Im not a Down with Love girl.

Pillow Talk’s dating montage

Down with Love’s dating montage

Catch “catches” Barbara on tape.

Barbara confesses her deceptions.

Gwendolyn thanks Barbara.

“I am a Down with Love girl.”

Barbara disappears into the night.

The perfect ending

Moping for Barbara

“I just want to get married!”

Barbara’s makeover writ large

Now magazine HQ

Catch applies for a job.

Somewhere between a blonde and a brunette

Catching her man

Peter and Vicky propose in credits.


In discussing changes in contemporary feminism, it is important to distinguish post-feminism from third wave feminism, even though both emerged in approximately the same time period. While third wave feminists do often define themselves against second wave feminists, they also acknowledge their debt to the second wave, and hope to build upon some of the inadequacies and problems that plagued that movement — especially in terms of the movement’s emphasis on white, middle-class, heterosexual feminist issues. In contrast, debates limited to sexual politics alone veer towards the post-feminist, as these women tend to gloss over some of the more structural inequalities that interconnect with issues of class, race, and sexual orientation. As Astrid Henry points out,

“It is worth noting that this debate between so-called anti-sex, or victim, feminists and pro-sex, or power, feminists is one that has had little interest for women of color” (97).
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While sexual freedom and liberation are very important to feminist women, for women to exclusively employ this focus redirects feminist energies toward limited goals of empowerment.

Girlie feminism embraces feminine signifiers that were formerly critiqued and unpacked by feminists as demeaning. Clothes and fashions worn with irony are representative of confident choices, not cultural indoctrination. As Baumgardner and Richards explain,

“Girlies say, through actions and attitudes, that you don’t have to make the feminine powerful by making it masculine or ‘natural’; it is a feminist statement to proudly claim things that are feminine, and the alternative can mean to deny what we are” (135).

The problem lies in the loss of a critical eye toward cultural production. When Girlie feminists embrace traditional feminine aspects of popular culture, however ironically or “wink-wink” knowingly, they sometimes participate in a feminist backlash by refusing to question their choices. As Summer Wood explains,

“For many young feminists, ‘choice’ has become the very definition of feminism itself — illustrated by the standard-bearing right to choose abortion and supported by the ever advertised notion that they have choice in everything else in life as well” (22).

Are all choices necessarily feminist choices? Further, even if one enacts objectification and feminine traits knowingly, that does not mean that those who receive those representations will recognize the irony of the gesture.

Down with Love posits a female heroine and a form of femininity that has moved from passive objectification to self-objectification as a way of achieving active subjectivity. Still, as television scholar L.S. Kim suggests, this self-aware objectification or “active appearing” provides an illusion of empowerment, a “false freedom.” As she writes:

"Although this expression of sexually aware women may seem to be a liberating idea, it is arguably quite old-fashioned; it is the idea that women get what they want by getting men through their feminine wiles. Just because they are conscious of it or are actively participating through actively appearing, they do not transcend the dynamic; they merely continue it" (325).

Rosalind Gill also explores this pernicious presence of sexism hidden under the cloak of female empowerment. She points out that:

"Women…are endowed with agency so that they can actively choose to objectify themselves. This notion that it’s freely chosen fits well with broader postfeminist discourses which present women as autonomous agents no longer constrained by any inequalities or power imbalances, who can somehow choose to “use beauty” to make themselves feel good" (104).

While Down with Love’s narrative ostensibly takes place in the early 1960s, its proposed vision of female empowerment is distinctly tied to a focus on the sexual that contemporary post-feminism entails. What seems to hold true for both contemporary postfeminists and Down with Love is that

“it is men who represent sexuality, excitement, autonomy, and freedom, suggesting that choosing to identify with men is also a way of claiming a sexuality of one’s own” (Levy 146).

Barbara’s treatise on empowerment relies on women styling themselves as feminine while behaving according to stereotypical masculine attitudes toward casual sex. This type of empowerment marks the change contemporary culture has undergone regarding women’s entitlement to sexual pleasure. No longer is the feminine guidebook modeled after Ellen Fein and Sherrie Shamoon’s The Rules: Time Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right (1995), but now it is led by Andrea Lavinthal and Jessica Rozler’s The Hookup Handbook: A Single Girl’s Guide to Living It Up (2005). As I mentioned earlier, Down with Love’s philosophy is taken more from Helen Gurley Brown’s tale of sexual (and economic empowerment) while acknowledging that some of the film’s view of sexual progress is informed by the present as much as the past. As Baumgardner and Richards explain,

“as for the principles of Girlie [feminism], in which feminists pine for sexy images that don’t present women as victims, Helen Gurley Brown feels that she got there a long time ago” (159).

In other words, the film might take place in the 1960s, but its rhetoric of empowerment speaks to current sexual attitudes, especially among younger women.

Yet in the film, Down with Love’s smash global publishing success (women are smuggling the book to each other in communist China and the former Soviet Union) only serves to depress Barbara and Vicky. In one of the more telling moments of the film, the two women meet after Vicky loses her job as a senior editor at Banner Publishing. She loses her position the moment she demands equal respect from her employer and fellow senior editors — all men. But instead of fighting for respect and her employment rights, Vicky wants to give up and get married. While Barbara initially questions Vicky’s choice, she soon wholeheartedly agrees, disclosing that she is not a “Down with Love” girl either, but a woman in love. Unbeknownst to Vicky, Barbara is even less a “liberated lady,” for her masquerade as Barbara is just a ruse to finally capture Catcher Block’s heart. As Steven Holden astutely claims, Down with Love

“preaches disruptive female self-empowerment out of one side of its mouth while out of the other it invokes the dream of being swept up, up, and away by Prince Charming” (E8).

Down with Love masquerades as a playful post-millennium sex comedy; and as the film examines with a wry eye the sexual politics of the sixties, it suggests that women today are free to make previously unavailable choices. In the Doris Day/Rock Hudson sex comedies, despite Day’s independent self-sufficiency and career aspirations, her ultimate desire is for love. She always somehow changes the cad into a prince, and they live happily ever after — usually with a child on the way. Day’s choices always lead to the same outcome. Ideally, post-feminism contends that rampant sexism within the workforce and the private sphere is so wedged into the past that sexist representations are merely amusing, since they are so far away from our present experiences. Yet the film indulges in what Judith Williamson defines as “retro-sexism,” for it represents

“sexism with an alibi: it appears at once past and present, ‘innocent’ and knowing, a conscious reference to another era, rather than an unconsciously driven part of our own” (Williamson).

In fact, Down with Love has a moment, a possible ending to all the glittering display, that would suggest women have moved forward, and that love and marriage are perhaps not quite as desirable to women who have had a taste of something more. Just as Barbara has told Catcher that she loves him and that she is not a “Down with Love” girl, but a woman who wants love and marriage, Gwendolyn, one of Catch’s flight attendant trysts, bursts into the room with a spare key. She immediately chides Catcher for leaving it, considering that he is busy, and skips off to rendezvous with her Captain for a little “sex a la carte.” Now exposed, Catcher is forced to reveal his deception, admitting that there is no “Zip Martin,” but that he got Barbara Novak to fall in love. Barbara then shuts off the tape recorder and divulges a deception that undeniably trumps his: that she is his former secretary, Nancy Brown, and that the film’s entire plot was merely a scheme in which to capture his heart and get him to propose — which he does. But at that very moment, Gwendolyn barges back into Catch’s apartment, gushing with praise for Barbara as a hero to “all women around the world” — a woman who has incited change in women everywhere. Believing her own hype, Barbara then decides that in order to be a world leader for women, she must say goodbye to Catcher and “a marriage with kids in the suburbs.” Catch chases after her as she leaves her building, but once he stops her, Barbara explains that she is now a “Down with Love” girl, and no longer wants marriage. As she climbs into a taxi, turning her back on the traditional life Catcher has offered her, he forlornly watches her leave. Suddenly, the skies open, and a torrential downpour falls, drenching Catcher’s tuxedo and providing an appropriate setting for Catcher’s bleak and despondent rejection.

Alas, this scene does not end the film; although if it had, the film would have been something quite different. A romantic tragedy, perhaps? Instead, the outcome is played for laughs as Catch mopes for Barbara in his bachelor pad, wearing a positively dowdy flannel bathrobe. Peter regales Catcher with stories of his sexual relationship with Vicky, who only seems to be interested in him when she is interested in sex. “It makes me feel so used,” he whines.

“It’s just not right! I shouldn’t feel used! She should…but she’s taking her cues from Novak!”

He tries to encourage Catcher to go out, looking for Catch’s “little black book.” Catcher replies, “I threw it out. I don’t care about having sex anymore, I just want to get married!” to which Peter cries out, “Well me too, but fat chance!” Ultimately, Down with Love reiterates the same clichés and patriarchal fears. If women were to become truly “liberated” in the work force and from men, then men would become emasculated, domesticated, and, thus, no longer attractive. The film’s swapping of gender roles only serves to emphasize a need to keep gender roles “as they should be.” Catcher appears to hit bottom as he applies for a job as Barbara’s assistant, hoping to get close to her at any cost. What he does not realize is that once fooled, he can be fooled again.

Barbara does see herself as a Rules girl or a Cosmo girl; she believes (and rightly so as the film suggests) that the key to snagging a man depends on the quality and quantity of “the chase.” Barbara layers on the deceptions, pretending to reject Catcher in order to have him chase after her and declare his love again — and again. In the final moments of the film, as Catch has plaintively spoken his desire for a woman somewhere between the mousy Nancy Brown and the icy blonde Barbara Novak, our heroine emerges from an elevator, now red-haired and again transformed according to his desires, free to make the choice of marriage and a home in the suburbs. Down with Love’s post-feminist rhetoric allows Barbara (and female spectators) to revel in this choice. Therein lies the film’s ultimate deception. Instead of representing progress through ironic counterpoint, Down with Love declares “down with feminism” by fulfilling our yearnings for a pre-feminist, simpler time, when clothes made the woman, and sex was the ultimate tool for women to achieve power and success. Yet, it also proposes that when women are ultimately “up with sex,” then, and only then, can they achieve some level of equality.

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