Christine Fox, ‘Top Gun,’ and the Casual Sexism of 1985

Christine Fox, the real-life inspiration for Charlie of "Top Gun," and the casual sexism of 1985.


Erin Simpson, who earned the nickname “Charlie” as a civilian professor teaching Marines, passes on an article from way back in 1985 on Christine Fox, the real-life woman was was the inspiration for the “Charlie” character in “Top Gun.” Aside from the interesting back story, the casual sexism is comical.

When the fighter pilots at Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego hear the sound, they snap to full alert. Click. Radar operators close their eyes and just listen, knowing precisely what is coming their way. Click. Click.

High heels in the hallway. Softer than a sonic boom, less penetrating than an F-14 afterburner, the footsteps of 6′ Christine Fox, 30, nevertheless carry the impact of a preemptive strike. “They always know when I’m coming,” she says with a sigh, “because I’m one of the few people around here whose heels click.”

To Navy aviators—described by one of their own as “chauvinistic, macho, self-centered, overzealous, close-minded, hardheaded, egotistical and highly capable”—the sight of Fox striding through headquarters is as enjoyable as a scared MiG pilot running for home.

It gets better:

Fox is a civilian employee of the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), a Navy think tank. In 1983 she was dispatched to the West Coast to serve on the staff of the admiral who commands airborne early-warning and fighter aircraft for the U.S. Pacific fleet. Says Capt. Monroe Smith, until recently the operations officer for the wing: “She’s the smartest woman I’ve ever met. I like women for a lot of things and being smart isn’t usually one of them.”

And then there’s this:

In fact, the unmarried Fox has never become involved with an aviator, a state of affairs that has not gone unnoticed by the aviators. Captain Smith figures that “she’s a genuine straight arrow.” Comdr. Harry Hunter, who works in the same office, says “She’s so professional that her looks don’t become a point of interest. When she walks in you say ‘wow,’ but 30 seconds later you’re talking business.”

And, well, sigh:

Lt. Linda Speed, an administrative officer at the TOPGUN school, has another theory on sex and the single pilot. “These guys compartmentalize their lives,” she says. “Flying is in one box. Women and dating are in another. Sometimes it’s hard for them to put work and women in one box.” The atmosphere at TOPGUN is so masculine that when Fox walks over on business, the guards sometimes ask whether she’s there to pick up her husband’s check.

Oh, and this:

Fox is in the final days of her tour at Miramar; this week she returns to CNA headquarters in Alexandria, Va., where she will work as a research study director. When she arrived two years ago, says Commander Hunter, the attitude in operations was, “God, we’re going to get stuck with a girl.” Now that she’s being replaced, he says, the attitude is, “God, we’re going to get stuck with a guy.”

What ever became of Fox, call sign “Legs”? She went on to become president of CNA and has, since November 2009, served as Director, Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation at the Pentagon. She’s stepping down later this year. No word on her next assignment.

FILED UNDER: Gender Issues, Military Affairs, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    It’s very useful for people to remember that the language that makes is cringe now was defended by the male power structure, denied by many men and some women, but clearly audible to a lot of women.

    The discriminated-against have better antennae for these things up than does the majority. Conservatives might want to remember that reality when they’re claiming that racism no longer exists. When black people start telling me that racism is dead, I’ll believe them. Ditto sexism and women.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds: I think that’s right. Ten years ago, I doubt any of this would have taken me aback. Indeed, I’m pretty sure the quoted males fully intended to be complimentary.

  3. Mikey says:

    I like women for a lot of things and being smart isn’t usually one of them.

    There’s a lot of eye-roll-worthy stuff in that article, but the above made me actually cringe. What a stupid thing to say.

  4. James Joyner says:

    @Mikey: Yeah, that’s the one that prompted the post. But several of the lines were pretty bad.

  5. michael reynolds says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Damn, dude, check your comment before posting. And you’re supposed to be a professional writer? That’s like three errors in a single graf.

  6. Mikey says:

    @James Joyner: That kind of thing wasn’t uncommon at all, unfortunately.

    And it wasn’t just the Navy–for the first nine years of my Air Force career, the only officers I worked for were fighter pilots, in the days before women were allowed to fly fighters. A quote from one of those guys has stuck with me for over 20 years: “I’m glad cracks can’t fly jets.”

    Probably a good thing they never interviewed him for People Magazine…

  7. Woody Boyd says:

    I’ve always thought Top-Gun was some kind of homo-erotic phantasy.

  8. Woody Boyd says:

    Seriously…the shower scenes…the volley-ball scene…Tom Cruise sitting on his Ninja staring into the sunset.
    If that’s not gay porn…

  9. Woody Boyd says:
  10. stonetools says:

    We’ve come a long way, baby.

  11. ernieyeball says:

    @stonetools: We’ve come a long way, baby.

    A long way right to the graveyard


    In the 1960s and 1970s, the themes of feminism and women’s liberation, with the slogan “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby” were often used in the ads, (for Virginia Slims cigarettes) and often featured anecdotes about women in the early 20th century who were punished for being caught smoking, usually by their husbands or other men, as compared to the time of the ads when more women had equal rights, usually comparing smoking to things like the right to vote.[5] [6]

    Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in women, killing more women each year than breast cancer, uterine cancer, and ovarian cancer combined.

  12. rudderpedals says:

    Thank you for pressing to earworm. I was raised by a TV set.

    You’ve come a long way, baby To get where you got to, today. You’ve got your own cigarette now baby. You’ve come a long, long way.

  13. Came of age in the 70's says:

    I was the first scholarship female athletic trainer in the late 1970’s at a then big conference school. Aside from multiple attempted rapes, I was subjected to crude comments on a daily basis, given a too small and too tight uniform and was the only trainer who did not have an officially issued rain jacket, because my wet tight t-shirt was amusing. After AP published a photo of me on the sidelines, many of the players’ families and coaches’ wives protested the very idea that I was allowed to be in and around the players’ locker room.

    I lasted one year. Many of my co-trainers went on to become respected surgeons. I dropped out of school and although I have gone on to be reasonably successful in life, I have lots of thoughts about what might have been. I feel a lot of guilt that I wasn’t tough enough to stick it out.

    Given the recent news about sexual assault and harassment in the military, I think we still have a long way to go before women will ever be treated as equals in traditionally male-dominated fields.

  14. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    Cue Tarantino’s monologue in the long-forgotten Sleep with Me:

    Sid: You want subversion on a massive level. You know what one of the greatest fucking scripts ever written in the history of Hollywood is? Top Gun.
    Duane: Oh, come on.
    Sid: Top Gun is fucking great. What is Top Gun? You think it’s a story about a bunch of fighter pilots.
    Duane: It’s about a bunch of guys waving their dicks around.
    Sid: It is a story about a man’s struggle with his own homosexuality. It is! That is what Top Gun is about, man. You’ve got Maverick, all right? He’s on the edge, man. He’s right on the fucking line, all right? And you’ve got Iceman, and all his crew. They’re gay, they represent the gay man, all right? And they’re saying, go, go the gay way, go the gay way. He could go both ways.
    Duane: What about Kelly McGillis?
    Sid: Kelly McGillis, she’s heterosexuality. She’s saying: no, no, no, no, no, no, go the normal way, play by the rules, go the normal way. They’re saying no, go the gay way, be the gay way, go for the gay way, all right? That is what’s going on throughout that whole movie… He goes to her house, all right? It looks like they’re going to have sex, you know, they’re just kind of sitting back, he’s takin’ a shower and everything. They don’t have sex. He gets on the motorcycle, drives away. She’s like, “What the fuck, what the fuck is going on here?” Next scene, next scene you see her, she’s in the elevator, she is dressed like a guy. She’s got the cap on, she’s got the aviator glasses, she’s wearing the same jacket that the Iceman wears. She is, okay, this is how I gotta get this guy, this guy’s going towards the gay way, I gotta bring him back, I gotta bring him back from the gay way, so I’ll do that through subterfuge, I’m gonna dress like a man. All right? That is how she approaches it. Okay, now let me just ask you – I’m gonna digress for two seconds here. I met this girl Amy here, she’s like floating around here and everything. Now, she just got divorced, right? All right, but the REAL ending of the movie is when they fight the MIGs at the end, all right? Because he has passed over into the gay way. They are this gay fighting fucking force, all right? And they’re beating the Russians, the gays are beating the Russians. And it’s over, and they fucking land, and Iceman’s been trying to get Maverick the entire time, and finally, he’s got him, all right? And what is the last fucking line that they have together? They’re all hugging and kissing and happy with each other, and Ice comes up to Maverick, and he says, “Man, you can ride my tail, anytime!” And what does Maverick say? “You can ride mine!” Swordfight! Swordfight! Fuckin’ A, man!

  15. Kari Q says:

    Ah yes. I remember it well. Fortunately, I seemed to intimidate a lot of my male peers. They didn’t say much to me, though other women had more trouble.

    In the mid-80s, a submarine captain said, quite confidently, that women would never be allowed to serve on subs because … something something something. I was a midshipman at the time and kept my mouth shut and didn’t roll my eyes, but I still regret not giving in to my initial impulse and saying ‘Want to bet, sir?”

  16. Jack says:

    @michael reynolds: Read more Walter Williams.

  17. SKI says:

    For an even more jarrng contrast, M*A*S*H was on cable this weekend. I hadn’t see it in well more than a decade. It was painful to watch because of the misogyny and sexism.

  18. James Joyner says:

    @SKI: At least it was ostensibly portraying the Army of the early 1950s. Then again, it was regarded at the time as a lefty show, with Alan Alda right up their with Phil Donahue as symbols of bleeding heart liberalism.