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Millennial Woman: Make Her GI Jane, Not June Cleaver

Sex roles: With advances in technology and health care, women are free to be more than mothers.

October 01, 1997|CARYL RIVERS | Caryl Rivers is professor of journalism at Boston University and the author of "She Works, He Works" (HarperCollins San Francisco, 1996)

Audience approval of Demi Moore's tough Navy SEAL in "GI Jane" may reflect not just a hit movie but a major shift in gender patterns in the industrialized world. A new reproductive paradigm is developing, and as it does, past constraints on female behavior are easing.

For centuries, Homo sapiens was a fragile, embattled species, beset by predators and struggling for survival. Having large numbers of offspring was an important survival strategy; woman's most important quality often was her fecundity. Women couldn't be spared for combat, even though some women were taller, stronger and more aggressive than some men. A few males, after all, could repopulate a tribe if many men were killed, but one woman could bear and raise only a few children.

Today, the situation is very different. Homo sapiens is not a fragile species but the undisputed master of the planet. Modern medicine has reduced infant mortality to the point where parents can expect most of their children to survive. Today, in fact, the survival of the species and the planet itself depends on curbing population growth.

If there were, indeed, a new reproductive paradigm, we would expect to see women having fewer children and the easing of taboos on risky work behavior for women. That's exactly what is happening. Not only are women movingly increasingly into military roles, including combat, but they are also engaging in other kinds of risky behavior. They are driving more aggressively and getting into more accidents, taking part in risky sports such as mountain climbing and boxing. And around the world, female involvement in violent crime is rising rapidly.

Women are rejecting ages-old arguments about their physical frailty. Swimmer Janet Evans' time in the 400 in 1992 was two seconds better than Mark Spitz's time when he won the gold medal in 1968. Olympic speed skater Bonnie Blair's time in the 500 meter in 1992 would have beaten all the male winners through 1976. Today, women hold most of the world records in ultra long distance competition. Women hold the records in open water swimming. UCLA physicians Brian J. Whipp and Susan Ward predict that women soon will match men in all the Olympic running competitions.

Media images are reflecting these facts with more images of strong, active and even aggressive women. "Xena: Warrior Princess" is a TV hit, Rene Russo matched Clint Eastwood scar for scar in the movie "In the Line of Fire," Sigourney Weaver went woman to woman with an alien in the movie of the same name and now Demi Moore guts it out in basic training. Ironically, audiences hated her as the classic sex object, a stripper, but love her as a SEAL.

These media images are emerging because the new reproductive paradigm will not be reversed. Women will continue to move into nontraditional roles. We'll see more women cops, professional basketball players, world class athletes and combat soldiers. Despite the complaints of some on the right, it's not a few feminists who have changed things, but a new reproductive scenario that is permanently altering old gender roles. GI Jane doing her push-ups may tell us more about the situation of women today than the icon of 1950s womanhood, June Cleaver, vacuuming in her pearls. The old gender roles are no more, and like Humpty Dumpty, all the king's horses and all the king's men can't put them back together again.

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