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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Separate but equal?

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I am finally getting around to responding to the provocative column written by Maureen Dowd last month. It appeared a full month ago in The New York Times, but in my defense I didn’t get around to reading it until two weeks later when it appeared in The Bakersfield Californian. Coincidentally, a running gag in the early monologues of the late Johnny Carson was how backward and behind the times Bakersfield is, as payback for the less than stellar reception his act got there in his early days, so it is somehow appropriate that I was two weeks late reading the column because I was in Bakersfield. And it is further appropriate that I was delayed in responding because, among other things, I was writing about the passing of Johnny Carson.

Anyway, the reason Dowd’s column caught my attention was that she dragged movies into it. I enjoy reading her because, like her Times colleague Frank Rich, she often mixes popular culture with political and social issues. I like to do this myself, so it is always a pleasure to see someone do it better. What sparked this particular Dowd commentary was an offhand remark by “a very beautiful actress” she met at a White House dinner. (That’s why Dowd is more interesting to read than I am. I never. get invited to the White House.) The blurted remark was as follows: “I can’t believe I’m 46 and not married. Men only want to marry their personal assistants or PR women.” Dowd then launches into a harangue about how “famous and powerful” men seem to get romantically involved mainly with “secretaries, assistants, nannies, caterers, flight attendants, researchers and fact-checkers.”

Now, at this point, it would be tempting to speculate about why Dowd seems so zealous about this issue. (Fact-checker? In what kind of profession would successful men be dealing with fact-checkers?) But I won’t go there, since I know virtually about Dowd’s private life and it’s not the least bit relevant. Besides, I’ve done enough harm by mentioning that I’m not mentioning it.

Dowd then shifts the discussion to movies and mourns the good old days when Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy gave off romantic sparks that were generated by the fact that they were equals. She compares this to more recent movies, like Spanglish, in which Adam Sandler falls for “his hot Mexican maid,” and Love Actually, in which British prime minister Hugh Grant falls for “the chubby girl who wheels the tea and scones into his office.” In the same movie, she notes, married Alan Rickman falls for “his sultry secretary” and Colin Firth falls for “his maid, who speaks only Portuguese.” (She omits what could be the best example of her thesis: in Pretty Woman, Richard Gere falls for Julia Roberts, who works in the ultimate service industry.) Her whole tirade gets summed up thusly: “So, was the feminist movement some sort of cruel hoax? The more women achieve, the less desirable they are? Women want to be in a relationship with guys they can talk to seriously—unfortunately, a lot of those guys want to be in a relationship with women they don’t have to talk to.”

First problem: Who ever said that the feminist movement had anything to do with how desirable women are? I thought that this was the point: that a woman’s worth shouldn’t be dependent on how desirable she is to the opposite sex. Second problem: How and why does Dowd assume that just because a woman is a secretary or a fact-checker that a man doesn’t have to talk to her? Don’t know, but it sounds kind of condescending to me. Because a woman is in a position that pays less money and is lower on the company’s organizational chart, she has nothing to say? She isn’t as bright? She isn’t equal to any man? Hmmm. Sounds like sexism to me. Personally, my experience in the corporate world is that secretaries (or personal assistants or whatever you want to call them) demonstrate as much or more talent, intelligence and savvy as the men (and women) they report to. The fact that they are paid a fraction of what their bosses get is one of those mysteries of the capitalist system.

Anyway, all the cinematic examples Dowd has come up with demonstrating this supposedly recent trend toward authoritative men being attracted to women below their station in life rings an instant bell with me. This is probably because I live in a house with a four-year-old female. It is a paradigm that predates by far even Hepburn and Tracy. It is called “Cinderella.” The story of the prince who finds his true love among the cinders in a commoner’s home is a theme that has been around for centuries. You can argue whether this enduring myth is helpful, harmful or benign, socially speaking, but you cannot deny that it is firmly ingrained in our culture and has been for ages. It is a persistent girl’s fantasy, which explains why the theme keeps showing up in popular entertainment.

But here’s a little secret. It’s not just a female fantasy. It’s a male fantasy as well. I’ve read this fairy enough times over the past few years to become intimately (re-)familiar with it, and there’s a component that gets overlooked by shoppers caught up in Disney’s and other corporations’ princess-branded marketing. As various versions of the original tale make clear, Prince Charming is bored with all the royal and rich young women who are offered to him for possible marriage. He goes to that ball hoping to meet someone who is different from the limited number of cookie-cutter type of women he keeps meeting. He wants to meet someone who is different. And then he sees her. She is new and different and doesn’t act or speak like any of the other young women he knows. She’s refreshing. This isn’t just a fairy tale. This is the dream of every guy who’s spent too much timing on the dating circuit.

For men, Cinderella (or Sandler’s Mexican maid or Grant’s tea server or Rickman’s secretary or Firth’s Portuguese maid) represents the lure of the exotic: someone out of his usual world of experience. Oh yeah, and (we might as well be real) the possibility of really hot sex. It’s not what women always want to hear, but you know what? Men don’t always like hearing that the woman they are interested in is holding out for Prince Charming, instead of the decent but “boring” guy right next to her.

Anyway, the key here is that it is a fantasy. That’s (among the reasons) why we go to the movies. Sometimes we guys are in the mood for fantasizing about capable, powerful, authoritative Kate Hepburn. Sometimes we’re in the mood for the foreign maid. Deal with it. And then we can start discussing what all those Meg Ryan movies (Kate & Leopold, anyone?) are about.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

-S.L., 10 February 2004

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