Saturday, December 14, 2013

Sometimes ‘The Right Stuff’ is Just Wrong

I feel the need for speed
I love things that fly. Birds, bees, helicopters, planes. That said, I have a definite preference: jet aircraft. I’m talking planes that fly on military power. Yeah, I appreciate the Airbus A-340, with its cutting edge fly-by-wire controls. And I really respect the ‘operating economics’ of the upcoming Boeing 747-8. But when it comes to my aeronautical need for speed, give me a F-23 Raptor or F/A-18E/F Super Hornet any day of the week and twice on Wednesday.
My love of military aviation dates back to my days living in Dayton, Ohio, which is near Wright Patterson Air Force Base. Wright Pat, as locals call it, was the largest U.S. Air Force base in America. Back then it was a Strategic Air Command (SAC) base and B-52s flew out of there all the time. Window rattling sonic booms were a way of life growing up in Dayton, just as the smell of breakfast cereal is an outdoor aromatic staple of Battle Creek, where I live today.
As a kid, dad took me on the base Saturday mornings for target practice because it had a shooting range. But the best part about that place was each year when they hosted one of the largest air shows in the country. With its gun range and airplanes, Wright Pat had the right stuff. It also contributed to a way of thinking that today gives me pause.
Pair of Hornets: 'bout to leave the hive
With planes as a backdrop, you might understand why I believe 1983’s “The Right Stuff” is one of the best films ever made. Inspired by author Tom Wolfe’s equally amazing novel bearing the same title, its story centers on test pilots in the late 1940s at little known Muroc Army Air Field in the California desert. It transitions through the early ‘60s with America’s entry into the space race, featuring pioneering astronauts dubbed The Mercury Seven.
What makes this movie so great is the intrepid spirit and noble way of being portrayed by the early test pilots and astronauts. With their fearless heroics and stalwart commitment, these boys had ‘the right stuff.’ Recently, that source of inspiration has been tempered by an evolving way of thinking on my part.
See, like most male movie-lovers of my ilk, female characters are typically cast as a sidebar to the main story; eye-candy around which males go about doing so-called manly things. You know, flying, fighting, shooting, blowing up stuff and whatnot. Trouble is, I’ve come to realize most women in these movies are being marginalized. They’re essentially invisible. The equally invisible message is this: ultimately they don’t matter. That’s a problem.
Birds of a feather
In “The Right Stuff,” pretty wives of the test pilots and astronauts are portrayed as doting partners who live only to support their man and his whims. In the case of this movie, that ‘whim’ is flying at Mach speeds with his hair on fire – sometimes literally. This may certainly be a reality for some women. The trouble is I never really considered their feelings. I never saw their film characters as fully formed individuals. They were mere extensions of their male partners; like shadows.
Equally shadowy are the unconscious messages such depictions send, especially to youth: females aren’t central to society, and somehow of less value. Media projects this every minute of every hour of every day, it seems. Bottom line? Having ‘the right stuff’ doesn’t mean a woman must play second banana in a man’s life. For there to be true equity among the sexes, I, like most men must remember the unconscious mental conditioning I’ve been subjected to since youth, work to recognize it, own it and continue fighting against it.

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