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Pop culture retrospective: Women in the military

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Everett Collection

In honor of Wednesday’s news that U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has decided to lift the 1994 ban on women serving in ground combat units, we decided to take a quick look at some portrayals of women in the military in pop culture.

Many of these are far from feminist representations of women in service, and in fact, most of the time, they’re pretty much the complete opposite — exaggerating stereotypical “femininity” in the face of combat, and using it for comedy. But there are a few standout films and TV shows — like China Beach and Courage Under Fire — that were ahead of their time. Will officially allowing women in combat continue to push Hollywood to make strides in the way women in the military are represented in television and film? At very least it’s doubtful we’ll see the days of Skirts Ahoy! and Operation Petticoat again. Check out some key scenes from the past half-century of women who donned a uniform on screen below, and let us know what we missed in the comments!

Skirts Ahoy! (1952)

“What good is a girl without a guy? What good is the earth without the sky?” our three female naval officers croon. Sigh.

Operation Petticoat (1959)

When a group of nurses comes aboard Cary Grant’s submarine, hijinks ensue in this Blake Edwards comedy. “From bumbling females to blooming romance, no Commander ever faced such hilarious problems!” It was even turned into a television series in the late 70s.

M*A*S*H (1970)

In Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, and the subsequent TV series that ran from 1972 to1983, all the women on base were nurses. Major Margaret  J. “Hot Lips” Houlihan was one of key figures in both the film and the show. Played by Sally Kellerman in Altman’s film, she’s given the nickname “Hot Lips” after she has sex with Robert Duvall’s character Frank with the Public Address system on. So, everyone hears when she says, “oh, Frank, my lips are hot! Oh, kiss my hot lips!”

Private Benjamin (1980)

“Excuse me, is green the only color this comes in?” When her marriage ends too soon, Goldie Hawn’s Judy Benjamin gets persuaded to join the army by a misleading recruiter. She of course thinks she’s signed up for something very different: “I joined a different army, I joined the one with the condos and the private rooms,” she pleads. But she suffers through basic training and comes out better for it.

China Beach (1988-1991)

This TV series set at an American base during the Vietnam War showed the events from the perspective of the women who were there, and starred Dana Delany, Nan Woods, and Marg Helgenberger.

NEXT: The 90s, where women were either exploited for comedy, treated as martyrs, or serving in military legal procedurals…