Over the last few decades female service members have been allowed to join (or attempt to join) a number of warfare specialties that were once only available to men. Some would like to credit the political winds in the wake of the Tailhook Scandal in ’91 or the DoD Sexual Harassment Report a couple of years ago, but — as with most things in the Free World — the biggest influence to shaping attitudes about a woman’s ability to serve is how she is represented on the Silver Screen.
Here are seven of the most iconic and groundbreaking portrayals of the military female experience in the history of cinema:
1. PATRICIA NEAL as Lieutenant Maggie Hayes in “In Harm’s Way” (1965)
Patricia Neal’s reading of Lt. Maggie Hayes is pitch-perfect. She’s tough but understanding as the head Navy nurse at a Pearl Harbor installation during the high optempo days of World War II. She’s also a great girlfriend to Capt. “Rock” Torrey (played by John Wayne in maximum swagger mode) and presents a model of how to navigate the fine (and potentially messy) lines of work-life blending and differences in rank.
2. DEMI MOORE as Lieutenant Jordan O’Neill in “G.I. Jane” (1997)
The powers-that-be are thinking of opening up Navy SEAL training to women these days? Thank Demi Moore. Her portrayal of never-say-quit Lt. O’Neill is gritty and honest. And she also delivers a classic line where she tells one of her instructors to do something to her that’s anatomically impossible. HOO-YAH, bitches!
3. DEMI MOORE as Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway in “A Few Good Men” (1992)
Demi Moore tackles the part of Lcdr. JoAnne Galloway with gusto, and in the process she emerges as a role model for female officers stuck in prosaic support specialties like Navy JAG. She handles the ever-whiney Lt. Dan Kaffee (played by the ever-whiney Tom Cruise) with aplomb and only cries a few times over the course of their time together. Her sense of justice is laudable. Her choice of hairstyles is less so, but let’s blame director Rob Reiner for that. Actually, skip that. He got that absolutely right.
4. GOLDIE HAWN as Private Judy Benjamin in “Private Benjamin” (1980)
Although it’s a comedy, Goldie Hawn’s reading of her character is really a procedural for using the U.S. military as a means of getting your shit together, female-style. Benjamin is a spoiled rich girl who becomes a widow at a young age and is tricked (you know how they do) by a recruiter into joining the Army. She weathers sexual harassment at the hands of her lesbian DI as well as her special ops CO (Col. Thornbush), but ultimately (after a tour at SHAPE and great Paris RR) she emerges stronger and more courageous than before she donned the uniform. (And how about those veteran’s benefits?)
5. Kelly McGillis as Charlie in “Top Gun” (1986)
Hey, in case you haven’t noticed, contractors are a big part of the military, and no actress has ever represented those proud patriots as well as Kelly McGillis does while holding down the role of Charlie in the all-time military classic “Top Gun.” As with Demi Moore in “A Few Good Men,” McGillis gets points for playing opposite whiney Tom Cruise, this time whining into an oxygen mask a lot of the time, but beyond that she exudes strength (the government gave her a top secret clearance, lieutenant) and sweet surrender (everybody: *take my breath awaaaaaayyyy*).
6. CARRIE FISHER as Princess Leia in “Return of the Jedi” (1983)
Because she had the strength to outlast the ick of lusting after her brother for all that time and because she’s a princess, which must make her the commander-in-chief of the rebel forces (or something) and therefore a military person. *Hand salute*
7. SIGOURNEY WEAVER as Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley in “Alien” (1979)
Few characters, male or female, in the history of cinema have jumped off the screen with as much moxie and brio as Sigourney Weaver managed while playing Ripley in the sci-fi epic “Alien.” The movie is basically a one-act play where Weaver’s character has every chance to freak the hell out but doesn’t, and therefore she survives (because if she hadn’t there wouldn’t have been a sequel). Ripley is a model of strength and calm under pressure, and her BS meter is way dialed in.