includes massive SPOILERS for a 2002 movie, Hysterical Blindness.
I just caught Hysterical Blindness (2002) on cable. It’s an HBO Films movie set in the ’80’s, featuring Deb (Uma Thurman) and Beth (Juliette Lewis) as two working class twenty-somethings trying to figure out how to get and keep men.
What’s different about this movie from most in its genre is: it’s painfully realistic. There are no tropes being relied on. The characters ultimately don’t find what they’re seeking. They are neither punished nor rewarded for their efforts. Do they learn anything? That’s up to the audience to figure out. No spoonfeeding here.
Deb and Beth want men. What exactly they want them for… well, like a lot of people, they don’t seem to have an examined response to that question. While they are somewhat jealous of a friend who’s engaged, they never really talk about marriage or husbands. Their focus is just on getting hold of a man, which is supposed to make life better. Somehow.
Their approach, like that of so many people, is “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks”. No one’s taught them how to find love (because no one really knows), and they don’t know why things aren’t working out for them. They look hot. Beyond that, all they know to do is seduce guys and then try not to piss them off too much.
They keep going to the same bar to meet guys. Apparently, Deb has already slept with a lot of the guys who frequent it (including the engaged friend’s fiance, some time ago). On the first bar trip in the movie, Deb meets a guy (Rick) she instantly pegs as a “conceited jerk”. But when Beth and the bartender start flirting and making her feel left out, she goes out to leave, sees Rick, and latches onto him. She practically has to beg him to meet her at the bar again the next night – he is utterly indifferent. In re-telling all this to Deb, she makes the short and meaningless conversation with Rick out to be a special connection.
In your average movie, this would have to lead to a disastrously timed pregnancy, or a gang rape in the bar, or some other slut-shaming punishment. In this one, it just fails. Rick remains indifferent during sex, after sex, etc. Deb (whom I don’t believe has any real feelings for him) desperately tries to convince herself there’s a relationship in bloom here. Until she gets stood up by him and realizes he’s blowing her off.
Then, like so many people, Deb wonders what’s wrong with her that he doesn’t care about her.
Later, her mother’s boyfriend gives her a clue. He tells Deb that she, like her mother (Gena Rowlands) has something special; she’s “real smart”. Does Deb ever realize that there’s nothing wrong with her? Beth even remarks that “we’re supposed to go get men” but they’re not told how. Does Deb even really want a man, or is she just assuming that’s the answer because it’s all she’s been told?
There’s a very telling scene in which Beth is hitting on the bartender and Deb runs into Rick after he’s stood her up a few times. The bartender invites Beth to hang out after his shift (which she can’t do because she has a child at home). She counters by inviting him to drop by her home after his shift. He shrugs and explains that he’s a no-rules kind of guy.
Meanwhile, Deb is trying to convince Rick to stop playing pool and take her home now. He gets irritated and shoves her down on a bench – she loses her grasp on her drink, which shatters to the floor.
“You okay, buddy?” calls one of Rick’s friends, apparently concerned Rick may have hurt himself while pushing around some annoying female.
Yeeeah. In the world of the movie (and I think still most of the real world), men dictate the rules of relationships. They are entitled to say when they will hang out with you, The Girl. If you can’t meet their needs, they’ll find someone else who will. And if you attempt to impose your rules on them, they are entitled to prevent you from doing so, even if it requires getting physical.
But something else happens in this scene, which is also realistic but considerably more hopeful: after Beth gives up on the bartender, he says maybe he can drop by her place after work. Maybe he’s capable of appreciating Beth enough to make compromises.
Also, Deb’s mom definitely finds real love. When her boyfriend fails to show up for something, Deb immediately concludes he’s blowing her mom off, but her mom points out he left his jacket at her place. It turns out he’s died of a heart attack. As unfortunate as this is, Deb’s mom meets her boyfriend’s son at the funeral, and he tells her how much his dad spoke of her, how happy she made him. Death, too, is a reality of love and life.
I really loved that there was no “movie karma” in this story. No slut-shaming punishments, and also no “but this one time our heroine’s bone-headed approach to finding men worked, and she found her prince, and they lived happily ever after” rewards, either. Just people trying stuff, having it work or not, and maybe learning something.
One very symbolic moment involoves Deb’s mom’s response to the death of her boyfriend. She grieves, with Deb by her side, and then she buys some really nice new furniture with money she’s been saving. When Deb asks where it all came from, her mom’s answers are non-committal, like she’s shocked the universe let her do this for herself, and afraid if she acknowledges it out loud, it might all be sucked away through a blackhole.
“It doesn’t feel like mine,” she comments, sitting in the leather chair.
“That’s okay,” Deb assures her. “We’ll get used to it being so nice.”
This movie neither glorifies nor denigrates romance. It doesn’t heavy-handedly speak of sisterhood solidarity, or announce that women don’t need men. It just reminds us that both life and love are a lot bigger than romance.