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G.I. Jane and the reality of female action heroes

Currently Sicario is wowing critics and audiences, with special praise being heaped on Emily Blunt for her understated yet powerful lead performance as Kate Macy. It’s a rare graciousness. Female action heroines, while tolerated as important, are more often than not critically maligned – if not for their performance then the film they labor in.

Sure, there are exceptions – Sigourney Weaver, Hilary Swank and Linda Hamilton being among the most powerful – but it is worth noting that critical success for a female “action hero” is highly conditional, depending on a certain kind of socially approved feminine behavior. Ridley Scott, hyper-aware of this problem, has tried to interrupt it with several of his films, the most famous being the first Alien. Sigourney Weaver plays a role that could just as easily have gone to a man, and furthers the irony by portraying the first horror pregnancy in Alien born of a male subject.

James Cameron was quick to change this dynamic, feminising Ripley in Aliens by making her a mother, and pitting her against a more powerful evil female. He did the same thing with Sarah Connor, softening her badass with the mystique of the mother’s love pitted against another alien creature. Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby, with no such protections, was forced to become the dying girl to the real action hero, Clint Eastwood, and so the predictable story unfolds.

In Sicario we see a not-so-subtle development of similar techniques, with Emily Blunt’s badass heroine (with shades of her character from Edge of Tomorrow) being forced into the position of moral advisor and PC police in the “real world” of America’s most glamorous and politically misused war – the war on drugs. In an indirect slap down to female authority, she is forced to confront the “truth” of feminist ideology in a man’s world: it has no serious place in important, dirty battles. Feminism amounts to little more than women dragging their tedious complex morality into situations that require a lack of compassion and direct action. Emily Blunt is of course, critically rewarded for her compliance. A reward that might culminate in an Academy Award nomination.

A surprising crusader in this enormous problem of female representation in film is Ridley Scott. Scott has made successful films about women battling against all odds for their own noble truth. He can count to his credit the likes of Alien, Thelma and Louise and G.I. Jane, all of which tackle head-on this problem of the female lead.

One of his more challenging and ambitious films is G.I. Jane, one of the only films that tackles the sexy topic of U.S. Navy SEAL training, deemed to be the most rigorous and challenging fitness and mental toughness regimes in the history of the human race. (There are plenty of films about SEALs in the field, but surprisingly few about Hell Week or the other rigors of the training program.) In a stroke of pure brilliance, Ridley Scott, six years after making Thelma and Louise, decided to push a lone woman through SEAL training in order to prove her autonomous toughness against male counterparts. It is inspirational genius for women, yet equally cuts into many aspects of the male psyche, particularly the infamous “suck my dick” scene where Jordan O’Neil fights her most important battle for survival – against her teammates. G.I. Jane and its imagery thus becomes more of a feminist film for men, an educator if you like, cutting into mythologies rather than necessarily representing the true tenets of feminism. If she can cut it in the most grueling test a man can think of, then she’s alright.

This is problematic, because it’s not the woman you know that you need to gain respect for, it’s the imagined woman, the faceless woman, the everywoman you’ve never met about whom attitudes need to change. Feminist battles are not fought in gaining the respect of the men around you, for you swiftly become the exception to the rule. Ridley Scott knows this, and part of what makes G.I. Jane such a clever take on the female action heroine, is that she doesn’t fight for a cause – she fights for herself. The rules of the action hero insist you are outside of the establishment, and that includes the feminist sisterhood. Jordan O’Neil is fighting for advancement in her career. She is not a mother, she is not a feminist, and she is not political. She succeeds for herself. Gaining the respect of the men around her is all about becoming a SEAL.

This becomes one of the powerful sources of tension within the film, and the interesting twist exemplified by Scott through the Anne Bancroft character Lillian DeHaven. While it is cinematic stereotyping to have the antagonistic males convinced by a show of female strength, only to step aside for the real enemy: another powerful female, the final battle between O’Neil and DeHaven is one of survival. Each is willing to throw the other under the bus for their career. Again, this reveals that feminism isn’t at the heart of Ridley Scott’s provocative drama, no matter how much he clearly approves of the movement. This is a film about women and their place in cinema, society and the world. It is about the war they wage to get the most basic privileges enjoyed by men.

An interesting side note that does involve the feminist aspect, and another stroke of on-point brilliance by Scott six years after he made Thelma and Louise, is the use of feminism as a political football. The feminist banner will be picked up and equally emphatically dropped to serve any political purpose, a point of perpetual frustration for women serious about the transformation of daily life. G.I. Jane holds no relief for feminists, it’s not strictly a feminist film, but neither are action heroines’ true feminist representations. Action heroes are about the power of the individual, the capitalist icon of supremacy, and to have a woman join their ranks is risky. The action hero is not real. There is no real life equivalent. They are a myth. Therein lays the importance of female action heroes, and the importance of subduing them to feminine qualities. Myths have a great deal of power to persuade.

Inside the machination of the excellent G.I. Jane is a brilliant performance by the underrated Demi Moore. Like Angelina Jolie after her, Moore, who uses her physical appearance powerfully in this film, was dismissed because of her sex appeal and star power, reduced from talented actress to celebrity icon. In G.I. Jane she undergoes one of cinema’s greatest and most underrated physical transformations. But Moore is no stranger to using her body to interrupt social norms, from appearing pregnant and naked on the cover of Vanity Fair to displaying augmented breasts in Striptease. While not a feminist icon, she remains a powerful role model for women, a true badass, and a bridge between the feminist thinker and the idealistic feminine divine.

Moore was not chosen idly for this role by Ridley Scott. G.I. Jane is not about realism, it’s about female mythological representation. When Jordan is threatened with rape in her Navy SEAL training program as an interrogation technique, we now know in the real world, any woman at this level has to confront the very real possibility of being raped by her teammates or her superiors, with the blessing of the men around her. Ironically, the real world of the female Navy SEAL is far tougher than the one we see on the silver screen presented by Ridley Scott and Demi Moore. However, what we also know, is that more women will want to become SEALs as a result of this film, and that in itself will slowly impact the incidences of female recruitment rapes. Mythology and reality are as inseparable as right and wrong, light and dark and it is on this idea that Ridley Scott has an almost perfect grasp, educating through misinformation. This makes his action heroines far more powerful than those in the more contemporary Million Dollar Baby or Sicario, whose directors mistakenly mythologize the men in their films, while firmly keeping their female counterparts mired in a debilitating feminist reality. The mystified male hero (anti or otherwise) will always trump realism, be it male or female. Benicio Del Toro will always trump Emily Blunt. Denis Villeneuve has seen to that.

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