I remember watching this movie when I was in elementary school. Because young minds are the most impressionable, I was interested in re-visiting a text that I had previously seen before I understood the histories that affect content. While watching, I noticed that although the text adequately teaches teamwork and shows female role models developing positive relationships, there are some issues with the gender roles, race, politics, and sexuality represented that could have been addressed differently.
The movie was released in 2002, and Hilary Duff, a Disney Channel star, starred as Kelly, a freethinking, artistic, and independent teen. Kelly’s parents are divorced. She lives with her mother, a working mother with a demanding job as an editor. Of what, we are never told. Kelly’s father is seen travelling the world, photographing wherever he goes. The hard-working mother and the aloof father raised a daughter who is interested in the arts, self-expression, gun control, et cetera. Then, Kelly’s life gets turned upside down once her mother remarries a retired general. She is sent to military school, at which her new step-dad is the head. She learns how to adjust to her new life, and makes new connections.
My first issue with a predominant reading occurred when, in the beginning of the text, Kelly’s mother quits her editing job to “learn to do things like make curtains or maybe even cook.” I find it hard to believe that this woman gave up her salary and lifestyle because her new husband told her to jump. In reality, I find it dubious that a working mother would so easily give up her independence. In the text, this is seen as a natural thing for a woman to do once she is in love, and once she marries.
As a woman who hopes to someday balance both a career and a family, I was suspicious of Kelly’s mother, but perhaps she had grown tired of being a sole provider once she was divorced. Perhaps she had always wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, but was thrust into a career she did not want. Perhaps, according to McCabe in “Textual Negotiations,” we as an audience can enjoy this representation by viewing this lifestyle change as a “naïve heroine swept away by a dashing man.” As a “potent fantasy” (McCabe 41). Unfortunately, we are never given more information, so her decision seems out of character and confusing for a conscientious reader.
Another issue I have with this text is the lack of a bigger arc between Kelly and Carly, her first friend at the George Washington Military Academy. Carly is black, and is the first friendly face that Kelly comes across. Carly helps Kelly avoid the wrath of their superior officer Jennifer Stone, and generally looks out for Kelly. The two seem like a good pair, with Kelly’s clumsy antics and Carly’s guidance. When there is talk of the “Welcome Home” dance, Carly appears saddened, and Kelly suggests they take a walk when the other girls are fawning over their dresses for the event. The implied reason is that Carly can’t afford a new pretty dress. When the two girls go to Kelly’s house, Kelly graciously lends one of her dresses to Carly.
Carly mentions that her home “wasn’t what she would have picked out,” and George Washington Military School was “like heaven on earth for a girl like her.” Given these hints to a bigger picture, I can’t help but think the makers of this movie could have taken this history and developed it to include an intersectional critique of race and class. Carly is a sweet character, albeit a little one-dimensional, and I wish she had been given the opportunity to develop more.
Now, Kelly. In the beginning of the text, she is portrayed as an individualistic, creative, and overall liberal girl. She has pink highlights in her hair, but is blonde. She is insanely clumsy for a sixteen year old, and was probably (in my opinion) diagnosed with ADD/ADHD at some point in her life. She is a “solo artist,” and does not believe armed forces to be a solution, as she claims to be a conscientious objector in her military history class.
Throughout the movie, Kelly seems to shed some of her political identity. She joins the drill team. Does this show teamwork, or a more militant line of thought? Kelly no longer seems to believe in gun control by the end, she happily follows orders with no embarrassing errors, and salutes like a true soldier. She goes from wanting to turn George Washington Military into a “kinder, gentler school,” to changing herself. I believe that the intention of using the “dumb blonde” trope in the beginning of the text is to signal character development and growth, but it could be read differently. Does the drill team represent a creative outlet for Kelly, or the loss of her identity?
There is also the cold-hearted depiction of Jennifer Stone, Kelly and Carly’s ranking officer. Where Kelly is artistic and original, Stone is square and by the book. The two grind each other’s gears right away. She refers to Kelly as maggot throughout the text, and the two feud over – you guessed it – a boy! Brad, the “most handsome guy in school,” doesn’t seem to mind the two vying for his attention, and the two girls go after each other. Stone rips Kelly’s rainbow blanket, and Kelly paints Stone’s hair with acrylic paints. (Think A Bad Case of the Stripes colors.) Then, the two are assigned as partners for a routine for the drill team. Kelly finally approaches Stone and the two begin working. Stone and Kelly are seen trying to one-up each other with drill moves, but eventually come together and even tolerate each other. After that, Brad seems to step out of the picture, at least as a romantic interest to either.
There are viewers who have taken the relationship between Stone and Kelly – a rivalry- and negotiated with the predominant meaning. They have agreed to a “cinematic contract,” as McCabe refers to it, to “draw upon the personal emotional/ political/ social narratives which she puts at the service of the film” (McCabe 56). Readers have used their own histories to interpret the film, and by doing so, have created a dialogue about the supposed “sexual tension” between the girls, even though the two competed for Brad’s attention. To add another element, it crossed my mind that Carly was never involved in these romantic disputes. The two white girls were automatically the romantic interests for the white guy. Why not make Carly the romantic rival of Stone, with Kelly as her guide? Or why even have Brad in the picture? This triangle only serves to perpetuate the heteronormative, whitewashed trope that has been created time and time again.
Overall, I enjoyed the goofiness of the film, and the development of relationships between girls that were different, but all positive in the end. There were possibilities to create a better dialogue about race, class, and sexuality, but they went unexplored. Cadet Kelly is not as high ranking as I hoped it would be, but it does have positive messages that young girls can safely take away from it.