Gender Ambiguity in Vietnam War Films

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In this podcast, Tatiana Prorokova considers gender ambiguity in Vietnam War films.

The Vietnam War takes a specific place in U.S. military history. Having influenced generations of Americans, the conflict unsurprisingly found a wide reflection in American cinema. The most famous, as well as the most significant ones were the films created in the 1970s-80s, including Michael Cimino’s Deer Hunter, (1978), Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), and Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War (1989). In these films, the directors aptly touch upon the questions of the army, war, and morality, which are generally the key themes of war films. Yet, they also unveil the issue of gender representation, discussing the problem of masculinity. The issue of gender, precisely the problem of masculine power and female vulnerability, is one of the leading themes in these films. Interestingly, such issues as class, race, and nationality apparently disappear “in the ‘brotherhood’ of war,” while gender always remains a thorny question (Messner 25). What one can see in the films on Vietnam is that masculinity establishes itself as the only right and legitimate agency. Women practically do not appear in films on Vietnam, and even if they do, they are depicted as prostitutes, a role that serves to reaffirm masculinity as well: to erase femininity as it is and strengthen the power of a masculine collective. The examination of the above mentioned films, therefore, allows me to contend that Vietnam War films overtly focus on the issue of gender; yet, they celebrate masculinity and mock femininity.

To illustrate the problem of “mocked” femininity, I look over the representation of women in Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Casualties of War. First of all, it is important to mention that women always appear as individuals rather than in groups. We often see one woman, usually weak and dependent, surrounded by a group of men (for example, the prostitute in Full Metal Jacket or the kidnapped Vietnamese girl in Casualties of War). I argue that this technique visually helps directors oppose masculinity and femininity. A woman is always depicted as patently distinguished from a man: she is lonely and weak. Moreover, she is obviously the only one who does not belong to the world of war, which is made obvious from the way she is dressed, i.e., she does not wear a uniform, and from the absence of any physical power that is, indeed, an important aspect in war. Thus, all the three directors draw a thick red line between men and women, and, as a result, between masculinity and femininity in their conventional sense. Therefore, Vietnam War films reject the idea of feminization that can be applied to men, strictly identifying it only with women. The issue is visually illustrated through images of demeaning and weak women, whom men always have to try to separate themselves from, both visually and verbally, or exercise power over. Hence, male soldiers do not only clearly differentiate themselves from these women but they also subdue any manifestation of womanliness in themselves.

Notably, women appear as part of the Vietnam War only in two movies: Full Metal Jacket and Casualties of War. I do not consider Linda (Meryl Streep) from The Deer Hunter because we see her only at the beginning of the film – during the wedding – and in the end, when the war is over. Hence, she is never shown on the battlefield, but rather, is represented as part of a domestic environment, taking a traditional female role in patriarchal society. Both Full Metal Jacket and Casualties of War, however, clearly support my idea that the main role the woman is given in a Vietnam War film is the one of a prostitute. This is made apparent in Full Metal Jacket as we literally see a female prostitute. The same idea is obliquely conveyed in Casualties of War as the main female heroine is entirely disrespected, humiliated, physically and morally abused in the course of the film. Indeed, the kidnapped Vietnamese girl is literally treated as a prostitute and as an enemy. Here, the issue of femininity is tightly linked to the moral issue that the film, where a woman becomes an ethic core, raises. The morality of this film, therefore, is transmitted through the way it depicts gender relations. In this case, it is obvious that the soldiers brutalize the woman not only because she is the enemy (since she is Vietnamese) but also to consolidate their image of male warriors, to prove that they are “real” men but not “queers”, to demonstrate how powerful they are and how weak and helpless the woman is. Hence, masculinity in Casualties of War manifests itself through male power, aggressiveness, and ability to control, even if only in a physical way.

Another important female character appears in Platoon and that is Chris’s (Charlie Sheen) grandmother. Although, we do not really see her in the film, she plays a significant role, revealing Chris’s persona that we can perceive through the letters he writes to her. The communication between the soldier and his grandmother is a very emotional part of the film. The presence of a woman, who takes over a traditional role of a “mother”, makes the film a rather unusual one. First of all, because it reinforces femininity. Indeed, the role that a woman plays in Platoon is tremendously different from the ones played by women in Full Metal Jacket and Casualties of War, chiefly because the former one is a respectable one. Chris treats this woman with awe, due to her importance to him but perhaps also because of her age. Arguably, the woman’s rather advanced age de-sexualizes her as a woman and, thus, does not allow men to treat her as a female in the full sense. Thus, she is not feminized or masculinized but rather, is depicted as a neutral character, a “parent”.

Stanley Kubrick challenges this traditional division of women into prostitutes and mothers in Vietnam War films, presenting a Vietnamese female sniper, another type of women, i.e., a female warrior. For the films on Vietnam that usually celebrate male power, displaying war as a game for men and never for women, this depiction is, indeed, atypical. Having shown, first, how a female sniper kills almost the whole platoon, Kubrick then focuses on the faces of the three survived soldiers who apparently cannot accept the fact that the person who killed their comrades is a woman. Kubrick’s heroine, therefore, challenges the notion of masculinity, overtly suggesting the existence of female masculinity, which undermines the idea of inviolable male masculinity that is celebrated in all Vietnam War films. Having depicted such radically different female types, i.e., a dependable, vulnerable prostitute and a strong, frightening warrior, Kubrick skillfully presents a multifaceted nature of femininity and obviously questions the idea of masculinity as a purely male prerogative.

Yet, masculinity in its conventional sense is mainly depicted through male characters. An interesting tendency that can be noticed in Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Casualties of War is that the films convey the idea of masculinity aesthetically, focusing on the representation of the male body. I support the claim of Michael Messner that the male body becomes a central idea of every Vietnam War film since it functions as a weapon, thus, reflecting the revival of masculinity (25). The scholar argues that there is a “common moment” in all Vietnam War films: “The male hero is seemingly destroyed in an explosion of flames, and as his enemies laugh, he miraculously rises (in slow motion) from under water, firing his weapon and destroying the enemy” (25).

The focus on the male body is, indeed, strong in all four films: in Apocalypse Now, it is Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) who travels through Vietnam and Cambodia and finally reaches his aim, having got no wound at all; in The Deer Hunter, it is Michael (Robert De Niro), who saves his friends in Vietnam for a number of times and eventually returns home a hero; in Platoon, we witness a very theatrical death of Sgt. Elias Grodin (Willem Dafoe), who is, first, shot by his friend SSgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) and later, still being miraculously alive, runs away from Viet Congs, falling onto the ground, standing up three times (the association of masculinity with superpower is very vivid here) and, finally, dies from the ceaseless fire, in a slow motion, his arms up (the scene lasts 1,5 minutes); in Full Metal Jacket, it is Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin) and Donlon (Gary Landon Mills), who are not just brave but also careless about them being killed.

Yet, along with the aesthetical representation of masculinity, the films also demonstrate its ethical side. The issue of male power, therefore, becomes tightly linked with the problem of morality in war. In The Deer Hunter, according to Hellmann, it is actually Michael who “kills” Nick, since it was Michael who made Nick play that game when they were captives, thus, he made him “risk death senselessly” (186). In Platoon, it is SSgt. Barnes who kills Sgt. Grodin in cold blood and then leaves him die in the forest full of Viet Congs. In Casualties of War, Sgt. Meserve (Sean Penn) kidnaps an innocent Vietnamese girl (Thuy Thu Le) to rape and finally kill her, thus, showing “the closest approximation of amoral hell in the current American mindscape” (Fuchs 40).

Significantly, all the films reveal the tendency to either abandon women not focusing much on them, or not showing them at all, or to literally get rid of them. In Platoon and Casualties of War, we observe the scenes of rape and murder, whereas in Full Metal Jacket it is only the murder. These female victims serve, nonetheless, to deconstruct the male characters rather than purely complain about female oppression. Through these murders, the audience, first and foremost, perceive the male characters. Investigating the problem of gender in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, Susan White makes a very shrewd observation:

Woman is troped, in [Full Metal Jacket] . . . as the “Virgin Mary,” whose name is invoked in all seriousness by the drill sergeant, and simultaneously as the cloacal shit from which the fighting men are trying to emerge so that they can become “real” men. Clearly, the woman-sewer or women-fosterer-of-regression must be destroyed, but we have seen that, to their confusion, the men find that in doing so they have also destroyed both the virgin-mother and the warrior ideal that silently pervade the film’s ideological structure. (213)

Out of the five films, it is only Platoon and Casualties of War that attempt to redefine masculinity, portraying it as the one consisting not only in heroic deeds and animal aggressiveness but also in devotion, fairness, respect, and desire to protect friends and family. In Platoon, Chris is the character who possesses this kind of masculinity as, on the one hand, he is a perfect soldier who fights for his country, while, on the other hand, he is a loving grandson. Importantly, such a redefinition of male masculinity is achieved through the presence of a female character, i.e., Chris’s grandmother, the communication with whom, helps the audience recognize this “other” side in Chris, that in the army would most probably be falsely taken for femininity or queerness – another aspect to add to the famous and widely noticed by scholars estimation of masculinity through the notions of “bravery versus cowardice” (Donald and MacDonald 88). Additionally, the audience recognizes Chris as a “good guy” when he saves a Vietnamese girl from American soldiers who try to rape her, saying that this is not right because she is a human, too. In Casualties of War, only soldier Eriksson (Michael J. Fox) tries to do the right thing, explaining his will to protect the girl and later punish the ones who are responsible for her humiliating death: “If I do nothing, she just vanishes”. Cindy Fuchs argues that the character of Sean Penn combined both Sgt. Grodin and SSgt. Barnes from Platoon (a good and a bad father, as Chris calls them in the final voice-over): he is both a “savior and menace” (41). The crucial problem of the film is formulated in Eriksson’s question to another soldier: “If you were me, what would you have done?” Indeed, the problem of moral responsibility is pending in the film. Although the ending of this “moral tale”, as Fuchs puts it (42), seems quite unrealistic, I claim that the film deserves to be called one the best films on the Vietnam War as it touches upon very serious ethical issues that are part of not only the Vietnam War but virtually of any other one.

The problem of gender in Vietnam War films is, therefore, a very prominent one. The films traditionally celebrate the idea of male power, of so-called male masculinity. Yet, as some of the analyzed examples demonstrate, the issues of femininity and female masculinity are not abandoned by certain directors either.

Works Cited

Apocalypse Now. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Perf. Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Frederic Forrest, Sam Bottoms. United Artists, 1979. DVD.

Casualties of War. Dir. Brian De Palma. Perf. Michael J. Fox, Sean Penn, Don Harvey, John C. Reilly. Columbia Pictures. 1989. DVD.

Donald, Ralph and Karen MacDonald. Reel Men at War: Masculinity and the American War Film. Lanham: The Scarecrow P, 2011. Print.

Fuchs, Cindy. Rev. of Casualties of War, dir. Art Linson. Cinéaste 17.3 (1990): 40-42. JSTOR. Web. 28 Jun. 2013.

Full Metal Jacket. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Vincent D’Onofrio, R. Lee Ermey. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1987. DVD.

Hellmann, John. American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam. New York: Columbia UP, 1986. Print.

Messner, Michael A. Rev. of The Remasculinization of America: Gender and the Vietnam War by Susan Jeffords. Contemporary Sociology 20.1 (Jan. 1991): 24-26. JSTOR. Web. 10 Jul. 2013.

Platoon. Dir. Oliver Stone. Perf. Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Charlie Sheen, Forest Whitaker. Orion Pictures. 1986. DVD.

White, Susan. “Male Bonding, Hollywood Orientalism, and the Repression of the Feminine in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.” Inventing Vietnam: The War in Film and Television. Ed. Michael Anderegg: 204-230. Project Muse. Web. 21 Jun. 2013.

Biography: Tatiana Prorokova is a Doctoral Candidate in American Studies at Philipps-University of Marburg, Germany. Her Ph.D. project analyzes the representation of U.S. interventionism from 1990 onward and American culture of imperialism in film and literature. Her book and film reviews have been accepted for publication in U.S., Canadian, British, and German journals. She has been presenting her papers in various academic conferences worldwide. She has also participated in the Salzburg Global Seminar (Austria, 2015) devoted to the problem of America’s changing role in the world. Her research interests include U.S. literature and culture in the 20th and 21stcenturies, film studies, war studies, U.S foreign policy, U.S. interventionism, U.S. culture of imperialism, American exceptionalism, visual culture, race studies, and gender studies. She received her M.A. in English and American Studies from Otto-Friedrich-University of Bamberg, Germany, and a Teaching Degree in English and German from Ryazan State University, Russia

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