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“But this weekend, the romantic comedy showed signs of life.”
This week, the above words broke through the monotony of film news. Did the ever rampant and rightly ridiculed genre finally get a wakeup call? Did Bridesmaids not only usher in a more friendly rom-com world for women, but also for cinematic diversity? It seemed so. After four weeks in the top spot, The Hunger Games was finally dethroned – not by the next sappy romance by Nicholas Sparks, but by the Steve Harvey-inspired rom-com Think Like a Man. The film’s $33 million box office take exceeded expectations by $10 million, proving that African American casts could command the box office and extend beyond the reaches of Tyler Perry fare to embrace a larger and more diverse audience.
The Atlantic piece quoted above argues that: “Its plot breaks from the romantic-comedy ‘sameness’ by showing couples’ struggles to stay together, not get together. By focusing on trying to stay in love rather than fall in love, the movie offers a radically different message about relationships than many of its rom-com cousins. Romantic bliss comes not from meeting the ideal person, the movie seems to say, but learning how to love an imperfect person.” Matched with the assertion that the film “eschews many of the genre’s most grating clichés,” that it pushes “back against the ‘sameness’ of romantic comedies,” and Think Like a Man starts to seem like more than its sexist title suggests.
Not even close. Think Like a Man is precisely what the title suggests – a romantic comedy filtered through a man doing his best to uphold a strict, antiquated division between the sexes. Though the Washington Post frames it as a rescue of “misogynist moralizing,” it’s a rom-com on a man’s terms, offering up the same manipulative, self-help hungry women that have flooded the genre for years, the same success-shaming and slut-shaming that’s become the norm. Contrary to the Atlantic piece, it does, indeed, show couples trying to get together and fall in love. It’s a film made to manipulate and alienate. Sony distribution president Rory Bruer has even gone so far as to say the film is successful not only because of its comedy, but because “people loved a humorous look at the difference between men and women.”
As much as fans of the film have been attacking critiques for taking it “too seriously,” the whole point of the film is to say that as much as you might shrug at the idea of a comedian talking about interpersonal politics, he’s right in his claims about men and women. We’re just lucky that the film noticeably tempers Harvey’s so-called insight. Nothing is simply left to Harvey’s advice. The film Powers That Be realize that the woman who imposes a ninety-day wait period for sex isn’t going to nab the player, so she’s given familial perks that lure the player in. Meanwhile, the Dreamer has the talent and monetary luck to make his dreams come true, and the Man Child has super skills and a girlfriend with connections to the company he wants to work for.
In Steve Harvey’s unadulterated world, however, where his “humor is always rooted in truth and full of wisdom,” women are the “prized possession” of the man they are committed to. “Real men” don’t vent – they listen “with purpose” and will issue death threats if his wife is disrespected because of a “primal need” to be a protector. The desirable woman must be, at once, sexy and appropriate. Sex is no different than working at Ford, and women who respect themselves won’t have sex quickly. A woman must have “a plan for her relationship life” and share it immediately. If she is too educated and independent, she should expect the man to sleep with her “and then walk away.” She should never move heavy objects, fix things, and must not “be afraid to make a meal or two.” She must act like a lady “at all times.” She should give up close male friends and marry her dad if she wants to keep her own last name because men “don’t care how important your dad’s name or your family name is to you.” And, of course, “Men cannot stand women who are not clean.”
Even without the more problematic aspects of Harvey’s tome, the film is rife with the same suffocating rationales that made films like The Ugly Truth insufferable. There is a tightrope these cinematic women have to walk in order to find happiness in their lives. The men and women are stereotypes unable to diverge from their narrow designation. The only real twist is that Harvey guides the women to become manipulative game players rather than chastising them for their manipulation. Rather than being direct or genuinely communicative, they must slyly influence the men until they get what they want – which, in this Hollywood world, will come to them in a nice, happily ever after package. It’s inevitable in a fictional world where complex human emotions are boiled down into ridiculous simplicities, where sexism is framed as insight.
Harvey argues that it’s simple, that men only need three things, to “profess, provide, and protect.” However, those three things as packed with an immense amount of baggage and expectation. As Entertainment Weekly rightly noted: “If anything can make you long for the hang-loose 1970s, it’s the prospect of looking for love in an era when dating is governed by more regimented thinking than the old Soviet Union.”
When James Brown sings about how this is “a man’s world” in the film’s first moments, it’s more than just an entry point in a film stressing the necessity to “think like a man.” It’s a creepy emblem for the overall problem. (Almost as creepy as the cameo by Chris Brown.) James Brown sings that the “man has made everything,” and that “it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing without a woman,” but it’s not just any woman. It’s a woman long manipulated by masculine power. The men in this film don’t need a woman, they need a woman who will follow Steve Harvey’s guidance, in a world where women fight over copies of the book to read his advice. The idea speaks to the world in general, let alone the far-reaching world of rom-coms, where a majority of this female-centric fare is created, helmed, and dictated by men. Rom-com “logic” is created by men looking for power, not innate truths about our species.
This is a film where the successful woman is shamed for her success, who is shown as a rigid and superficial woman who needs to lighten up. This is the film where a great girl is slut-shamed when she doesn’t wait ninety days before having sex. This is a film where masculinity is easily threatened and women are expected to navigate that fine line for basic respect.
It’s your everyday sexist rom-com, which also allows the film its one saving grace. Think Like a Man is “a studio-backed romantic comedy with a who’s who of young, attractive, talented African-American actors who aren’t relegated to thankless secondary roles.” It’s the one gleaming point of this cinematic experience. White actors fill the supporting roles, and instead of being framed as a niche production, it’s a mainstream hit. Talented actors whose skills are often overlooked are getting an opportunity to shine.
This is one hurdle in a longer race. One can only hope that the next tears down this rampant male desire to be the knowing God among women.