may be accommodated in the same jobs as men while being held to lower physical standards—is also by-passed. Instead, Mr.Scott simply pretends that the comely and lissom Demi Moore, to whom he gives the unisex name of Lt Jordan O’Neil, can opt to be held to the same standard as the men (and a Navy SEAL standard at that!) and still pass with flying colors. So what’s the problem?
Perhaps only stick-in-the-muds will object to such dishonesty, but there is also an internal incoherence in the portrayal of Miss Moore’s character. On the one hand she says she doesn’t “want to be a poster girl for women’s rights.” When she arrives at the Navy Seal training base, she assures her commanding officer that her being there is “not a statement.” She is merely seeking to advance her career “like everyone else, I suspect.” Leave aside for a moment the obvious truth in the Captain’s reply that “If you were like everyone else. . .we would not be making statements about not making statements.” She herself, later on in the film, lays claim to a larger feminist objective, which is to give women “the choice” to go through the same training as the men. Don’t tell me you wanted that kind of job,” her wimpy boyfriend says to her.
“I wanted the choice,” she says to him. “That’s how it’s supposed to be.”
In other words, she sees herself as a feminist pioneer rather than a soldier. And isn’t that rather the point of the objection to treating the armed forces as if they were laboratories for social experimentation? Moreover, at two critical moments in the film’s final passage, in which an actual episode of combat is meant to show that G.I. Jane can cope splendidly under fire, Scott fudges in the portrayal of her performance. In one, her commanding officer, Master Chief Urgayle (Viggo Mortensen) has to shoot an enemy soldier rather than allow her to try to kill him silently, and so gives away his own position. Then, when he is almost killed himself as a result, the lovely Miss Moore is forced to call upon the assistance of a comrade in order to drag him from off the field of battle. Of course all ends happily, but unless Scott is sending some very subtle messages here, you’ve got to wonder at such undermining of his own position.
It is also raised as a disturbing possibility that the kind of brutalization which Miss Moore’s character is forced to undergo as a result of her “choice” has erotic overtones. In particular, in one scene redolent of sadistic or chicks-behind-bars-movies, the Master Chief, an aficionado of the poetry of D.H. Lawrence, beats the young woman severely and is then beaten by her in return. Erotic imagery of her shaving her own head, or doing impressive feats of calisthenics, or showing off her body to the Master Chief in the shower, will remind us of why women have been kept out of combat units in the past—and why, in the present, otherwise sensible people must be going to see a movie like this.