Help!! I Need Someone!
Since I’m finding myself exceedingly sick of politics and viruses, let’s return to those halcyon days when I was writing a lot about the conventions of romantic fiction – one of them in particular – the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I know, I know, I said I was done with these, but writing about romance is like escaping a Balrog – just when you think you’re out, romance reaches out with its fiery whip, grabs you by the ankle and pulls you back down into the very bowels of the Earth itself, trapping you there until you produce a 3000 word think piece.
Fly, you fools!
Anyhoo, in the course of discussing MPDG, an intriguing question was raised. If, as many have noted, Manic Pixie Dream Girls are a male fantasy in which a wacky and winsome woman comes into an average guy’s life during a low point to shake things up and enable him to get his feet back under them again, what is the equivalent for women? Are there any?
At first blush I didn’t think there were. I thought the type of romances marketed to women centered mainly on the notion of making women feel special and the male love interests are mostly interchangeable hunky bodice rippers. But then, after reading a piece I wrote one of my fave romantic tropes, Men Who Help, a friend pointed out that the man who comes winging in from parts unknown and just wants to help a girl out of a jam, or perhaps a pickle, just may be the counterpart of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. He too comes from out of nowhere when you least expect him and shakes up a woman’s life in all the right ways. He too asks nothing in return – at least, nothing that you don’t want to give him with open arms, and usually open legs. I did some thinking on it and concluded it’s true – The Man Who Helps is the fictional counterpart of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
I find the Man Who Helps trope is something that comes up in my attempts at fiction again and again. Both as a reader and as a writer, I unabashedly love the idea of a man who simply steps in to lend a hand, without some sinister ulterior motive, without some hidden agenda. He’s just there, there for YOU, a good human being you can rely on in your darkest hour, and you don’t have to do anything in return.
I mean, you can if you WANT to, but you don’t have to.
I think The Man Who Helps is the most romantic thing ever and I don’t heckin’ care if the Sisters of Perpetual Outrage don’t find it empowering. I have no time to be empowered, because I am exhausted, and if I want to sink into a bubble bath in the 30 seconds of free time a day I have available to me and imagine a scenario in which an attractive man might show up and actually want to carry part of a woman’s load instead of demanding she handle 47 other urgent problems for him such as the solving The Mystery of Honey, Where the Hell is My Cellphone? I’m going to enjoy every second.
You can’t take that away from me and replace it with a tale about a woman who don’t need nothing from nobody because she came from a hidden mystical Greek island or was exposed to a piece of the Tesseract or was trained in her youth to be an unstoppable killing machine by the wise but brutal Pai Mei, and all her problems are just CGI.
Well you can, of course, and Hollywood seems to be making a pretty good run at it, but those scenarios do nothing for me. I want me a Man Who Helps.
I have been trying to think of an example of Men Who Help being carried to the nauseous extremes of the worst of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stories, in which women are completely dehumanized in the service of making men feel better about themselves, giving and giving and wringing themselves dry, asking nothing in return, not even a semblance of dignity, and then going away again when their love interest didn’t need them anymore. I looked for that in a story featuring Men Who Help – really looked for it. Wracked my brain, even.
And did it ever hurt! I had a really hard time with it. I couldn’t come up with anything off the top of my head. But when I went back and read some comments on my previous posts I realized another friend had already suggested one – The Bridges of Madison County.
Despite loving the Men Who Help trope, I hate that book. I hate it because it is a story written for men in the guise of being a story for women. The Bridges of Madison County is about some Dude With A Cool Job who rolls into town, gets some woman to fall in love with him because of his cool dudeliness (he wasn’t even TRYING, she just fell for him because he was so freakin’ awesome), bangs the stuffing out of her which was of course just what she needed, and she doesn’t leave her husband for him because she is an Official Good Woman meaning that it was ok that the Dude With A Cool Job screwed over his fellow guy. (Bros before hos, Dude, bros before hos.)
I mean, it was MAGIC, it just happened, no one could help it, and no one was a bad person, least of all the Dude With A Cool Job. And then the woman pined after this Dude who she had known for precisely four days, so much so that she wanted her ashes scattered at the bridge they had visited rather than beside her entirely decent husband who she had known for several decades, the father of her children, the man who had rescued her from post-war Italy. The Dude With A Cool Job’s penis was just that powerful.
Now, you may be wondering how exactly the Dude With A Cool Job helped the Official Good Woman in The Bridges of Madison County. Because this is an article about Men Who Help, not Men Who Fuck. But of course, that’s a very common trope itself, particularly for fictional endeavors dating from maybe 1970ish thru the earlyish 90s. The uptight, sexually repressed woman, and the man who helps loosen her up and/or brings life-altering joy to her drab and mundane existence with his magical penis power.
I’m a big enough person to admit, that even though this trope is somewhat offensive to me when badly done (and it is usually badly done) there’s some truth in it. A lot of women ARE highly strung, tightly wound, sexually uptight…or so I hear…and there’s something compelling in the idea of a man with the patience and generosity to work with you on that (for a book/movie on this subject I enjoyed far, far more because it was actually written for women, please check out the vastly superior How Stella Got Her Groove Back.)
As I sat in quiet contemplation regarding why I hated The Bridges of Madison County so much even though I like some of the tropes in it, it occurred to me that there’s a difference between Happily Ever After and Happily NEVER After. If a story ends with either a man disappearing into the night as if he’s being pursued by marriage-minded jackals, or a woman evaporating into stardust like Manic Pixie Dream Girls are wont to do, I almost always hate it. Why does ANYONE have to go? Can’t they work it out? Isn’t there enough leaving in this world? Why do people have to abandon each other even in my fantasies?
Once I saw it, I realized that Men Who Help And Go (For Alas, They Cannot Stay) is a genre unto itself, and it’s not a minor one. It’s Casablanca. It’s Shane. It’s Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s the loveliest love triangle of them all – Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Wolverine. It’s one of the fundamental problems facing the Winchester Brothers in Supernatural. For those who prefer CULTURE culture to pop culture, the Men Who Help And Go (For Alas, They Cannot Stay) is the motivation behind that dude in Dickens who says “It’s a far far better thing I do than I have ever done before” and bravely goes to the guillotine in his frenemy’s place.
After ruminating on the off putting grossness that is The Bridges of Madison County and trying to discern why it was that book, beloved by so many, bugs the crap out of me, I realized that in terms of what ~I~ personally enjoy, it is not enough to just have the man help and then ride off into the sunset. The helping must be permanent and that means staying must be involved.
I suspect a lot of women agree with me. (This may be why TBoMC has sold 60 million copies despite being out for nearly 30 years, and Fifty Shades of Grey, the first in a series that ends with a marriage and a happily ever after, sold 125 million copies in 4 years even though I believe it to be the worst book ever written, and I have read The DaVinci Code.)
The truth is, women want more from the story than a dude who asks nothing of us but a shag, baby, and goes away once he gets it. Women are not men, and because women are not men, a straightforward reversal of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope doesn’t work. A man taking a powder after having sex with us, even if it’s for a noble reason and not “I gotta get up real early in the morning, babe”, feels like a fail. No matter how many times men say “it’s not you, it’s me” it still feels like a rejection. And it’s no fun to live vicariously through a rejection.
It’s not just a happily ever after story we’re after, either – although I think a lot of women love the happily ever after stories, that’s why most romance novels feature marriage as a plot point or the end game. It’s that women want to help men, too. That’s part of the reason why women like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope to begin with.
We WANT to help. Regardless of what the MRA claim, we don’t want to just take from a man. We want to be needed. We want to make a difference in a man’s life just as he makes a difference in our own. In a properly done Men Who Help story, the female character gets to give something back to the male character, something important, something he values, something that alters him irrevocably. Fifty Shades of Grey, as terrible as it is, hinges on that very notion – Anastasia Steele helps Christian Grey far more than he helps her.
I don’t think women feel romantically complete without being needed by their partner. In fact, it’s one of the cruelest insults men throw at their partners – I don’t need you, I don’t really even want you, you’re not doing me any favors here, I’m here because I’m bored and I don’t have anything else going on, you’re a place filler till someone better comes along. Hearing those words devastates even the most confident of women, and being in this type of relationship in the long term feels like an exercise in futility. In a very real way, helping a man feeds into women’s desire to feel special. We did something for our man that no one else was able to do; we matter to him more than any other woman on the planet ever could.
This is not a one sided affair; I think men enjoy feeling needed by a woman, too. Embracing that ethos “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” and going out of the way to make a potential beau feel unwelcome and unneeded is not a recipe for a happily ever after, let alone a second date. As un-PC as it is, I think a whole lot of men enjoy the notion of being a superhero, a savior, a little bit of a sugar daddy, and you know what – that is entirely ok. I think it’s kind of poopy when we judge each other over liking certain romantic scenarios, and downright nonsensical that we do it while simultaneously fighting for each other’s rights to our various sexual identities and defending every fetish the human brain can come up with. Surely if sex stuff between consenting adults is off limits for judgement, romantic preferences (being all wrapped up in that sex stuff and all) ought to be the same way.
Let people like what they like and MYOB, haters.
The way I see it, the most romantic scenarios in the whole wide world are NOT “man saves woman”. Nor are they “woman fixes broken man”. They are “man saves woman and finds out he needs her to save him too.” That’s the stuff dreams are made of.
Men Who Help And Need Help Too. I like it. This doesn’t contradict the original premise of the Men Who Help trope, either – because the Man Who Helps And Needs Help Too isn’t DEMANDING anything. The help a woman offers him is voluntary, mutual; he gives back to her as much as he receives, if not more so. In most cases (oftentimes not only fictionally, either) the help the man needs most is of the type that women are especially able to provide – emotional support, love, encouragement, and somewhat PG-13 rated sex in which no woman is expected to act like a porn star unless she happens to want to and it’s ok if a feller has a Dad Bod and a receding hairline.
So with all this floating around in my head and not yet on the page, this weekend I was finally, finally able to rewatch a movie I LOVED when it came out all the way back in 1987. This movie is called The Big Easy. Much to my surprise, I found out that despite being a huge hit and critically praised (even by Ebert) at the time of its release, it is not a good movie, in that it has not stood up well to the ravages of time. But it IS an extremely romantic movie and one of the most romantic parts of it is that it has the Men Who Help And Need Help Too dynamic.
The female protagonist is – because after all The Big Easy is a movie from the Golden Age of Sexually Uptight Women Being Assisted By a Magic Penis School of Filmmaking – sexually uptight, the male protagonist is charming and patient, and this culminates in what I believe to be the best sex scene ever filmed even though they don’t quite actually get to the sex stuff and everyone is fully clothed.
Then the plot of the movie actually starts and as it turns out, lo and behold, Dennis Quaid needs Ellen Barkin just as much as she needed him. She helps him become a better man, encourages him to turn over a new leaf, no longer being just a corrupt New Orleans cop but a corrupt New Orleans cop that gets away with it by bringing down all the other corrupt cops and we’re all just gonna forget about that bad stuff that he did.
80s movies, no unpleasant consequences for anyone except the bad guys. Look, as already established, The Big Easy is not a terribly good movie, ok? I just found out it was made into a TV show during the 90s that looks equally dated if not more so, so it may not even be salvageable for future generations.
But there is a reason why I loved this movie so when I was younger, and it’s because it’s a successful iteration of the Men Who Help trope. Because it understands that it’s not enough to be saved by a guy – you need to save him in return. You need him to need you in return.
Romance is not just a one-way street. That’s why women don’t hire gigolo handymen.
Men need women. Women need men. This is a bit of a politically incorrect take in both directions these days. Ever since the ball dropped on this new and thus far pretty mediocre millennia, we encounter a lot of fiction in which the man is a hapless, helpless, clueless boob and the girl likes him because he’s in the body of one of the Chrises, and then she beats up some bad guys because she has superpowers. Or else we get The Bridges of Madison County type of plot where a dude meets a woman who changes his life for the better and in eternal gratitude, he dumps her – for alas, he cannot stay.
And for me, that stuff is totally “meh”. Most feminist film critics were celebrating the fact that Mad Max and Furiosa didn’t even kiss, but I’m still raw about it. No fun, no fun at all! What’s the point of feminism if we have to give up the stuff that makes being a woman fantastic like the magnificent lips of Tom Hardy?
I think most of these movies are made for men, by men, and they pretend to be for women because that’s what the movie critics at the Mary Sue claim to like because it lets them pretend that there is no such thing as pink brains and blue brains.
And that makes my pink brain feel mighty neglected sometimes.
I believe that a lot of what passes for empowerment nowadays is really misogyny dressed up like Gloria Steinem, trying to distract us gal folk while we continue giving dudes exactly what they want politically, culturally, and sexually. (You can tell this by how scantily clad the women in all these supposedly empowering movies are and how disposable the #metoo movement has proven to be. Once it outlived its political expediency, #metoo got the ol’ heave ho.)
But this is a piece about romance, not politics.
The question on the table is this: is it possible? Is it possible to have a plot where two people who need each other find each other and help each other and at then the end of the story neither of them up and disappear to greener pastures? And if it is, is it the most romantic movie in ever?
Stay tuned, this is a two parter!