On-screen pining isn’t just for female characters: male characters also fall for females so hard they can barely think straight. So why is it we women generally take more offense when women are shown this way?
Example time: how about John Crichton from Farscape? And for an example that’s known to more people, Ross from the early seasons of Friends? And what about Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine from Casablanca? That should give us a nice assortment, spanning sixty-some years, and three genres.
Crichton’s pining takes the form of quiet brooding. It’s painfully obvious to everyone around that he’s hung up on Aeryn Sun. He has dream sequences where he fantasizes about their wedding (it’s about damn time we saw a guy do this), and he spends a fair amount of time staring after her departing form and engaging in other sorts of lovelorn behavior. Even if you find it a bit nauseating, it doesn’t make you think less of him. (Then again, he’s not really presented as a paragon of wonderfulness – he’s just this guy trapped in a space opera.)
Ross’s pining is a bit more puppy-dog like (remember, I’m confining this to the early seasons of Friends because I stopped watching once it became the Ross & Rachel Vomit Hour). You get the impression he’s trailing after Rachel hoping for crumbs.
And Rick Blaine doesn’t exactly pine at all – but he is so embittered by Ilsa’s betrayal that her threats to shoot him if he doesn’t give her what she’s after are met with an invitation to “Go ahead and shoot. You’ll be doing me a favor.” The degree to which she’s affected him actually becomes part of the plot.
All three very obviously hung up on a woman to the point their behavior is affected by it. So why is it, even if we hate these characters, we don’t think they are damaging the perception of men everywhere? When women are shown pining after men, we’re a lot more likely to call it a stereotype and take issue with the portrayal. What’s the difference?
I think the first noticeable difference is what the characters have going on outside their pining that makes the difference. Crichton has a quest, a lot of adventures, and some lovers while he’s waiting and hoping for Aeryn to return his affections. Ross has a job, an ex-wife and son, and eventually a girlfriend (albeit the traditional Plot Device To Get The Real Love Interest Jealous) while waiting for Rachel to show interest. And Rick Blaine runs a nightclub and dates, though he is actually the most pathetic of the lot, because it’s obvious he’s been so affected by this woman. Conversely, lovesick female characters are often completely removed from the plot, serving no function but to demonstrate how much the male lead has impacted them.
Another major difference is that you don’t see guys betraying other guys over girls. Even though it happens in real life, such Heinous Infractions Against the Guy Code are not shown on film. Guys betray women for their male friends. They betray women to get some bad guy they’re after. They murder, rape and pillage. But they simply do not betray another Man over something as insignificant as a woman. Women, on the other hand, betray each other left and right to get their hands on a Man.
Think about it: if a male character steals another guy’s woman, you know it’s really about the two guys and whatever dynamic they have going on. He could have just as easily stolen the guy’s car or job. But when a woman steals another woman’s man, that’s also about the guy. Like everything else, it’s about the grand importance of the male.
One final difference worth noting: I can’t think of an example where a guy’s performance as The Hero is affected by his yearning for a woman. Men are shown as being able to turn off their feelings in order to get a job done, while women become unstable or incapacitated when they fall in love. Maybe guys really think that because we show emotions, we aren’t in control of them. But that doesn’t make sense: if they really believed that, they wouldn’t criticize someone like Susan Smith for putting her desires to keep her boyfriend ahead of her children’s lives.
I think writers – female as well as male – simply find it inconceivable that anyone would lose their heads over something as unimportant as a woman is in our culture. She can’t get you a job. She can’t hook you up with the movers and shakers. She can’t call the mayor and get you out of a speeding ticket. Getting dysfunctional over a woman is like getting dysfunctional over a pet, isn’t it?
But getting dysfunctional over a man is normal. How many times have you seen a good guy v. bad guy movie where the good guy betrays his own allies trying to get the bad guy? He loses all perspective, and ends up making things worse instead of better, but that’s understandable. And it’s understandable when a woman screws up trying to get a man. But it would just be weird if a guy let down the team in order to get a woman – he would be viewed as less than a man, even by the females in the audience. And that says a whole lot right there.
The worst part is, in Humphrey Bogart’s day, it was conceivable that a woman could matter enough to a man for him to change and be deeply affected. Are we making slow progress toward a balanced view of men and women? Or are we moving backwards, retarding our own progress, as we’ve been known to do? There’s a popular notion among certain people that the Roman Empire collapsed due to rampant homosexuality. There’s an academic theory that suggests the reason for the rampant sexuality was that women were so devalued that the only way men could have romantic relationships with equals was with other men. The society was so imbalanced in their attitudes toward gender that they skewed their own sexuality.
And maybe that’s why Rome really fell. After all, if women are so inconsequential… who’s raising your kids?