A Jewish American Princess, Judy Benjamin (Hawn), is devastated when her husband (Albert Brooks) drops dead on their wedding night. While she grieves a duplicitous recruiter for the Women's Army Corps convinces her to enlist. Judy thinks her enlistment is like a vacation but Captain Lewis (Eileen Brennan) quickly dashes her hopes of an easy time. As Judy goes through basic training like any other grunt, she becomes a good soldier and develops a sense of self-esteem.
Tropes used in Private Benjamin include:
- Armed Farces
- Deconstructed Trope: Deconstructs the Boot Camp Episode by showing that while she overcame boot camp, we also see how the army changed her life.
- Dirty Communist: Lewis and the Army warn Judy that Henri is one of these. His political affiliation isn't her concern — she leaves him because he turns out to be misogynistic.
- Dressing as the Enemy: Done during a war game. Since the two sides only differentiated by colour of arm-band, it is surprisingly easy; using one soldier's non-regulation red underwear to make the red armbands.
- Drill Sergeant Nasty: Sergeant L.C. Ross. He fits the "gruff black man" type, being played by gruff black actor Hal Williams and all.
- I Surrender, Suckers: The Red and the Blue side are holding simulated war games. So Judy and her teammates in the Blue team go over in a truck to the Red team and tells them that the Blue team has surrendered, and they can get in the truck to go back to base. Amidst the cheering and applause, they get in, at which point they are disarmed at gunpoint; they've been tricked into allowing themselves to be captured!
- French Accordion: The title character is asked where she wants to be stationed, as they have bases all over the world. The next scene is an establishing shot of Paris, complete with accordion music.
- I Choose to Stay: When her parents come to get her out of the Army — something Captain Lewis is eager to do — Judy decides that she's not going to let her parents run her life anymore, and stays.
- Jewish American Princess: Judy Benjamin is one of these getting suckered into joining the Army, with the expected Fish out of Water results.
- "Join the Army," They Said: Judy joins the Army thinking it's all travel and fun, like in the adverts (an image reinforced by an unscrupulous recruiter).
- Out with a Bang: Happens to Judy's husband at the start of the film. Leads to this exchange at the funeral:"What were his last words?"
- Prenup Blow Up: Henri tries to "remake" Judy, and also insists she sign a prenuptial agreement (in French) to protect his family home held for centuries.
- Reading the Stage Directions Out Loud: Judy Benjamin, when taking her oath of loyalty after signing up for the Army, repeats, "...do solemnly swear or affirm..."
- Reassigned to Antarctica: Judy's commanding officer in the Thornbirds attempts to sexually assault her. When she refuses to comply, he attempts to have her transferred as far away from Biloxi as soon as possible. Rather than accept what she sees as an undesirable post in Greenland or Guam, she negotiates a much better assignment to SHAPE in Belgium.
- Recruiters Always Lie:Judy Benjamin: I think they sent me to the wrong place.
Capt. Lewis: Uh-huh.
Judy Benjamin: See, I did join the army, but I joined a different army. I joined the one with the condos and the private rooms.
- Runaway Bride: The film ends with Judy deciding that she doesn't want to marry Henri and storming out of their wedding, still clad in her wedding dress.
- Toothbrush Floor Scrubbing: During basic training, Judy Benjamin complains about the latrine being unsanitary and is ordered to clean it with her toothbrush. Her electric toothbrush.
- Trading Bars for Stripes: One of the other trainees in boot camp was apparently this trope. After she flipped off the drill sergeant behind her back (during the typical "first day at training" scene), Sarge says that she'll soon wish she'd chosen Attica.
- Widowed at the Wedding: Judy's husband dies of a heart attack while they're making love on their wedding night.