In a (not surprisingly) depressing post railing against equal marriage rights over at National Review, Maggie Gallagher, the founder of the misleadingly-named Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, quotes an anti-equality speaker who argues that “Only one creature has been known to calm men down into faithful and stable relationships since the dawn of time — a woman.” What makes that attitude so sad is the low estimation in which it holds men, an attitude reflected in the hysterically angry reaction to the idea that men can play a role in stopping sexual assault. To different degrees on the same spectrum, these views both agree that men are not particularly in control of themselves, and that if they are to be tamed into monogamy and consensual sex, women will have to do a sometimes enormous amount of work, at great expense to their own expectations and personal liberties, to bring about those outcomes.
These views are very sad, but part of what’s depressing about them is that they aren’t necessarily exceptionally marginal. The idea that it takes a woman to tame a man is at the core of an enormous amount of popular culture—particularly culture aimed at women.
One of the most prevalent arenas for the idea that men need to be tamed by good women, and one of the places where that trope has evolved most, is in romance novels. As I wrote at Slate last week, that genre’s evolved from its earlier reliance on character arcs in which the heroine would be seduced, ravished, or outright raped before winning over the heroine to one in which the rakish hero, whether he’s seducing opera singers in the Edwardian era or dating hotties in contemporary Cleveland, meets the woman who makes him realize that monogamy isn’t just socially acceptable—it will make him happier than he’s previously been tomcatting around. These men in contemporary romance novels are rarely as repulsive as their earlier counterparts, or as profligate as Gallagher and her ilk might make them out to be. But there’s still an air of condescension operating there: it seems to have never occurred to any of these otherwise smart, handsome, and professionally adept men that their own behavior might be causing their unhappiness. And often, rather than being truly responsible for their romantic and sexual choices, romance novel heroes are broken in a certain way that can only be fixed by the ministration of heroines whose value was previously overlooked: often they had cruel or absent parents, particularly fathers, who damaged their ability to connect, and rather than seeking out therapy or staring their own deficiencies straight in the face, its up to women to give them the love they were previously denied.
Romantic comedies often follow the same script, with women required to correct for behavior even less attractive behavior than womanizing. Gerard Butler played a grotesquely misogynist radio host (who of course really just suffers from a bad case of heartbreak) in The Ugly Truth, a role that NBC trotted out and then abandoned in its failed Dane Cook sitcom, Next Caller. Matthew McConaughey needed to be literally dragged out of his parents’ home by Sarah Jessica Parker in Failure to Launch in one of his many slacker romantic comedies. The profoundly strange The Invention of Lying even tried to make a virtue out of the manipulative dishonesty of Mark (Ricky Gervais). Maybe making men into utter messes who need to be revitalized by the love of good women is a way to introduce new obstacles to couples’ happiness as the kinds of social pressures that made it harder for couples to come together across class lines or in spite of the bad reputation of one party have melted away, something Chris Orr pointed to as a factor in the decline of the romantic comedy. But the degradation of romantic comedies from battles of complicated equals to stories about broken men who need to be rescued about women doesn’t just make for depressing, and even sometimes infuriating storytelling—it reinforces the larger version of the battle of the sexes Gallagher and her ilk promote, that rogues and slackers are in need of vaccination by good women.
This narrative is dismal on and off the page and screen because it builds disrespect and inequality into the narrative of both real and fictional relationships. To suggest that men are inherently hounds—or worse—and to make that the most salient part of their personalities reduces all of men’s good qualities in comparison to their venalities. To demand that women save or fix men makes us perpetual nags or mommies. Women should be repulsed by the relationships Gallagher is telling them to pursue, and men should be absolutely furious. I’d feel bad for Gallagher for promoting those tropes as traditional gender roles worth emulating, if milder presentations of that rotten product hadn’t already proved so effective.