The Daily Stream: Private Benjamin Is An Unapologetic Feminist Icon

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "Private Benjamin" (1980)

Where You Can Stream It: Showtime

The Pitch: Judy Benjamin (Goldie Hawn) has dreamed of one thing since she was eight years old, according to the film's opening title card: essentially, to be a wife. Specifically, "All I want [...] is a big house ... nice clothes, two closets, a live-in maid, and a professional man for a husband." "Private Benjamin" starts by giving Judy everything she's ever wanted, starting with a huge wedding to a professional man named Yale Goodman (played perfunctorily by Albert Brooks), who promptly dies while consummating their marriage later that same night.

Judy was a divorcée (she was previously married at 20) and widow by the age of 28 (which, by 1980 standards, was ooooold as far as unmarried women were concerned). Her family didn't know what to do with her, and she didn't know what to do with herself. This was all she'd ever known.

To find herself, naturally, Judy joins the army.

Why it's essential viewing

Most comedies from the late '70s and early '80s have notoriously aged very poorly. When Howard Zieff ("My Girl," "My Girl 2") made "Private Benjamin," however, he must've had a crystal ball because this absolute gem just gets better and more relevant as the years go by. Given the writing team, it's no big surprise. The script was written by Harvey Miller ("The Odd Couple"), Charles Shyer ("Father of the Bride," "Father of the Bride Part II," and "The Parent Trap"), and THE Nancy Meyers, she of rom-com gold standards such as "Baby Boom," "Something's Gotta Give," "The Holiday," and "It's Complicated" as well as "Father of the Bride," "Father of the Bride Part II," and "The Parent Trap."

Besides having an incredible roster of writers tackling the screenplay, "Private Benjamin" also boasts an absolutely stacked cast. You've got Goldie Hawn in the leading role absolutely devouring every scene she's in, but she acts opposite comedic heavy hitters and industry mainstays like Eileen Brennan ("Clue"), Armand Assante ("Judge Dredd"), Sam Wanamaker ("Death on the Nile"), Robert Webber ("12 Angry Men"), Barbara Barrie ("Pushing Daisies"), Mary Kay Place ("The Big Chill," "Girl, Interrupted"), Alan Oppenheimer (the original "Westworld" movie and "He-Man" cartoons), P.J. Soles ("Halloween" and "Carrie"), Craig T. Nelson ("Poltergeist" and "The Incredibles"), Keone Young ("Deadwood"), Harry Dean Stanton ("Alien," "Paris, Texas"), and Albert Brooks ("Defending Your Life," "Broadcast News").

This alone makes "Private Benjamin" truly essential viewing. It's a masterclass in both progressive screenwriting and comedic performances for the time that punches up as often as possible. But it helps that it's a genuinely incredible movie that should absolutely be watched and re-watched for generations to come.

A woman's worth

I grew up watching "Private Benjamin" and hooo boy it shows! A Jewish girl raised by fiercely progressive parents who always taught me I could do or be anything I wanted so long as I worked hard and didn't hurt anyone, I knew people like Judy pre-army. I have an aunt who was raised like Judy, made to believe she was only as good as her prettiest smile and that her lot in life was to be a good wife and housekeeper. That's it. She was taught to be window-dressing on her own life, and frankly, that's some serious bulls***.

Judy was raised to believe she was only as worthy as her looks and her ability to tell the difference between beige and mushroom upholstery, so when her second husband died the night of their wedding, she was totally lost. The entire family rallied around her, not to comfort her, but mostly to provide support in the form of "get back out there." Talking about her behind her back (at full volume in the hallway outside of her room) as if she wasn't even there, or like she had no say in her own life. She was worthless without a husband. And she was 28, (or 29 as her father, played by Wanamaker, mistakenly says), so she's clearly past her marrying prime!

So she vented on a radio show by calling in and tying up the line and wound up duped by a deceptive army recruiter (Stanton). But make no mistake, this is hardly some kind of militaristic copaganda picture. The absurdity of the military and its backward, misogynistic framework are on full display and the target of much ire. No, the army isn't the hero in this story. Judy Benjamin is.

Be the hero of your own story

It takes her a while to get her bearings, but once she does, Judy becomes a force of nature. Defying everyone's expectations at every turn, she takes her training by storm and earns herself a reputation for excellence. She did that, the 28-year-old widowed divorcée whose family didn't believe in her. She got a job, traveled the world, made friends who were actually worth a damn, and started to believe in herself. And when a pompous ass of a man tried to take that away from her by manipulating her back into her old life (Assante), she said no. She also decked him, but he had that coming.

"Private Benjamin" isn't about the power of the military or the value of getting a job. At its core, it's about the intrinsic power of knowing yourself and not being a spectator in your own life. For decades, women and femme-presenting people have been taught that their value does not exist without others (specifically men) to validate them. In 1980, that was still an unavoidable fact of life. It was the baseline, the standard that everyone lived by. It's how little girls were raised and what little boys were taught to expect. It is and always was a crock of s***, and "Private Benjamin" said as much by screaming at the top of its lungs and not apologizing for its tone.