J.B.’s 12-year-old daughter wants to go to Fight Club . So does Carrie, the 14-year-old daughter of another friend. Both mothers ignored the request, hoping the film would go away … which it shows every sign of doing. Meanwhile, a number of late-teen and 20-something women report seeing and loving this saga of male bonding and battery. They seem to identify with its rage, and even derive perverse pleasure from the nasty little cult of men turning into secret brawlers.
Why would young females want to go to this über buddy-buddy flick that pointedly excludes them? It even blames single mothers for the emasculation of their sons and muses that perhaps, at the moment, “women are not what we need.” I’m wondering if this ties in with that apparently masochistic impulse that has pubescent girls dragging their parental overseers to R-rated teen pictures in which they are treated as way stations in the male rite of passage, objects of scorn or desire or revenge, obstructers or facilitators in the Holy Grail of guys getting laid. Movies like American Pie and Cruel Intentions .
We know the conventional wisdom-and, if we forget for an instant, Hollywood know-it-alls will remind us-that girls will watch movies or television shows about boys’ adventures but the latter will flee from Little Women or anything smacking of the dark continent of girlhood, as if it were a toxic waste designed to extinguish the vulnerable Y chromosome. At least in the high school gross-out genre, the boys want girls, even if what they want is more on the level of tutors or pets, a phase to be gotten through rather than an encounter with a full-fledged human being.
The tag line for American Pie is “There’s something about your first piece.” Trojan War details the search for a proper condom by a nerdy boy so that he may accomplish coitus with the blond babe who has summoned him to help her with her math homework. In Can’t Hardly Wait , a boy and a girl who detest each other are locked in a bathroom. A half-hour later, they are having sex. In real high schools, according to yet another anxious mother friend, a Presidential distinction is made between “sex” and fellating, with the latter being acceptable. She worries that girls, with their more hesitant and winding sexual development, are taking their cue from the behavior males project onto them, becoming-in their own desperate desire for attention-the service functionaries men want.
Actually Fight Club , David Fincher’s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s blisteringly sharp, satiric novel, is very funny for half of its overlong running time, until it goes into apocalyptic mode and directs the heavy artillery at everything from credit card capitalism to fat women with cellulite to private property as architects of the World Gone Wrong and ripe for destruction. Although all of these targets are to be found in the book, a witty if scattershot meditation on the alienation of men, they pass by swiftly, served up with a kind of deadpan irony so that even when the novel is being thoroughly repellent, its light tone mocks the maudlin tendencies of male self-pity and victimhood. What’s repellent in a book is at one remove-it’s in words-whereas the scatological excesses of the screen are viscerally creepy and ugly.
Is there something kinky about good girls that attracts them to bad boys? Or is it simply the appeal of two for the price of one, Edward Norton and Brad Pitt as cool male icons with little interference from poor Helena Bonham Carter, as a witchy chain-smoking wraith, skin the color of nicotine, who hovers over the proceedings like a stale cigarette. Made up and lit to accentuate her already sallow complexion, dressed like a bad day at the thrift shop, her wan presence seems only to confirm the contention that another woman is just what guys don’t need.
Back in the 70’s, when male pairs dominated the screen in movies like M.A.S.H. (Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland), The Towering Inferno (Steve McQueen and Paul Newman), Midnight Cowboy (Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight), Papillon (Mr. Hoffman and McQueen) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (the duo of the decade, Mr. Newman and Robert Redford), it gradually became clear that far from losing the female audience, these films actually profited from offering not one but two charismatic males. Helen Gurley Brown praised Butch Cassidy and The Sting as her favorite films of the 70’s (and I’m sure the pulses of many Cosmo girls beat in sympathy-so much for championing women’s roles).
About this time, a male friend was writing an article on soft-core porn films that required endless “research” in the theaters of 42nd Street. One of the staples of soft core, which precluded male nudity, were spectacles of women bobbing up and down playing volleyball or having sex. How could this appeal to men? I inquired, to which my informant reported that he and the solitary patrons of the genre actually preferred it: You got two for the price of one, and no competing male figure. In The Sting , there was no female to obstruct the view of Newman-Redford, and in Butch Cassidy , Katharine Ross’ schoolteacher was more a lovely token (or beard?) than a vibrant protagonist.
I called Caroline, whose mother, an old friend, has been increasingly vexed by Hollywood’s presentation of casual sex as the norm among the younger set. This mom is also dismayed that her smart 13-year-old, once a fan of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice , now wants to look at teen movies and nothing else. In fact, Caroline was in the midst of watching the film of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (“it’s good but not as good as the TV show”), but she was adamant that most of the movies were not the horrors of her mother’s imagining.
She maintained they had spirited female characters and the “players” (“boys who make out with lots of girls”) were rare and not particularly attractive in the end. She especially liked Ten Things I Hate About You (a modernization of Taming of the Shrew ) and She’s All That (“It’s My Fair Lady “(Shakespeare and Shaw sneaking in through the back door?) As to the message of free and easy sex: “My mom and I have a difference of opinion,” she said, an edge creeping into her voice. “She thinks these ideas are accepted as reality. They most definitely are not!”
Of course, Caroline is still in the protective bower of a girls prep school, but maybe things aren’t so bad after all, and the next generation is not going to sexist hell in a handbasket. Maybe little girls have more gumption than we give them credit for.