Mixed messages on equality


BOSTON -- There is that moment in the movie "G.I. Jane" when a battered and bruised, buzz-cut and buff Demi Moore walks into the ladies room at the local bar.

She has just survived another brutal test in training to become the first female Navy SEAL, and she looks it.

Ms. Moore is washing her hands and basking in her acceptance as one of the boys, when a civilian woman takes one look at her bashed face and says to her:

"It's none of my business, honey, but I think you should leave the bastard."

It is one of those wonderful misperceptions that says it all. The woman assumes that Demi has taken it from a man when she has taken it like a man. What looks like a victim, feels like a victory.

This was just one of the colliding female images that sped across my own internal screen as this movie rushed to its predictable conclusion. Tough. Vulnerable.

What is it that we admire now in women? What do we want for our daughters? The ability to play by and win by the male rules? To write their own rules? To be equal? And to what or whom?

We have been through weeks of transforming attention to womanhood. From Di the death to Di the CD, we've seen an astounding number of women who identified with the post-Prince Charming life of this young mother.

New icon

We've heard the word icon -- symbols for programs on the computer and for gods in a church altar -- used to describe her.

In the midst of all the psycho that has been babbled since her tragic death, we heard repeatedly how the world's reaction signals the power of an emerging female principle.

It marks the death of stoicism and the takeover of sensitivity. The Mars of the stiff upper lip is giving way to the Venus of expressed feelings.

Yet in the same month, Demi has been the box office hit, and a new class of women at the last male educational bastions of Virginia Military Institute and The Citadel has chosen to test their endurance in the rat lines and hell weeks.

In another hint at the duality, two of the original four women at The Citadel "left the bastard" last year alleging sexual harassment. Two others go on.

Which are the survivors, which the heroines? What do we make of the woman suspended from VMI for slugging an upperclassman this year?

As if this weren't complex enough, in the wake of the sex scandals and reports, the Army has instituted new orders. On the one hand sensitivity training for the men, while on the other hand higher physical fitness standards for women.

And if you want to put an umbrella over all this, remember that the military still has a double-umbrella standard. Men in uniform can't use them, women can.

I don't want to confuse Di and G.I., cinema and verite. Demi Moore's last role, after all, was as a feminist stripper. But in the great cultural morph, we surf through both news and fiction for our cultural images.

Are these images telling our daughters to tough it out? To proudly achieve the male standard? To win admiration by shaving your head, doing one-armed push-ups and surviving abuse if that's what it takes?

Or are we telling them to hold to a different standard? To insist that princes mourn in public and presidents share their feelings?

It is clear that the bona fide job qualifications for becoming a Navy SEAL or raising a prince are quite different. But there is in all this a set of mixed messages about the changing roles in society.

Women are now told to be proud of their bulging biceps and scornful of the male inability to ask directions. They can't cry at the office but want men to cry at home. They believe in equality but don't know what kind.

Many men, on the other hand, in and out of the military, don't think women will be equal until they are the same as men. But these men are themselves under pressure to be different.

Different views

Some loved Princess Di because she was vulnerable; others because she was a survivor. Some watched G.I. Jane because she was a Demi-star; others because she was buff.

Which way is our society going? Every which way.

Maybe that signals greater individual freedom to follow your own star. Maybe it's simple and utter bewilderment.

But when some still wrangle over a unisex policy for umbrellas, it gets pretty stormy out there.

Ellen Goodman writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 9/23/97

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