Sex, Love and Videotape

On movie sex and movie love...

What women want

YEAR: 2001
DIRECTOR: Nancy Meyers
KEY ACTORS: Mel Gibson, Helen Hunt, Marisa Tomei
CERTIFICATE: 12
IMDB SCORE: 6.4/10
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 54%

SEX SCORE: 1/5
Not sex positive – I suspect this was supposed to be sex positive – or at least vaguely feminist – but it hasn’t aged well at all and the male gaze is too infuriating for it to count.
I don’t particularly want to watch this again – I fear that it will only age further…
It didn’t inspire any fantasies – it’s more of a romance than a sexual film, but it’s certainly not a romantic trope that I’d like to be involved in: misogynist undermines professional woman, almost destroying her career, and yet she falls in love with him anyway!?
I don’t want to fuck Mel Gibson. Helen Hunt, maybe, but not enough for a point…
✔️ Somehow this does pass the Bechdel test, but I’m giving the mark very begrudgingly – women talk to each other about something other than men but they rarely both have names and are almost always interrupted by men. Urgh.

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: YouTube (from £2.99), Amazon Prime (free with subscription)

[Content warning: this contains brief mentions of sexual assault and discusses potential non-consensual sex]

A poster for What Women Want showing Mel Gibson smiling forward with Helen Hunt looking passed him

I wish I could remember how What Women Want came across in 2001 when it was released. Eighteen years is a long time but this film feels like a million miles from current acceptability and it seems inconceivable that it was made this century, let alone that it became the second highest grossing romantic comedy of all time! When I added this film to my list, I wrote ‘#MeToo’ next to it as I feel this should be shown to anyone who doubts how difficult men can make life for women – professionally, socially, romantically, publicly. It’s essentially a public information video!

Because Mel Gibson’s Nick Marshall is awful. Was he seen as the hero he thinks he is back in 2001 or did we notice how fucking awful he is? Luckily it seems that reviews at the time were similarly appalled, with Salon stating the film ‘does nothing but condescend’ women and should be seen as ‘an intriguing if ugly little nugget of social history,’ but I was still shocked at how far it went. In the opening scene and subsequent long walk to his office, Nick is condescending, patronising and dismissive. He literally sexually assaults a women, ‘accidentally’ grabbing her breasts, he harasses another, and men are shown to be in awe of his prowess. Less than 15 minutes in and I already feel like I need a shower…

This really bothers me as I don’t think Nick was intended to be such a monumental twat and the Guardian review at the time even felt that ‘from the outset, it is made crystal clear that he is supposed to be lovable.’ He isn’t an evil figure who is shown the error of his ways; he’s a normal, pretty cool guy who becomes heroic – and gets the girl.

Mel Gibson holding items from a box including a bra

My dislike of this film can be summed up by a quote from Nick’s therapist: ‘If you know what women want, you can rule.’ Not help them, not make their lives easier, not act in a more empathetic and understanding fashion towards his equals; he could rule. Urgh, really?

The more I watched, the more I became convinced that the writers of this film don’t actually like women. They certainly aren’t doing us any favours once they ‘reveal’ what we’re thinking – it’s all stereotypes or weak attempts at humour. Women are shown to be constantly calorie counting, anxious or rude. They also seem to be either secret lesbians or attracted to Gibson’s character, further emphasising his value. Oh, and don’t forget that his secretaries have no thoughts at all. Hahahaha, how funny to belittle women in the work place. (This film made me really angry!)

It made me so angry because the depiction of professional women is exactly what we have spent decades trying to undo. It is the Patriarchy writ large, emphasising that women just aren’t as good as men professionally. In 2001. I may be accused of missing the joke…but the redemptive arc did nothing to fix this particular discrepancy.

Whether their thoughts demonstrated frustration or suppressed intelligence, the humour and plot devices serve to undermine the female characters rather than uplift them. Nick’s assistant silently screams in her thoughts about how over qualified she is to be getting him coffee, but he doesn’t promote her – he encourages her to move her boyfriend to the USA from Israel. He gives Judy Greer’s file clerk a better job only when she decides to kill herself. He never appears to change his general opinion of women in the work place, just gains more respect for a select few and gossips with a few more. The fact that he eventually realised how good Darcy is at her job remains the exception rather than his new rule.

Helen Hunt is holding a poster board and looking over at Mel Gibson

Before this realisation, Helen Hunt’s character, Darcy, is particularly poorly served and I hate that she is used to confirm all the awful stereotypes that professional women face. She is literally hired because she is a woman, not because she is the best candidate, and her ‘competition’ (Nick) is told this. What a way to undermine her before she starts! She is also described as a ‘bitch on wheels,’ a very lazy criticism of a professional woman, despite clearly being charming and empathetic once we meet her. I couldn’t help but worry that hearing her anxious and self-depreciating thoughts undermines her further, revealing her insecurities. Does it make her more real and a better role model to know how much she worries about being taken seriously? Or is it fuel to the misogynistic fire that claims women aren’t fit for such professional responsibilities?

A publicity shot of Helen Hunt

It is also such a cliche of gender inequality that men repeat exactly what their female colleagues have said and are given all the credit, and here Nick goes further by stealing their ideas before they’ve even said them out loud. I would have loved to have seen him hear a good idea and encourage the thinker to speak up more, using the fact that his voice will be heard to promote them like a proper ally, even if this had to happen after his epiphany. He literally never used his gift for anything but selfish pursuits.

This is never more clear than when he uses his psychic ability during sex, and using these abilities does raise questions about consent. In two situations, Nick hears thoughts that contradict what the women say out loud – Marisa Tomei’s character Lola thinks regret about turning him down and Darcy pleads in her head for him to ask her inside after a date. I ranted in the Fifty Shades post about how we have to trust the words spoken to us, not whatever clues may be drawn from body language, but does this apply to thoughts? Obviously it’s a hypothetical question but it is an interesting one. Do we ever think in our best interests? I know I let my thoughts and desires run free in directions that I’d never want in reality and would hate to think these are being used to discount my well considered spoken words. I’d go as far as to say that we have as much control over our thoughts as we do our bodily responses (i.e. not very much!) so I’m inclined to feel that Nick is unfairly manipulating the situation in his favour by using these women’s thoughts as an excuse to act. Is it consensual when he has this kind of power?

It feels particularly invasive for Lola as her overheard fears match exactly what happens, despite still desiring him in her thoughts. She turns him down initially as she’s worried about getting hurt, fears he uses to make himself seem like a more sensitive man, and then he forgets and discards her after they fuck, just as she knew he would! Yet she’s portrayed as a crazy girl. We shouldn’t be criticised for having ‘crazy’ thoughts – it’s our words and actions that count and Lola’s were ignored. She tried to protect herself and she was overruled.

This rant is getting away from me so I have just one more thing to say about hearing women’s thoughts during sex. Isn’t it interesting that when he listens and responds to what Lola wants, the sex is incredible. He is even declared a sex god! Can you think of better proof that women should speak up more and men should listen more?

I think it’s safe to say that this film has not aged well! But a recent article by the AV film club suggests that it feels so upsetting now as Nick’s redemption arc is too familiar to that of Mel Gibson himself following his own #MeToo disgrace. Gibson went from anti-Semitic drunk whose career appeared to be over after recordings of violent threats to his girlfriend were discovered to being welcomed back with open arms following his nomination for the Academy Award for best director in 2016 for Hacksaw Ridge. He is described as a ‘blueprint for “a #MeToo comeback,” which other publicly disgraced men can now follow.’ The bar for Nick’s redemption is hilariously low – he forgets his daughter’s prom but is a hero for being called to rescue her there, he costs Darcy her job but is a good man worthy of her love for admitting to lying and getting her job back – and it doesn’t seem like it’s enough. As with these men ‘recovering’ from accusations of sexual assault, their penance is rarely enough.

So what do women want? We just want to be heard.

Next week: Eyes Wide Shut

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

1 Comment

  1. I couldn’t agree more. I have always hated this film, and believed it to be patriarchal twaddle dressed up as feminism. The filmic representation of the wolf in sheep’s clothing! Love your take on it, and delighted to have discovered your blog today ?

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