The Rocketeer was one of my favorite movies growing up, although I was never a big fan of the love interest, Jenny Blake, who always seemed kind of like a sexy lamp to me. (If you didn’t follow the link, the “sexy lamp” test means that if you could replace your main female character with a sexy lamp and the story would still basically work, you have a problem.) But the more I try to pin it down, the more I think it’s not that simple. She may not be your standard strong female character (a nebulous phrase my loathing of which is well-established), but if you were to remove Jenny from the story, it wouldn’t just be different–it wouldn’t exist at all.
In hanging around writing groups and forums, I’ve encountered a lot of writers who struggle to figure out the genre they’re writing in. My advice is always to look at the stakes–what’s the worst thing that will happen if the hero fails? That tends to be the main thing that defines a genre. So in a comedy, the stakes are personal happiness and success. In epic fantasy, it’s stopping the forces of darkness. In dystopia, it’s breaking free of the corrupt institution. And so on and so forth. After repeated viewings of The Rocketeer, I’ve come to realize that while we may be dealing with Stupid Jetpack Hitler, the primary thing at stake is Cliff and Jenny’s relationship.
No, seriously. This movie is a rom-com with gunfights and Nazis, also known as the best possible kind of rom-com.
Although Jenny’s not present in the first act, Cliff keeps a picture of her in his cockpit, even risking himself to rescue it from the fire. After a bunch of setup about the rocket, the two go out on a date, a scene which gets a fairly substantial amount of screentime (the whole sequence takes about 10 minutes). They have a fairly contentious meal, highlighting the issues in their relationship: Jenny wants a change of pace and doesn’t feel like Cliff respects her career or trusts her with important news. It’s because of this and in the hopes of making amends that he seeks her out on set the next morning, revealing to her–and to the eavesdropping baddie Neville Sinclair–that he’s found the rocket. That directly leads to Sinclair moving in on Jenny in the hopes of getting to Cliff.
Then we’ve got a couple of action sequences, and the escalating danger is enough to prompt Cliff to call it quits and turn the rocket over to the FBI. That is, until one of the mobsters spots Jenny’s phone number, and we see Cliff’s look of horror as he realizes that the guys who murdered his boss and are trying to torture his best friend are also after his girlfriend. From that point on, protecting her is the only thing that matters to him, more than even his own safety or that of anyone else. And this concern is mutual, as evidenced when Jenny goes back into the club to save Cliff from Sinclair’s goon (without which the third act wouldn’t happen). The crisis makes them both realize that, despite their quibbles, they’d do absolutely anything for each other, and they end the movie in a much stronger place.
So what makes this the primary stakes? Well, let’s compare to another similar film, Raiders of the Lost Ark. In both movies, the hero realizes that rescuing his kidnapped girlfriend will further the Nazis’ goals (which is a rather specific parallel, come to think). Indy’s response is to promise Marion that he’ll return for her after he’s secured the Ark. Cliff’s response is to fight his way out of FBI custody and go to the hostage exchange anyway. Even knowing what else is on the line, Jenny’s more important.
There’s still the issue of her lack of agency, which tends to be a major sticking point with female characters. After all, she’s reactive rather than active, and her choices aren’t really what drives the story. She also doesn’t really have much of a character arc, ending the story more or less where she started.
But here’s the thing: You could say basically the same about Cliff.
See, context counts for a lot in these sort of situations. The Rocketeer is a very conscious throwback to the adventure serials of the 1930s, and those pulpy plots are usually driven by the villain. The bad guy is the one who has a plan and takes steps to achieve it, and the good guy has to stop it, generally staying a step or two behind the whole way and only prevailing due to a last ditch, desperate gamble. Really, the only choice Cliff makes on his own is to try using the rocket pack in the first place, and even that is in reaction to their financial situation after the crash of the Gee Bee test plane (which was shot at by a bad guy because… the plot wouldn’t happen otherwise, pretty much). Everything else he does is in response to someone else being in trouble. Agency is the wrong yardstick to use in a case like this, because the only one who really has agency is Sinclair. These stories also tend to trade in stock characters, which is why no one really has an individual character arc, but Cliff and Jenny do go through an arc as a couple.
It’s easy to write her off as just another damsel in distress, but part of what consistently fascinates me about that trope is how rarely it’s played purely straight anymore. The standard damsel will run off with the hero she’s only just met once he’s proven himself by saving the day, but Jenny and Cliff are in an established relationship, one that seems fairly serious from the start, so them getting together at the end makes perfect sense (and, as previously established, is kind of the whole point). She’s also crafty, deftly manipulating Sinclair and doing pretty well at escaping until she gets sidetracked by the whole Nazi discovery. Oh yeah, and when she gets handed over to a random mook, she stone-cold kicks the dude through the window of the zeppelin.
Seriously, I’m pretty sure Cliff doesn’t have any confirmed kills in this movie (I only give him partial credit for Sinclair, personally), but Jenny sure as hell does.
I think it’s important that, as scholars, we don’t give into our first knee-jerk reactions about a character and look deeper, and that as writers, we seek out ways to add that depth. The Rocketeer may be working with a fairly established formula, but they manage to take a role that’s often marginalized and make it an intrinsic part of the story. With no Jenny in the picture, Sinclair never gets on Cliff’s trail, and he returns the rocket to the Feds as soon as things get hairy. With her, we have a much more interesting film.