Strong Women Still MIA

In G.I. Jane, Demi Moore plays a naval intelligence officer, Lt. Jordan O'Neil, who is recruited to be the first female SEAL. She gets a buzzcut. She endures the indignities of the male volunteers snickering at her in the food line. She rolls huge barrels through the surf and clambers through obstacle courses that would give Hercules a hernia. She even gets into a punch-out with her instructor, Command Master Chief John Urgayle (Viggo Mortensen) when he brutalizes her. She gives as good as she gets.

And through it all Jordan never once cracks a smile, which just goes to prove that women warriors can be as blankly staunch as any of their male counterparts -- at least in the movies. Jordan has been conceived as a kind of male action toy in female drag, as though any demonstration of "softness" -- i.e., femininity -- would be construed as piggery on the part of the filmmakers. Ridley Scott, directing a script by David Twohy and Danielle Alexandra, is so intent on making Jordan a kick-ass, take-no-prisoners feminist standard-bearer that he doesn't allow for any of our politically incorrect qualms concerning her transformation. G.I. Jane isn't very convincing. Even the title is a con -- G.I.s are army, not navy.

It's not that I was expecting Private Benjamin. After all, this is a message movie. But what's the message? That women can pull the trigger as well as men? Decades of movies have already taught us that. Maybe the message is the deep thought that a female soldier has to go it alone without even the support of other women. Jordan is selected for her SEALs tryout, over the objections of the military brass, at the instigation of a senator and senior member of the arms committee, Lillian DeHaven (Anne Bancroft), who privately never expects her to succeed; she's just a bargaining chip in DeHaven's high-stakes political gambit to bail out some military bases. Jordan stands isolated and defiant in her crusade; not even the highest-ranking woman in Congress thinks she'll win. So much for sisterhood.

Brotherhood fares a bit better. At first the SEALs candidates present a united front against her. Then a black soldier (Morris Chestnut) warms to Jordan by recalling how it was once believed that "Negroes can't fight at night." Although Jordan hangs on, a steady stream of he-man candidates drops out. The guys don't like it when she moves into their barracks, but they gain renewed respect for her during war games when she kicks Urgayle in the cojones. She joins them afterward, bloodied but unbowed, for a game of pool. Even Urgayle, who claimed he was battering Jordan for her own good -- to drive her from the SEALs and save her life -- flashes her a smile. Are you ready to rumble or what? Next up, Jordan takes on Xena, Warrior Princess.

G.I. Jane is the kind of war movie that gets made when we're not at war. In the absence of any conflict from without, we've got conflict from within. But, just as in Top Gun, it won't do to make a film about soldiers where all the battles are exercises. So G.I. Jane throws in a big number at the end when a battle-readiness submarine operation in the Mediterranean turns into the real thing, and before you know it Jordan is doing her Bronze Star best in Libya. This entire elaborate sequence, staged with an ear-thumping brio to rival Apocalypse Now, is in the movie just so we know Jordan won't wimp out when the bullets are real.

It's typical of this movie's approach to character that, with the exception of Urgayle, none of the male SEAL candidates or officers is recognizable from one scene to the next. They're a big blur of interchangeable faces, male and monolithic. Jordan is pretty monolithic too: The entire film is resolutely grim and committed to the notion that Jordan must never reveal a smidgen of tenderness. In rejecting preferential treatment, didn't she feel even a twinge of hesitancy -- or excitement -- about moving into the men's quarters? Jordan claims she doesn't want to be a symbol or a role model, but clearly she covets her position. Why else endure all that brutality?

It could be that Demi Moore clicks into this role for the same reason Jordan submits to the punishment: She wants the world to know she's not a quitter. She's been in three large flops in a row: The Juror, Striptease, and The Scarlet Letter. Worse, she's been pretty awful in most of them. She seems to be that rarity: an actress without a grain of humor. Did the people who made Striptease -- ostensibly a comedy -- check out her other films? In The Scarlet Letter, Moore's attempt to be a "classic" actress wasn't even an honest one. How could it be, when she managed to work in a candle-lit bathing-in-the-nude-scene that looked like a pictorial for Nathaniel Hawthorne's Swimsuit Issue?

For all her steeliness in G.I. Jane, Moore still goes in for a few quick body-work montages that look like snazzy promos for S&M. Blast those abs in a skimpy T-shirt! Her butch buzzcut, which is supposed to be so shocking, actually looks rather smart on her. It complements the better-living-through-plastic tautness of her bod. She is better than usual in G.I. Jane, because her unyieldingness and mettle at least have a reason for being. But she's such an unvarying actress that after a while Jordan becomes just about as big a blank as the guy platoon.

Perhaps this explains why Ridley Scott pumps the film with hyper-engineered action sequences, the cinematic equivalent of testosterone. Scott is being given undue credit in the press for championing strong women in his movies: Jordan, Thelma and Louise, Sigourney Weaver's Ripley in Alien. What seems closer to the truth is that he's transposing the most stereotypical male action-hero traits onto women and in the process reaping kudos for being "liberated."

But there's nothing liberated about, for example, those body-work montages or the way Scott deals with the gays-in-the-military issue. When a false story about Jordan being a lesbian is leaked to the press, she reacts as violently as if she'd been crucified. It's one thing for Jordan to go haywire, but the filmmakers too? Suppose Jordan were gay? G.I. Jane takes the narrow view that homosexuality in the military exists as a weapon to besmirch heterosexual crusaders. If Jordan were actually gay, the film would come apart at the seams. A better film wouldn't.

Especially in the Thirties and Forties, Hollywood knew how to create tough-cookie women who could cut men down to size and make us love them for it. (Just about any Howard Hawks heroine could do it.) The excitement of such women -- Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, or Myrna Loy or Joan Blondell or Bette Davis or many others -- was in the way they cauterized the maidenly mush of four-hankie femininity. When these dames parried with men, their patter really smoked.

It's a measure of how far we've sunk since then that the blank and bulked-up Jordan in G.I. Jane should be hailed as some kind of feminist icon. It's bad enough that throughout the world, male muscleheads are Hollywood's reigning champs. Must we now gear up for female zombie warriors as the latest line in phony-baloney empowerment?

G.I. Jane.
Directed by Ridley Scott; screenplay by David Twohy and Danielle Alexandra; with Demi Moore, Viggo Mortensen, Anne Bancroft, Scott Wilson, Jason Beghe, Lucinda Jenney, and Morris Chestnut.

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