Bechdel Danger Zone: Happy Anniversary, Top Gun!

By Anne Elizabeth Weisgerber (∀NNE ELIZ∀BETH)


For Top Gun Day, Anne Elizabeth Weisgerber runs the old classic film through the Bechdel Test to see how its lady lead holds up.


Screening the 1986 Tom Cruise hit film Top Gun in anticipation of celebrating Top Gun Day today, May 13th, I was thrilled and surprised to find that long ago (31 years now) in a land far away (Hollywood), there was a testosterone-fueled Tony Scott film that had a strong female lead. (Scott, who died in 2012, is the younger brother of Ridley Scott, who gave filmgoers one of the ballsiest screen heroines ever: Ellen Ripley in Alien.) So I wondered: can Top Gun pass the Bechdel Test?

The Bechdel Test gives three rules a film must pass: 1.) It has to have at least two women in it 2.) who talk to each other 3.) about something besides a man. Here’s a link to the original comic strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For,” by Alison Bechdel.

Top Gun has a lady lead that isn’t just a man-prize. Kelly McGillis, at 5’10”, is Charlotte “Charlie” Blackwood, a civilian contractor with top-secret security clearance who has, get this, a Ph.D. in astrophysics! She says things like, “The MiG 21 does have a problem with the inverted flight tanks. It won’t do a Negative-G pushover.” She’s no pushover for a room full of fighter pilots, herself. When she encounters a Romeo wanna-be, Lt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a.k.a. Tom Cruise, she studies him coolly and scientifically. She says, “Your attention is flattering, but not really productive.” She’s a great foil to all 5’7” of Cruise’s charms. And when she has a chance to move on and take a promotion and leave the boy behind? She takes it.

Alas, she eventually crumples, giving it all up to be near the film’s hero once more. Here’s my Top Gun Bechdel assessment:

1.) There are at least two women. Besides Charlie, there is Carol, played by Meg Ryan, the young wife of a fighter pilot.
2.) They do talk to each other. In the “Great Balls of Fire” scene, Charlie and Carol are in a cantina with their men. When Carol isn’t busy bellowing to her husband, “You big Stud! Take me to bed or lose me forever,” she does dish some girl-talk with Charlie:
Carol (to Charlie): “I’d love to be able to warn you off about Maverick, but I just love him to death. I’ve known Pete for a lot of years now, and I’m telling you one thing’s for certain: there are hearts breaking open all over the world tonight.”
Charlie: Why?
Carol: Because unless you’re a fool, that boy’s off the market. He is 100% prime time in love with you.

As weak as this conversation is, it checks the Bechdel box № 2.

3.) No point taken for № 3. Interestingly, when Carol and Charlie are having this conversation, Maverick tries to prevent them from talking about men (really his own track record), but Carol can’t be stopped.

Considering the film was about an elite flight training school, I must give Top Gun a polite golf clap for doing more than expected for a woman’s role. I was also feeling nostalgic for a 1986 title that might pass Bechdel, and surprise surprise, learned that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off follows all three rules. However, it has none of those amazingly choreographed dogfight scenes that Tony Scott has on offer.


Originally published on 5/13/16.