Since its release in 1986, Top Gun has been universally accepted as the homoerotic story of a pilot whose “inverted” flying style puts him at odds with the straight-shooting patriarchal value system of the US Navy1. Yet while the past three decades of film criticism have reaffirmed this interpretation, recent study suggests that subtle layers of heterosexuality pervade the text. As unlikely as it seems, a closer reading reveals a romance between a cocky male pilot and his female instructor.
Indeed, this theory is inherently outlandish and absurd. How could a film featuring beach volleyball games, gratuitous locker room scenes, phallic fighter jets, and language such as “You can be my wingman anytime,” “Hard deck, my ass. We nailed that son of a bitch,” and “Buzzing the tower” be anything but a gay fantasia on naval aviation themes?
This paper, however, should not be written off as a stretch, or a Room 237 conspiracy theory, or “a contrarian opinion written solely for the sake of academic provocation” (which this author was previously accused of for writing “The Lion King’s Critique of Neo-Colonial Patrilineal Succession”). No. In this case, the critical community did not look closely enough at Top Gun, taking the text at face value and not recognizing it as an intellectual target-rich environment.
Whether it is a glance, a throwaway line (“You always go home with the hot women”), or the scenes where Maverick has sex with a woman, there are subtle instances of straightness that are impossible to deny. It is unclear if director Tony Scott intended this reading, but too many clues exist for it to be purely coincidental. These details appropriately fly under the viewer’s radar, much as Maverick did to the MiG in the film’s opening dogfight.
The first hint comes in the famous beach volleyball game, set to the sound of Kenneth Loggins’ “Playing With the Boys.” The scene, highlighting a shirtless and sweaty Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer (and a clothed Anthony Edwards), plays like a hyper-masculine exercise in reaffirming Susan Sontag’s definition of camp2. Yet in a wink to the audience, Maverick occasionally and subtly checks his watch during the game. This indicates that he is late, pointing us back to the overlooked plot point of his planned mid-day rendezvous with Charlie (portrayed by Kelly McGillis).
Charlie, a civilian contractor, at first seems to be a throwaway character existing purely to provide exposition about Maverick’s dangerous flying habits. But there could be more to her. During a sweaty encounter with Maverick in an elevator, she clarifies: “I don’t normally invite students to my house.” He responds, “I’m glad we got that straight.” Straight. Curious choice of language.
This interaction then recontextualizes the “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” scene3 where Maverick and Goose make a twenty-dollar bet to see who can have carnal knowledge ("Of a lady this time”) on the premises. To aid Maverick in his mission, all of the pilots in the bar sing along to the Righteous Brothers to raucous applause; a post-modern rejection of earlier definitions of manliness.
Previous scholars insist that Maverick is addressing this ballad to Iceman4. Yet if you follow Maverick’s eyes, in a literal embodiment of the male gaze, you’ll notice that his line of sight is pointed directly at Charlie. It’s a clever camera trick, executed with Godard-ian levels of subtlety, requiring multiple viewings to grasp the implications.
The linchpin to this argument is the odd sequence in which Maverick and Charlie have intercourse, their bodies in silhouette5. It is an inarguably odd scene, almost alien with a bizarre French kiss that could have been orchestrated by H.R. Giger. There is no chemistry between the two (considerably less than Maverick has with Iceman) and the scene drips of pastiche, parody, and kitsch. But looking at it through straight-colored lenses, it could be read as a sex scene. One designed to connote intimacy and closeness and attraction.
As the army of small-minded naysayers will likely rebut: “Yes, but what about Maverick’s teeth-snapping sexual tension with Iceman?” Their rivalry is palpable, tense and undeniably reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. Yet if we view the film as Maverick and Charlie’s love story, then Iceman quite easily slides into the role of antagonist. It is a bit trope-y and pedantic, agreed, but their adversarial relationship is rooted not in attraction but rather in Iceman’s concern over flying alongside an unsafe pilot who jeopardizes the lives of his squadron. With that in mind, suddenly those fighter jets and motorcycles seem less phallic and “That’s right, Ice… Man. I am dangerous” feels less like an innuendo-laden proposition. Slightly less, that is.
Considering all of the above evidence, it is not only possible but probable that we have misread Top Gun as merely a Douglas Sirkian melodrama juxtaposed against the Reagan administration’s military-industrial complex. And if that widely accepted interpretation proves to be false, then it certainly forces us to reconsider this author’s previous papers: “Presidential Grand Theft: the Politics of Point Break” and “The Parallel Plunges of Hans Gruber and the Junk Bond Market.”
We, as scholars, have a responsibility to look past the obvious interpretations to find the true meaning of art. Yet oftentimes we’re too quick to judge. That impulse is understandable, though. Because we feel the need. The need for peer-reviewed papers that will be shared and distributed for clout and validation.
1 The Ringer — “Ranking the Mount Rushmore of Naval Aviator Films.” Sean Fennessey, Chris Ryan, and Mallory Rubin. July 9, 2019.
2 Klosterman, Chuck. “Checks Your Body Can’t Cash.” Grantland. November 5, 2011.
3 Screen Rant — “Top 10 Musical Scenes in Otherwise Non-Musical Movies” – September 4, 2016.
4 The Bill Simmons Mail Bag — “Why Top Gun is the Larry Bird of ’80s Action Movies.” March 13, 2004.
5 Barstool Sports — “Weirdest Sex Scenes We’ve Ever Jacked It To, Vol. 3” – August 9, 2018.