Bonobos and chimpanzees have never loomed large in my critical thinking (except when trying to understand the primate-like sex appeal of Colin Farrell), but while contemplating from afar the strange spectacle of Jessica Alba being forced into klutz-dom in this weekend's latest (evidently hideous) romantic comedy release, an interview with primatologist Frans De Waal in the current issue of The Believer brought these monkeys to my attention.
I'll explain. First, a brief review: in case you've been out of the country for the past few years, the romantic comedy genre has been hijacked by a progression of man-boys, led by hearty scout leader Judd Apatow. From "About a Boy" through "Wedding Crashers" to the recent "Knocked Up," we've witnessed an ascension of major slackers and shlubs into the pilot's seat of what used to be sophisticated female-driven vehicles.
This has been much remarked upon, notably in an astute "What have we come to?" essay by David Denby in the New Yorker, but what's been less analyzed is the "How did we get here?" issue, and with it, a posing of the relevant question, "Where are the women?"
I've asked here on occasion who the next Julia Roberts might be, and why there doesn't seem to be a "new Meg Ryan." Now I'm beginning to think that the problem isn't so much the absence of a young female star who could fill those high heels (candidates are ubiquitous, from Rachel MacAdams to an on-the-cusp Emily Blunt) -- it's the apparent absence of interest, on our contemporary culture's part, in seeing an old-fashioned screwball-type strong female heroine on the screen.
Screenwriters, in this regard, are canaries in the cultural coal-mines. We tend to receive our concepts from the present-day ether. Just as a rash of sci-fi and horror pics in the late Fifties clearly articulated America's ambivalence and dread about both nuclear power and the Red Menace, it seems that nowadays we're seeing male point-of-view romantic comedies starring dudes who back in the day never would've gotten the girl, as an unconscious reaction to, for lack of a better word, feminism.
Hillary, love her or hate her, has a good shot. Women, glass ceiling considerations aside, are occupying traditionally male roles in nearly every walk of professional life. The idea of a two-career household is commonplace, and men having to answer to a female boss in the marketplace is no longer a screenwriter's comedic reversal. In this heyday of on-line dating, the original gag that powered the screwball era -- woman pursuing man -- is simply no longer funny. Is it any wonder that today's gender role-confused man would seek refuge in the kind of wish fulfillment fantasy that has gorgeous, sexy, well-salaried Katherine Heigl fall for a no-account nonentity like Seth Rogen?
Note, too, that today's romantic comedy heroine, while superficially an idealized romantic object, no longer has teeth. A Katherine Hepburn, Carole Lombard or Rosalind Russell wouldn't even look at a Seth Rogen, let alone date him, and if he got in her way, she'd most likely annihilate the poor schmuck with the kind of witty one-liner that poor Ms. Heigl isn't allowed to utter. As Denby points out:
The perilous new direction of the slacker-striver genre reduces the role of women to vehicles. Their only real function is to make the men grow up. That’s why they’re all so earnest and bland—so nice, so good. Leslie Mann (who’s married to Apatow) has some great bitchy lines as the angry Debbie, but she’s not a lover; she represents disillusion.
This reflection of our cultural moment -- the dearth of witty, powerhouse rom-com heroines as a result of women's increased power in a formerly man's world, stands to reason -- that is, until one remembers that the romantic comedy genre has traditionally been one that appeals to women. Fine to see 40 Year-Old Virgin, et al, as the new paradigm for a date movie... except, isn't the woman the one who supposedly picks the movie for the date?
Why, then -- and this question was recently put to me by a journalist who'd just seen Good Luck Chuck, the aforementioned Jessica Alba pic -- is the current rom-com heroine in a more traditional (i.e. female-driven) romantic comedy such a ditz, a klutz, such a frazzled, helpless Old School damsel in distress? What on earth makes the movie's (male) screenwriter think that this is the kind of leading lady that today's female audience wants to identify with?
What I theorized for her gained some ground when I read a fascinating article in this Sunday's New York Times: "Putting Money on the Table" byAlex Williams tells a sobering tale of women who, earning more than the men they go out with, have to pretzel-ize themselves into some pretty awkward positions if they want to have their date and keep him, too.
So as not to flaunt her own salary, Lori Weiss, a 29-year-old lawyer in Manhattan, has found herself clipping price tags off expensive clothes she buys on shopping binges, or hiding shopping bags in the closet just so men she was dating would not see them lying around and feel threatened by her spending power.
“A lot of guys don’t want to admit they have a problem with it,” she said, referring to income disparity. “They don’t want to be ‘that guy.’ But I think it’s ingrained.”
She said one boyfriend “wasn’t too comfortable with me paying for things” on dates, so to make him feel better, she would surrender to his wishes. The two would just “stay home and cook, or just get something cheap,” she said. “We’d skip a movie.”
Women said the income disparity becomes obvious in all facets of dating: where you live, what you like to do for fun and how you travel. It often comes down to minimizing who they are — successful, focused women — with their dates, who may be lagging a bit behind.
Maybe a girl interested in a guy, going to see a romantic comedy on their first or second date, might think twice, if concerned about his feelings, about picking a movie that puts its heroine in the power position. The article bears this out with another interesting insight:
Although these women often say it is men who have issues around their higher salaries, sometimes it is the women themselves who are uncomfortable with the role reversal.
...The discomfort over who pays for what seems to be not really about money, plain and simple. Instead, it is suggestive of the complex psychology of what many of these women expect from their dates (for him to be a traditional breadwinner) and what they think they should expect (Oh, I just want him to be a nice guy).
On a first date at a lounge in Hell’s Kitchen, Thrupthi Reddy, 28, a brand strategist in Manhattan, watched her date down several cocktails to her one, then not even flinch when she handed the waitress her credit card. Initially miffed, she recognized her own contradictions.
“You wonder if you’re being a hypocrite,” she recalled, “because all date long I’m telling him how independent I was, and how annoying it was that men wouldn’t date strong independent women.” (The relationship ended after six months.)
Reading the whole of Williams' piece made me wonder if Jessica Alba's klutziness wasn't merely the product of bad movie thinking. Is it possible that today's more independent and successful woman has a different kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy? Maybe they want to see a rom-com that stresses its heroine's vulnerabilities, so she can, once again, be rescued and taken care of, in the manner of The Way Things Used To Be.
The Believer's interview with De Waal talks about how bonobos, as opposed to chimpanzees, are not an aggressive species of monkey, and how the study of them has upset prevalent anthropological theories. Bonobos don't kill, De Waal explains, and:
Female bonobos collectively dominate the males, which probably also helps control aggression. So it's a female-dominated species, and a very sexy species, none of which fits the thinking of mostly male theoreticians.
BLVR: You tell a funny story in Our Inner Ape about a lecture in which you described the failure of male bonobos to fight and establish dominance over the females. An audience member raised his hand and asked: "Well, what's wrong with them? What's wrong with these male bonobos?"
Funny, yes, and very telling about the confused male and understandably conflicted females who came next in our evolutionary line. Apparently until the whole of us as a culture can deal with our current paradigm shift, we won't be able to have real-deal rom-com heroines on the screen.
Or maybe I'm just out on a limb reaching for one totally contrived banana. You tell me why you think Seth's such a happy camper, while Ms. Alba's taking pratfalls. Living RomCom wants to know.