Saturday, 9 January 2016

G.I. Jane and the Navy SEALs

It is surprisingly difficult to find media dealing with modern warfare that actually shows female soldiers, even in an era where that is perfectly normal. One notable exception to the rule is Ridley Scott's 1997 action film G.I. Jane. However, on some level this particular film, while an excellent thrill-ride with a strong female lead, is a curious film to see in light of its subject matter. The story focuses on Jordan O'Neal, an athlete and military analyst who finds herself becoming the first female Navy SEAL. Much of the film naturally deals with sexism in the military (she is being deliberately put with the SEALs on the assumption that she will easily fail), but it is also curious to watch in light of how society has developed since G.I. Jane's release.

It is fitting to discuss this film right now, since is just happens that this year the real-life Navy SEALs are hoping to begin opening their doors towards women, almost twenty years later. Of course, the reality is not as dramatic as Scott's vision. Quite a few of the top SEAL commanders are on board with the idea (if still getting accustomed to it), far from the vision Scott had of a sexist military pulling every trick it could to prevent integration. Unlike the film, in which the SEALs are depicted responding to political pressure, they seem to be doing this willingly, and the only reason the change has not already been implemented is government bureaucracy. Some of the officers have even gone on the record to state that women will be held to the same standards as men (a right O'Neal had to fight for). The movie was also made while Don't Ask, Don't Tell was still in effect; the trick of forging evidence that O'Neal was homosexual would not cause anywhere near as much of a scandal today.

Also ironically, the film is about the SEALs being used as a test case to see if gender integration is possible in the military as a whole, when in fact they have proven to be one of the last branches to begin accepting women. In Canada, women can serve in any position, including submarines. In America, women are now being accepted as marines and rangers. If anything, much of what really happened has been the exact opposite of what is shown in G.I. Jane.  This is not, however, to say that the film is irrelevant to today's world. In fact, very much the opposite.

G.I. Jane is not just a story about a female SEAL, but one about intolerance as a whole. Throughout the movie, attention is drawn to the ignorance and prejudices in the military. Homosexuality is also brought up (though not given much focus), including a subplot where O'Neal is almost reduced to a desk job because someone took a picture of her sitting on a beach with a female officer.  There are a variety of claims brought up early on about how women are weaker than men and therefore not fit to serve. Sadly, these same arguments still persist today. The subject of whether women should meet the same standards

At one point, she also speaks to an African-American recruit, Lt. McCool (Morris Chestnut), who draws a parallel between O'Neal's situation and his grandfather. In his anecdote, McCool explains that his grandfather enlisted in World War II as a gunner in the Navy, only to be told that the only position he could take was the cook. According to McCool, the rationale for not letting a man fight for his country was that blacks supposedly cannot see at night. This is an absurd and blatantly racist claim today, perhaps just as absurd as saying women cannot meet the same physical standards as men, or discharging people for the sole reason that their commanding officer thinks they might be gay, even if that has no impact on their performance.

G.I. Jane is very much about deconstructing these absurd prejudices. From the moment Jordan first appears, she is obviously a good choice. She already works in intelligence, and despite having years of experience got rejected from one post in the Gulf War simply because the submarine lacked women's wash rooms (this itself an absurd claim, given the restroom was probably a single toilet that could easily have been shared). She is smart and quick-thinking, as well as being extremely fit.

Still, everyone maintains that she should not be present, yet the film constantly presents evidence to the contrary. During a training exercise, O'Neal deliberately knocks over the steps used to get over a wall and instead crouches down herself. Several men climb onto her back and she is still able to keep moving afterwards, yet even after she has helped the last man over the wall, he still refuses to help her get over in return. Even the senator responsible for all this happening in the first place (Anne Bancroft) admits she expected O'Neal to fail and only did it for publicity. Early on, she is given special treatment. She has her own room, an officer she can personally consult about any issues, and is required to go through dumbed down versions of the physical exercises. She also proves on multiple occasions to be good at handling stress, including several situations where the recruits are deprived of sleep.

It is only when O'Neal manages to get herself on the same ground as the other recruits, to the point of even sharing her sleeping quarters with them, that any progress is made. This is reflected in her appearance. O'Neal begins as an attractive young woman, with long dark hair tied back into a ponytail and a formal suit. In her early days of training, she sheds the suit in favour of combat fatigues, but her long hair remains as a visual symbol of the inequality that still exists. Once she is facing the same standards, O'Neal visits a barbershop and proceeds to shave her own head; now looking like one of the guys. After this change, O'Neal begins to show more of her body, particularly her muscles, a visual indicator of her full potential.

These skills also prove useful once field training begins. O'Neal eventually becomes a team leader, though not entirely by choice (the original guy kept trying to sabotage her efforts, proving that he was unqualified seeing as teamwork is an essential part of SEAL operations). This includes and exercise where the SEALs are faced with a simulation of a combat situation. They are brought to an island and given a practice mission. O'Neal is put in charge of her team and quickly proves she knows what she is doing. Her experience as an analyst allows her to easily locate their target. The mission likely would have proven a success had it not been for the former team leader, who outright ignores her orders and gets everyone "captured."

Of course, even after being caught, and finding herself in a simulation of such an experience, O'Neil still remains strong. Her instructor beats her repeatedly and yells sexist remarks in an attempt at discouragement. He even goes as far as to attempt to rape her, which ends with O'Neal defending herself appropriately. Despite the constant pressure, she never gives in to the simulated interrogation, and proves, just as was indicated in training, that she is good at taking pressure, a crucial component to SEAL training. By this point, O'Neal is finally accepted as an equal, even being cheered on by her male comrades as she fights back against the instructor. 

This in turn leads to the climax of the film, where the recruits are unexpectedly faced with an actual mission to recover a fallen satellite. The task is a dangerous one, as it involves entering territory owned by Muammar Gaddafi. By this point, the SEALs are coordinating together. O'Neal herself is even given the task of acting as a spotter for her instructor. He ends up being separated and it is once again O'Neal who has to take charge. She is the one who plans their strategy both for recovering the satellite and rescuing the instructor, and it is because of her the mission is a success. She is obviously deserving of the badge she receives at the end that indicates her acceptance as a SEAL.

The whole point has essentially been that women can in fact meet the same standards as men. They are not physically weaker, as some would like to claim. Any such claim is nothing more than futile attempt to justify prejudice and bigotry, no different from McCool's anecdote about his grandfather not being allowed to serve because people claimed blacks had bad eyesight. Just as that absurd World War II-era theory was eventually disproven, so is the claim that women are unfit for military service. The same could be said of any group that has been barred from active duty, be it race, gender, or sexual orientation. 

1 comment:

  1. This is such an underrated film and, as you noted, far ahead of its time. I will caution that I'm not buying that the real Navy brass was all okay with letting women begin to take part in SEAL training, hopefully this year, and the only hold up was government bureaucracy. That may be the face they're putting on it, but I wouldn't be shocked if a number of them were fighting tooth and nail to keep this from happening.