PRINT September 1991


Girls with Guns

FORGET THE DEERHUNTER II, cancel China Beach, ditch Oliver Stone. The Vietnam War is history and its spectacular representations are obsolete—or reduced to a romantic backdrop as in Miss Saigon. The show’s over. Blame or credit those tough little B “operations” Urgent Fury—Grenada, 1983—and Just Cause—Panama, 1989—and the blitzkrieg extravaganza Desert Storm—the Gulf War, 1991.

Six months after that techno-telewar hypnotized the public, we’re still pondering the experience. Where Vietnam produced a frenzy of alienation, Desert Storm inspired a kind of fascinated disassociating. The viewing experience was routinely compared to Nintendo video games, the movie Top Gun, computer-generated virtual reality. New military oxymorons “surgical strikes,” “collateral damage,” “smart bombs”—paled before the Pentagon’s mise-en-scène, the adroit orchestration of our point of view: TV watchers were routinely placed inside the sensor-system of a falling bomb even while military officers acted as assigning editors by determining where to dispatch the pools of reporters.

Call Vietnam a living-room war? CNN offered 24-hour-a-day blanket coverage (since repackaged for home video) while even the supremely cynical Saturday Night Live performed its patriotic chore—comforting the White House by satirizing ego-crazed journalists instead of military brass. Indeed, SNL’s most trenchant comment was to direct our attention yet again to the telewar’s formalist aspects, as when names of correspondents and weapons, maps, graphics, and cut-to-commercial music were critiqued on the mock cable-access show “Wayne’s World.” Now hard to remember, Desert Storm was something like an inverted Alamo. Enemy casualties outnumbered ours at a ratio of 500 to 1. The victory celebration lasted longer than the actual hostilities—the parades a symbolic replay and source of imagery for the 1992 campaign.

The war not only certified George Bush President for Life, but created two stars in Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell—the new Eisenhower and Marshall, or Gene Hackman and Danny Glover. No more Democrats and Republicans; you could now be defined by which general you preferred. Schwarzkopf was cloned by Jonathan Winters, paired with Madonna on the cover of Spy, knighted by the Queen of England. Powell was the loyal opposition: a supporter (it was leaked) of continued sanctions, a survivor of Fort Apache—the Bronx. We were one nation under the Yellow Ribbon that, throughout Desert Storm, was the emblem of participation, worn by super-patriots, moderate supporters, and antiwar demonstrators alike—the latter using it to signify their opposition to American policy but support for the American troops. (This negation of the Vietnam syndrome is an interesting paradox, given that the earlier war was fought by conscripts whereas this one has been the province of volunteers—if not mercenaries.)

A boon for ribbon manufacturers, a phenomenon that inspired the New York Times to evoke the image of Christo, strips of yellow cloth festooned house and garden, telephone pole and satellite dish, school and casino; they were affixed to lapels, car antennas, shopping carts, athletes’ wrists, and police badges. The yellow ribbon was tattooed on arms, printed on cigarette ads, included in network logos, and embossed on video rereleases of old war films from The Desert Fox to Sink the Bismarck! Abetted by Tony Orlando’s gruesome “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ’Round the Old Oak Tree” (a Viet-era inspirational about an ex-con’s return), the yellow ribbon became a national symbol during the 1981 hostage crisis that spawned the TV show Nightline. However, the symbol’s Indian (and cold) war credentials were early established by John Ford’s fetishistic She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, 1949, in which the eponymous bit of flutter is worn to signify a “lover in the U.S. cavalry.” (That, as the film’s requisite old soldier, John Wayne kept a yellow ribbon on his dead wife’s picture underscores the morbid sublimation of the badge.)

Although Madonna went out of her way to plug General Schwarzkopf on Oscar night, Desert Storm’s prize pinup was one Jacqueline Phillips Guibord, a red-haired 30-year-old Provo, Utah, police officer (and daughter of a Viet vet) who had posed for a Wrangler jeans advertisement, limned against a rugged vista and the Big Sky, fondling the hood of a pickup truck and brandishing a shotgun at a 45-degree angle to the crotch of her Snow Canyon Relaxed-Fit dungarees. The ad first appeared in People and Rolling Stone last autumn; by winter, Guibord’s picture was posted in every American military police and criminal investigation office in Saudi Arabia.

While it’s customary to cite Muslim sensibilities for the popularity of so chaste an icon, Desert Storm was also America’s first coeducational war—a fact not lost on the home front, which demonstrated a powerful yen to watch movies about women with guns. Opening on Valentine’s Day, one month into the war, The Silence of the Lambs, 1990, thrived well beyond expectations on the image of ascetic female heroism, as well as a not-unrelated fascination with bad and good-bad serial killers. The French punk-fluff La Femme Nikita, 1990, was an unexpected art-house hit while, as the House Armed Services Committee held hearings to investigate the new role of women in active service, the femme road-movie Thelma & Louise, 1991, became the focus of an anxious national debate culminating in a Time cover story.

Although star Susan Sarandon’s opposition to Desert Storm was forgotten, Thelma & Louise—set, like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, in the treasured site of Monument Valley—was denounced and debated by all manner of gossip columnists, talk-show hosts, and pundits. Were these pistol-packing women suitable role models? Did violence empower them or, by adopting male patterns, did it cost them the high moral ground? Critics scored the movie’s “male-bashing” and “fascism,” forgetting that, in America, gunplay has always been a form of self-actualization. (Just ask Stormin’ Norman.) The smiling faces of Thelma and Louise, either of whom could be a more glamorous Jackie Guibord, shared newsstands with that of Airman [sic] First Class Tracy Waller, the pixie redhead in desert fatigues featured on the cover of the June issue of the fashion magazine Mirabella: “Hail the Conquering Heroines: Our Women in the Gulf.”

The least one can say is that our Conquering Heroines gave virtual reality a human face. Upon her release, Specialist Melissa Rathbun Nealy, the first American servicewoman taken prisoner since World War II, phoned her father in Newaygo, Michigan, to assure him that she was OK. Her Iraqi captors were, she reported, “absolutely beautiful people” who “took excellent care of her” and innocently asked whether she knew Brooke Shields and Sylvester Stallone. Melissa didn’t then. But, as the Smithsonian is going to add her desert camouflage BDU (battle dress utility) uniform to the trove of national relics—who knows what’s in store?

J. Hoberman contributes this column regularly to Artforum. He writes film criticism for The Village Voice, New York.