The great thing about film is that it can serve as a way to address or comment on issues facing one’s society or culture. In our culture, and many others, the issue of gender roles is an important one. Gender roles and expectations have changed drastically over the decades, but we still struggle with what it means to be a woman or man in today’s world.
An interesting way to explore this is with the military. Why is it that men are traditionally drafted and or expected to enlist, but not women? This interesting issue is explored in the film G.I. Jane.
I watched it again last night. I’ve seen it many times, although I didn’t see it initially until 2009 or so, long after it was released. Sure, it’s a bit cheesy and “on the nose.” But it manages to address the issue of women in the military in an interesting way.
To sum up, G.I. Jane is about politicians making issue about women being allowed the same roles and opportunities within our military. A tough female senator puts the military’s feet to the fire, and they agree to allow a female soldier to enter SEAL training, which is 12 weeks of grueling fare. The assumption is that she’ll wash out, thus appeasing the prickly senator and perhaps confirming the belief that there are some places women simply don’t belong. The woman they choose is Demi Moore’s character, Jordan, who faces the physical and mental pain of the training with the other men, in addition to facing sexism of varying kinds.
The sexism she encounters comes in a variety of packages:
Women are Too Weak for This
This is the most common argument you’ll hear against women in combat or in other jobs that require abilities usually attributed to men (strength, mental toughness, etc). Some men don’t believe women should be in the military at all, while others are uncomfortable with the idea of women in powerful positions, in combat, or in sensitive, dangerous, or “special” elite jobs (e.g. SEALs).
For some, it’s that women lack the physical or mental strength to handle the jobs. For others, it’s that war is simply men’s domain and women shouldn’t be allowed in it, much like men-only clubs in the 1800s. This type of sexism is portrayed well by CO Salem, a tough old white guy who expresses his clear resentment at having Jordan forced upon him, having to staff a gynecologist and have separate this and that for female recruits, at the mere notion of having to worry about accommodating women and curtailing any behavior that might offend them.
Salem represents the conservative, old school thinking that says that men have their domain, women have theirs, and never the twain shall meet.
Are Women’s Lives More Precious Than Men’s?
Traditionally, we send men off to war, while women stay home to care for home and children. But why? Why are men’s lives disposable, while women’s are to be protected? Does it go back to the previous issue, that men make better soldiers, that they’re cut out for such business and thus should make the sacrifice because they’re “built” for it, much like women are “built” for childrearing?
It’s Jordan who brings up this issue in the film, as she questions why she’s being thwarted at every turn, even having the female senator flip-flop on her because “America doesn’t want to see its women and children killed.”
Women Put the Men at Risk
The last, potentially most interesting, and probably least considered of the issues regarding women in combat is the idea that, when push comes to shove, men seeing their female comrades threatened or blown to bits may be too much for them and cause them to fall apart, try too hard to protect the women, or otherwise threaten the mission’s probability of success.
This concern is eloquently put by Master Chief Urgayle, who challenges Jordan in the shower, telling her of women in the Israeli army, where men would weep over their dead bodies in battle.
This is an interesting perspective because it seems to suggest it isn’t the women who can’t handle dying in combat, but that the men can’t handle the toll of watching a woman perish that way. In this sense, men may see themselves as protectors, not only of their country, but of women and children. To watch a woman soldier die, or (in special ops situations) take a beating or get raped, may be a challenge for them that others cannot understand.
It’s interesting that Master Chief says this to Jordan while she’s naked in the shower (alone because she’s on a different showering schedule than the men), when she’s more vulnerable. He then presses the issue again during a field exercise where Jordan is captured and he tortures her for information while the other men watch in horror. And while his words may reflect his own beliefs as a seasoned military man, they also reflect his own feelings for her. He took note of her fortitude from the start, saw the other men attempt to sabotage her and made them pay for it, and potentially had deeper feelings for her. He never went easy on her, but he wrestled with his own struggles as he watched her struggle.
In the end, Master Chief says to his comrade that she isn’t the problem… they are.
And he’s right. Having women in combat forces people to face uncomfortable feelings or, in some cases, uncomfortable realities. And these are the growing pains that come with changing how we view men, women, and their roles in our society.