The Clare Spark Blog

December 23, 2009

She Who Gets Slapped: the magic of middle-aged Boomerdom

from the sadomasochism collection of S.T.

[Racy song from World War I:]

Mademoiselle from Armentieres, Parley-voo?
Mademoiselle from Armentieres, Parley-voo?
Mademoiselle from Armentieres,
She hasn’t been kissed in forty years,
Hinky, dinky, parley-voo….

“Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms,” by Thomas Moore

Believe me, if all those endearing young charms,
Which I gaze on so fondly to-day
Were to change by to-morrow, and flee in my arms,
Like fairy-gifts fading away,
Thou wouldst still be adored, as this moment thou art,
Let thy loveliness fade as it will,
And around the dear ruin each wish of my heart
Would entwine itself verdantly still.

It is not while beauty and youth are thine own,
And thy cheeks unprofaned by a tear,
That the fervor and faith of a soul can be known,
To which time will but make thee more dear;
No, the heart that has truly loved never forgets,
But as truly loves on to the close,
As the sun-flower turns on her god, when he sets,
The same look which she turned when he rose.

Here are numerous excerpts from Daphne Merkin’s long article on movie director Nancy Meyers: “Can Anybody Make a Movie for Women?” NYT Dec.15, 2009. My reminiscence of one feature of second-wave feminism follows.

[Merkin:] With her black-framed glasses and penchant for wearing clothes that seem like a softer variant of a man’s business suit — white blouse, yellow cardigan over slacks, low-heeled patent-leather pumps — the petite and attractive Meyers might pass for a lawyer or professor; there’s nothing about her that shouts V.I.P. She looks, rather, like the kind of woman who has always been cute and has always conveyed a certain approachability to men. Her jewelry is equally understated, as unblingy as can be, consisting of two gold rings and a gold bracelet. Everything about her suggests an innate tastefulness and the kind of self-image that isn’t based on making a grand impression. Goldie Hawn, whose relationship with Meyers also goes back to the ’70s, puts it this way: “Nancy has the clout. She doesn’t have to own the clout.”

…Part and parcel of that uniqueness is Meyers’s focus on making films that both feature and speak to middle-aged women, a demographic that studios traditionally ignore for fear of not bringing in the all-important opening-weekend numbers by which a movie’s position is assessed and its future success seemingly foretold. The simple truth is that any movie that is not aimed at 15-year-old boys, who come out in droves on Friday night for movies like “Transformers,” is seen as something of a risk. Movies like “It’s Complicated” unfold at the box office in a different pattern than movies that are skewed younger; their success is based more on long-range playability and word of mouth than on instant impact. Still, in a movie culture consumed by youth and its trappings — vampires, werewolves, stoners and superheroes — Meyers’s decision to pay attention to a part of the population that is often construed (and often construes itself) to be invisible stands out in bold relief. The fact that this decision has proved to be commercially shrewd says something about her instincts as a moviemaker but also says something about a previously unsatisfied hunger, composed of two parts daydream and one part hope, that is finally being addressed. “She’s a pioneer with regard to representing older women,” Diane Keaton said over lunch at the Beverly Hills Hotel. “She’s the only one delivering the fantasy for women over 55. You’re beautiful, charming and you get two guys instead of one.”

…Meyers, then, has rushed in where angels fear to tread to rescue the middle-aged and manless woman from her lonely plight. She has taken this sorry creature, who is bombarded with reminders of her vanished youthfulness everywhere she turns, and placed her in an alternate universe, where she is not only visible but desirable just the way she is. (It helps, of course, if she looks like Diane Keaton or Meryl Streep, and if she gets to wear a carefully chosen wardrobe of flattering clothes.) “Feminism didn’t admit the longing for romance,” Barbara Probst Solomon, a writer and critic, says. “And it also didn’t admit that romance often didn’t go with success. Her movies give women their reward — you feel nourished, the way you used to feel about old-time Hollywood movies. You’re not just an old bag sitting with your laptop at the beach — you’ve got your prince. It permits you to have your fantasy.” It is not unique, of course, that Meyers’s vision of life is unabashedly romantic — call it retro or call it postfeminist — but what sets it apart is that she is putting it at the disposal not of unformed 18-year-old girls but of accomplished 50-something women for whom romance is generally no longer considered an option, either because they are too old or because they are too threatening.

…she is proposing the somewhat radical notion that there are second acts in women’s lives and that they don’t necessarily hinge on being a desperate housewife in search of the next “It” bag or a cougar on the prowl. Far from it. The interesting thing about “Something’s Gotta Give” and “It’s Complicated” is that the women in them aren’t remotely on the hunt, seeking proof of their sexual appeal in the form of studly younger men — or men their own age, for that matter. These women are self-sufficient and notably energetic. They may not have men, at least when we first meet them, but they make do with friends and children and siblings, for whom they whip up tasty dinners and homemade pies and laugh over their own situations.

…Her love of seductive surfaces — of rooms graciously adorned with bowls of flowers, glowing lamplight, color-coordinated pillows on the couch, pieces of art, books and touches of pleasing texture in the way of curtains, cashmere throws and rugs — is undoubtedly part of the allure of the upscale world she creates. (That world is also almost pre-ethnic — with the exception of the Asian actor B. D. Wong, who appears in “Father of the Bride” and its sequel, few non-Caucasian faces appear in Meyers’s movies.)

…What is clear is that Meyers doesn’t like shadows — metaphorical or real ones. So it is that on a Tuesday morning she is to be found in the editing room with Joe Hutshing, making like a one-woman clean-up squad. “Can you get rid of this dot, this dot and this dot,” she instructed an assistant editor, pointing out infinitesimal, invisible-to-the-human-eye blurs on the screen. A little later, as she and Hutshing went over shots of the backyard view of Streep’s house (they created a water view where none existed), she wanted all the dead trees edited out. Then it was on to the spiky plants. “Every plant that is spiky is removed from this movie,” she announced, a note of hard-won triumph in her voice. “You have no idea. Keep it all soft.”

…The more I talked to Meyers the more I realize that she prefers for her movies — for life itself — to have a rosy, unconflicted presentation. My sense is that whatever warts exist, she airbrushes out, the better to come away with a happy ending. (Her friends warn her off films that are too bleak. “People are always protective of me when they give me movies to see,” she said. “They think I’m going to break.”) At worst, her films can give off an air of tidy unreality — and it is this unexamined aspect, I think, this failure to even hint at darkness, that most fuels critical ire. Richard Schickel condemns Meyers with faint praise, hinting that she and the studios have struck a devil’s pact of sorts. “Clearly there is an audience for sweet little middle-class romances of the kind she makes, and it pleases the studios to indulge a woman, whom they would not trust with more vigorous projects. It’s as if they’re trying to say: ‘Hey, we’re not sexists. We make Nancy Meyers movies.’ ”

…As part of the audience for whom these “sweet little middle-class romances” are intended, I must say I find this assessment, whatever its kernel of truth, a bit harsh. For one thing, romantic comedies are harder to write than they appear. Sherry Lansing, former chairwoman and chief executive of Paramount Pictures, who championed “The First Wives Club” and tried for years to develop a script called “The Older Woman” without much success, says it is a genre that is “unbelievably difficult to get right.” For another, what’s wrong with a little wish fulfillment? It might be said that Meyers, who has not remarried and is currently involved with, as she puts it, “my movie,” has spun gold from the hay of her own losses, turning the painful aftermath of divorce into comedies where she, in the form of her characters, gets to call all the shots.

…The middle-aged woman as dream icon: lovable, desirable, unleavable. What’s not to warm to about that? I would love to be able to reshoot some of my own life and relationships — and it wouldn’t be half-bad if Alec Baldwin played the role of my ex-husband. We all run what-if scenarios over in our head, and part of the pleasure of this kind of entertainment is the way it lets us roam through our own imaginations as we follow the retakes Meyers’s movies offer us. Given the high divorce rate and the equally high failure rate of second marriages, I’m guessing her latest movie will bring in crowds of grown-ups eager to see their own miscalculations and missteps played out on the large screen against a backdrop anyone would be proud to call home. “It’s Complicated” may not be entirely believable — nor “Something’s Gotta Give” particularly persuasive — but they offer their creator and all the women who relate to her stand-in self, in the form of Keaton or Streep, a good deal of laughter to help get them through the night. And that’s no small piece of magic. [end, Daphne Merkin excerpts]

[Clarespeak:]   What is remarkable about Merkin’s generally positive essay on Nancy Meyer’s oeuvre in film, is that no matter what little qualifications are pumped in to give the piece an air of critical distance, she presents a woman who precisely matches the fantasies of shoppers at the better clothiers, manicurists, hair salons, and plastic surgeons, and whose idea of feminism is that of “role reversal”: “[Meyers], in the form of her characters, gets to call all the shots.”  In so doing, Merkin reiterates one of the class-bound moves of 1960s-70s feminism, in which masters and slaves trade places. I have seen this behavior in the feminist art world, in academic Women’s Studies, and in the conduct of individual women of my acquaintance. But what else would we expect from a periodical (the NYT) whose advertisers cater to exactly this class of urban women, trained from childhood to maintain themselves as “hot” decorative objects (also capable of amusing banter) appealing to good male providers?

Sadly, this was not the way the second-wave of feminism started out. Everyone of my age remembers the almost overnight transformation of the culture, as young women who had been humiliated and thwarted in the road to fame by male New Left “heavies” took to their typewriters and churned out instant best-sellers about male domination, exposing misogyny in literature and the other arts, rediscovering first-wave feminist heroines, and in general, attempting to formulate an “alternative” female culture that would encompass the needs of women in all classes and climes. And an intrinsic part of this project was the assertion of a unique “feminine” sensibility that men didn’t get, hence would not support the efforts of right-on women in the arts. In academe, there were even women who thought that their attention to the women airbrushed from history would cause all of history to be rewritten with “gender” the analytic category par excellence. (Joan Wallach Scott, for instance, now at the top of her profession.)

Those were heady, thoughtless, stupid days, and many a conventional marriage broke up as women took upon themselves the freedom they imagined men enjoyed, while many a professional man became enamored of hippies and New Age escapism, changing spouses accordingly. I knew this cohort well, and almost every one of the feminists I then knew and promoted on my radio programs and elsewhere either had a red family of origin or newly attached herself to some fraction of the left, whether it be Marxist-feminism or New Left feminism, which was odd, because “patriarchy” (the social division that is primary to a feminist) is an ahistoric notion and couldn’t be farther from the complex historical analysis that a proper Marxist (or non-Marxist historian) should exemplify. But rules were laid down by the new dominatrices, and compliant guilty males and ambitious females acquiesced, with nary a murmur or moral qualm. And part of this explosion of P.C. animosity took the form of exposing the inadequacies of their ex-husbands or lovers, naming names, the more famous the better.   Another task was the feminist demolition of Freud (see the passage in where I mention the attack on Freud as a sell-out to his gender by covering up real sexual abuse of his female patients with the invention of the Oedipus Complex, female variant).

Role-reversal was a losing strategy, not to speak of its intrinsic immorality in a movement that appealed to “equality.” The Battle of the Sexes has not been terminated; rather, new wine has been poured into old bottles. Escapist “magic” makes money as the Boomer generation swells the prospective movie and television audience, and Daphne Merkin struggles with “chronic depression” that she appears not to understand (see an earlier NYT article in which she darkly exhibits her mental states).  The second-wave feminists (a few of them) are now installed in academe and related venues, though their youth has fled, while the masses of women continue to struggle with the same issues that beset them before the 60s-70s feminists made the scene: e.g. women are terrified of aging for good reason.  Here is just one example, from experience, not from formal studies: Discarded women who loved their ex-husbands may continue to feel protective toward them, finally discovering that their concern was never reciprocated in a similar lifelong commitment. And to add to the insult, the older woman may find that she is expected to dress herself as if she were an anorexic adolescent girl. But wait! There is the “understated” Nancy Meyers uniform, as described by Daphne Merkin above. Such are the ways of “liberal” feminism in the time of Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton. Mamma Mia!


  1. “Here is just one example: Discarded women who loved their ex-husbands may continue to feel protective toward them, finally discovering that their concern was never reciprocated in a similar lifelong commitment.” This cuts both ways, but in my experience it is the women who, having built up a vast set of semi-imaginary resentments, do the discarding and never look back. Nor are they concerned about being “alone.” They are just done. But they often look on the outside exactly like the women described here.

    Comment by Stephen Turner — March 20, 2012 @ 11:01 am | Reply

  2. […] Clare Spark […]

    Pingback by Pity defines liberalism | AMERIKA — December 28, 2009 @ 4:21 pm | Reply

    • I am afraid that a group of white neo-pagan separatists has found something of value to them in this blog. I did not intend to condemn feminism, but only one tactic that I thought was wrong-headed, possibly protofascist, and not conducive to communication between the sexes, let alone the welfare of children. I have no association with Amerika, nor do I wish to.

      Comment by clarespark — January 5, 2010 @ 9:08 pm | Reply

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