Ever since Eve pointed at a divine red delicious and Adam snaffled the apple for himself, relations have been frosty between men and women. Innumerable sleepless nights have been given over to wondering, “Women: what do they want and how can we give it to them?” Of all the things to have been spawned from a single rib, women are surely the hardest to please.
Turns out, different women want different things. This may seem obvious now, but just like the discovery of gravity by Isaac Newton and electricity by Benjamin Franklin, acquiring groundbreaking knowledge about the fairer sex was a process as painful as childbirth (probably).
The 2000 release of Mel Gibson rom-com What Women Want marked the dawn of a new era in inter-gender relations. Forget Simone De Beauvoir, throw out your Mary Wollstonecraft. The entertainingly frothy What Women Want is the foundation of female liberation in the 21st century, and, naturally, it’s all thanks to a man who’s granted the gift of hearing women’s thoughts.
The film opens with an ex-wife gushing over her former spouse as the zenith of masculinity. According to the misty-eyed divorcee, he’s “a man’s man”, which sounds like a euphemism akin to “batting for the other team,” but it’s not. Whoever this guy is, he’s the opposite of gay. He’s straight and he likes his women like he likes his coffee: by the bag-full, instant, etcetera, etcetera.
Nick Marshall is the man, myth and legend. His secretary (Sarah Paulson) warns an incoming colleague that Marshall is the “least politically correct guy.” Enter Mel Gibson as Marshall, an Ad Man in Chicago whose recurring creative motif is to depict a bikinied lady holding whichever product his company is trying to sell. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?
As Marshall winks at hotties and shuns the notties, his ex-wife fills in the blank of his past. Marshall’s mother was a showgirl in Vegas, and as a result he grew up in the dressing rooms abundant with glamorous beauties, all of whom became Marshall’s bosom buddies. This charmingly presented back-story is supposed to account for Marshall’s behavior, though not all chauvinists were raised in showgirls’ dressing rooms: some merely walk through them without permission in later life.
Unlike 50s pop songs about young girls developing into women and aging well, What Women Wants has aged well, and is rather perky for a rom-com that’s 17-years-old. This is because Marshall’s dinosaur character is sadly not extinct, and he makes for a compelling anti-hero at the start of the film. He’s a rich bad-dad bachelor, whose frequent wiggling of sunglasses, deep voice, and over-the-top facial expressions count as charisma. Marshall is a man who believes his own myth, and alas, his utter self- conviction means that others buy into it too, men and women alike. Annoying it may be, but it’s also believable.
After the pride comes the fall. Dressed in all black like a strutting sexist raven, Marshall crows to everyone at the office about his upcoming promotion. But when he meets with Dan Wanamaker (Alan Alda), the company CEO, Marshall learns that the Creative Director role he covets has been given to somebody else, and to add insult to injury, she’s only a woman: Darcy McGuire (Helen Hunt).
Things take a humorous turn when Marshall goes home to lick his wounds and gets absolutely blotto. Glugging merlot, he declares “There’s too much oestrogen on TV these days. The cure is Frank.” Frank isn’t the street name for testosterone, it’s what Marshall calls kindred spirit Frank Sinatra. Ol’ Blue Eyes fills the apartment, and Marshall proceeds to give a genuinely impressive drunken dance routine for the benefit of nobody but his shadow.
The big band music of Sinatra and his peers soundtracks the entirety of What Women Want. Not only are the songs catchy and light, but they also reveal the kind of intoxicating nostalgia that Marshall holds as a credo; a longing for the days gone-by when women were broads, and everything was in black-and-white (a mindset to which Mel Gibson might possibly relate). Having been tasked by McGuire to develop an advertising campaign for women, Marshall grapples with both modernity and various products made for women, including stockings, nail varnish, bath beads, and a wonderbra. He samples them all at once in a drunken rite of passage.
In what is essentially an inverse of the glass ceiling phenomenon, Marshall slips on the female-friendly bath beads scattered on the floor, dragging the hairdryer into the bath, having just uttered, moments before, the magic words: “What Do Women Want?” Perhaps his sudden demise, one might venture.
When he wakes up frazzled the next day, somehow still alive, Marshall has acquired an incredible ability/curse: he can hear the inner-most thoughts of women, and also, French poodles (gentle xenophobia or sexism—you decide!)
The viewer hears what only Marshall can hear, and delights in his maddening isolation. Director Nancy Meyers, whose credits include Something’s Got To Give and, most recently, The Intern, does a good job of making sure the various streams of consciousness don’t overwhelm each scene. The script is funny for the most part, and the majority of the film’s best lines come from the inner-thoughts of random women wandering past Marshall, biting their tongue but articulating their scorn. It’s effective and entertaining, owing something of its flavour to the subtitled scenes of Annie Hall.
Marshall is taken aback by how many women think he’s a low-life chauvinist, bringing to mind a line from The Office: “How can I hate women, my Mum was one?” For the first time in his life he is forced to pay attention to his female colleagues’ situations. Among the plethora of problems is his secretary’s feeling undervalued (she long-distance calls her Israeli boyfriend from the office as revenge) and a mousey administrative assistant who internally toys with the idea of suicide.
Hearing about the woes of women is too much for Marshall and he seeks to re-electrocute himself back to normality. When this doesn’t work he pays a visit to his old marriage counsellor, played by Bette Midler. Initially sceptical, she enthuses over his new ability: “Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars and you speak Venusian,”basically making him a high-level Scientologist without paying full fees. The counsellor continues: “Freud went to his grave asking himself ‘What do women want?'” This is something of poetic licence on the part of Josh Goldsmith’s script; Freud’s last question was more likely, “Where can I score some coke?” Still, it’s an amusing shrink scene.
Enlightened to the scope of his powers, Marshall becomes a dirty thought perve, spying on all the ladies’ thoughts to his own advantage. He manipulates his estranged daughter into liking him, women into sleeping with him, and his boss into admiring his ideas; in fact, he swipes McGuire’s ideas from the cusp of her synapses, abusing her understandable hesitancy in the male-dominated advertising industry.
What Women Wants certainly has its blind spots. There is one person of colour with a speaking line, and she’s hyper-sexualised, so the film’s more about what white women supposedly want, and middle class ones at that. Incredibly, in this regard, What Women Want makes Mad Men look like an example of positive discrimination in action.
Then again, there are a few PC delights buried within; not least Mel Gibson saying “I’m gay,” like a real man’s man, and another quick moment where he thanks his secretary’s Jewish boyfriend for the gift of a Yarmulke. Gibson treats aside, the film peddles a blatant untruth about women that shouldn’t be tolerated in the 21st century; whenever a woman kisses Marshall, the woman kicks up one leg like a horse that’s just been fed a sugar cube. When will the world be free of this cinematic cliché?
The overall message of What Women Want is in some ways a little depressing. After all, it takes an extraordinary, fictional power in order for one idiot man to overcome his sexism and gain some empathy. In this way, there’s a Christmas Carol element to What Women Want, though instead of cooking a big turkey for the women of the world, Marshall settles on dolling out some respect instead. The film heads towards an ending that is both progressive yet dissatisfying, perhaps an appropriate parallel with the achievements of the feminist movement. Is this as good as it gets? Let’s hope not.