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.