Sunday, September 9, 2012

When Harry Met Sally: Sexism with a Smile

I recently re-watched this film for the first time since it came out. It’s not really my kind of film, Meg Ryan’s not really my kind of actress, but it was there on youtube, free, so I figured why not. And for the most part it wasn’t bad; there were three or four good laughs in it. However, about 15 minutes from the end I was watching along and I suddenly began to hate it. It turned very sour very quickly, for me at least.  I’ve never heard anyone else remark upon how this nasty finale undercuts the feel-good nature of the film - apparently no-one else was bothered by it - but that in itself is troubling.

The story goes like this: after a long will-they, won’t-they friendship Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Ryan) finally sleep together one night, on her prompting. They both immediately regret it. Soon afterwards they see each other at some friends’ wedding party and Sally is very stand off-ish with Harry, as if he’d recently insulted her. That already annoyed me. Her attitude is uncalled-for and bizarre but the film doesn’t seem to notice that. From then on it only gets worse and worse. They get into an argument, during which the always-genial Harry says nothing particularly untoward, and it ends with her slapping him hard in the face and telling him to, I quote, ‘fuck off’. This is treated as comedy. It’s then followed by Harry trying to call Sally many times (while she ignores him) and offering, in his words, to ‘grovel’ to her. So after her slapping him and telling him to fuck off, we have him desperately begging for a chance to make an abject apology to her. In the final moments of the film he runs to find her on New Year’s Eve, he tells her he loves her, and she tells him quite seriously she hates him, and then they live happily ever after. I’m not making this up: he tells her he loves her, and she tells him she hates him, and the film makes him OK with that and considers it a happy ending.

Somebody please explain the logic of this to me, because from where I stand it seems that any culture that thinks endings like this are ‘happy’ must be very unhealthy and seriously unhinged. If a woman feels like sleeping with a guy and instigates it, he is supposed to beg forgiveness afterwards, and be OK with her hating him for acceding to her wishes? Have I got that right? And a woman should only be satisfied when a man shows he’s prepared to grovel for her? Is that what the film’s promoting? Maybe I’m crazy but to me that feels like a very unromantic premise for a ‘romantic comedy’.

There are certainly sexist films that favour the male point of view as well, teenager comedies like Animal House and American Pie for example, which sell the idea that every young man should be obsessed with his own sexual gratification. But that’s hardly a counter-argument. Two wrongs don’t make a right and while that kind of film routinely gets chastised by critics for its sexual politics, the ideology behind romcoms like When Harry Met Sally rarely seems to trouble anyone.  Yet its female wish-fulfillment message is just as stupid and biased as the male wish-fulfillment message of American Pie. And the fact that it’s regarded as a far more respectable movie is  in itself revealing, suggesting that female sexism usually gets a free pass. It makes its message even more insiduous.

Of course many will just say: lighten up, it’s only a movie. But movies spread ideas, and just as a critic might take something like Dirty Harry to task for its vaguely fascist ‘every wrong-doer deserves to die’ message or Transformers to task for its bombastic militarism, it should be possible to take When Harry Met Sally to task for any offensive material it’s peddling. To comprehend the horrible double standards this film buys into and glorifies one only needs to do a simply role-reversal exercise. Imagine if Harry had hit Sally hard in the face, told her to fuck off, then the film had shown her calling him over and over begging for forgiveness. Imagine she’d run after him and declared her love only for him to say he hated her, and then we cut to them happily married. It’d be grotesque and creepy, right? Such a film, if it ever got made, would provoke all kinds of concerned comment. Yet the opposite situation is considered a perfectly acceptable way to close a ‘sweet-natured’ mainstream film that was very popular and very influential. Isn’t that the most absurd thing ever?

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