On Friday afternoon, the screenwriter Zack Stentz tweeted “My heart sinks when I see a talented actress cast in a role described only as ‘love interest of lead.’ As filmmakers we have to do better.” He’s absolutely correct that it’s a disappointing lapse in skill that talented writers and directors who are eager to dig into their male characters’ father issues, hobbies, unusual skills, and music tastes don’t seem to feel it incumbent upon themselves to write rich complementary roles for the women those men are supposed to be in love with. But it’s a tweet that raises an important question to go along with the creative one. What are we supposed to think of male heroes who sleep with or date blanks?
Sometimes, that’s a question that a franchise will take on explicitly. Part of Tony Stark’s arc in the three Iron Man movies is his transition from reducing his interactions with all women to sex to his ability to sustain a lasting relationship with a woman who runs his business affairs—and who even rescues him when he meets an adversary he can’t defeat. The first woman we see him with in the franchise is a journalist, Christine Everhart, played by Leslie Bibb, who’s attempting to get a serious look at Tony’s work. It’s sexist enough that Everhart is presented as someone so unprofessional that she lets herself get seduced while on the job. But what does it say about Tony that he’s such a horndog that he can’t just do an interview about himself and his company with a journalist who happens to be a woman?
Similarly, the James Bond franchise in the Daniel Craig era has taken on the question of Bond’s bedding of an endless stream of miraculously pliable women, making it a symptom of damage, rather than evidence of his prowess. In Casino Royale, Bond fell deeply for Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), the Treasury official who oversaw the money he was wagering in a high-stakes porker game against a man who was backing terrorism to manipulate the stock market. They quibbled about levels of risk, Vesper was forced to confront Bond’s use of violence in the course of his work, and after he was tortured, she helped him recover. ” I’ve got no armour left,” Bond told her. “You’ve stripped it from me. Whatever’s left of me—whatever’s left of me, whatever I am—I’m yours.” In Quantum of Solace, Bond is back to seducing Strawberry Fields, another agent, and declines to kill another man who is a professional seducer. And in Skyfall, Bond attempts to reverse his position with Vesper, seducing Sévérine, a vulnerable woman, as part of a larger promise to protect her. But she’s killed in front of him, a demonstration of his impotence as a defender, even if he’s perfectly sexually vital. Moneypenny, an MI6 agent set up as Bond’s equal, toys with him but declines to seduce or be seduced by him: it’s perhaps the healthiest relationship we see him have with a woman, and the only one that doesn’t end up with someone dead.
But far more often, movies decline to think about what it means for the heroes we’re meant to see as nuanced and intriguing to have tastes in women and relationships that, if we consider them for a moment, might complicate the idea that these are meant to be admirable or interesting heroes. What does it say about Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage), the scientist sent in to defuse chemical weapons in The Rock that when British spy Mason (Sean Conner) growls at him “Your best? Losers always whine about their best. Winners go home and fuck the prom queen!” Goodspeed tells him cheerfuly that “Carla was the prom queen.” All we know about Carla (Vanessa Marcil) is that she’s accidentally pregnant, makes the impulsive decision to show in San Francisco, a city that turns out to be under threat from said chemical weapons, and was the prom queen. And what that tells us is that Goodspeed is…the kind of guy whose partner is a former prom queen who gets knocked up by mistake? Maybe it’s meant to make audiences feel better that a brilliant scientist who can keep up with a diabolical spy has the tastes of a frat boy and the ability to pull women like one, but it’s an oddly boring decision in an otherwise canny movie.
I can understand why that scenario might be appealing as a kind of revenge of the nerds, or as catering to adolescent fantasy. But really, wouldn’t you rather be George Clooney going mano a mano with Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight than perpetually, vengefully fourteen? If you want to create a real man in pop culture, it’s worth thinking about how he’ll interact with real women.