Our overseas correspondent Rachel Graf investigates How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, gender essentialism, and “journalism.”
I was the ideal audience for this and every rom-com ten years ago: teenage girl, little dating experience, with lofty career aspirations as well as romantic ones. This is the kind of movie I went to with a group of four or five other girls. We’d arrive separately or all packed into one girl’s mother’s minivan, share a giant popcorn and sip cola slushies.
Why did we watch so many of these movies? I can’t stress enough the fact that it was something to do, but they also provided a two-fold comfort: before we had steady boyfriends (which is code for back when we hooked up and pined) these love stories gave us hope, and their very predictability was part of that comfort. Things would turn out, because we’d learn the script. We’d know what to expect and how to act.
All of that is what the romantic-comedy always promises. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days has the advantage of playing with this generic feature. The classically comedic set-up: heroine Andy (Kate Hudson) is writing an article about all the things women do in relationships that drive guys away, by practicing them on a new beau, Ben (Matthew McConaughey), who just so happens to have bet that he can make her fall in love with him in 10 days. Obviously, neither knows about the other’s scheme until the exact same moment with 20 minutes left in the movie.
I approached my reviewing with two questions about my changed perspective. First, what is it like to watchHow to Lose a Guy now as an adult with my own rules for relationships (most of which simplify to “don’t be or be with an asshole”)? Second, what light does a feminist perspective shed on the plethora of stereotypes it contains?
As an adult, everything about this movie that was part of its fantastic allure is now just disgustingly unrealistic. Her professional ambitions are thin, because that’s not what we’re supposed to admire about her. The film asks us to respect Andy as a struggling writer with “a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia,” but if she wants to be a serious journalist what the fuck is she doing writing for a women’s magazine? Get an internship at a news organization, except – oh that’s right, all the examples of her writing are terrible; she must not be talented enough for that.
Like the to-be-expected version of New York (i.e. no one ever has to wait a second from stepping into the street to getting in a cab), the love plot is hard to stomach. It is not the idea of falling in love after only a week that I take issue with, but instead the happy ending after the mutual manipulation. While I don’t believe in love at first sight, I have enough life experience to know that depth of feeling does not correlate to time invested, so the 10 days part gets a pass from me. In pursuit of winning their bets, the two characters are shitty to each other, all of which is quickly erased. Possible explanations? “S/he really loves me,” “I wasn’t innocent either,” “It’ll be better now that we’ve been through that” – all of which are realistic enough as relationship clichés, especially in the case of relationship abuse. Also unrealistic is the assumption that each person has only one other whom they can love. Andy thinks she found and lost that in Ben (in less than 2 weeks!) – end of story. I call bullshit.
As a feminist, of course I notice that the movie naturalizes the idea that women do things guys hate when they are “clingy, needy, emotional,” and any guy who puts up with all of that is worth keeping. The very premise is not about getting the right guy, but getting any guy. Of course, you’ve heard this before. Even at 15 I had heard it all before, and just didn’t care. The voices that said “having a guy want you is the only way to be worthwhile” were much stronger than the ones that said “only if he’s the right guy.”
[All of this is incredibly heteronormative. I’m sorry about that. Hetero values are culturally strong. Strong enough to make a teenager who’d already fooled around with girls and thought of herself as bi to obsess about landing a boyfriend.]
Ben is special to Andy, but why He is the “right guy,” but she didn’t realize he was until she had put him through the annoying-chick-cuts-off-dudes’-balls version of hell. The message here is that the right guy is the one who tolerates how awful you are as a woman. How to Lose a Guy is one more rom-com in the chicks-be-crazy vein.
List of awful crazy-chick things Andy does to Ben:
- Sends him for a soda in the final minutes of a basketball game. Rubs it in that he missed the action packed sports thing.
- Calls him at work in the middle of the day. Uses a girly voice and says “I miss you.”
- Takes him to see a chick flick. Talks during the movie with such questions as “what are you thinking about?” and “who is she?”
- Provokes a fight between him and another movie theatre patron, causing him to get punched.
- Buys him a plant to symbolize their relationship. Redecorates his apartment with teddy bears and pink throw blankets.
- Plays girly CDs. Sings along changing the words in the song to his name.
- Emotionally refuses to eat the lamb he prepared, because she claims to be a vegetarian, complete with rendition of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
- Throws a “my boyfriend thinks I’m fat” tantrum at the vegan restaurant.
- Makes him miss a basketball game on TV.
- Nicknames his dick “Princess Sophia,” crushing his erection.
- Shows up at his work with a dog that she has bought for them.
- Immediately calls him her “boyfriend” and talks about “their family”, i.e. the dog.
- Leaves many, many voicemail messages on his home phone.
- Makes a photo album of (hideous!) photo-shopped composites of what their future babies will look like.
- Becomes close to his mother. Talks on the phone with her in dude’s presence.
- Stocks his bathroom with tampons and other lady products.
- Tricks him into going to a Celine Dion concert.
- Talks about her ex-boyfriends, but obsesses about his ex’s.
- Gets a key made for his apartment without his permission.
- Intrudes into “guy’s night” poker game, with healthy (and therefore disgusting) snacks. Complains about cigar smoke.
- Blows his nose in public.
- Emotional outrage that he has let the plant die.
- Drags him to couples’ therapy. (Even though this was technically his idea.)
First, I want to challenge the jokingly natural association the film trades on between women and their “crazy behavior.” Where do women learn these behaviors? Do they even have them? Men don’t? A lot of items on this list seem entirely reasonable, like being a vegetarian or wanting the dude you’re dating to have dinner with you and not watch a game at the same time. So there’s the whole woman who has desires and preferences of her own as self-evidently encroaching on man’s freedom thing. More troubling is the reduction of her desires to the “emotional” way she expresses them. Andy gets upset. She cries (well, fake cries). She accuses Ben of not caring about her. (Guess what, he doesn’t actually, because he’s dating her on a bet.)
I could write a dissertation on the long history of ascribing hyper-sentimentality (hysteria anyone?) to women, but the trope of women as irrationally emotional tends to work in two ways as a norm. One is that women are culturally conditioned to express themselves emotionally. We are taught to second guess our intuition, reason and intellect; and therefore to couch reasonable statements like “I told you this plant was important to me, so you not taking care of it, or at least telling me you didn’t want it is disrespectful,” with loud bangings of cabinets, tears, etc. Second, because we have all been taught that women are emotional/irrational we baselessly interpret the way women behave as emotional, clingy, needy etc. Is it clingy to put tampons on the dude’s bathroom or is it a reasonable expectation that she not carry a box with her (roughly) a quarter of the time she sleeps over?
Standard protocol to examine whether a gender normative stereotype is being unfairly applied to a woman’s behavior is to ask how it would be viewed if a guy did those things. In this case, there are several behaviors that make the operative question: what if Andy was a creepy dude? Romantic comedies are often blamed for obscuring the line between romantic hero and abuser. Consider the previous list of crazy-lady behavior as if a man did these things to a woman, and you’ll find several red flags for relationship abuse, such as:
- Checking in frequently throughout the day.
- Jealousy of friends and other relationships.
- Invasion of personal space.
- Accusing partner of negative feelings, i.e. “you don’t care about me,” “you think I’m fat.”
All of which is not to discount Ben’s despicable behavior in this plot. His goal to make a woman fall in love with him so that he can land a big advertising account is on the surface manipulative and objectifying. So basically everyone is terrible. When the two finally get together in a dramatic scene on the Brooklyn Bridge, I think, “well, they deserve each other at least.”
A coda: Because these actors are not themselves terrible, the movie includes some genuinely sweet and comedic moments. For example, there is a bathroom scene when they look at each other and as a viewer, for a minute I believe they have a connection. These moments punctuated my ennui with the reviewing experience.
- This is so clearly a movie before the age of the blog.
- It is also obviously before the ubiquity of cell phones. Calling from work lines? Leaving voicemail? Please.
- Andy’s journalist ambitions really seem laughable now. She is under the delusion that the women’s magazine will be a platform to publish political pieces. Possibly also under the delusion that she understands how to do real journalistic research.
- McConaughey’s office is uber-masculine.
- I am quickly distracted by his abs. Daydream about Magic Mike.
- Ben’s female competitors use their sexuality to persuade their boss to give them a professional opportunity. Obviously, we are meant to hate them for this, never minding the myriad ways in which men benefit from sexism professionally.
- Casual mocking of fat women.
- The banter between Andy and Ben in their first conversation is so terrible. If they weren’t both looking for someone to dupe they would not be so keen to leave together.
- Andy explains not having sex with Ben on the first night with “I want you to respect me,” because obviously women who chose to have sex don’t deserve respect.
- Ben sends Andy a parade of flowers at work after the first date. Even one bouquet walks a difficult line between sweet and desperate.
- Explicit homophobia when the fake therapist implies that Ben is gay.
- Dude has never brought a girl home before. That seems problematic.
- Andy wears her jeans unbuckled and with the waist folded over. I remember when that was a thing. Totally exposed my midriff that way 10 years ago.
- Materialism saturates the movie, reaching its peak with the big diamond party.
- After they fall out, Andy plans to leave New York and Ben chases her taxicab eagerly as if leaving NYC is effectively going into a blackhole where there are no phones or mail delivery.