Article Thumbnail

For 25 Years, We’ve Reduced ‘G.I. Jane’ to Demi Moore’s Shaved Head

Chris Rock’s disastrous Oscar joke about the 1997 drama reinforced its status as a cultural punchline. But at the time, the film was a flawed but fervent feminist statement — and its star’s attempt to gain some respect as an actress

When Demi Moore did press for G.I. Jane, journalists couldn’t help but ask: What was it like to shave your head? Were you nervous? And she’d smile, perhaps annoyed by the men who were peppering her with this question. “I kept thinking, ‘When do we get to the haircut? When do we get to the haircut?’ I was ready for it the moment we started [filming],” she replied. “So I felt, actually, more just liberated by the time we got there.”

Moore had been an honorary member of the so-called Brat Pack of the 1980s, starring in films like St. Elmo’s Fire, About Last Night… and One Crazy Summer before the box-office success of 1990’s Oscar-winning Ghost put her on another level. The commercial hot streak continued with A Few Good Men, Indecent Proposal and Disclosure, always the highest-profile actress in movies where the men were the main characters. But by the mid-1990s, she shifted to star vehicles — films where she’d be the lead and calling the shots — and that’s when the bombs started. Her adaptation of The Scarlet Letter was a critical and financial failure. The following year’s Striptease, in which she played a loving mother who becomes a stripper to pay the legal fees to fight for custody of her daughter, was widely mocked, with critics singling out her performance, saying that her supposed sexy stripteases were anything but. 

So a lot was riding on G.I. Jane. The film, which she also produced, starred her as Jordan, a military analyst who’s the first woman selected to train to become a Navy SEAL, a controversial decision at a time when only men were permitted to perform certain jobs in the armed forces. Jordan faces resistance from her superiors as well as her fellow SEAL candidates, who don’t think some girl can hack the grueling boot camp required for graduation. She has to prove herself, and in a sense so did Moore. She wanted to be taken seriously, not just thought of as Bruce Willis’ wife or the woman who had posed naked and pregnant on the cover of Vanity Fair. And if that meant shaving her head, so be it.

G.I. Jane, which came out in August 1997, wasn’t a hit, and critics didn’t much like it, either. Few remember the film, but if they do, it’s for Moore’s shaved head. That no doubt prompted Chris Rock’s joke Sunday night at the Oscars, directed at Jada Pinkett Smith, in which he compared her shorn head to Moore’s in the film. No matter your feelings about what happened next, what was striking was Rock’s invoking of a forgotten 25-year-old film for a cheap gag. The movie has been lost to the ages, but Moore’s bald dome has lived on. It’s probably not easy for her that a movie she put her soul into has become a punchline. But after all these years, perhaps she’s resigned to that fact.

The scene in question happens at about the 45-minute mark. Jordan is tough and capable, but the candidates are told that roughly 60 percent of aspiring Navy SEALS pack it in before graduation because the training is so grueling. (The actual number may be closer to 75 percent.) She’s starting to wonder if she can endure, but at the same time, she’s tired of the preferential treatment she’s been given. In order to earn her peers’ respect, she demands not to be treated differently — and so she shaves off her long hair, symbolically demonstrating she’s just like the men. 

When G.I. Jane screenwriters David Twohy and Danielle Alexandra were developing the project, they had pictured Moore as their ideal Jordan. You could understand why: She wasn’t just a star but someone who projected a no-nonsense confidence. Her characters were smart and driven, having to learn to survive in a man’s world. No doubt she saw these roles as a reflection of what she faced in Hollywood. When she was paid $12.5 million for Striptease, it was the most money a woman had ever received for a film. (Around that same time, both Jim Carrey and Moore’s husband Willis were getting $20 million.) But her huge payday provoked a sexist backlash — it didn’t help that Striptease was terrible — and forced her to stand up for herself, and for other women. “They offered me this money because they said they valued what I would bring to the project,” Moore said at the time. “I was going to turn it down? … The moment I got this salary, every other woman in Hollywood went up a notch too. I want other women to do well. I need them to do well.”

Teaming up with Ridley Scott for G.I. Jane made a certain amount of sense. Between Alien and Thelma & Louise, he’d made female-fronted films and would seemingly be sympathetic to G.I. Jane’s feminist undertones. “I remember reading Thelma and the executives were saying, ‘Well, it’s two bitches in a car…’ And I said, ‘Actually, it’s a little bit more than that,’” Scott recalled in 2017. “Originally I was supposed to produce, and I offered it to four directors. One said, ‘I’ve got a problem with the women.’ And I said, ‘That’s the point, you dope! Clearly, you have big problems with women.’”

Even so, G.I. Jane was going to face considerable hurdles. For one thing, Moore would have to go through extensive training to get her body in SEAL-ready shape. Plus, there was the whole matter of the shaved head. In the 1990s, the only major celebrity to have a bald head was Sinéad O’Connor, and by the time of G.I. Jane, the brilliant musician was well on her way to being labeled “crazy” because of her defiant stance on, among other things, the Catholic Church. O’Connor’s shaved head seemed indicative of her radioactive reputation: Surely no “normal” woman would do something like that, right? 

Maybe Moore got a hint of what was to come when she appeared on Late Show in 1996 as she was working on G.I. Jane. Her head was shaved, and a very handsy David Letterman couldn’t help himself, rubbing her skull with boyish glee like she was a plaything. Both segments are worth watching — if you can get past the cringe factor — because they’re instructive in how society treated a bald, muscular woman. Moore is a fascinating curiosity to Letterman, and by the time he asks her to do one-armed push-ups — like her character does in G.I. Jane — she’s little more than a circus freak. Moore plays along, flirtatious and smiling, but it’s hard to miss the tongue-biting look on her face. Also, in light of what happened Sunday at the Oscars, the second segment is additionally ironic because Letterman gives her a Will Smith action figure from his recent smash Independence Day.

Sort of a combination of An Officer and a Gentleman and Top Gun — the latter directed by Ridley Scott’s brother Tony — G.I. Jane came at a time when the Clinton Administration’s controversial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on allowing members of the LGBTQ+ community to serve in the military had only recently been implemented. And in 1994, the “Risk Rule” was rescinded, which opened up more opportunities for women in different areas of the military. As a result, there was plenty of debate about whether the U.S. armed forces were suddenly losing their elite status because of their more “lenient” policies. G.I. Jane was a response to its era, seeking to show that Jordan could weather her berating commanding officer Urgayle (Viggo Mortensen), the verbal abuse of her fellow candidates and the physical and psychological toll of boot camp. It’s a film in which Jordan finally demonstrates to everyone that she’s got the right stuff by yelling at Urgayle, “Suck my dick!” at her lowest point. See, she can be as homophobic as the guys.

It’s perhaps not fair to criticize a 1997 film by 2022 standards. Back then, the story’s focus on Jordan’s just-one-of-the-dudes journey was a blow to the idea that only manly men could serve their country — her coarse comment was meant to undercut that macho bluster by emasculating those who doubted her. Even so, G.I. Jane isn’t a great movie, filled with clichéd military characters — Urgayle may be a hardass but, predictably, deep down he admires her tenacity — and occasionally peppered with lingering shots of Moore’s muscular body as she does pull-ups and push-ups. Ultimately, G.I. Jane is a hamfisted, well-intentioned female-empowerment narrative with a few Rocky training montages thrown in. 

What’s always impressive, though, is Moore’s commitment. As she did often during her heyday, she plays Jordan with a steeliness that suggests the character isn’t going to put up with the asshole men around her. Moore’s stardom was a constant battle to prove she wasn’t just beautiful, and the physical transformation she underwent to get buff for G.I. Jane was part of that larger war. “Yes, I know I’m not considered a fine actress,” she said around the time of Striptease. “I’m commercial, so I’m considered a popcorn actress. I try not to look for too much outside validation. I don’t count on that. Of course, all of us seek some external approval.”

G.I. Jane debuted at No. 1, but it ended up not making back its budget. Plus, there were those who pushed back against the film’s premise. In a Los Angeles Times op-ed titled “Women in SEALs Training? Get Real,” filmmaker and former military man Jerry O’Brien argued that, because of G.I. Jane, “[W]e’re going to have a whole couple of generations of girls who think they can take on the SEALs and win. Wrong. … You insult all of the men who achieved their SEAL badges when you imply a woman can do it, or did it. You insult every man who died trying. And you really insult all the good men who tried but failed (whom no woman on Earth could touch in terms of physical ability).”

To be fair, G.I. Jane has been taken to task for its military inaccuracies. (Only last year did a woman, according to The New York Times, finally complete the “Navy special warfare training pipeline that directly supports the SEALs and other elite commando units.”) But whether it was sexism or a mediocre screenplay or the fact that a glamorous movie star was on the poster with a shaved head, G.I. Jane didn’t connect with audiences. Moore’s hope of flipping the script on her career narrative had failed. “Striptease seemed to represent a betrayal to women and G.I. Jane was a betrayal to men,” she said in 2020. “With Striptease, I stepped into a role that was women’s fear, and G.I. Jane was as if it was a challenge to men. They let me know it, too.”

Moore has admitted that G.I. Jane’s failure took the wind out of her sails. “They weren’t going to let me win,” she told the New York Times in 2019. “That, to the little girl in me — that was crushing.” Afterward, she stopped acting as much, focusing on motherhood. (She and Willis got divorced in 2000.) Soon enough, she was a “woman of a certain age” and her stardom was on the wane. “They’d say they don’t really know what to do with you, where to place you,” she told the Times. “I was like, ‘Oh, well is that supposed to flatter me?’”

When you watch G.I. Jane today, some of the double-standards at play are still striking. We often revere actors who undergo enormous transformations — losing lots of weight, gaining lots of weight, putting on a ton of makeup, being straight but playing a gay man — but Moore’s G.I. Jane preparation never attracted the same amount of admiration. But at the same time, the film does feel mired in an old-fashioned, somewhat condescending mindset: Scott keeps marveling at how resourceful Jordan is, almost as if he’s patting her on the head for her stick-to-itiveness. You almost wonder what a female director like Kathryn Bigelow would have done with comparable material, except you don’t have to wonder. Her Zero Dark Thirty is a military drama led by a female character (Jessica Chastain) who also has to navigate sexism — but Bigelow’s film is far sharper and more nuanced about the struggles its hero faces. (One of the movie’s key exchanges is when James Gandolfini’s CIA Director Leon Panetta asks a subordinate what he thinks of “the girl.” “I think she’s fucking smart,” the guy says. “We’re all smart, Jeremy,” Panetta responds.)

Probably none of this was going through Chris Rock’s mind when he made his G.I. Jane joke last night. He probably just saw Pinkett Smith’s head and let it fly, perpetuating a simplistic cultural memory of a deeply flawed but meaningful film. G.I. Jane may be a punchline, but Jordan’s shaved head has lived on in other ways: Moore’s own daughter Tallulah shaved her head in 2015, saying, “I thought, if I could feel beautiful with no hair, then I will literally feel good in any situation. I actually watched G.I. Jane two days before I shaved my head. I don’t think I was 100 percent inspired by it, but I think it may have manifested the idea in my mind.” In fact, it was her mom who shaved it for her.

As of yet, Moore hasn’t commented on Rock’s joke. She doesn’t need to. The comment was hacky, probably insensitive, but also revealing about how some guys are uncomfortable with “unconventional” standards of female beauty. G.I. Jane is more than Moore’s shaved head, but the film’s lingering cultural totem encapsulates what she was trying to say. Jordan wants to be treated fairly, so she shaves her head. In the film, it helps her fellow soldiers accept her. But in the real world, it’s not nearly as easy.