The Ridley Scott directed G I Jane (1997) is one of my guilty pleasures. Watching the elfin Demi Moore transform into a buff, tough-as-nails Navy Seal, cigars, buzz cut, moonlit one-armed push ups and all was thrilling for the 24-year-old me, nearly a quarter century ago. With no one else to share my nascent feminist belief that women could match even beat the men at their own game, this film provided the fuel to sustain the tiny flame of feminist anger I felt while watching a boring entitled male character deign to choose between two stunning, vital women in the top Bollywood film of the same year, Dil Toh Pagal Hai.
It has taken Bollywood nearly 25 years to plagiarise G I Jane in the 2020 Dharma Productions film, Gunjan Saxena. Like G I Jane, Gunjan Saxena is about a woman entering and conquering the last bastion of masculinity, the armed forces. While G I Jane is the fictional account of a woman enrolling in the brutal Navy SEALs training programme, Gunjan Saxena professes to be a fictionalised (just how fictionalised it was we would find out later) account of the true story of the first Indian female pilot in combat. From the training which seems more like ‘Dhal gaya din” type PT in Gunjan Saxena (Jahnvi Kapoor) as compared to the brutal three month training that Lt. Jordan O’Neil (Demi Moore), to the nasty commanding officer and the latent (no separate bathrooms) and overt sexism (from the fellow trainees) and finally to rescue the very commanding officer who doubts their ability in the first place. So yea, retribution and validation tied neatly with a pink bow of a feminist plotline.
After sitting through the yawn-fest that is Gunjan Saxena and getting more and more agitated at the shameless plagiarisation, I decided to re-watch G I Jane (I have the original DVD, yo) to see how it held up as a feminist film more than two decades later. As a case study for full equality of genders in the combat forces, Lt. Jordan O’Neil is chosen to join the elite and exceedingly tough Navy Seal training. Already smarting at not being able to join active combat at the Gulf War, Navy Veteran O’Neil is determined to give it her all, but not before announcing loudly that she is, “… not interested in being some poster girl for women’s rights”. Sigh, not quite the feminist film that I seem to recall. Jordan conveniently forgets that it took a lot of fighting for the self-same women’s rights to get her to this point.
Throughout the film Jordan consistently refuses any special treatment for being a woman and thus earns the grudging admiration of the hardass-in-tiny-shorts Master Chief Urgayle (Viggo oh-my-ovaries Mortensen). Indeed, the whole film is less about women’s rights but about a certain kind of woman, who is ‘not like the other girls’, who never makes any allowance towards her femininity, so determined is she just to be considered an equal. There is even a passing mention by the doctor on the base Jordan of having stopped menstruating because her body fat percentage has dropped below the optimum. To which of course the more-macho-than-thou Jordan shrugs.
And so against all odds we watch Jordan consistently punch above her weight and qualify at a program where 60% of the men fail miserably. The climactic moment of the film arrives a little before the actual dull-as-dishwater climax when Jordan, having defeated her nemesis Master Chief Urgayle, bellows at him to ‘Suck her dick’, thereby achieving her goal of not wanting to be the poster girl for women’s rights and finally becoming one of the boys in a man’s world.
Oddly, the grunt and grimace of Lt. Jordan O’Neil’s character reminded me in many ways of Journalist Barkha Dutt’s belligerent tweets on the recent decision by Zomato to issue menstrual leave to its female employees:
“I reported Kargil with my period and no sanitary pads because my bag got shelled. I took Combiflam for the pain and carried on using toilet paper. If I had wanted period leave, I’d have never been sent to report the war.”
“Sorry Zomato, as woke as your decision on #PeriodLeave is, this is exactly what ghettoizes women and strengthens biological determinism. We cannot want to join the infantry, report war, fly fighter jets, go into space, want no exceptionalism and want period leave. PLEASE.”
Incidentally, it was at the 1999 Kargil War, the same one that Barkha Dutt reported from, that the Indian Air Force flew two of its first women officers into the combat zone. One of whom was the aforementioned Gunjan Saxena. It was the tailend of the 20th century when women finally got entry into the Armed Forces in branches other than medical. The first wave of women to join hitherto all male professions perhaps needed to constantly prove that they were ‘just as good’ and that often meant squashing their femininity and denying their biological differences.
In G I Jane, Senator Lillian Bancroft pushing for full female equality in the armed forces announces, “If women measure up, we’ll get 100 percent integration.” It was critical therefore that we measured up to pre-existing rules and role models, else we let down our entire gender.
Like G I Jane and Barkha Dutt and the women of a certain era, myself included, it took a lot of gritting of teeth and biting of tongue and gratitude for opportunities that didn’t exist before. We had to be grateful to fathers and brothers and husbands and coaches who ‘allowed’ us entry. In the film Gunjan Saxena, the eponymous heroine disheartened from her experience at the air force training academy suggests to her father that she should perhaps ‘settle down’ into marriage. Instead of asking her for her reasons, the enraged father drags her into the kitchen saying that if she wants to give up her flying wings to make parathas, then she should learn to make them. After all that’s what housewives are good enough for. And of course, everyone cheered for the wonderfully feminist father.
The odds that were stacked against women in the 90s don’t exist now, thanks to the pioneering work of women like Barkha Dutt and Gunjan Saxena. There is now a clearer understanding of in-built biological differences while still being equal. I could see where Barkha Dutt’s angst surfaced from and I wanted to tell her to ease up, she’s done her bit. It’s no longer about beating men at their own game or being one of the boys, but to be open to learning about this gentler new world and creating an inclusive space and advocating for all manners of feminism, all manners of career choices and all manners of medical leave. A version of feminism where making parathas is okay if that’s what you want to do and one doesn’t have to hide one’s biology under a wad of toilet paper and combiflam.