It was just brought to my attention, after all these 32 years, that Kelly McGillis’s character, Charlie, in the 1986 mega-hit movie Top Gun, was not only a fighter pilot instructor, but also an astrophysicist. How many times have I seen that movie – and never noticed that? I was also surprised to discover that her character was loosely based on a real woman named Christine Fox, who has a master’s degree in applied mathematics, has flown in B-52’s, escaped submerged planes and developed tactics for aircraft carrier defense at the Center for Naval Analysis, which was across the street from the real TOPGUN in San Diego at the time the original movie was developed. Fox went on to become the highest-ranking woman ever to work at the Pentagon. And the filmmakers originally wanted McGillis’s character to be a gymnast.
While I was excited to learn of yet another badass woman breaking barriers, something about this new information was churning my stomach. All I could think about was, why hadn’t I noticed McGillis’s character was an astrophysicist, being that I am now becoming one myself? Questions like this have been burdening my mind lately as the mother of a 10-year-old daughter and a woman newly entering the field of science in my 40’s. Was I just not ready to live up to my true potential at 12 years old in 1986 when Top Gun came out?
Then I remembered, oh yeah, the filmmakers were men, women in popular culture had no power over their own messaging, and McGillis’s character had only one purpose, which was not to be multi-faceted, intelligent, talented, adventurous, brave and ambitious. It was to be the love interest who succumbs to a cocky jock who had to wear high-heeled cowboy boots because he was six inches shorter than Kelly McGillis in real life. Just saying it all makes me want to projectile vomit chunky shards of acid glass.
In a 1985 People Magazine article discussing Christine Fox as the inspiration of McGillis’s character, the author, Alan Richman, pointed out that the “30-year-old” was “unmarried,” and that she “probably wouldn’t have ended up in this line of work had it not been for her father, a retired naval nuclear engineer who encouraged her to pursue mathematics.”
Wait. Are you f-ing kidding me?
He also quoted Fox’s boss, a then Cpt. Monroe Smith, who gave her the nickname, “Legs,” as saying, “She’s the smartest woman I’ve ever met. I like women for a lot of things and being smart isn’t usually one of them.” The author then writes, “She smiles sweetly, ‘Anyway, I make fun of them for being macho creeps sometimes.’”
Pardon me while I unabashedly torch the alien pods of parasite male chauvinists like Sigourney Weaver in the movie Aliens. Now there’s a role model.
While speaking to NPR in 2013 after President Obama named her to be Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense, Fox revealed her thoughts about the sexist portrayal of her in the movie, “The truth is I had no choice in it and I wasn’t thrilled.”
Now that they are gearing up to film Top Gun 2 in San Diego again, it turns out McGillis isn’t reprising her leading lady role. In an article in Express, a UK-based publication, the male author refers to her as, “Still a beautiful woman, she has aged gracefully, but it is hard to see how Cruise will be paired with a love interest in her 60’s.”
Newsflash. She’s 61. Tom Cruise is 55. Oh yeah, that’s right, there’s a female-20-year-younger threshold in Hollywood. His latest leading ladies have been a 35-year-old Sarah Wright who plays his wife in American Made, and a 24-year-old Rebecca Ferguson who stars alongside him in the latest Mission Impossible. Sorry McGillis. They’ve lost that lovin’ feeling.
What’s really sad is I have fond memories of the original movie. It’s as nostalgic to my childhood as Pac Man, white framed sunglasses and blasting ‘Highway to the Danger Zone.’ I also have fond memories of the 1988 movie Big with Tom Hanks, but have you seen it lately? I thought it would be a fun family movie to watch with my daughter one night, and about halfway through I had to shut it off. Every single female character in that movie was so blatantly portrayed as either eager to get to the top of the corporate ladder by sleeping with their male bosses or completely clueless but sexy. These were the messages seeping into our psyche as young girls in the movies we loved – and we didn’t even notice.
Today there is so much more being done to ensure intelligent, capable female role models widely exist, despite the government still wanting to control our bodies and the long-existing patriarchy still discriminating and stereotyping. Some things will always be a fight, like facing down my new discriminatory battle – ageism – as I finally discover the nerd I was always meant to be.
Sure, “women in science” is the new go-to phrase in the age of STEM and female empowerment, but take another look. The word “young” appears before “women in science” nearly every time. So, let me get this straight. We want women in science now, but only if they’re “young”? And just what constitutes young? Inexperience? Cheaper to employ? More easily manipulated? Less likely to speak up?
Earlier this year, Atlas of the Future, a non-profit organization “inspired by the talent and energy of people across the world working to solve our biggest challenges and create a better tomorrow” whose mission is “democratizing the future by speaking human,” interviewed Christine Fox as a “FutureHero.” They asked her if she could have one FuturePower, what would it be? Fox responded, “I would like to be able to do boundary manipulation… We put up walls around our thinking, around the way that we do or do not work together, around our attitudes. I hate boundaries, boundaries against women, boundaries everywhere.”
My expectations are low when it comes to this next testosterone laden version of the Top Gun franchise. If they really had their pulse on the finger of culture today, the filmmakers would put a woman in that cockpit, because this time, we’re the ones that aren’t going to be happy unless we’re going Mach 2 with our hair on fire.