on the page magazine

issue no. 11, summer 2004


Girl Gets Job, Loses Boy

by Nada Djordjevich

Quick—think of a movie where the male protagonist gets fired at the end of a movie. No, he doesn't die, but at the end, he is left without a job. Sure, there are plenty of films that start that way, but is the crisis resolved with an unemployed man? How about a movie where a man is forced to choose between a woman and a job? You know, a movie in which at the end the man has to choose either to be successful in his career or to be successful with his wife. He can't have it all. Thought of one? Let me know, because I couldn't think of a single Hollywood film in which men face the choices presented to women in most films involving career women today.

Fifty years after one of the most dramatic changes in the economics of the 20th century, the increase in the number and types of women in the workplace, Hollywood is still ambivalent and culturally unready to let go of old myths. According to recent census statistics, in close to 80 percent of all marriages both the husband and the wife work, and in just over 40 percent the wife makes about the same as or more than the man. Yet in most films of the past thirty years, women seem unable to hold onto both their careers and their men. Today's mainstream movies don't involve present-day choices, but throwback fantasies, when women had to choose between economic power and relationships.

If you're a working class girl who becomes powerful fighting the status quo, the odds are against permanent romance.
A decade after the Pretty Woman limousine ride that took her out of her ghetto and away from the oldest profession to be supported by Richard Gere's wealthy businessman, Julia Roberts plays street-smart Erin Brockovich who loses her Hells Angels hottie when she dedicates herself to her new career fighting corporate greed. Her babysitting man feels that she just doesn't have enough time for him. Of course, we have seen this before. In Norma Rae (1979), another true story of a proletarian do-gooder with a promiscuous past, Sally Field's textile worker awakens to union organizing while her new husband complains of neglect and is unsupportive of her work.

If you're a successful, ethical career woman, you will lose your lover.
Barbara Streisand's activist radio producer loses her writer husband played by Robert Redford after insisting that "people are their principles" in The Way We Were (1973). And then there's another producer played by Holly Hunter, in Broadcast News (1987), who, early in the film, complains that "she is starting to repel people that she is trying to attract" until she finally charms good-looking anchorman William Hurt. Despite the hopeful condom tucked into her purse, their relationship is pretty chaste, consisting of one kiss and plans for vacation that doesn't pan out. By the end of the film, the two men in her love triangle have made other permanent arrangements: Albert Brooks' Aaron is married with a son, and William Hurt is engaged to a look-alike fiancée. While Hunter claims to have some "fella" in the wings, we don't see any sign of permanence, and she is probably doomed to lonely success.

And if you're an unethical career woman, you'll be even lonelier.
First, you will create chaos, unknowingly or consciously, in the families of the men you desire, and then you will be punished by desertion, death, or perpetual singledom. Sally Field's reckless journalist in Absence of Malice (1981) causes a suicide and loses Paul Newman's affection. In Fatal Attraction (1987), Glenn Close's stylish editor loses her mind -- not to mention her career -- when she desperately goes after her one-night-stand who is happily married to a stay-at-home wife. And then there's Faye Dunaway's news producer in Network (1976) who destroys the marriage of the crotchety editor played by William Holden while she looks forward to the on-air suicide of broadcaster Howard Beale as a ratings boost. On a lighter note, the successful restaurant critic played by Julia Roberts tries and fails to break up her best-friend's marriage to Cameron Diaz's college dropout and soon to be stay-at-home wife in My Best Friend's Wedding (1997).

If you lose your job at the hands of a man, you may be able to work it out.
In Jerry Maguire (1996), Renee Zellweger is a single mom who quits her job to follow the sports agent played by Tom Cruise into his own agency. She soon loses that job when Cruise's company fails, and it's only after she is no longer working for him that he turns around to tell her that she "completes him." In You've Got Mail (1998), Meg Ryan is put out of business when Tom Hanks' tycoon opens up a Barnes & Nobles-like mega -bookstore that takes over her Upper West Side neighborhood. After she has fired all of her employees and is forced to shut down her store, she not only does not harbor ill feelings toward the man who put her out of work, but begins a friendship with him at Starbucks, the take-over coffee chain that has put hundreds of little coffee shops around the corner out of business.

So what's a modern movie woman got to do to keep a man and a job around here?

For one thing, pretend to be somebody you're not.
In Working Girl (1988), Melanie Griffith portrays a big-haired secretary with "a head for business and a bod for sin," who takes over from her thieving boss by faking her position in the firm and stealing her boyfriend. And in Down with Love (2003), Renee Zelweiger's best-selling author develops an elaborate scheme of entrapment involving the development of a female prototype of a confirmed bachelor.

For another, stop being so damn smart.
In Bridget Jones's Diary (2001), another Zellweger vehicle, her speech at a literary event is a disaster, making her look stupid and ridiculous in front of Britain's literati, as does her pratfall in front of the television audience when she slides down the pole of a firehouse as a would-be reporter. Yet super-hunk barrister, Mark Darcy, played by super-hunk Colin Firth dumps his intelligent colleague for the inarticulate and intellectually challenged Bridget.

And if you are smart, carry a gun, work with animals, or serve food.
While the love story is not crucial in Coen brothers' films, both Fargo (1996) and Raising Arizona (1987) feature married policewomen, and Sandra Bullock's "ugly duckling" detective turned beauty queen gets her man in Miss Congeniality (2000). In a lesser-seen Roberts' movie, Something to Talk About (1995), husband Dennis Quaid tells wife Roberts that he cheated on her not because he felt neglected by her pursuit of her career, but because she'd failed to complete her passion. If she had pursued her own dream of being a big animal veterinarian, he claims, he wouldn't have had an affair. In the end, Roberts takes veterinary classes and their romance rekindles. And, in The Truth About Cats & Dogs (1996), talk-show vet played by Janeane Garofalo finally gets the guy (after, incidentally, pretending to be someone else). Jennifer Aniston' waitress in the comedy Office Space (1999) gets and keeps a boyfriend. And, in the Martin Scorsese flick Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974), another harried waitress, played by Ellen Burstyn, lands Kris Kristofferson's sexy rancher.

Interestingly Kristofferson's character was dropped when the movie was made into the television series "Alice," as the writers recognized that perpetual dating is more intriguing than coupledom - at least when it comes to female leads. Certainly the most successful career women on television, Mary Richards and Murphy Brown, never had the permanent love of a good man. Even in "Sex and the City," the landmark series featuring career women over the age of 35, it wasn't until the finale that all four female characters resolved their search for love, with Carrie Bradshaw finally landing paramour Big after quitting her job. Compared to Hollywood, however, that's progress, since 50 percent of "Sex"'s women had both a job and a man at the end. It's obvious that in a series goals can't be achieved if you want to keep the viewers hooked.

But why can't a woman have it all in a two-hour movie? Why, in the world of happy Hollywood endings, are women's choices unreflective of modern society? Why, for example, when adapting the novel, Under the Tuscan Sun (2003), did the filmmakers change the book's ending to successful female writer loses man?

Movies are million-dollar enterprises built on prevailing concepts of what people want to see. This is why men without jobs are not part of most films. Perhaps in the same way that movies do not reflect the reality of race and diversity in American society, Hollywood believes that audiences are not ready for a culture of powerful women who do not have to make simple choices between a man and a career. As our movies have only slowly begun to echo some of the diversity present in modern America, perhaps we can anticipate new narrative structures in the romantic feature film. The success of independent films like My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), whose female lead finds both a successful career and a loving relationship, may demonstrate to producers that audiences are ready for a woman who has both a career and a man. And I look forward to a time when Hollywood will mimic modern reality in showing that the dominant paradigm is not woman gets job, loses man, but working men and women trying to work it out.

Nada Djordjevich is the editor-in-chief of On the Page.

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