I grew up on the romantic comedies of Rock Hudson and Doris Day, a parade of films showcasing the battle of the sexes through coy innuendo. The story was always the same: a prudish careerwoman, prim and a little naive, faces competition from a smooth-talking, cynical neanderthal of a man. Dancing somewhere between disgust and desire, they tip the scales toward love. If the movies took a slight turn toward the misogynistic, I could always remind myself they were reminiscent of an earlier age. After all, we’ve come such a long way since then.
Enter Gerard Butler and Katherine Heigl.
Their recent film The Ugly Truth has been touted repeatedly as the successor to these classics and there’s no doubt that it follows the same storyline. In so doing, it acts as an unfortunate reminder that, not only have we not come very far at all, but women aren’t the only ones who suffer from such a shallow showcasing of stereotypes.
The film tells the story of Abby Richter (Heigl), a thirty-something news producer who runs background checks on her blind date candidates, “[cries] at the idea of a vibrator” and keeps a checklist of the ten attributes she seeks in a man (he must like red wine, picnics and classical music). Her morning news segment failing when it comes to ratings, corporate brings in Mike Chadway (Butler), whose cable access show “The Ugly Truth” attacks the difference between men and women as crassly as possible to great success. Abby is disgusted by Mike’s antics, but when she finds herself desperate for the attentions of the hot doctor next door, she agrees to follow Mike’s advice. In what the plot summary misterms a surprising turn of events, the two inevitably butt heads until they lose their hearts.
Writers Karen McCullah Lutz and Kristen Smith, the team behind the solidly sassy and original Legally Blonde, said they were thrilled to get the green light on this project, because, as female writers, they aren’t often given a go when it comes to dirty jokes and sexual humor. “We always pitch our dirty jokes to each other knowing we can’t use them,” Lutz told Variety. “Suddenly, it was like, ‘Oh my God! We can write like we actually talk!'” So if they were so excited to do something fresh and raunchy, why turn back to guidelines that were formulaic fifty years ago? There isn’t an original scene in the entire film.
For that matter, if what goaded them on was the notion that, as women, Hollywood so often asks them to clean up their act, then what gives with the humor in The Ugly Truth? Heigl is expected to play continual straight man to Butler’s sex and sleaze. In a film that plays heavily on its R-rating, it’s worth noting that the only time Abby says “f-ck” — something Heigl made a big deal of in interviews because it’s just so “real” — is in the inevitable mix up that comes when Mike plays Cyrano de Bergerac for her at a ballgame. Because Abby, you see, who was previously smart and savvy enough to run her own show, is also dumb enough to repeat whatever comes through her headset. The closest Lutz and Smith come to giving Heigl a loaded one-liner is to play on the idea of Abby as an uptight spinster by treating it as a joke when she uses the word “cock.” Oh, heaven forbid! Most women in their twenties and thirties that I know aren’t clamping back with a ladylike “effing” or titillated by their own ability to freely say “cock.”
Maybe that’s the most disappointing part: that, every once in a while, it comes close to getting things right, then promptly runs the other way. The writers spend the entire film backtracking whenever they dare to say something worthwhile. When one of the newsanchors is told by Mike that her success emasculates her husband, she cries out, “Why is it my fault? What am I supposed to do, say no to the money so he can get an erection?” Before this can get any traction, it’s turned into a joke as she submits to her sexual frustration, yelling of her husband “He’s a man!” while being carried off screen over his shoulder, caveman-style. And when this initial segment shocks and infuriates Abby, where do her assistant and boss find her? Slumped in a closet, of course, curled up in the fetal position.
Even as she makes smart, rational points, she’s on the floor like a child, undermining any authority the character should have. And when later she realizes that all she’s been doing in taking Mike’s advice has made Colin fall for a passive, doe-eyed fake, she starts out strong only to falter again: “And the time you fed me caviar, I was in physical pain. I hate being fed like a toddler. That’s how much of a control freak I am.”
Because not wanting someone to treat you like a child somehow makes you a control freak? Aren’t we sick yet of the double standard that fetishizes the defrosting of an ice queen, that asks women to be both children and sex kittens at once? Not according to Mike: “You have to be two people: the saint and the sinner. The librarian and the stripper.” Sexy without being sexual, at least until he wants you to be.
The idea here is that both Mike and Abby have been playing roles for others in order to win love (or sex) or protect their hearts, but that they shouldn’t have to pretend, and you know, that’s fabulous. That’s a point well-worth making and I salute the writers for doing so — or I would if they had only committed to the bit. Abby might be painted as shrewish for ordinary desires, but is it any better that Mike apparently needs only the love of a good woman to set him on the straight and narrow? Does it matter that the trash he spouts stems from vulnerability and a persona? Does a shattered ego really excuse the perpetuation of misogyny? Does giving up on love give you a free pass to be an asshole? According to The Ugly Truth, yes. Take a look at Mike’s four rules for Abby, directly quoted below:
- Rule number one: Never criticize… Men are incapable of growth, change or progress. For men, self-improvement ends at toilet-training.
- Rule number two: Laugh at whatever he says.
- Rule number three: Men are very visual. We have to change your look.
- Rule number four: Don’t talk about your problems ’cause men don’t really listen or care.
Because men are shallow, stupid, unevolved, heartless, egotistical jerks who don’t care what you have to say unless it gets them laid? Yeah, sure, we might know some guys like that, but that surely doesn’t mean that all men are like that all the time. Except that Mike might be a lot nicer than he pretends to be, but he never actually says that any of this was a lie. Indeed, he espouses these theories wholeheartedly and says any man who claims otherwise is the one lying.
So what exactly is it that pushes Abby past the restrictions of her superficial checklist and into the realm of true and abiding love? Well, see, Mike, like Abby, thinks that tap water’s basically the same as filtered water and they dance this one time and it’s totally hot and… And not only does this movie equate raw passion with love (Mike, of course, doesn’t want Abby until he realizes someone else does), but the only thing standing between them is Colin, who’s far from being a solid enough character to hold anything apart. There’s never an instant of doubt, a moment of thinking Colin might offer any real challenge. All Colin offers is the self-evident lesson that love isn’t an Abercrombie ad. But then, that’s the problem with the movie: there is no challenge, no thought, nothing risked or gained.
Yes, it’s a romantic comedy (though neither romantic nor amusing). Yes, as audiences, we’re meant to take it at face value and run with the jokes, not overthink it. Yes, Mike and Abby are characters, representative only of themselves. Yet the movie’s entire theme is the idea of the difference between men and women. When you write specifically to that difference, then yes, it does become about its generalizations and clichés. As a society, we constantly write off misogyny as “the way things are,” “just a joke,” “what women are really like.” And hey, it must be okay if a woman said it, right? It’s as if it’s impossible to conceive of the idea that women might be just as wound up in American society’s pervasive notions of femininity as any man — even women who whimper about being seen as too delicate to write a real R-comedy, then say of their own work, “It’s dirty enough to appeal to men.”
How is anyone supposed to give women the greenlight on daring comedy if we can’t even take ourselves seriously? We have got to stop selling each other this tripe, hailing every step back as progress. The Ugly Truth isn’t bold or funny or smart or even decent-if-you-turn-off-your-brain. It’s just a string of petty jokes at the expense of dignity, male and female alike. After all, it’s easier to get a laugh by clinging to stereotype than to dare to say something actually true.