But I Don’t Wanna Be In The Army: Private Benjamin

Published on November 29th, 2010 in: Comedy, Feminism, Issues, Movie Reviews, Movies, Three Of A Perfect Pair |

By Emily Carney

Being a Navy veteran, I have an abiding interest in military-themed films of any sort, so I decided to re-watch 1980’s Private Benjamin. While it’s no G.I. Jane (perhaps the greatest female-in-the-military film, in which we see Demi Moore become the baddest, hardest Navy SEAL ever), it does have its hilarious moments (and its anxiety-provoking, PTSD-inducing moments, for me).

I will begin at the top: the film focuses on the adventures of one Private Judy Benjamin, who decides to join the Army after her new husband sexes himself to death on top of her during their wedding night. His last words are, “I’m coming.”

private benjamin

While I’m not the biggest Goldie Hawn fan in the world, she did a pretty accurate job in this film of capturing snooty, rich, white girl ennui in the military. In Judy’s worst moments of grief, she falls prey to some lying ass Army recruiter (they all lie, trust me). The recruiter plays up to Judy’s education and privilege by telling her that Army boot camp is like a country club, just with fatigues and helicopters. Of course, Judy finds out the hard way that this is a bunch of straight-up bullshit when she awakens on the government bus smack-dab in the middle of basic training being screamed at (what a way to get introduced to “your new life”).

Of course, Judy succeeds in the rich bitch role, filing her nails and acting like a diva; ultimately she decides to escape boot camp by busting her ass on a barbed wire fence. Her mommy and daddy show up to get her as she is about to quit, but (heroically!) Judy decides to stick with the program and stay in boot camp.

Pretty soon, she becomes somewhat squared away as a soldier, and evolves into the titular role of “Private Benjamin” while developing authority and motivation. In the meantime, she stumbles upon fraternization in the boot camp division. (That shit is funny in the movie and in real life. Once, I discovered two idiots during “service week” dry humping each other in a refrigerator. It is way less sexy than it sounds!) Judy outs her annoying boot camp colleague who is a “hard charger” by finding her nailing a captain’s boyfriend. It happens more than you think.

I’m gonna skip some of the particulars of the plot now, and instead play my ultimate favorite game of comparing “film military” to “real military.” One thing that really isn’t accurate about the film: the ladies of Private Benjamin’s division are allowed to wear makeup and their own nightclothes to bed. Must be nice! I didn’t have any makeup for ten freaking weeks, and in reality they took all of my civilian clothing away save for my underwear. I wore US Navy issued physical training gear to bed. My nephew (age five) stumbled upon my boot camp photographs recently, and remarked, “Auntie Em, that’s not you, that’s a little boy.” In his defense, I did look like a 12 year old boy.

Also, during a combat exercise, the ladies share a spliff over a bonfire. For 1980, this scene was probably fairly accurate given that there was no “zero tolerance” drug policy in the military. I had a pal in the Navy around that time who said guys would frequently—and openly—light up big ol’ joints in the engine room like nothing was amiss. These days, marijuana use doesn’t bode well for military life.

One accurate depiction in the film, I think, is the camaraderie that develops between Judy and her colleagues in boot camp. Despite how much I sometimes hated the Navy, I do miss the friendships and the frequently hilarious things which occurred in my six-year stint in the armed services. It is true that the friendships one develops in the military will last throughout one’s lifetime (for the most part).

Private Benjamin was released 30 years ago, when the US military service academies were graduating their first female officers, so this film can be seen as a commentary on then-contemporary military life. Women, to some extent, were still viewed as having novelty status in the armed services at that time, so this movie, for me, was not just a funny snapshot of basic training (ugh!) but also encapsulated the changing face of the Army. Another awesome lesson learned from this film is that French dudes love a woman in uniform!

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