Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Battle of the sexes

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2001)

The US stage hit The Vagina Monologues played recently in Toronto, and received a surprisingly snippy reception from local critics. They found it obvious, even puerile. Leah McLaren, for instance, characterized the play as an expression of frustrations and repressions that most (just Canadian?) women her age were never burdened by to begin with. Which isn’t to say that there’s no such thing as genre-based behavioural difference – McLaren cites her fascination with her own eggs. But these differences may now be sufficiently clearly stipulated that stridency or militancy on the issues appears woefully obsolete. On the other hand, The Vagina Monologues was a hit – so maybe it’s not so obvious to everyone.

Dr. T & the Women

I work on a team of 23 people, of whom only 3 are male. Given how much of my own day involves being the only man in sight, I’ve been thinking that when I look back on this period, I may realize that Robert Altman’s recent Dr. T & the Women should have been an emblematic film in my life. In that film, Richard Gere as a prosperous Southern gynecologist negotiates female trouble galore, from wives and daughters to adoring staff to an over-scheduled appointment list that finds the waiting room in perpetual chaos.

Gere plays it cool and laid-back, and although his performance was compared to Cary Grant in some quarters, I read the film more as a chronicle of smugness earning its comeuppance, in which Gere learns more than he can handle about female diversity. And how much diversity is that exactly? Well, nothing special – just that a woman might be content to abandon a love affair at a certain point, or might be amazed that anyone could expect her to leave her career to serve a lover’s vision. I doubt that Altman finds these ideas revelatory, but Dr. T does – and the movie consequently ends in a vision of utter cataclysm. I think it works very well, as long as you take the grimmest possible reading of what the protagonist’s attitude really amounts to.

Watching the new Mel Gibson comedy What Women Want, I was often reminded of Altman’s film (not just because Helen Hunt plays the hero’s main object of affection in both cases), but usually to the newer film’s detriment. Dr. T opens with one of Altman’s trademark long, highly orchestrated sequences, tracking the comings and goings at the waiting room as things gradually fly out of control – the scene is a blizzard of incident and observation that perfectly establishes one of the key coordinates of Gere’s universe even though (or in large part because) he doesn’t appear in the scene. What Women Want, in contrast, opens with a very broad explanation of its protagonist’s problems – he’s a heel who treats women like objects, because he grew up around too many Las Vegas showgirls and gamblers.

Now grown up into a successful ad executive, he’s threatened by the arrival of a new female boss (Hunt) who wants to take the agency in a more female-friendly direction. Researching feminine products that night in his bathroom, he suffers a freak accident that gives him the power to hear women’s thoughts – a talent that he exploits to forge better relationships with his colleagues and his teenage daughter and to steal Hunt’s ideas before she even knows she has them.

Rat Pack

The film has very little complexity – it’s simply plotted, moving straightforwardly from one set-up to the next – but it’s strangely literal in its approach to the subject. The accident (attributable to partial electrocution while wearing stockings and surrounded by cosmetics) is dramatized more painstakingly than anything else in the film, as though the viewer might be expected to try it at home. A character tells Gibson, “If you know what women want, you can rule,” and as far as I can tell, the film accepts straightforwardly that there is something that women (distinct from men) want, that it’s possible to know what that something is and, indeed, that you could ride that insight to glory. Somehow though, the movie dances around revealing much about what the something might be (it’s pretty well-established that better sex is part of it though – go figure).

The film’s main strength is probably Gibson, radiating good spirits, chattering away and clad for much of the movie in form-fitting black that makes it look as though he’s attending some kind of improv workshop. He’s ingratiating for sure, but nothing about the performance connects very deeply. At some point it appears that he’s passed from merely exploiting his abilities to learning from them (becoming a nice guy), but from what’s presented it’s entirely plausible that he’s merely learned how to be a more subtle and efficient heel. This though is the kind of ambiguity that the film consistently fails to detect or accommodate. Another example – Gibson’s character is an aficionado of vintage Sinatra, and the film is accompanied by the emblematic renditions of songs like I Won’t Dance and I’ve Got You Under My Skin. But one simply can’t tell to what extent this is supposed to put us in mind of the misogynistic, rat-pack contortions of that period in Sinatra’s life.

Mirror of society

To sum all of that up, the title of What Women Want ought to be ironic, but it isn’t. The title is apparently reminiscent of a question asked by Freud, but I think the movie may be inspired more by Christina Aguilera (they might have made a good Joan Crawford movie out of it though, circa 1942). Maybe this is the epitome of a movie that looks mildly daring to small-town fundamentalists and regressive to seen-it-all urban liberals. It’s a huge hit, so it must do the trick for someone. Maybe our views on gender differences, while progressing in some areas, just go round in circles on others (I used to think that the 1968 movie Guide for the Married Man and the 1972 The War Between Men and Women had titles and premises that would never be utilized nowadays, but I may have to reconsider).

It's rather mysterious to me that Helen Hunt would have made these two films in quick succession. She’s regarded as one of the more intelligent and perceptive actresses, so what would be the appeal of playing twice over a woman who’s little more than a vehicle for a man’s self-discovery? But they say Hollywood is a mirror of society, so maybe she’s on to something. Still, I would have thought that Ann Hulbert closed the issue off in a recent New York Times article: “What do women want? The answer…is obvious: everything. (Isn’t that what everyone wants?)” Might not sound so profound, and I think Altman was on to it, but it’s more than you’ll get from Mel Gibson.

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