(un)Femininity in G.I. Jane

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I wrote a version of this short essay for an English class last semester. I’ve revised it slightly and added a bit of material before posting it here.

In a film that represents the clash between the masculine and the feminine as overtly as Ridley Scott’s G.I. Jane (1997), it is, of course, useful to observe and note the occurrence of representations of femininity. This may seem a daunting task in a movie that runs for a full 142 minutes, but Scott has made the job easier for his viewers by the simple expedient of only including three female characters of any note.

The easiest to examine of these three is Lieutenant Blondell, played by Lucinda Jenney. Lt. Blondell has the least screen time, and is the least developed of the three female characters. Her role, however, oozes traditional femininity. She is, first of all, in a nurturing position, shown treating the wounds of the young men (and woman) under her care. Additionally, Blondell is a sympathetic confidant to the main character of the film, Lieutenant Jordan O’Neill (Demi Moore). Blondell is an emotional nurturer, as well as a physical one. Ultimately, though there is a very vague suggestion that Blondell may be a lesbian, she serves in the film as a sort of archetypal mother-figure, with no power other than to soothe and heal.

The next female character is the brassy Senator Lillian DeHaven, played by Anne Bancroft. DeHaven is rather less stereotypically feminine in many ways than Blondell. She is aggressive, powerful and in control of the men around her. Lest this show of female empowerment become too appealing, she is also revealed, over the course of the film, to be a total bitch. Further undermining the power of the character is the way in which DeHaven is represented visually throughout the film. She is a woman with a sense of style, and is always dressed impeccably – and always in skirts and high heels. This might be a subtle way of reducing DeHaven’s authority by reminding the viewer that she is, after all, just a girl (and a vain one, at that!), but there’s an even better example.

In one scene, when DeHaven speaks on the phone, she is shown with the trappings of a dye-job in her normally perfectly coiffed hair, for no conceivable reason. The film makes no effort to explain why a wealthy senator would feel the need to have her hair dyed in her office rather than at a salon. The fact that DeHaven is a grey-haired woman with a prominent white streak makes the hair-dyeing scene even more unnecessary. What color, exactly, is she dyeing it? What purpose do the squares of foil arranged in a ludicrous fashion in her teased-out hair serve, then, other than to render her a figure of fun rather than a woman who should be respected?

The challenge of reducing the feminine power of the heroine, Jordan O’Neill, is a bit more daunting, but is undertaken with enthusiasm by the filmmakers. O’Neill begins the film as girly as Blondell and DeHaven, wearing ostentatious (and really quite unflattering) pearl earrings and possessing long, thick hair. The instant that she goes from a supporting staff member in military intelligence to a hero-in-training, that begins to change. First, O’Neill loses the dorky earrings. This could be perceived as simply a smart fashion move on her part, but it’s really a sign of things to come – or go.

The next loss is her long hair, as O’Neill shaves her head in order to physically conform (a little) to the appearance of her male colleagues. Interestingly, the music that plays over this head-shaving scene comes to a dramatic height of sound with the words “it’s just as well, the bitch is gone” as O’Neill shaves off the last few strands of her hair.

O’Neill then moves into the male barracks, and begins using the male shower facilities, divesting herself of her femininity bit by bit, even as the viewer is reminded blatantly that she is still a woman in a tasteless nude shower scene. Soon, however, all that O’Neill seems to retain of her femininity is the pair of breasts that Master Chief Urgayle (sounds a bit like “ogle”) so ostentatiously examines. A scene with Lt. Blondell showcases what seems at first to be a pointless bit of exposition – O’Neill has ceased to menstruate. In fact, this is important information. O’Neill clearly does retain her (female) secondary sexual characteristics, but her primary set has been called into question. Later in the film, Urgayle will refer to her as possessing a “worthless womb.” She has breasts, but the intimation is that O’Neill is incapable at this point of childbirth, making her somehow less than a real woman.

The movie G.I. Jane purports to be about a strong woman who defies stereotypes and grasps masculine power with a firm, female grip. In truth, however, by the time the most climactic (and sadly, long before the ending of the film) line is uttered, O’Neill’s femininity is very much in doubt. O’Neill, evidently, could not enjoy the level of success and power which she does without sacrificing some aspects of her identity as a woman. And for every stereotypically feminine trait that she gives up, she acquires a corresponding stereotypically masculine trait. “Suck my dick!” she yells, defiantly, and the audience is left to wonder whether perhaps she now has one. The ultimate message of the film seems to be that success and strength are options for women – as long as they are willing to become men to obtain their goals.

Comments

  1. says

    I think those are valid points, for sure… Another issue is that we as a culture seem to have a lot of trouble really realising that gender is mostly a social construction. We don’t have tropes and pre-exisiting ideas about how to portray, for example, violent women, so we borrow what we need from portrayals of violent men. The effect is very often to de-feminize the female subject. The same thing in reverse can happen when we try to describe men engaging in traditionally “feminine” behavior. Really, what’s needed are more portrayals of characters whose behavior is actively gender-subversive, in my opinion. Until we can begin to break down the arbitrary boundaries of gender, it’s going to continue to be difficult to show physically strong women, emotionally open men, etc.

  2. says

    I’m under the impression people regard this film as a feminist power manifesto. Do you think it uses that guise to mask a deeper, more misogynistic message?

    I’d be surprised if it was consciously done by any of the filmmakers, but yes, I do think _G.I. Jane_ has an overall misogynistic message, despite the surface message. It is, as you note, often pointed to as something of a “girl power” movie – but it only has three significant female characters. One of these is a nurse. One of them is O’Neill, who might as well be a man, in many ways. Her character definitely does -not- link positive traits to femininity – when she’s most successful, she’s consciously adopting the behaviors and values of the men around her. The other is DeHaven, who is powerful, feminine (unlike O’Neill) and -evil-. A link between bad, punished behavior and feminine attributes is drawn, as is a link between good, rewarded behavior and masculine (or possibly androgynous, but certainly not feminine) attributes. So, yeah, I think there’s a bit of misogyny there, though I think the film was well-intentioned.

  3. Jennifer Kesler says

    Yay, you posted it! :)

    Great analysis! The more I think back over projects I’ve enjoyed in recent years, the more I wonder if the “female empowerment” messages of recent years aren’t really just a cover for something sinister: a warning to females that maturity and independence are unnatural paths for the female. A warning that if we pursue the rewards reserved for men, we’ll have to become men.

    I wonder if the mistake is in confusing independence with dominance. It seems some people see the whole world as “dominate or be dominated” when in fact it’s quite possible for anyone – of either gender – to simply be independent of power struggles.

  4. Beta Candy says

    That’s. Exactly. It.

    Gender identity is like clothing – just something you throw on. It’s not who you are, and it’s not what you are. A society needs nurturers and warriors, hunters and gatherers, catalysts and stablizers. Individuals may be better suited to one role or another, but this has exactly squat to do with their X or Y chromosome setup. Each gender contains a full range of personality potentials. Hmm, maybe I should save this for a post, and get back to G.I. Jane. :D

    I’m under the impression people regard this film as a feminist power manifesto. Do you think it uses that guise to mask a deeper, more misogynistic message?

  5. Maxo says

    It is a fact that females who reach a certain point of physical condition stop menstrating. Does this mean every female athlete you would make a movie about and mention this point isn’t female– did they all had to become male to be able to compete and win at sports?

    Males have stereotypically been violent, crude, and physically tough even tho in the real world many males do not fit these stereotypes. Look at any old war movie and you see a lot of different “types”.

    Whenever a female is portrayed as violent, crude, and physically tough- some people say she is *no* longer a female. They are basically denying women the freedom to choose to be violent, crude, and physically tough unless it is in a pre-approved feminist certified manner.

    O’Neill was becoming a navy seal. The process of basic training and participating in combat permanently changes people in a way that civilians can’t understand. The point was not that O’Neill was becoming a man- but that she was becoming a seal- and a good one too.

    Sometimes I think we hit certain “hot point” scenes and entire groups of people just turn off their brain at that point or become blind to the rest of the movie.

  6. Revena says

    “It is a fact that females who reach a certain point of physical condition stop menstrating. Does this mean every female athlete you would make a movie about and mention this point isn’t female – did they all had to become male to be able to compete and win at sports?”

    Nope. I don’t base my analysis of the character on that single factor, nor would I base an analysis of any other fictional character on any single factor, no matter what it was. And I wouldn’t analyze a real female athlete (though I might choose to analyze portrayals of her, I suppose) the same way I do fictional characters.

    “Whenever a female is portrayed as violent, crude, and physically tough- some people say she is *no* longer a female. They are basically denying women the freedom to choose to be violent, crude, and physically tough unless it is in a pre-approved feminist certified manner.”

    Some people certainly do say things like that – I am not one of them. I myself hold a second degree black belt, am physically tough, and am often violent (I can’t speak to crude. Some people would say I am!). I would never wish to deny anyone the freedom to pursue the same sorts of behaviors and activities that I myself so enjoy – nor would I wish to deny them the freedom to do things that I personally -don’t- enjoy.

    “Sometimes I think we hit certain ‘hot point’ scenes and entire groups of people just turn off their brain at that point or become blind to the rest of the movie.”

    I’m guessing that you want to include me in that category. You are certainly free to believe that that’s what I did when watching this movie. But is that what you did when reading this analysis? I get a sense that a few specific things I mentioned made you angry – did that blind you to the rest of what I had to say?

  7. Jennifer Kesler says

    Maxo, you\’re doing exactly what you accuse Revena of: taking one of the points the article makes in passing, and blowing it completely out of context.  And ignoring many other points which support her argument.

    You argue that she\’s becoming a Seal, not ceasing to be a woman. If so, then what did the filmmakers mean by inserting the lyric, \”it\’s just as well, the bitch is gone\” in the head shaving scene?

  8. Susan says

    I just found this website on GI Jane, and must say, if anyone is still reading these, I have some comments….& would love any back….

    I personally LOVE the film…it’s my theme right now for living. I am not a “man” nor does anyone accuse me of being a man. I am extremely feminine, yet do Krav Maga (brown belt…Israli martial arts), and can beat most of the men. Why does society have a difficult time with women being ASSERTIVE? That is the only thing GI Jane was guilty of being. Yes, there were only 3 female characters of note…the film was about Navy Seals…a MALE-DOMINATED field…it should have been primarily MEN. Also, the men in the film were stereotyped and they should be more mad than the females watching. She actually was also SMART – she played the men’s “game” and matched them, despite her inferior physical size. If you noticed during the film, the men hated her, feared her, and some deeply respected her, but she won them all in the end by not being WEAK or WHINY (which is both a male & female trait) and by ASSERTIVENESS. Why pick apart how she did that? She got their RESPECT and that in the end, is EMPOWERING for anyone, esp. a female. GO DEMI!!! MY HERO!!!

    P.S. My favorite line in the entire movie also is: “Sgt. Cortes, how ever brief your stint w/this command might be, there are two words you will put together…Team-Mate”. The reason? I have been in bad relationships before, w/NO teammate in site, and I won’t EVER put up with that again. My wish is more women would feel that way….Good luck gals!!! Keep fighting!!!!

  9. Revena says

    I’ve got several points to hit in response to your comment – bear with me, and hopefully I won’t get too convoluted!

    First, in response to “Why pick apart how she did that?” – I think there might be a little confusion here between a critical analysis of one aspect of a film, and a blanket condemnation. The language you use in your comment (“That is the only thing GI Jane was guilty of being.”) makes me wonder if you think I’m accusing the character of O’Neill of something, or encouraging others to denigrate the character or the film. I’m not. All I’m doing in this article is examining one aspect of the film that I found to be problematic, and trying to tease out what it was that bothered me, and why.

    To clarify once again, I’m not saying that G.I. Jane is a bad movie, or that I hate it utterly, or that other people must conclude that it is a bad movie and/or hate it utterly. I’m saying that I found one aspect of the film problematic – that feminine markers seem to be negative/linked to failure, and masculine positive/linked to success, to the point where a positive, successful character has to drop her feminine markers and take up masculine ones.

    “I am not a “man” nor does anyone accuse me of being a man. I am extremely feminine, yet do Krav Maga (brown belt…Israli martial arts), and can beat most of the men. Why does society have a difficult time with women being ASSERTIVE?”

    Exactly! I believe that it would have been possible to make the film without masculinizing O’Neill. I think it would have been really nice if the filmmakers had gone that route, but my contention in this analysis is that they did not.

    “P.S. My favorite line in the entire movie also is: “Sgt. Cortes, how ever brief your stint w/this command might be, there are two words you will put together…Team-Mate”.”

    I love that line, too. :-) There’s lots of really good dialogue in the film.

    • Bellisona says

      I actually don’t believe they masculinised her. Her shaving her head was a practical consideration, as she had difficulty maintaining it in PT, without it becoming a distraction. Her physical fitness (and that lovely training montage)is also a practical consideration in an operational setting that REQUIRES very real physical strength. I didn’t see it as her losing her femininity, but making concessions to the practical and highly physically demanding arena in which she found herself. The aggressive personality and verbal crudity is hers from the very start (“Anyone with tits can’t..” and “Get your dick back in here!” being two notable examples). I don’t see it as a “she became masculine” but more “she became what she needed to be”.

  10. Jennifer Kesler says

    I am not a “man” nor does anyone accuse me of being a man. I am extremely feminine, yet do Krav Maga (brown belt…Israli martial arts), and can beat most of the men.

    I think that’s exactly Revena’s point. I believe you don’t have to become manly to engage in activities traditionally reserved for men. And yet, this character did sacrifice her femininity to engage in those activities. I think Revena is not so much critiquing the film as wondering what the filmmakers’ reasoning was. Do they unconsciously assume women must become pseudo-men in order to participate in something as “tough” as the SEALS?

    And I don’t even think she’s concluding that this is the case. Just raising the issue for consideration and discussion.

  11. says

    Hello again, perhaps my military experience and knowledge can clear up a few things about this film(to be honest I saw it a LONG time ago and don’t remember much).

    1. Shaving the head- I can see how this is “masculine” but let us not forget that in the military, particularly the USMC and various spec-ops units, the men also shave their heads and usually keep a “high and tight” haircut. Speaking about the army(from personal experience), restrictions loosen up once you get out of TRADOC but generally most guys I saw kept a high and tight. Standards may vary.

    Shaving one’s head has several advantages. For example, it is easier to seal one’s gas mask. A shaved head ensures that headgear will fit properly. It even helps medics deal with head wounds(this was the rationale for head-shaving amongst the paratroopers waiting to jump into Normandy).

    Honestly though I am hoping some of you can help me to understand the difference between femininity and behaviors which are a result of social conditioning. For example, I could tell you about numerous Soviet women who engaged in front-line combat and kept long hair. One might also suggest that their behavior was feminine but in my opinion this has more to do with the fact that even in the USSR the culture was still quite traditional.

    FUN FACT: Russian women actually did fight to a limited degree in WWI and the Civil War- and they shaved their heads.

    • says

      Honestly though I am hoping some of you can help me to understand the difference between femininity and behaviors which are a result of social conditioning.

      Femininity IS a social construct, so not sure what you mean.

  12. says

    Why is “being feminine” held up as so sacred?? “I’m a soldier, but don’t worry, I’m still VERY feminine!”

    It chaps my hide that women are *required* to perform femininity. No matter what they are doing, thoughts of “femininity” must dominate their thoughts: Am I being feminine enough? Too much? Too little? It’s exhausting.

    And to that guy up there fretting that athletic women lose their menstruation: WHO CARES? It’s nobody’s business except hers! No amount of training will make someone who IS a woman NOT a woman. It doesn’t matter how “butch” it is, she is still a woman! An amenstrual woman: still a woman! A muscular/infertile/whatever woman: still a woman!

    Geez Louise.

    Misogynists scoff at women who try to “man” things, because women are supposedly “too feminine” and girly or something. But when the woman STOPS being girly, these misogynists wring their hands: “OH NOEZ, your precious femininity! You must retain it!” WHY is that? Because the femininity was what made you deny me full personhood in the first place.

    okay, rant over.

    • says

      I have always been a gender transgressor because by the age of 8, I knew my intelligence and competence outperformed the vast majority of people, and my looks and body size did not bode well for the female role of attracting a successful man. By 13, I was positive: my chances of competing with successful men were better than my chances of marrying them. Being intelligent, I made the sensible choice and focused on using my brain.

      For which I’ve been criticized no end ever since, AND (this really pisses me off) accused of lacking self-esteem because I don’t swagger around singing “I’m Too Sexy” and being “arrogant” for acknowledging (in exactly the same words and voice tone that smart men use) that I am unusually intelligent and know what I’m talking about.

      • says

        Me too! I’m not hot. Not even close, by societal standards. i mean I’m not fugly, but if I were on a dating site I’m pretty sure I’d get taken to task by Nice Guys and PUAs for being “fat” and having short hair (not to mention being a feminist, HORRORS!!).
        But if I should *say* that I am not hot and be okay with it, I get well-meaning people rushing to tell me how PRETTY PRETTY I am. As if I base my entire sense of self worth on how I look. Never mind that I am intelligent, creative and funny.

        Oh well, at least trolls can’t get to me. “You’re faat and uggly!” Uh, yup, not Hott, and a bit fat. And that impacts my work HOW?? I’m a freakin’ comic artist, we are not known for being athletic models!

        • says

          What’s so offensive is that if a man isn’t gorgeous, that’s okay so long as he’s Nice or Has A Sense Of Humor or something. There are loads of other traits he can excel at – or even just be competent at – in order to attract women.

          But no matter what else about a woman is good or even fantastic, she MUST be slim and pretty. This standard is reinforced because men tease mercilessly any guy who dares to date a “fat chick” or a woman who’s not so great-looking. And “But she’s HILARIOUS” or “But she’s so smart!” are not suitable comebacks, since men in that context don’t give a fuck.

          Men who try to break the mold by dating women who are attractive for reasons other than how they look get punished, and so do the women they date. Similarly, not-gorgeous women who dare to be picky even when they don’t currently have a S.O. (and should therefore be desperate enough to settle for your ex-con cousin who swears he was framed) get punished for thinking too much of themselves.

          What planet are people living on, who think things are all equal now? It’s such bullshit.

        • Attackfish says

          And conversely, if you acknowledge you’re objectively attractive according to societal standards (I’m pretty but not drop dead gorgeous, skinny, and have big boobs) you’re full of yourself and one of those pretty bitches. The only way we’re allowed to interact with our looks is in a “I feel pretty” way, especially if it’s a “I feel pretty because I did XYZ” way, especially if XYZ involves spending money or obeying a man..

    • Korva says

      Thank you, my thought exactly. I hate “femininity” with the passion of a thousand suns — and “masculinity” as well. Both are crippling in every imaginable way. The more people reject them, the better! There’s ABSOLUTELY NOTHING nothing that any woman can do to make herself “less of a woman” — short of identifying as male. And same with men. (Caveat: I don’t mean individual women can’t like makeup or fashion or whatever, it’s the concept of it being integral and all-important to having XY chromosomes that galls me so much.)

      I do not know this movie. So, is the protagonist shown to discard “femininity” (as in: those hateful poisonous trappings that are forced on us), or is she denying the fact that she is a woman to become “just like the boys”? The former is great, the latter is problematic. From the article, I get vibes that it is both.

      Bloody shame about the senator character being “evil” — but I can’t say it’s unexpected. It would have been awesome if she and the protagonist had supported each other instead, as two different women trying to survive in rabidly misogynistic surroundings/jobs. But two strong women in one movie, as friends or allies? It’d probably have made heads explode …

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