It's not for nothing that, according to charts on boxofficemojo.com, the second most popular (i.e. biggest moneymaking) romantic comedy of all time is called What Women Want, a movie which suggests that the answer may be: Mel Gibson. (Another possible answer to this age-old query, most famously voiced by Freud, may be found within the title of the number one box office-successful rom-com: My Big Fat Greek Wedding -- but I'm kidding, of course... Right?)
Figuring out what the female of the species is after, really, has been a challenge for men, and a human preoccupation for all of us since the Stone Age (somewhere in the cave paintings of Lascaux, I'll wager, there's a portrait of a red-faced Cro-Magnon guy holding his freshly-beaten head in confusion as an angry Cro-Magnon woman shows him the cave-door). And it's certainly been a focus of the romantic comedy genre since the silent era. This is why, as a sort of public service, Living RomCom would like to virtually turn over its post-space this week to another writer and his subject.
What Do Women Want? Discovering What Ignites Female Desire is a fascinating article from the NY Times by Daniel Bergner about the work of a number of women researching this subject: psychology professor Meredith Chivers, sexologist Lisa Diamond, and professor of psychology Marta Meana, along with some eminent male counterparts.
It should surprise no one, I suppose, that Bergner finds more additional questions than answers in this field, or, more aptly, these woods:
“I feel like a pioneer at the edge of a giant forest,” Chivers said, describing her ambition to understand the workings of women’s arousal and desire. “There’s a path leading in, but it isn’t much.”
I'm not going to attempt to summarize this lengthy, in-depth report, beyond noting the inevitable contradictions that surface between ostensible experts, who not only occasionally disagree about fundamental approaches and findings, but at times knowingly contradict themselves. After all, this is extremely complicated stuff:
“The horrible reality of psychological research,” Chivers said, “is that you can’t pull apart the cultural from the biological.”
The biological and the chemical roots of feminine desire get a thorough investigation, although...
Among [Lisa Diamond's] answers, based partly on her own research and on her analysis of animal mating and women’s sexuality, is that female desire may be dictated — even more than popular perception would have it — by intimacy, by emotional connection.
The generally accepted therapeutic notion that, for women, incubating intimacy leads to better sex is, Marta Meana told me, often misguided. “Really,” she said, “women’s desire is not relational, it’s narcissistic” — it is dominated by the yearnings of “self-love,” by the wish to be the object of erotic admiration and sexual need.
In terms of relevance to screenwriters, I found this particular paragraph of Meana's intriguing:
Yet while Meana minimized the role of relationships in stoking desire, she didn’t dispense with the sexual relevance, for women, of being cared for and protected. “What women want is a real dilemma,” she said. Earlier, she showed me, as a joke, a photograph of two control panels, one representing the workings of male desire, the second, female, the first with only a simple on-off switch, the second with countless knobs. “Women want to be thrown up against a wall but not truly endangered. Women want a caveman and caring. If I had to pick an actor who embodies all the qualities, all the contradictions, it would be Denzel Washington. He communicates that kind of power and that he is a good man.”
At last -- a theory for why there were all those up-against-the-wall sex scenes in the '80s and '90s! Though it doesn't explain Denzel's dearth of romance/rom-com projects...
But this is only a fraction of the fertile food for thought Bergner's article presents. I'd suggest that anyone interested in sexuality, gender, and That Whole Mind-Body Thing give this piece a careful read.
After all, if there's one thing women want -- I don't think I'm going too far out on a limb here -- it's for us to give them their due attention.