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Watching Top Gun 60 times has taught me profound lessons about gender and identity

Nothing illustrates America's complicated relationship with gender performance like Top Gun. It presents itself as military prowess, bomber jackets, and dudes bein' dudes united against those who would oppose the American ideal (Russia, who else?). What it actually does remarkably well, if accidentally, is set up classic masculinity to fail and promises that is going to turn out fine. We don't need it, because it's an act. Tom Cruise takes America by the hand and says, "Gender is a performance that doesn't matter."

I was 6 years old the first time I saw Top Gun, which turns 30 this week. The film follows Pete Mitchell, call sign "Maverick," a reckless and talented young pilot looking to buff up his tarnished family name by earning top honors at the elite military training facility known as Top Gun. The year is 1986.

Mav and his best friend Goose find themselves lucky to earn a position in a very small class of talented pilots, including rivals Iceman and Slider. Iceman has a reputation in complete contrast to Mav's: Where Maverick is gutsy and unique, Iceman follows the rules of engagement to perfection. They compete for power in class and on the training grounds, Maverick constantly asserting himself as the best.

The movie has taught me how to perform an identity, how to play the gender game, and, probably most importantly, what it means to inhabit yourself

Maverick also takes on the challenge of wooing his instructor, call sign "Charlie," who reminds him in her own way that he is blinded by the act he tries to maintain.

But Maverick finds his foundation most shaken when, during a mission, Goose is killed as an indirect result of Maverick's showboating. While it's not Maverick's fault, he knows his act has gone too far and takes the brunt of the blame. He decides to quit altogether, and only when urged to get back up again for an emergency skirmish against the Russians that demands his skill as a fighter pilot does he get back behind the controls.

He succeeds when he accepts Iceman as a teammate and not a rival. Iceman allows him a moment to recover his masculine act in front of the other men in the iconic final moments of the film: "You can be my wingman anytime." Maverick lets go of his grief, throwing Goose's dog tags into the sea, and chooses to become a flight instructor.

The story, if predictable, is a good one. I've watched it approximately 60 times in my life and always find myself proud of its conclusion. It may be overblown and flashy, but underneath Maverick there is a kid learning to make his way in the world just like the rest of us.

In the decades and multiple viewings since that first time, the movie has taught me how to perform an identity, how to play the gender game, and, probably most importantly, what it means to inhabit yourself. If that sounds like a lot for a movie with a Kenny Loggins soundtrack, you're not wrong. But you might want to watch it again.

Why I identified with Goose but tried to be Maverick

There are only two women in this film: a bitch and a bimbo. Maybe I was supposed to see myself in the love interest Charlie, the no-nonsense Our Lady of Perpetual Shoulder Pads, or her character foil Carole, Meg Ryan's bubbly blonde airhead, but these characters didn't land for me. Their motivations seemed to pivot around their men. Carole appears as a device to ground Goose and double down on Maverick's grief when he sees a family torn apart by his antics. Other than loving her man and bearing his child, she doesn't offer much.

Charlie, on the other hand, at least appears to have functioning ambitions. She's highly intelligent and successful while still vulnerable enough to fall for Maverick. That said, she gives up these ambitions at the film's end when she chooses him over a career. She evolves into a Carole. I didn't like either of them, and I already had Disney princesses for the things I was supposed to be absorbing as a girl child in the '90s. Top Gun was a new primer: I saw myself in Goose.

Game recognizes game, as they say; a perpetual beta tends to root for an underdog. I connected with Goose because I saw myself in the same league. I was always too tall, always too chubby, gregarious but forgettable, and obsessively worried about the social ladder as soon as I saw it in action.

I was the youngest kid in the neighborhood gang; my mom will tell you she could hear me blocks away shouting for the older kids to wait up. In school, however, I was the oldest, held back a year at kindergarten because I couldn't tie my shoes. I can still tell you full names of the girls in my class who were alphas, whose birthday parties I was not invited to attend that year.

It was an awkward social caste, to be older but less popular. I found the sidekick role accessible and more welcoming; every alpha needed one or two sidekicks, and so long as I kept providing support I was allowed to sit in their hair-braiding lines at recess and pretend.

At first, I liked being a Goose just fine. There's satisfaction in helping others, and the pressure is moderately low. There is, of course, the obvious drawback of playing second fiddle, which is that your personal needs tend to take a back seat to the cause.

I felt that, but I didn't always see it in the movies I watched. Disney sidekicks and best friends didn't typically take the time to ask themselves what they really want and need from the main character, or how their identity serves their ambition. Usually they were animals or sentient furniture.

But Top Gun didn't hold back that lesson. Goose sat in the literal back seat and paid the ultimate price. No matter how many times I watched, Goose always died for Maverick's arrogance. What was Goose's crime? Goose was the ultimate best friend: loyal and sensitive when Maverick needed a family, supportive and wise on the battlefield; he lifted Maverick up when others put him down. Surely there was a better fate in store for Goose? I started to worry there wasn't for me.

No matter how many times I watched, Goose always died for Maverick's arrogance

As a little girl I began to see myself there: sacrificed on the altar of manhood. And I realized I didn't want to be Goose. I had to try harder, I reasoned, to earn my own wingman. What sets Maverick apart from Goose? His assertion that he ought to be set apart in the first place.

To that end, Maverick is interesting because his confidence is a big fat lie. Here is a young man who desperately wants to escape his sullied family name and constantly seeks to prove himself. He hides this very sensitive shoulder chip with a reputation for danger, bravado, and risk.

Maverick, I realized in my small and questioning state, is still somehow more of a man than Goose because he demonstrates it outwardly, even at others' expense. To a point of excess, he plays the part of the alpha in order to achieve that standing. Pete Mitchell, hurting and emotional, is a totally different animal without that facade. He's a maverick only insofar as he says so.

The smaller me was confused as to what I was supposed to do with this information. If power and gender performance are games, what's to keep anyone from being exactly who they want to be, and the best version of it? The only difference between an alpha like Mav and a beta like Goose was, apparently, a high degree of theatrics. Maverick walked into his classroom and slouched in the front row with his legs spread as wide as his ego, scanning the room for threats and asserting his confidence. He makes a show of his identity from the first possible moment, the impulsive one with the skills to back it up.

At the bar, a room full of rivals and threats (or classmates and possible friends, as a normal human might observe), he pulls the loudest and most public display of peacocking with Goose that he can, leading a sing-along to "You've Lost That Loving Feeling" right to Charlie's face, met with a resounding cheer and many slaps on the back. Even when told explicitly otherwise, he showboats on missions, because that's what a maverick would do.

As Iceman points out, he works alone, even with others, and that makes him dangerous. Pete Mitchell is clearly hurt by this idea, but he wears the identity of Maverick like a security blanket. Underneath, he's confused and hurting all the time. When alone, or with Charlie in a vulnerable state, he is quiet and thoughtful and admits his baggage is weighing him down. But it's Maverick, not Pete, that he feels can be the best of the best. Maverick has the confidence to survive at Top Gun, and it's Maverick he wears in order to achieve his ambitions.

So when I most needed the security of a confident identity in high school years later, I turned back to Top Gun. I looked at Maverick's successful mask and saw an opportunity there. If I asserted myself strongly enough, I could seize a bit of control over the social circles that made me the most anxious.

I didn't go for Maverick's masculine act, specifically, because I wasn't trying to subvert any expectations so obviously. I wasn't that revolutionary; I just wanted to survive. Instead, I went the other direction, into hardcore traditional femme, and became the most Maverick-esque alpha mom character I could possibly imagine. I drove the car, I straightened the ties, I baked the cookies, I listened to the Eagles.

That identity game worked great for me. If I had a Top Gun call sign in high school, it would have been Kanga, because I practically carried my squad around in my pouch.

The Maverick School of Overblown Gender Performance kept me very safe in the target-rich environment of dramatic teenagers. I didn't have enemies, I didn't have love interests, and I pretended so hard that even I believed, for a while, that I was confident in my identity. This was not the case, as anyone who hasn't blacked out the high school experience can tell you, but it worked the magic it needed to.

Most importantly, I realized how much I resented that gender profile. I didn't feel at home in that costume. At the end of the day it didn't make me happy, and I recognized that the security of that power didn't do anything for me if the identity wasn't mine.

The idea behind Maverick's performance was right: I could achieve it if I could fake my way through it. But I lost myself, and looking back I should have predicted that, knowing how Maverick's hypermasculine performance crumbled when he finally faced his baggage of loss and grief. I dropped the hyperfemme act. It wasn't me, just as Maverick wasn't Pete.

My Top Gun adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing

When I got to college, my first dorm window looked onto the lawn of a frat house. On Saturday mornings, as I pored over philosophers, my neighbors poured High Life into tube contraptions and played whiffle ball in the street. I loved them instantly; they only listened to the greatest hits of mullet rock and wore bro tanks for all seasons.

Their hierarchy was clear. They had a Mav and an Iceman, a Goose and a Slider. I liked watching them through the window, my own little masculinity TV. I wanted that.

So, in the true spirit of performing masculinity, I asked for it outright. I proposed a Top Gun adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing to the university Shakespeare troupe, the Dean's Men, and the proposal passed. I got my frat. The first obstacle was that I had never directed anything before, but what would Maverick do? I acted like I could.

Do you know who loves faulty gender theatrics almost as much as Tony Scott? The Bard. The challenge I faced was not a room full of stuffy academics dismissing a modern lens for a treasured text. Rather, I found myself lecturing a room of dudes on how to be dudes.

"You sit like you've got the biggest dick in the room," I remember saying. Someone asked me how I even knew what that meant. "Because nine times out of 10, I do," I said. Maverick smiled.

The most important scene in Top Gun

To ask what makes a man a man in Top Gun is almost asking for a punchline in 2016. Top Gun is supposed to be a gleaming monument to American machismo, and it sure is. On a sliding scale it pushes masculinity so far that it drops off into a no-man's land of anything-goes performance art.

They would not have said so in 1986, but Top Gun is camp. How else do you describe a Kenny Loggins montage of shirtless beach volleyball dropped into the middle of the film for no goddamn reason other than to celebrate the strength and brotherhood among these very sweaty, very tactile gentlemen that is in no way homoerotic unless you open your eyes?

Bravado is hilariously overblown. There is no air conditioning anywhere in this film, every building has a locker room, and the secondary uniform seems to be dog tags and towels. The VHS practically drips testosterone, and that's part of why Top Gun lives in a sort of cult classic niche today. It takes itself (and its take on masculinity) so seriously that it doubles back and becomes absurd.

I've spent a lot of time in the headspace of this film, digging out the pieces of myself that I thought I saw. There's a lot to dissect if you look past all the razzle-dazzle. But here is the secret, 30 years after Top Gun first buzzed the tower: The most important scene in the film is not the immortal "need for speed" double high-five, or Tom Cruise frenching his way to heterosexuality in blue silhouette to "Take My Breath Away," or even Iceman ambiguously inviting Maverick to be his wingman any time.

The most important moment in Top Gun is when Maverick cries. Goose dies instantly when their plane goes down in the ocean, hitting his head on the canopy of the jet. Maverick feels the sting of that loss and keeps up a stony facade in front of his superiors, but he breaks down when he has to face Carole and apologize. She tells him that Goose loved flying with him, and he would have flown with anyone, but he would have hated it. He loved Maverick.

This is what wakes him up: not the loss of face in front of his classmates, not the military failure, but the love he took for granted while trying to be someone he wasn't.

For me, the real Danger Zone of Top Gun is a place where emotions, expression and identity are suppressed

Maverick drops the hypermasculine act then, and the world does not collapse into genderless chaotic space dust. No one holds it against him. His trauma is validated and addressed, and he is more successful as a pilot and a human when he's supported. He can be a team player without the pretext of his fake bravado. In fact, he's better for it.

Pete Mitchell is real human being with feelings, not the cardboard cutout of American masculinity that Maverick would have had you believe earlier in the film. When given the space to explore his own motivations, away from that fake gender performance that had everyone fooled, he is a better version of his real self.

For me, the real Danger Zone of Top Gun is a place where emotions, expression, and identity are suppressed. Sometimes I end up hiding there, in survival mode, like Maverick does. But the best me, the one that wears Old Spice pomade and menswear to my job as a nanny, gets more done happily flitting between one extreme and the other, when it suits me and best helps others.

Now, when Maverick cries, I see myself more than what I saw in Goose as a child. I see how difficult and jarring it is to find a comfortable place in yourself and with the people you care most about. It may not have been a movie for children, but a poignant reality shines through the farce, and there's a human onscreen for a split second, admitting a personal charade is unhealthy. That's the Top Gun I needed at 6, and still need at 26.

Claire Stone is a Chicago-based teaching artist and nanny. She is a graduate of the University of Chicago, where she studied English and children's literature, and is a company member at First Floor Theater. When she's not folding tiny clothes, she writes military historical fiction.

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