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Opinion: 'Top Gun: Maverick' Is... a Feminist Movie?

Op-ed

Top Gun: Maverick is downright crushing the summer box office.

After two weeks, Tom Cruise and director Joseph Kosinski’s sequel to the 1986 original has already grossed $291.6 domestically and $548.6 worldwide, easily holding the No. 1 spot. While these numbers are certainly exceeding expectations, the fact that Top Gun: Maverick is a hit shouldn’t be surprising in the least. It’s a high-octane action extravaganza that benefits from a nostalgic fanbase and a movie-going public that has been desperate for a post-COVID return to normal. And of course, it doesn’t hurt that even at 59, Tom Cruise is the biggest movie star in the world, perhaps the last one at that.

Even though it’s Cruise who is deservedly getting the lion’s share of the praise, the performances of his co-stars shouldn’t be overlooked. Miles Teller shines as Rooster, the son of Maverick’s late best friend, Goose. Jennifer Connolly is the perfect combination of confident and caring as the film’s love interest, and John Hamm is fantastic as Cruise’s hard-nosed, by-the-books superior. But the most underrated and potentially most influential performance comes from Monica Barbaro.

The 31-year-old Barbaro stars as Phoenix, a calm, cool, and collected Top Gun graduate and one of the best pilots in the world. Throughout the movie, she is portrayed as just that: a badass pilot. Her performance is clearly one supported by countless hours of training and preparation, and the result is someone who comes across like a seasoned pilot, not just some pretty actress pretending to be one.

The way the film and Barbaro handle her character is almost unheard of when it comes to female protagonists in 21st century Hollywood. In the movie, Phoenix is treated just like any of the other highly skilled pilots competing for a coveted spot on a potential suicide mission. She suffers setbacks, and she experiences triumph, and by the end of the film, it’s clear that she is just as capable as the rest of her cohort, often even more so. Outside of Maverick, the case can be made that Phoenix is the most talented and dependable of all the Top Guns.

It is consistently showcased throughout the film that when Phoenix fails or succeeds, she is doing so as a pilot, not as a woman. She never makes excuses for herself or blames her male-centric industry for her shortcomings, and she never goes out of her way to declare she is a “strong female character,” as The Critical Drinker might put it.

Of course, the movie doesn’t ignore the fact that Phoenix is a woman, and there are even a couple of scenes where Glen Powell’s character, Hangman, makes backhanded remarks concerning the fact. This doesn’t feel out of place at all because it’s certainly the case that female pilots would have to deal with these kinds of things. But instead of running off to HR or writing an op-ed in Salon about how toxic her work environment is, Phoenix responds by giving shit right back to Hangman and kicking ass at her job.

Characters like Phoenix are exceedingly rare in today’s Hollywood, and that is to the detriment of young girls everywhere. Nowadays, young girls are being taught that the world is out to get them, and the patriarchy has been holding them back for centuries. According to Hollywood, these basic “truths” then justify the current dominance of the “strong female character” type.

The “strong female character” is generally unrealistically flawless. She can’t be hurt, she can’t fail, and she exists to make men look stupid at every turn. It’s the responsibility of this character type to show that not only can women do everything men can do, but they can also do it better, and men are dumb and evil. Major examples of this would be Captain Marvel, every female character in "Westworld," and every female action star like Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde.

Aside from idealizing misandry, the main problem is that none of these character types offer a realistic example for young girls. If girls watching these movies have any sense, they will realize that the elements being portrayed in these feminist vehicles masquerading as entertainment are unattainable in their own lives. None of them will grow up to have superpowers, and none will ever be able to obtain the cartoon-like physical strength that leading women in action movies possess.

That’s what makes Barbaro’s Phoenix so valuable. There is not one thing she does in the movie that young girls couldn’t someday achieve with the right amount of hard work and determination. And more importantly, the attitude she does it with should be the envy of anyone looking to succeed in their field, be it a man or a woman.

The pilot is an excellent example of a career field where women are every bit as capable as men in reaching the top of their field, and Barbaro’s magnificent performance showing this should be heralded as a shining example of actual feminism. Knowing how the media works, though, I wouldn’t expect to see many think-pieces proclaiming this.

I don’t know Barbaro’s politics, and they aren’t important. What I do know is that her character is portrayed as someone who loves her country, someone who is willing to work her ass off for what she wants, and someone who is deserving of admiration from any young girl looking for a real strong female icon. Monica Barbaro should be celebrated as a phenomenal actress who made it all possible.

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