Misogynist Films: Teaching Top Gun

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Once a year I teach a freshman-level general education course, "Women in Film and Literature." In a unit on war, I always begin by looking at Top Gun (Tony Scott, 1986). One of my chief aims in teaching this film is to demonstrate the link between male homoerotic desire and misogyny. In the war film, misogyny traditionally takes the form of men's jealously guarding their all-male preserve, the combat arena; equating women with the enemy to be conquered, and silencing female voices that have attempted to speak authoritatively about war. At one point in Top Gun, Charlie (Kelly McGillis), the love interest who also happens to possess a PhD in astrophysics and to teach at the flight school Maverick (Tom Cruise) attends, chastises Maverick for a move the latter makes in a war game. "What were you thinking?" she asks. Maverick, in time-honored fashion, pulls out the "you weren't there" card. "You don't have time to think up there. If you think, you're dead." Thus is female authority effectively undermined. Indeed, I argue that Charlie is raised so high (given an advanced degree in astrophysics) in order to make her conquest, her fall into the arms of Maverick, her admission that he is a "genius" at flying so much greater. (Before he knew Charlie as his teacher, he sees her in a bar and tries to make a sexual conquest of her practically on the spot. He is unsuccessful, or, as he puts it, "he crashes and burns"—one of the many phrases used in the film to equate sex and war.) I show a clip that shows how the film visually participates in the abasement of the woman: when Charlie is first introduced by the male instructor (Tom Skerrit) who is in the process of citing her impressive credentials, the film cuts to the lower half of a woman's body wearing a tight skirt and stockings with seams, as if this were a World War II film and not a post-Vietnam one. Now I myself possess a PhD, so I feel a certain solidarity with Top Gun's female teacher. I always counter Maverick's line about not having time to think when in battle with a line of my own: "Well, when do we get to think?" and I propose my class as a place to begin. In order to understand how the film works to get men psyched up for war (and us spectators right along with them), I try to demonstrate the workings of homosocial desire which, as Eve Sedgwick has so memorably shown in Between Men: English Literature and Homosocial Desire, operates at the expense of women and turns men's aggressively erotic energies toward one another. At times I have been spectacularly unsuccessful in my attempts to explain the idea of "homosocial desire." In his evaluation of the course, one student wrote in the large space where students are asked to list what they have learned, "Top Gun as a homosexual film." Apparently the thought of male homoeroticism was so traumatizing that nothing I actually said was able to penetrate. After that, I, a female teacher in the classroom talking about war, homoeroticism, and questions of female authority, chose to cede my authority to a man—not just any man, but the iconic Quentin Tarantino. As many film buffs are aware, in the film Sleep with Me (Rory Kelly, 1994), Tarantino has a small role as a partygoer who explains to a group of guests that Top Gun is a "homosexual film." In his spiel, Tarantino clinches his case by citing an exchange between Maverick and Ice Man, Maverick's rival in flight school who becomes a fellow warrior in the "real" dogfight that ends the film. According to Tarantino, after the pilots' successful defeat of a faceless enemy, Iceman says, "You can be my tail man any time," to which Maverick says, "Bullshit, you can be mine." What Ice Man actually says, however, is, "You can be my wing man any time." I take back some of my authority when I point out Tarantino's error. I go on to say I don't...

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