A chromosome carol

Last week's No. 1 movie wants to know "What Women Want." How about a film that doesn't reduce women to empty thought bubbles?

By Amanda Fazzone

Published December 22, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

Just when you thought there wasn't any room for one more Scrooge, yet another film is cashing in on the perennial New Year's resolution to convert our inner Grinch to a humble, magnanimous Bob Cratchit. "What Women Want," packaged as a neo-feminist romantic comedy, is actually Dickens in disguise, complete with miraculous transformation scenes, emotional 180s and the Ghosts of Past, Present and Future. This time around, however, Scrooge looks like Mel Gibson, and the root of all evil isn't money -- it's misogyny.

A story in which a certified, Grade A beefcake like Gibson is magically endowed with the ability to hear what women are thinking is, as much as Santa and his reindeer, a fairy tale. And the backers at Paramount are, after opening weekend, $33.6 million closer to living happily ever after -- just like the characters in Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa's screenplay.

In the movie, Gibson's character wondrously learns what women want and reforms his chauvinistic behavior. But in contrast to the heartwarming holiday fare we're accustomed to slurping down like so much eggnog, "What Women Want" sends a dubious message: Women are incapable of verbalizing what they think. The logical extension of the film is that if we could articulate our thoughts we'd have little use for an inner Mel -- or any man. So why is this the No. 1 movie in America?

I guess that's what women want.

Listen up, men! If you could only listen in on our secret, innermost thoughts, you would hear us, as Mel does in the film, thinking about your penis, a lesbian kiss, the calorie count of various vegetables, your butt, Britney Spears, how long we should wait before calling you and how your lack of respect for our Ivy League education sent us into therapy. Now, I admit that at various points in my life I've pontificated on such subjects. But like the majority of my gender-mates, my inner dialogue tends to be slightly more complex than director Nancy Meyers could fit into her Jell-O mold of a movie. In her world, the average woman on the street has few, if any, thoughts on family, friends, work, money, politics or world peace.

But let's suppose, for just a minute, that Meyers were to remake the same movie but reverse the genders. The inner dialogues of Meyers' men would inevitably read like a dialectic characteristic of Beavis, Butt-Head, Bill, Ted or any similarly two-dimensional fella: "Dude, where's my remote?" or "Is Derek Jeter on Leno tonight?" he'd think while making out with his girlfriend. "I wonder how many cheeseburgers I can eat in an hour," he'd burp from the depths of a Laz-E-Boy recliner. Or, better yet, while meeting with his boss, he'd exclaim, "Oh! I just looked at her tits! Oh! I just looked at them again!" While men can embrace these stereotypes and revel in them, women actually had to work to overcome them. Yes, it's fun to laugh at base instincts and well-worn stereotypes, but it's also a bit depressing to see women reduced to empty thought bubbles.

In making this movie, Meyers, who herself has taken credit for "a sizable rewrite" of Yuspa and Goldsmith's script, had a chance to make an intelligent film about male-female relations, but instead gave us "What Women Will Put Up With to See Mel Gibson in a Chick Flick." You'd think, as I did, that a film coming from a director who wrote "Private Benjamin" would lean a little more in the direction of Gloria Steinem than this month's Cosmo quiz.

As many critics have observed, "What Women Want" walks the line between a male-fantasy movie and a female-fantasy movie, incorporating a sufficient level of high-fives, cigars, sex and Sinatra to elicit a "Yeahhhhhh!" from guys, and enough working-woman conflicts, clinical depression, prom dresses and bad first-time sex to make gals say, "Omigod, I totally relate." Writes USA Today's Susan Wloszczyna, "Director Nancy Meyers ("The Parent Trap") knows what women want at the movies: Mel with more kiss-kiss, less bang-bang."

But in Meyers' attempt to please both halves of the date-movie demographic, she objectifies men and women, giving neither sex the benefit of a doubt. Which makes me doubt why Meyers would want her daughters, ages 13 and 20, laughing when Mel listens to his secretaries' innermost thoughts and hears ... nothing.

Hey, it's fine with me if Hollywood wants to take a trip down memory lane for a Capra-esque morality tale based solely on 1950s male-female archetypes. Just don't inflict it on the men and women of tomorrow, all of whom can waltz right into this PG-13 movie and reinforce antediluvian gender stereotypes in a mere 127 minutes. But it's not solely the Tiny Tims of the world who would be ill advised to take "What Women Want" to heart.

Women in their 20s and 30s, the same age group that tunes in to "Ally McBeal" every week, are being force-fed the notion that a woman's mental imagery is more powerful and more real than her spoken words, leaving her no alternative but to keep them trapped inside her head. After all, isn't it a man's job to act on his impulses? Now, America's most popular movie (until the Christmas bombs drop today) is peddling the idea that what women don't say is more valuable and more marketable than what they do.

If this Mel Gibson-as-"Pretty Woman" fantasy resonates with so many women because the men in their life don't pay attention to their thoughts, the problem reaches beyond women not saying what they really think: They're not acting on it, either.

The tag line for "What Women Want" is, "Finally ... a man is listening," which implies that up until now, we women have been biding our time in class, waiting our chance to talk. Similarly, in the film, when the female characters change, it is only after Gibson changes his behavior. If not for his Scrooge-like transformation, we're left to imagine that they would have continued to kiss his ass -- all the while, thinking he is one. If Meyers' idea of what women actually have is the opposite of what they want, then we're all scrooged.

Amanda Fazzone

Amanda Fazzone is a writer living in New York.

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