Romances: More Than Meets the Eye

“Every woman has the exact love life she wants,” says Nick, the brooding male escort in the film (and the Elizabeth Young book) The Wedding Date. This quote seems to get as much treatment by the movie critics as the whole rest of the film. The statement is described as everything from misogynistic and Republican to condescending, disturbing and maudlin. According to several reviewers, over 90% of those who watched the film in theatres were women. Most of them either loved it or loathed it, though even a lot of its fans gave it only a 6 or 7 out of ten, as if they were embarrassed by it. This timidity, and a block of 1-out-of-10 ratings by outraged viewers who mostly ranted that the plot didn’t make sense, reduced the average IMDb rating for the film to 5.3. Ninety percent of the (mostly-male) film critics panned it.

I loved it, but then I’m a sucker for romances. I also loved these films (IMDb average ratings in brackets):

  • Ever After (6.9)
  • Home for the Holidays (6.3)
  • How to Make an American Quilt (5.7)
  • Loving Evangeline (5.6)
  • Mr. Wonderful (5.8)
  • Mystic Pizza (6.0)
  • Stealing Beauty (6.2)

These films have the following in common, besides being romances: (1) The leading protagonist is an adult female, (2) Action and plot is secondary to character and relationship, and there is no dependence on violence for drama, and (3) They were written (or at least co-written) by women.

Lots of romances, some of them quite good, are written by men, and they almost invariably get better reviews. The average rating of all movies on IMDb is 6.9. For some reason implausible plots don’t seem to be as much an issue when the main protagonist of the film is a male, or when the story was written by a male. Take a look at IMDb’s top 50 romance films of all time and you’ll look in vain for a single film written by a woman in the last half-century. While this is largely due to the long-standing patriarchy in Hollywood, it is also due to an inherent bias among movie-goers against what are disparagingly called “chick-flicks”.

In most of the above films, the males are a little two-dimensional, and this clearly riles a lot of critics and reviewers. (No matter than in 90% of mainstream movies, the female characters are one-dimensional.) The point of romances is to explore the feelings and relationships of the main characters. A film doesn’t have enough bandwidth to richly develop a lot of characters, so by necessity some of the characters need to be left underdeveloped. That doesn’t mean they are stereotypes: It is left up to the imagination of the viewer to fill in the details as they wish. (Remember when moviegoers were actually required to use their imagination?)

As I mentioned in my article last month on the bias against women’s literature, part of the value many women reportedly get from fiction is “guidance” (men instead read mostly for “excitement”). While the majority of men separate their reading and movie-viewing into ‘information’ (non-fiction) and ‘entertainment’ (fiction), many women look for and find both in a single vehicle, and one such vehicle is romance fiction. When I watch these films, I find they inform me about how women think and what women want, and they also teach me about how people deal with unhappiness, with problems, with loneliness and tragedy and self-doubt. Dealing with these things is extremely difficult, women appreciate that, and good romance writers understand the rules of story and fable. Accordingly, romances invariably have a happy ending, because the protagonists have earned it — the moral encourages women to keep fighting the good fight, to accept and understand but not despair.

Why don’t most men get this? I think it’s because to them, a film is almost a purely visual feast. The action, the special effects, the female eye-candy are all there to sate the hunger for retinal-visceral stimulus, the addiction to adrenaline. They find the plot holes distracting and unsettling — the plot is the continuity vehicle that sustains and justifies their gorging on non-stop visual overload. And they entirely miss the aural and body language messages of the film. This is far too subtle for them. They aren’t paying attention to the tone of voice, the eye language, the facial expressions and body contortions that convey so much. They aren’t listening to the words. No wonder they find films like this so unsatisfying. They learn nothing.

I have never been a Debra Messing fan, but I found her performance in The Wedding Date riveting. She displays far more breadth of emotion here than her stereotype TV sitcom role allowed. She imbues her character with depth, sensitivity, and fragility, and delivers every line with nuance and power. I was just blown away. If we could just get more roles like this, written and directed and performed by women with such talent, we might even be able to save Hollywood from its long decline into banality and irrelevance.

But women’s voices, wisdom and ideas are not just suppressed and unheard in the movies. They are under-represented and under-appreciated in business and in politics, where most decisions are made. This is a tragedy because most women seem to understand, better than most men, the difficulty of changing things, that things are the way they are for a reason, that acceptance is a sign of wisdom, not laziness or cowardice, and that most issues in life are complex. Because of that appreciation, they would almost undoubtedly be better decision-makers than men in both business and politics. Their decisions would be better balanced and nuanced than the decisions that are being made now in corporate head offices, legislatures, courts of final appeal, back rooms and war rooms by a mostly-male cast.

The paradox is that, perhaps because women understand that most decisions made by upper echelons of hierarchies are doomed to failure (because such decisions attempt to apply simple or complicated solutions to complex problems), women tend not to aspire to such decision-making authority (and many women who do, seem to emulate predominant male worldviews and thinking styles).

Women know no one is really in control of complex systems, so they are less likely to aspire to positions of control, power and authority in such systems. They know wars don’t solve anything and usually make situations worse. They know centralization breeds bureaucracy, dysfunction and waste. They know small is beautiful, and more effective. They know growth is not sustainable. They know edicts don’t work, and that the only way you change minds is by showing people a better way. They know how important it is to listen, and to pay attention to non-verbal messages if you want to really communicate. They appreciate the value of conversation, of consensus, of presence.

How do they come to know this, when so many men remain ignorant of it? Perhaps they are, either biologically or by education, more ‘sensually acute’ and grounded, and hence less prone to be distracted by abstraction, and therefore live a more ‘real’ life in the real world, here, now. Perhaps they have learned from history that power corrupts and idealism leads to demagogy, and that therefore it makes sense to be realistic, modest and practical rather than ideological, aggressive, and ambitious.

Or perhaps they have just observed that, in the long run and despite all appearances and mythologies, real enduring change comes from open, honest one-on-one exchange of ideas and information, and not from anything else. That is what we see in romance films — small changes, modest important learnings, and making the world just a tiny bit better by payingattention, being real, working hard, and doing what you can.

Followed by happy endings.

I give that approach a 10 out of 10.

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10 Responses to Romances: More Than Meets the Eye

  1. Meg says:

    I was totally offended by the notion that a woman needed a date so badly that she had to hire a gigolo — a gigolo who proceeded to be suave and love-educational. And even if he really fell in love and she really fell in love, and even if in the end, we learned that such arrangements are bad ideas, it all ended well, right?Pretty Woman redux.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Well, that’s interesting, and maybe that explains why the film put some people off. My take was that she hired him to show off to her mother and ex-boyfriend, not because she was ‘desperate’. That may be a contrivance, and it might have been better if he’d been a FOAF, or even someone she just met on the plane, instead of a commercial hire, but it didn’t particularly bother me — maybe I need to ask myself why.I do agree with you on Pretty Woman, however. I found it highly offensive, misogynistic and a degradation of the classic Pygmalion story.

  3. DaB says:

    Women have to stop working so hard to please men and start considering themselves as competitors. Women tend to nestle into the lives of men rather than building their own notion of life. I have three children and an ex who treated me like my efforts were meaningless…. even though I took care of everything. I felt I was doing it all four years before I left him but he felt he had some right to have the life he did, without conscience. The immediate influences in my life supported him because he was male and despite the level of education and esteem held by these individuals there was this overwhelming need to suppress any desire I had to be strong or free. It was an uphill battle, with many insults and discouraging innuendo but I held strong, particularly for my two daughters who needed to see their Mom defend herself. Where I was expected to earn a living, learning everything from bookkeeping to trading stocks, while at the same time raise my kids and keep the house, I was valued as nothing more than a maid. It is unbelievable how deeply engrained protecting the male place is within society. With police, child protective services, the courts…. It is shocking for the idealist! It never seemed to matter what he did or what he said there was a need to protect him and discount me(at the same time the children). The pity so many took on him even though he contributed nothing and was so verbally and physically brutal. It was shocking and discouraging….The Wedding Date is great for women to watch. It is great to have control sometimes, if only in fiction. And sometimes that is enough to carry us over for a time, get us through a slump!

  4. Alvin says:

    Have you seen the American series ‘Commander in Chief’? It’s about a female president in the white house.I’ve only started watching it so I can’t say anything about it, but you might want to check it out :)

  5. Candy Minx says:

    Dave, how your mind works is fascinating…I never would have looked at the movie business in quite the same way. I always find such a wake up when I come to read your bog.I loved The Wedding Date. I though Messing was incredible and lively more so than on her hit tv show. she was like a real movie star quality and charming film precence. I liked that she had all the money and I love mistaken identity plots and secrets…I thought this worked ona ll kinds of levels, almost Shaespeare format.

  6. Derek says:

    I typically don’t get to see many movies that don’t involve Piglet, Tigger and Pooh; so I can’t speak to the level of movies being aimed at adults these days; but I have to say that by in large, the same qualities you outline in regards to how men watch movies, applies to how we live the rest of our lives. I’m very self centered, I don’t notice others, and I rarely have any clue what’s going on around me. I’ve never had a male friend notice when I’ve gotten a hair cut, but the women always do. I could live my days just celebrating one holiday a year (and maybe the kids birthdays), but my wife has laid out a list of events (like valentines days) that I am not to miss (under threat of dire consequences).The women around me do their part to hold the universe together, as is it, while me and the other men try to change it at the same time. I suspect letting us run amok without any hesitation would be a mistake, but I also suspect leaving things as they are without any pushing at the boundaries would also be bad.

  7. Raging Bee says:

    …most women seem to understand, better than most men, the difficulty of changing things, that things are the way they are for a reason, that acceptance is a sign of wisdom…Wow…what a brilliant throwback to the rhetoric of the old-school male-chauvanist: “Women are smart to accept the status quo and not bother their pretty little heads with all that rough and dirty complexity us guys have to deal with every day. That’s why we have to keep them out of power. That’s also why they’re the only people who can be trusted to raise our kids and change their diapers.”…women tend not to aspire to such decision-making authority (and many women who do, seem to emulate predominant male worldviews and thinking styles).Straight from the nineteenth century: “Real women don’t aspire to do men’s work, and those who do are too mannish, victims of penis-envy, lesbians, or there’s something else wrong with them, so they don’t really count.”Because of that appreciation, they would almost undoubtedly be better decision-makers than men in both business and politics. Their decisions would be better balanced and nuanced than the decisions that are being made now in corporate head offices, legislatures, courts of final appeal, back rooms and war rooms by a mostly-male cast.Got any historical or statistical evidence to prove that? How do the examples of Margaret Thatcher, Indira Ghandi, Angela Merckel, Catherine the Great, Joan of Arc, Boudicca, and (in a far lower league) Ellen Sauerbrey figure in your reasoning?This is the silliest post you’ve made so far. Are you still calling yourself “progressive,” or “nostalgic?”

  8. Meg says:

    Dave, she hired a hooker because she needed to keep up appearances. Pretty Woman to a T.The hooker taught her important life lessons. Pretty Woman to a T.But, in a radical twist, the hooker is a boy! And totally wooden as far as characterization!If you need to bring a man somewhere to impress anyone, you are better off staying home. Relationships and romance should never begin or end as transactions, and there’s nothing romantic or inspiring about it.

  9. Brian says:

    I agree with Raging Bee…. this post was at-large a bunch of BS. Way over-glorifying of women, as if all of the world’s problems are just because of men. Women don’t believe in hierarchy? Where are you getting this stuff from?

  10. Raging Bee says:

    Brian: I especially liked the bit about how women believe that “growth is not sustainable.” Yeah, right, tell that to a woman who’s trying to raise kids: she’ll be wanting LOTS of growth so she and/or her husband will have jobs, and the kids will be able to pay their own way after they’ve left the nest.The “edicts don’t work” bit was funny too. My mom had all kinds of edicts about how I should behave, and they worked pretty well.

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