Mainstream media have touted Fair Play, a 2023 Netflix selection, as a cerebral new film by an emerging filmmaker who speaks important truths about capitalism, relationships between men and women, misogyny, and the state of American manhood.
Fair Play was directed and written by 36-year-old, Los Angeles native Chloe Domont. Domont graduated from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University with a BFA in Film and Television. Fair Play stars 28-year-old Phoebe Dynevor. Dynevor is a British actress who starred in Netflix’s Bridgerton, a mixed-race, R-rated, bodice-ripper set in Regency England. Co-star Alden Ehrenreich is a 33-year-old American actor from Los Angeles. Fair Play’s interior scenes were shot in Belgrade, Serbia.
I watched Fair Play with a real, live, American male who works in the corporate world. At the end of the film, our metaphorical jaws were on the metaphorical floor. “What the hell was that?” he asked.
“Another straw in the wind indicating the decline of Western Civilization,” I replied.
Warning: this review will reveal the entire plot of Fair Play, including the ending.
Fair Play opens to the strains of Donna Summer’s 1975 hit, “Love to Love You Baby.” The song reflects the film’s unsubtle and unconvincing insistence that its main characters, Emily (Dynevor) and Luke (Ehrenreich), are madly in love with each other. Emily and Luke are hedge fund analysts at the same Manhattan firm, One Crest Capital. They are also lovers and roommates. They keep their relationship a secret, because it violates company policy and basic common sense.
Luke and Emily tumble into a public bathroom during Luke’s brother’s wedding. Emily sits atop a sink; Luke performs cunnilingus. Emily is menstruating and her blood splatters across both of them. “It looks like you slaughtered a chicken,” Luke says. “Oh f—. Oh s—. Oh Christ.”
“What the f— is that?” Emily asks, about a shiny object on the bathroom floor. Luke is on his knees. He picks up the engagement ring and proposes.
“Okay,” Emily says.
“You asshole,” Luke says.
“You’re f—ing crazy,” Emily says.
Realizing that blood stains would prevent them from appearing in the wedding photos, they depart.
The next morning, Luke and Emily exit their shared apartment. Emily leaves the engagement ring on a table in the apartment. At work, they ride an elevator together and smirk as they playact at barely knowing each other.
One Crest Capital is a competitive workplace. A portfolio manager is fired and responds by smashing computers and screaming. Everyone witnesses this because the office walls are made of glass. Emily thinks that Luke might be considered as a replacement. Emily and Luke prematurely celebrate his assumed promotion by drinking champagne out of the bottle while bathing together. Luke makes goo-goo eyes at Emily, and asks, “How did I get so f—ing lucky?” He wants to marry quickly. “I have to mark my territory. I have to piss on my tree. You’re my tree.”
Emily wants to make their relationship public. Luke says he will reveal their relationship only after they both have enough power to say “f— you” to everyone beneath them.
Emily is in bed with Luke when she receives a two-in-the-morning phone call from CEO Campbell (55-year-old British actor Eddie Marsan). Campbell summons Emily to an exclusive bar called The Gold Room. Emily accedes to Campbell’s outlandish demand. She is working a competitive job and must submit if she wishes to reach the success potential that such a job dangles in front of her ambitious eyes.
At the bar, Emily orders a Diet Coke. Campbell stares at her. She immediately changes her order to “Macallan 25 neat,” a whiskey that costs almost $3,000 per bottle. Campbell reminds Emily that she “crawled out of” Lynbrook, Long Island, which he calls a “hole.” He quotes an article that she published in the Wall Street Journal when she was 17. Campbell offers Emily, not Luke, the recently vacated portfolio manager position.
Later, Luke suggests that Emily had sex with Campbell in order to be promoted. He also says she was a diversity hire, and that he, as a man, “never had a chance.” He becomes obsessed with Robert Bynes, a masculinity guru. He tells Emily that she dresses like a “f—ing cupcake” and thus cannot be taken seriously. She second guesses her attire and trades an open-neck blouse for a black turtleneck.
Emily struggles to shore up Luke’s sense of well being and also his position in the company. She encourages Luke to increase his work output; he does not. Campbell reveals to Emily that he hired Luke as a favor to a friend. He sees Luke as a weak player; a previous mistake by Luke had cost the company $15 million. Campbell hopes that Luke will get the message that he is not valued and quit his job. A bad call by Luke loses $25 million for the company; Emily is partially to blame because she trusted Luke in spite of his lax work habits. Campbell calls Emily a “dumb f—ing bitch.”
Luke tries to rectify his mistake by providing insider information to Emily. “This is my f— up. Fix it, please,” he says. Were she to act on his advice, she would risk prosecution. She acts on her own insights and wins much money for the company. She receives a $575,000 commission. She and her colleagues celebrate at a strip club. The men tell grotesque stories, meant to be funny, about sexual abuse of women and incest. Emily tries to act like one of the boys. She tosses around thousands of dollars and accepts a lap dance from a stripper. Back in the apartment, she attempts to force Luke into sex.
“I promise to help your career if you eat my pussy,” she says.
“You’re drunk,” he replies.
“You’re pathetic,” she says.
“You look like a hooker,” he says.
At another point, Emily walks in on Luke as he is reading a book by Robert Bynes. She tosses his book.
“I was reading that,” He says.
“We need to f— the s— out of each other right now. F— me so hard,” she orders.
Luke is unable to get an erection.
Another portfolio manager loses his job. Luke insists that Emily recommend him, Luke, to Campbell. Emily tries to communicate to Luke, in a way that will not hurt him, that Campbell will not promote him. Luke is enraged. He barges into Campbell’s office. Luke attempts to behave like a swaggering “alpha” male. He demands and gets Campbell’s time.
Luke announces that he heard Campbell speak when he, Luke, was a student at Yale. Campbell inspired him and changed his life. Luke says, “This firm has become my religion and you have become my god.” Luke gets down on his knees. In a glass-walled office, coworkers observe Luke’s self-abasement. Given that they are ruthless hedge fund employees, they find Luke’s behavior amusing. Campbell, with a Snidely Whiplash sneer, informs Luke that someone else has already been hired for the position. This new person made his previous firm $90 million in one quarter.
Back in the apartment, Luke discovers that Emily, while cleaning, has thrown out his notes on the masculinity guru.
In a subplot, Emily has frequent phone calls with her mother (Geraldine Somerville, a 56-year-old British aristocrat and actress). Emily’s mother is loud, crude, and insensitive. She insists, over Emily’s strenuous objections, that she is going to hold an engagement party for Emily and Luke. Given the precarious state of their relationship, it is clear that this party is the last thing Emily wants, but her mother, again, insists on the party, in rude and obscene language.
Campbell, Emily, and another colleague are pitching their company to Russian investors. It is, of course, important that they appear smooth and in control. A drunken Luke barges into the sales pitch and crudely announces that Emily “promised to promote me if I ate her f—ing pussy.” Later, at the engagement party arranged by Emily’s mother, Luke and Emily argue and then retreat to a public bathroom. Emily screams, repeatedly, that she hates Luke, before kissing him. She removes her undergarments and bends over a sink. Luke’s thrusts are violent. He pushes Emily’s head into the sink top. She asks him to stop. He does not.
The next day, Campbell and Emily meet to discuss Luke’s allegation that he has been in a forbidden relationship with Emily. Emily coolly informs Campbell that Luke is an unhinged stalker who fantasized being in a relationship with her. It is unclear whether Campbell believes Emily’s cover story or not; he seems not to care about its truth value. He says that everyone steps in “s—,” but that one must clean one’s shoes before entering the office, so as not to discourage investors and clients.
Upon returning to her apartment, Emily discovers that Luke is about to move to his brother’s place. His manner is calm and resigned.
“Why aren’t you apologizing?” she asks. “Why aren’t you begging for forgiveness?” She displays a bruise from Luke pushing her head into the sink top.
Luke rolls his eyes. He mentions that she smashed a beer bottle over his head.
“You raped me,” she says, advancing toward him.
“Raped you? What the f— are you talking about?” he asks, incredulous.
“I told you to stop and you kept going.”
“We both got carried away,” he says. “Let’s leave it at that.”
Emily cries and looks defeated and sad. “No, let’s not,” she says. She picks up a kitchen knife and advances toward Luke. Luke looks afraid. “You sit here, acting normal, after terrorizing me. After cutting me down day after day. You tried to ruin my job. My reputation.”
Luke retreats. His back is against the wall. “What do you want me to say?”
“I want you to get on your f—ing knees and beg for mercy. Say ‘Emily please'”
He says, “Emily, please.”
“Say, ‘Emily, I’m sorry.'”
“Emily, I’m sorry.”
“Now cry. If I can’t make you cry, I’m gonna make you bleed.”
She slashes his arm. He bleeds.
Emily demands that Luke say, “I’m sorry I hurt you. I’m sorry I raped you. I’m nothing.”
Luke complies. After saying “I’m nothing,” Luke begins to sob. Through tears, and with no further prompting from Emily, Luke says, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry I f—ed up. I f—ed up so bad. I don’t know what happened. It wasn’t me, I swear. I’ll do anything. Tell me what I can do to make it okay. I’m so sorry. I will do anything to make it okay for you.”
Emily is crying and looking sad. She kneels down and presses her forehead into Luke’s. They are nose to nose, both crying. It appears that they may kiss.
“Now wipe the blood off my floor and get out,” she says.
Luke looks at her as if seeing her for the first time.
“I’m done with you now,” she says. She stands, drops the knife, and lets out a little laugh.
On October 14, 2023, the New York Times published an op ed about Fair Play, entitled, “What Happens When a Woman Chooses Career Dominance Over Her Relationship.” Author Jessica Grose opens by citing a 2020 Harvard Business Review article entitled “What’s Really Holding Women Back?” Clearly, to the Times, Fair Play is no dismissable bit of popular entertainment. It is a serious movie addressing serious questions and it can be discussed on equal terms with scholarly articles. “Gendered assumptions about how women … should behave” are holding women back. “Another factor holding high-achieving women back at work was that in dual-earning couples, they allowed their husband’s jobs to take precedence over their own … Fair Play is about what happens when a woman declines to follow the expected script when it comes to work and life,” Grose concludes.
In an October 6, 2023 Times interview, Domont explains what inspired Fair Play. “It was many years of having this feeling … that my success didn’t totally feel like a win, because of the kinds of men I had been dating — that me being big made them feel small. It just made me realize how much hold these ingrained power dynamics still have over us.”
In a MovieMaker feature, Domont said of Luke’s masculinity guru Robert Bynes, “I based him off of Jordan Peterson … He speaks to that kind of audience — men that feel insecure in their skin … And he tries to channel … more of an aggressive alpha male energy to get men to feel more confident.” Though filmgoers often find the film morally ambiguous, with neither lead likable, Domont sides with Emily. “Emily is the better partner in the relationship, which means she is often reacting to Luke’s resentment, and trying to restore harmony between them.”
As of mid-October, 2023, Fair Play enjoys an 87% positive rating at RottenTomatoes. The site’s critical consensus reads, “With assured style that’s at times reminiscent of the best ’90s nail-biting thrillers, Fair Play juxtaposes premarital disharmony with greed and gender politics in the cutthroat finance world.” Audiences are less enthusiastic, granting Fair Play only a 51% score.
I’m a feminist. I feel for Chloe Domont. I have seen the studies that testify to the truths in Domont’s themes. Multiple studies have shown that men are more attracted to women they assess as less intelligent than themselves (e.g. here and this link to Daily Mail coverage of a peer-reviewed scholarly article, here). Men can become psychologically distressed if their wives begin to earn more money than they do (see here). In one study, men who earned less than their wives were more likely to cheat on their wives (here). Men are more likely to assess their relationships as of poor quality if their wives earn more (here).
I’ve never been a hedge fund manager, but I have been a teacher, and every semester I had to manage a minority of insecure but macho male students who did everything they could to undermine the class because their worldview would not allow them to take direction from a female. Male students like this sabotaged their own advancement to service their probably unconscious misogyny.
Had Fair Play been the deep, complex, and yes “fair” movie mainstream media touted it as being, I might have loved it. I can’t talk about how much I did not love this movie without sounding like a prude, a dinosaur, and a snob. So, here goes.
The minimum I ask for from a movie is that it be worth looking at. Even ugly themes can be treated in a way that makes for worthy visual stimulation. Leni Riefenstahl’s movies are pure evil but so visually compelling you can’t deny their power.
Fair Play fails at that most basic of criteria. It’s an ugly, stupid-looking film. Every scene is shot in the same, murky, nicotine-stain-yellow light. What message is the filmmaker attempting to hammer into her viewers? That capitalism is dirty? That male-female relationships lack clarity? My reaction to her choice was to squint and get my eyes as close to the screen as possible. After a while I just got bored at her heavy-handed, film-school shenanigans.
A film should create an immersive world. Fair Play’s world is not hedge fund Manhattan; it is a nicotine-stain-yellow confection in Serbia as imagined by Los Angelenos who went to film school. There is no authenticity. Uninterrupted sex and violence in public toilets at large, family parties? And no one enters? “Lock the door,” Emily says before toilet cunnilingus commences. I’ve never been in a public bathroom with multiple stalls where a user can lock the main door. Emily didn’t know she was menstruating? She’s wearing a sheer, champagne-colored, satin gown. Here’s a really basic inside fact about women – before a woman attends a large family party in a sheer, champagne-colored gown, she knows whether she’s menstruating or not. One leak and she becomes a perennial family anecdote. This movie is supposed to be speaking important truths about women and it got one of the most basic truths about women totally wrong.
Phoebe Dynevor is the child of two British show business veterans. Chloe Domont is from LA and a film school graduate. Steven Spielberg scooped up Alden Ehrenreich after seeing him in a bat mitvzah video that featured Spielberg’s daughter. So steeped in show business, so divorced from the world of, say, working people in the “hole” of Lynbrook, Long Island, I don’t think any of these people could make an authentic film about men, women, relationships, and the workplace.
For poke-in-the-eye level inauthenticity, there’s Geraldine Somerville as Emily’s mother. Somerville’s performance comes right out of a tin can labeled “obnoxious loudmouth American female stereotype! Now 90% off!” The aristocratic, British Somerville is so unreal, her performance is so incompetent, that when she appeared I thought, “Is this movie just an absurdist parody? Were we supposed to be laughing this whole time?” I’m not alone. Amateur reviews of Fair Play point out that Emily’s mother is a gaping hole of unbelievability.
Campbell mocks Emily for coming from the “hole” of Lynbrook, Long Island. Here’s a tip for people who know nothing about real life making a movie that is supposed to be saying important things about real life. When anyone in the New York City metro area has anything unkind to say about Long Island, we say, “Lawngisland,” emphasizing the elision between “ng” and “I.” and, to be really cutting, we say, “The Guyland.” Campbell doesn’t do that. Further, Campbell’s accent is South Boston. Southie Campbell wouldn’t be an issue if that’s what the filmmaker intended, but the accent comes across as an error springing either from lack of knowledge or lack of interest in authenticity.
Netflix is so famous for mixed-race casting that memes mock its blackwashing. According to these memes, Netflix will produce a miniseries on Vladimir Putin starring a black actor; Netflix will produce a biopic of Elon Musk starring a black actor. Jada Pinkett Smith, who is black and bald, will star as Rapunzel. Fair Play presents a very negative view of capitalism and of men. Guess how many lead actors are black? That’s right. Zero. Evil is white.
Fair Play’s inauthenticity isn’t just about accents. Emily and Luke, the leads, are paper cutouts manipulated to serve Chloe Domont’s didactic agenda. Even their names are generic. “Emily” and “Luke” were popular baby names about 25 years ago. Viewers never learn why two ambitious people were so crazy about each other that they risked their jobs to be together.
The movie wants us to believe that Emily is a genius, able to rise above coming from a “hole,” and pervasive misogyny. But then the movie wants us to believe that she is incapable of the most basic assertion with her mother. Emily has been with Luke for two years and it never occurred to her that having public sex with a less skilled male competitor at a cut-throat, high stakes hedge fund might cause problems. When Luke’s lax works habits sabotage her, she is shocked, shocked.
Dynevor is not visually compelling, and she has negligible charisma. Emily, we are to believe, relishes bloody sex in public toilets; she invites a female stripper to lap dance on her; she smokes, drinks, takes MDMA, and she enjoys dehumanizing incest anecdotes. Dynevor, playing Emily, walks as if she were balancing a charm-school book on the top of her head. The actress remains divorced from the crudity of the character she is playing. Dynevor, the actress, and Emily, the script’s down-and-dirty go-getter, never cohabit onscreen.
The late Anne Heche, for example, could have made of Emily what she would – seductress, striver, genius, femme fatale. Equally as good – Barbara Stanwyck, who was terrific at playing ambitious, complicated women. Either Heche or Stanwyck could have been the screen goddess cat playing with this mouse of a script.
Emily’s shifting characterization is never more obvious than in the final scene. She’s been demanding sex from Luke, begging him for sex, asking to be “f—ed hard.” She breaks a beer bottle over his head – which is close to impossible for a woman to do. She screams that she hates him. She then kisses him, strips, and bends over a sink. Then she accuses Luke of “raping” her.
At that point I paused the film and turned to my male moviegoing companion. I said that I thought that the movie, which, so far, struck me as having no real point, was going to veer into Fatal Attraction, with Emily as the crazy woman scorned. Of course, I thought, we, the audience, should not be taking Emily’s accusation of rape at face value. Of course this was an unhinged, false accusation. Finally, so close to its end, Fair Play might finally provide at least five minutes of interesting material.
My male companion looked at me with world weary eyes. “She shows the bruises to a cop. Luke is arrested.”
“But she asked for it!” I squeaked. “She specifically ordered to be ‘f—ed hard!'”
“All she has to do is show the bruises,” my male companion repeated.
“Humph!” I said, and turned the movie back on. My companion was correct. The movie really wanted us to take Emily’s rape accusation seriously. The movie wanted us to hate on Luke, and to rejoice when Emily crushes him.
How do I know Domont’s intentions? She tells us. “The ending for me was all about Emily reclaiming the power that Luke takes away from her when he sexually assaults her. I set out to make a thriller about power dynamics on the ugliest level …. Is she gonna hold him accountable, and how? … This is a man who refuses to be held accountable on any single level … This is a man … who refuses to acknowledge his own weaknesses, his own failures. He refuses to look in the mirror … The only way to hold a person like that accountable is to use physical force … It’s wish fulfillment. It’s also staying true to the thriller genre … The whole film builds up to him saying ‘I’m nothing.’ That’s the first acknowledgment of his own failures. Of his own weakness … this is a film about male fragility … On the other side of [Luke’s] abuse, she can just finally breathe. Ending the film on her exhale was really important to me.”
Emily, intending it or not, rubbed salt in Luke’s wounds of insecurity. Emily attempted to use sex and verbal bullying to manipulate Luke, a man who was signaling his own vulnerabilities loudly and clearly. Domont insisted that Luke never took responsibility for his behavior. Sheesh. Emily begged for rough sex, and when she got it, she cried rape. Two years previously, Emily embarked on a forbidden and foolish relationship with a coworker whom she knew to be her professional inferior. Emily lived with and slept with a man she did not love and to whom she was not truly committed. Domont wants men, but not women, to look in the mirror.
Luke is less of a cipher than Emily, and Ehrenreich is a better actor than Dynevor. Ehrenreich brings Luke to life as a Yale frat boy struggling with his inner slacker and trying to travel some guru’s shortcut to alpha manhood while not doing real-world work. He’s crazy about Emily as long as he can sit back and wallow in having snagged not just “the prettiest girl in the room,” but also the girl “most likely to succeed.” As soon as rocks appear in the road, he crumbles because he’s not fully mature. Luke is believable in a way that Emily never is.
“F—, f—, f—, f—.” Yes, that is one actual line of Fair Play dialogue in its totality. A well-made movie could get me to care about people with trash mouths. Fair Play is not that movie. The problem is more, though, than that the characters’ speech violate my values. Domont, the screenwriter, relies on the word “f—” as a crutch in place of writing that could have made me care, think, feel. Instead I was subjected to a numbing series of self-indulgent verbal trash dumps.
While watching Fair Play, I kept thinking of a superior film, one made by a man who had lived much: Billy Wilder. The Apartment (1960) starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and Fred MacMurray, was directed by Billy Wilder and written by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond.
Wilder was 54. He had been born in Sucha, a small Polish town. Sucha was “half an hour from Vienna. By telegraph,” as Wilder would later joke. He produced films in Germany. When Hitler took power, Wilder moved to Paris, and then Hollywood. His family members who remained in Poland were murdered in two different concentration camps and one ghetto. By 1960, Wilder had been married a couple of times.
It astounds me that The Apartment and Fair Play are almost the same length: 125 minutes and 113 minutes, respectively. Fair Play is a lecture on diversity and inclusion with just one point. The Apartment is a multi-faceted world. If you want to watch The Apartment as a cynical film about how capitalism invites naive and predatory humans alike to corrupt themselves through greed, you can. If you want to watch a movie about men callously exploiting women for temporary pleasure and then throwing those women away, you can. If you want to watch a sweet romantic comedy featuring a dewy damsel in distress and a knight in shining armor, you can. If you want to watch a movie about suicide – there are two suicide attempts in the film – you can. Every one of these onscreen themes is as real as a beating human heart.
The Apartment’s set designer, Alexandre Trauner, created a cinematic office that may never be bested onscreen. See here and here. The Apartment’s set design does work for which no script could substitute. One look at the office where CC Baxter (Jack Lemmon) toils and you learn much of what you need to know about how work can dehumanize people, and why Baxter would sell his soul to get out of that office. He has to sell his soul just to work in an office that looks like that; serving as his superiors’ virtual pimp is just one step of self-abnegation beyond his life as an office drone, and being a virtual pimp offers superior rewards.
Van Gogh liked to emphasize the pinkness of his pinks by painting pink next to green. The two shades complement each other and reinforce the impression both make. Wilder, a man who knew both the bitter and the sweet, knew how to juxtapose life’s bitter and sweet to reinforce each. In the midst of the crudeness of human merchandising in The Apartment, Wilder inserted hysterically funny humor. Sheldrake (MacMurray) is, Satan-like, tempting Baxter with the world in exchange for his soul. Baxter is struggling with nasal spray. “This must never leak out,” Sheldrake warns. Baxter accidentally squirts a fountain of nasal spray. This is a double pun. Baxter and Sheldrake have been brought together by powerful men’s inability to control their ejaculations (see here).
There is no similar juxtaposition of the bitter and the sweet in Fair Play. Again, every last scene is dark and stained. There’s no humor, no tenderness. Domont is telling us how bad the world is. Why should we care, then? If there had been one real moment of love between Luke and Emily, we might have cared more about their relationship’s demise.
The Apartment’s take on the place of women in corporate America is much darker than in Fair Play. There is no Campbell who appreciates that a brilliant female underling published in the Wall Street Journal when she was just 17. Rather, in The Apartment, men treat women as commodities, and women are resigned to that treatment. They volunteer to be treated as things, as a temporary entertainment for a powerful man, because that is the best they can hope for. It’s clear that women in The Apartment can never rise above sexually exploited secretaries, elevator operators, horny, lonely barflies, deceived and abandoned wives, and suicides.
There are strippers in both Fair Play and The Apartment. With dim lighting and repulsive incest jokes, Domont hammers into the viewer: “Stripping is bad! It is misogynist! It is exploitation!” The Apartment’s stripping is more disturbing. There’s a drunken Christmas party illuminated by bright, fluorescent lighting. Workers are getting drunk, making out, and singing Christmas carols. A working class secretary who has previously revealed less intelligent and lower class speech patterns has been having adulterous sex with an older, unattractive executive. She climbs onto a table and strips. The actress is Joan Shawlee, who is past her first youth, and is a bit larger than the ideal stripper. The juxtaposition of the “most wonderful time of the year” and drunken stripping by a mature woman in a large body gets under the viewer’s skin. The movie doesn’t shout at us that this woman is not very bright, was probably born poor, and has been lured by temporary pleasure onto a self-destructive course; we feel it. We feel her pathetic participation in what we know will be her ultimate denigration.
Even in this sexual dystopia, The Apartment captures something that Domont appears to be unaware of. In Eavan Boland’s poetic masterpiece “Quarantine,” about the Irish Potato Famine, there are two lines that do much work: “What there is between a man and woman / And in which darkness it can best be proved.”
We will never reach Utopia, no matter how Utopians define Utopia. We will always be imperfect beings, imprisoned by flesh, flesh that makes demands, gendered demands honed by evolution. We are put off by cold and abusive women. We appreciate nurturing women because we were all once fetuses and then babies, products of a woman’s body and dependent on a woman’s ability to nurture. We appreciate traditionally masculine men because traditionally masculine men do the work that they are best equipped to do: protection and provision of resources. Men who fail at traditional masculinity are a societal menace or burden to us all.
Given how different we are, our relationships are imperfect. Yes, it is natural for men to be challenged by non-traditional women. Yes, if a non-traditional woman wants to succeed, she does have to navigate men who require some reassurance.
Yes, it is women’s job to reassure men. If choosing to challenge men, as did Spartan women, “Come home with your shield or on it,” women must be intelligent about how and when they challenge. That’s because, in their criticisms of men, women wield power, in the same way that men wield power with their superior physical strength. When I was teaching insecure but macho young men who felt they needed to undermine me, I was careful. I didn’t wave my PhD or their ignorance in their faces. Rather, I made promises. “I have something to offer you. Do well in this class and you will master knowledge that will improve your life. And I will write you a great letter of recommendation one day.” This didn’t always work, but when it did, young men who had previously been hostile became valuable allies. And they benefited from my teaching, which is what I wanted. I didn’t want to stab them. I wanted to win them over to seeing knowledge as a glorious asset, and to seeing me as their guide, rather than their enemy.
My male moviegoing companion reminded me that it’s not just women who have to tell men how manly they are. Men have to tell women that they aren’t fat, that they don’t look old, even if they do, that they are desirable, even if they are cleaning the bathroom or taking care of kids. We need each other and we need each other in gendered ways.
Just as we give, we receive. Women receive from men. We receive even within the confines of imperfect relationships. Not just Emily, the fictional character, received from men like Campbell, who recognized her value and advanced her career. Domont, the filmmaker, talked at length in the MovieMaker feature about how men mentored her, men marketed her work, men funded her, and men competed to pay her large sums of money.
I am a dinosaur; I grew up in an antediluvian world where I virtually never heard the word “f—” in daily conversation. Divorce was almost non-existent. I knew couples where the man was a jerk and the woman occasionally punched him; where the man was remote and the woman was lonely; where the man gambled and drank and the woman carried the financial burden on her shoulders. I was around these marriages long enough to see one partner die, and to see the other partner mourn their imperfect life companion. “He was such a good man!” “She was the best wife!” These relationships were hard. They included all the problems we talk about today, as if we had discovered the wheel. And yet something existed “between a man and a woman,” and they somehow worked it out.
In Fair Play’s final scene, Emily is standing above Luke. Luke is bleeding. Luke has just announced that he is “nothing,” that he has “f—ed up,” that he will do anything to get Emily back. Emily is now the winner. Luke has been humiliated. We are supposed to read this scene as Emily triumphant over her male persecutor. This is Rosalind Franklin’s revenge on James Watson; Rosie the Riveter’s revenge on those who made her surrender her job and sit at home in a poodle skirt and a pointy bra; Tina Turner’s revenge on Ike.
Except it’s not. Again, we are honed by evolution. Men are the “fight or flight” sex. Women are the “tend and befriend” sex. Emily would be victorious not when choosing, as Domont insists, violence, the male solution. Emily would be victorious when she learned to forgive Luke and herself, and find a companion with whom she could be her best self.
As a feminist, it’s not my goal to humiliate anyone, or to have one sex triumph over the other. My feminism is about dignity for all and a recognition that both sexes equally contribute to the human race. Stabbing someone may be a cheap attention grab, but a really interesting plot would talk about how we successfully navigate the sex’s differing desires and agendas; that is, how we get past the roadblocks without resorting to stabbing each other. But I guess that makes me a dinosaur.
Danusha Goska is the author of God Through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery