At the start of What Women Want, we learn the definition of a “man’s man.” This lesson comes first from the ex-wife of Nick Marshall (Mel Gibson), and he is Exhibit A. As she has it, a “man’s man” garners the admiration of other men, and loves women’s bodies but is also confused and frightened by their mysterious nature. In Nick’s case, he’s the product of being raised by a Las Vegas showgirl mom, who kept him with her backstage so that she and her fellow showgirls could treat him like a king. His hypermasculinity has left a lasting impression on those women close to him: his ex-wife (Lauren Holly) goes on to describe his killer charm and self-absorption, his 15-year-old daughter Alex (Ashley Johnson) observes that he’s less a father than her “Uncle Dad,” and then, his secretary reports on his bad jokes, crappy errands, and disrespect for all the women who work with him. Basically, all the women in his life hate him, but Nick is completely clueless in his “man’s man” sort of way, until a fateful accident involving a hair dryer and a bathtub zaps him into a state where he can hear what women think. It is this ability that ultimately teaches him to treat people with kindness, respect, and attentiveness.
I suppose this is what the film is trying to say women want. But Nick’s transformation is more complicated than it looks at first. As a man who can barely watch female-oriented television shows and commercials, Nick’s newfound insight initially scares him, forcing open a once cryptic interior female world that is far different from the polite and predictable exterior with which he is comfortable. But when he realizes the potential power his gift grants him (with the help of a shrink played by Bette Midler), he decides to use it to sabotage his new boss, Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt), whom he believes has stolen the position he was meant to have at an upscale advertising agency. But, of course, as a result of the lessons he learns by listening in on Darcy’s thoughts, Nick falls in love with her and she with him.
There are a few things, all unoriginal and unsubtle, that distinguish sensitive Nick from chauvinist Nick. Most obvious is his wardrobe: the old Nick wears only black, shark-attack-looking outfits, leather jackets and close-fitting shirts; the new Nick wears, you guessed it, blue, brown, and white, in less aggressive-seeming styles. As well, the old Nick tends to appear in close, confining camera shots, where nice Nick more often appears in long shots, emphasizing that he exists in larger spaces with considerably less clutter in the background: before his lesson, Nick’s experience is small, while afterwards, he is less limited by the borders of the screen and—most importantly—his attitude. Certainly, his behavior changes: most crucially, he listens, carefully. He tells Darcy one of his more profound discoveries, that women worry all the time—about their appearances, their jobs, their lovers, their children, even their home appliances—and he sympathizes with these worries. She’s impressed. For the first time, it seems, Nick is able to identify with women on a human level.
Perhaps more importantly, Nick begins absorbing the pop culture around him in a way that’s more stereotypically “feminine.” The resulting “girlish” behaviors provide for the film’s biggest laughs. Near the beginning of the movie, we see Nick listening to Frank Sinatra with a rakish look of appreciation; by the end, he’s more entranced by Ol’ Blue Eyes’ romance. Or, again, he initially watches his widescreen tv with disgust when a feminine hygiene commercial or a bit of women’s gymnastics comes on, his contorted face and exclamations displaying just what he thinks of “girl-power” and love stories. But soon enough, he’s watching tv in a whole new way, crying during a Richard Simmons infomercial in which a woman relates her sad, pre-weight loss story—quite a change from the snickering macho man we first meet.
While all of the aforementioned changes are clues that viewers are supposed to sympathize with Nick, none coerces us more than his increased attentiveness and kindness, leading to his “heroism.” In one climactic sequence, Nick acts as a knight in shining armor for three women in need of rescuing—a sexless office worker who’s feeling suicidal (apparently because she’s sexless); Alex during a disastrous prom date; and Darcy as she’s struggling with her down-turning career (owing to Nick’s sabotaging, for which he now feels badly). In essence, his ability to listen to women’s thoughts becomes the equivalent of a rather overdue visit from the spirits of Christmas past and these good deeds evidence his conversion.
It’s telling that Nick’s behavioral metamorphosis makes at least one other character think he’s gay—how else could a man be so perceptive and refined? After the accident, Nick is no longer praised for his manliness—as when a male stranger tells him his success in asking out a reluctant coffee shop girl, Lola (Marisa Tomei) is “inspiring”—but commended by women for his compassion. He no longer spends time with his male coworker and confidant, Morgan (Mark Feuerstein) or smokes cigars with the company president (Alan Alda), but instead hangs out in the break room with the “girls,” offering them good sense advice on their bad-behaving boyfriends and husbands.
Along with the movie’s rather disturbing gender politics and the fact that women function mainly as props to Nick’s development, there are some slapstick bits that will make even the most jaded viewer chuckle (Mel Gibson rolling uncontrollably on spilled bath beads while wearing pantyhose and nail polish comes to mind). Still, most of these lighthearted moments ask us to laugh not at Gibson’s expense but at women’s. When Nick waxes his legs for the first time, the laugh line is partly his expression of surprise and pain, but more that women must be crazy to do this at all. What Women Want will most certainly inform viewers about dating and grooming etiquette, as well as the oppressiveness of Western gender roles. However noble this attempt may be, it is not expansive enough, but it never could be, given the film’s premise. The title actually represents the biggest problem I have with the movie—the assumption , in answer to Freud’s famous question, that all women want the same things from life, from love, and from relationships—to be heard and respected. More insidiously, in this movie, they want to be heard and respected regarding concerns that are, in effect, produced by a male-oriented commercial culture—they want to have sympathy for lipstick and Wonderbra anxieties. The assumption that listening, kindness, and respect are the same things to all women and that real men can not display these attributes without the help of some freak accident is as ludicrous as it is annoying.