Because You Were Born That Way
I walked in on a pair of older women in the editing room at the office a few weeks ago, and decided, in retrospect unwisely, to insert myself into a conversation they were having on the joys of grandmotherhood. “I know this isn’t a popular point of view these days,” one of the women was saying, “but still I’m convinced that boy and girls are different, really from the second they’re born. You can see it in the crib, even. Boys are just more aggressive.”
This mildly annoyed me and I objected pretty firmly, although in doing so I imagine I only made my coworker’s point for her. By having this attitude, I said, particularly with regard to children you’re helping to raise, you’re saddling the little whelps with a negative stereotype long before they’re cognizant enough to make decisions on their own. If you’ve ever felt that peculiar, helpless frustration when something you do or say is dismissed as being because “you’re a boy” or “you’re a girl,” then you might know why such attitudes are less than popular. They disregard the substance of your statements and actions, and at the same time undermine your sense of agency: you act not because you decide to, but because of a 50/50 fluke in the way you happened to come into this world.
Unpopular though these attitudes may be, Robert Altman’s latest movie, Dr. T & The Women, sustains them pretty well. This even though the movie’s opening frames are ostensibly about men and women learning about each other or, at least, about a man who has learned much about women (in one area where there is an indisputable biological difference) and used that knowledge to everyone’s mutual benefit. Which is to say that the movie begins with a gynecological exam. The house lights fall to the probing of an onscreen speculum, while a sheet draped discreetly over the examinee’s lap obscures both the examination and the doctor performing it. The visibly uncomfortable woman tries to distract herself by asking the as-yet-unseen doctor what it’s like to live in a house full of women. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he answers as he reveals his face: it’s Richard Gere as Dr. Travis, heartthrob gynecologist!
In the scene that follows, Robert Altman fans may recognize one of the director’s recent trademarks. Popularized in 1992’s The Player, it is a minutes-long continuous shot that tracks disconnected conversations and exchanges in a public place. In The Player, this place is a movie lot. Dr. T & The Women substitutes a doctor’s office waiting room, but the basic idea is the same. The credits roll pink for the girls, blue for the boys as female patients haggle with the receptionist or with each other over who is next in line. As in The Player, no one exchange, character, or group of characters is ever preferred, which gives the impression that the movie is going to be more about the place and the rituals surrounding it, less about the individuals who populate it. It also makes the waiting room’s atmosphere a univocal cacophony of haggling and frenzy.
The blue and pink titles prepare us for a movie about the differences between the sexes. True to form, the movie’s waiting room shenanigans are symptomatic of an impulse that, in Dr. T‘s logic, only females seem to have. Not long after the opening credits, Dr. T meets a comely assistant golf pro named Bree (Helen Hunt) on the course and regales her with tales of the 22 sets of twins he has delivered during his practice. He generalizes his newborns straight from the first breath. “If one’s a boy, there’s a game plan,” he assures her. But if they’re “both girls,” it’s a “race to the finish line.” It’s an ambiguous comment. It could mean that male and female infants leave the womb in different ways, or that boys and girls interact to form a “game plan” and that girls in the sole company of other girls do not. (Dr. T has no wisdom to offer about the birthing tendencies of twins who are both boys.) Or it could refer to Dr. T’s own approach to delivery. In any case, the comment presages some sweeping generalizations about gender. In these boy/girl, girl/girl configurations, the outcome is always the same, at least according to the good doctor.
Presumably, Dr. T’s willingness to indulge in these kinds of generalizations has something to do with his tendency to idolize women. He describes them as “sacred” and says to Bree that “there are no two alike,” meaning that each is wonderful in her own way. This is a nice enough sentiment, I suppose, and he says it with such conviction that Bree defers to him, choosing not to invoke the authority that is naturally hers she being, after all, a member of the gender Dr. T is struggling to describe. “A gynecologist says there’s no two alike,” she concedes, “I guess there’s no two alike.”
Dr. T’s excessive veneration of females as a gender causes problems in his romantic life, though; his wife, Kate (Farrah Fawcett), lapses into a regressive fugue state her psychiatrist describes as “Hystia complex” which is a disease that only affects women, primarily those who “love too much.” When Dr. T sparks up a romance with Bree, he offers to care for her so completely that she will never have to work again. “Why would I want that?” she says, genuinely puzzled, and we get a sense of where Kate’s “Hystia complex” may have come from: Dr. T, with the best of intentions, has smothered her with love.
Since Dr. T’s idolization of women and his related habit of smothering them have turned out to be obviously harmful, maybe the movie doesn’t quite endorse his generalizations about gender. But it still bears out Dr. T’s prize preconception: the one about boys at birth having a game plan, girls racing to the finish line. This difference is naturalized and essential, being present in people before they even develop free will. And although the women in Dr. T, as often as not, scramble hither and yon as though there were no finish line in sight, they do nevertheless behave as though improvising every step of the way, favoring frenzied, impulsive behavior to any kind of deliberation as witnessed in the chaotic babble of Dr. T’s waiting room.
Dr. T‘s men, on the other hand, are characterized by stoicism in the interest of achieving a goal. Hunting in the woods, Dr. T and his male cohorts mostly the husbands of his patients wait for hours for a deer to come by, while they talk quietly about their family troubles. If, like me and many of the people I know, you’ve occasionally wanted to cast off assumptions based blindly on your gender, Dr. T won’t offer up much for you in the way of hope. What chance is there of transcending this difference if it is so essential to human nature as to be reiterated, in various ways and various places, from the cradle to the grave? It can be undermined symbolically (the hunters who name their guns after women enact what Dr. T would see as a mostly male ritual). Or it can be struggled against fruitlessly, as Dr. T’s secretly gay daughter, DeeDee (Kate Hudson), does by harboring a lesbian lover even as her wedding day approaches. Though she tries to cast herself free of these separate-sphere gender roles and the enforced heterosexuality implicit in them DeeDee winds up reaffirming Dr. T’s preconception, even in the process of fighting it. She has no game plan, stringing both her fiance and her gay lover along because she simply can’t make up her mind.
We’re stuck, the movie seems to say. Men and women: this is simply how we are.
Altman fans may recognize the ethos behind Dr. T‘s establishing shot, since The Player was also largely about being stuck in your own skin, and being stuck in the systems around you. And like Dr. T, The Player is largely content with this. By nesting its conclusion in a cleverly composed self-reflection on the film industry, it saves itself the need to examine the fall from grace of its protagonist, Hollywood executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins). Mill spends the movie trying to extract himself from Tinseltown’s corruption. His attempts to escape form the basis for a screenplay he purchases at the movie’s end, though, a purchase that signals his surrender to the Hollywood system, with all its wealth and all its spiritual compromise. The movie’s witty, Back to the Future-style self-reflection (the script Mill buys is presumably to be made into The Player, the movie you’re watching) gives us yet another suffocating system that cycles endlessly, without any hope of real escape or transcendence. And like Dr. T, The Player never asks its audience to react to this with outrage or despair. Only a fleeting, ironic laugh that will be long gone before the final credits roll.