2007, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 49, spring 2007
Down with Love and up with sex:
sex and the post-feminist single girl
by Nina K. Martin
Peyton Reed’s 2003 film Down with Love is a film based in deception — narratively and ideologically. Two separate reviewers hint at the film’s ploys. Stephanie Zacharek from Salon.com suggests that
“its vivacious look seems to be covering up something — as if color were a kind of Glade air freshener that could be sprayed liberally to mask anything old and tired.”
And Mich LaSalle from the San Francisco Chronicle claims that
“Down with Love is a very smart, shrewd movie, and the smartest shrewdest thing about it is the way it masquerades as just a fluffy comedy, a diversion, a trifle” (Zacharek, LaSalle).
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The term “masquerade” is especially apropos, for our first introduction to the film’s main character, Barbara Novak, emphasizes her excessively styled femininity — a fanciful representation of early 1960s girlish style. Amidst a sea of people dressed in grays and drab browns, Barbara’s pink windowpane suit and prim white hat and gloves make her strikingly stand out from the crowd. As she grabs a cab, her hips sway when she turns her back on the camera, the movement exaggerated by her almost mincing steps. Yet this beautifully styled image, harkening back to the lady-like fashions of Christian Dior’s “New Look,” is Barbara’s armor in a battle over female sexual subjectivity. Her appearance is ultimately deceptive, as is the film’s take on sexual politics. Underneath Down with Love’s candy-colored, giddy veneer is the beating heart of a very traditional femininity coupled with a seemingly empowered view of sex. The film’s nostalgic view of sexual and workplace politics and its interest in “sex a-la-carte” align it with post-feminist discourses that swirl throughout contemporary pop culture.
Ostensibly, Down with Love commits grand theft, stealing liberally from two Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedies — Michael Gordon’s Pillow Talk (1959) and Delbert Mann’s Lover Come Back (1961) — while also bathing in the luxurious, lather-rich rhetoric of Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 bestseller Sex and the Single Girl. Narratively, each of these previous films play upon similar plot elements. The heroine, usually Doris Day, is a forthright, honest, single career woman who is talented, hardworking, and subsequently unsuccessful with men. She encounters the stereotypical cad, often played by Rock Hudson, who epitomizes the Playboy philosophy — he maintains a string of casual relationships with various women and unremittingly plays the field, as bachelor men of that time were encouraged to do in order to keep their masculinity unquestioned while remaining unmarried. To further complicate matters, the neurotic “Mama’s boy,” typically Tony Randall, enters the picture, providing a comedic foil to the philandering playboy while also contrasting his feminized male to the virile lead.
Somehow, the heroine is always unaware of the playboy’s handsome appearance, having only spoken on the phone, allowing him to “masquerade” as someone else in his interactions with her — in most instances, he pretends to be his polar opposite. As Cynthia Fuchs explains regarding Pillow Talk,
“Much of the humor of [Hudson’s] performance depends on viewers’ understanding of shy Rex as assertive Brad’s opposite; it becomes clear that the role taps some of Brad’s better qualities and that his warmth, sensitivity, and generosity will be outed by the end of the film” (236).
Hudson’s successful performance also hinges upon Day’s honest naïveté, for she never once sees through Hudson’s clever deception until it is nearly too late, preferring to believe that devoted, romantic, chivalrous men interested in love and marriage are not doomed to extinction. The battle between these two characters is fought over the heroine’s stalwart virginity, and she frequently projects her repressed desires into song. Day’s steadfastness and virtue are ultimately rewarded. The playboy character undergoes a miraculous change and becomes monogamous, solidifying the romantic myth of the reformed rake transformed by the power of love.
In Down with Love, Barbara Novak is played by the perennial post-feminist poster girl, Renee Zellweger, an actress whose Oscar-nominated portrayal of singleton Bridget Jones contributes to her role as an idealized icon of contemporary femininity. Barbara is a small town librarian who has written a new guidebook for modern single women entitled Down with Love. The film begins with Barbara’s arrival in the big city, Manhattan, on her way to promote her new book. Barbara’s book is a three step program for women’s advancement within the workforce — a book simultaneous with the release of Helen Gurley Brown’s tome and prefiguring Betty Freidan’s The Feminist Mystique from 1963. Barbara’s theories embrace traditional representations of feminine beauty and style while undermining their passive display by wielding sexual power as a form of active female subjectivity. In order for love not to distract women from their career goals, they must learn to have sex like men — as often as they choose, and without emotional attachments. As Barbara tells the all white, male board of Banner Publishing, initially women must substitute chocolate for men; they will experience the same biological stimulation as sex, without conflating the feeling with “love.” Then, once women can easily separate sex from love, they can have sex “a-la-carte,” without messy emotional attachments. According to Barbara, the way to achieve equality for women is by adjusting sexual behavior through a series of substitutions — chocolate for men, sex for marriage, “hooking-up” for commitment.
Barbara seems to have snagged the only female editor in all of New York — Vicky Hiller (Sara Paulson), the sharply dressed, sharp-tongued young woman working for the overwhelmingly masculine Banner House, run by none other than Tony Randall as Theodore Banner, the company’s gruff patriarch. Randall’s presence within Down with Love is one of numerous intertextual allusions scattered throughout the film. Vicky’s publicity push involves getting Barbara on the cover of Know, a popular men’s magazine reminiscent of Tony Curtis’s employer, Stop magazine in the film Sex and the Single Girl (Richard Quine, 1964). Know’s star reporter is Catcher Block, an unremitting cad played with a sly smirk, knowing wink and a blasé hip swing by Ewan McGregor. His lean, wiry frame is more reminiscent of Curtis than Hudson, with a dash of rat pack finesse thrown in. As in the previous early 60s sex comedies, the film’s humor hinges on the seductive battle of the sexes between the perky Barbara and the suave Catcher.
Catch, thinking that Barbara is a “man-hating, embittered, spinster librarian,” keeps avoiding their meeting with a succession of flight attendants. When Barbara overhears the women gossiping about their time spent with Catcher, she enacts her revenge by humiliating him on the Ed Sullivan show. Thus the battle begins, as Catcher sets out to prove that Barbara is not a “Down with Love” girl, and just wants a man and marriage like all other women. Since Barbara has never seen nor met Catch, he is free to masquerade as the shy and politely attentive astronaut Zip Martin, McGregor’s contemporary version of Hudson’s feminized Texan hick in Pillow Talk or unsophisticated bumbling scientist in Lover Come Back. Still, Catch’s deception is only a shadow of the larger one perpetrated by our female heroine, who takes a page from both Helen Gurley Brown and post-feminist discourses in wielding her sexual and feminine wiles to achieve her desires.
Down with Love refracts this narrative through a contemporary mirror, adding broader instances of sexual innuendo and homophobic humor while still reveling in the formal and visual markers of an earlier age. One of the first blatantly sexual scenarios relies on an overheard conversation stripped of its context. While Catcher and his boss, Peter McManus (David Hyde Pierce), discuss the miracle of socks without garters, Catcher’s new secretary tries to learn how to use the intercom. She suddenly overhears a discussion, en media res, where the two men measure each others socks, and discuss how they stay up all day long. “Sixteen inches! How long does a man’s hose have to be?” exclaims Peter. Of course, she thinks they are discussing their penises, as the innuendo is made sledgehammer obvious. Down with Love also uses a ubiquitous technique of the sex comedy — the split screen — to showcase a more contemporary ribald humor. Pillow Talk wittily utilized the split screen to represent Jan’s (Doris Day) phone conversations with Brad (Rock Hudson). The most famous scene has the two characters in their respective bathtubs, their feet touching at the outer edges of the split screen frame. In other scenes, the characters are shown on the phone while in bed; nevertheless, Jan and Brad are always fully dressed in pajamas. Down with Love caters to contemporary sexual mores. As Barbara and Zip/Catcher converse on the phone, the scenes are composed so that Barbara’s face is aligned with Zip’s crotch as he towels off, or Zip is doing abdominal crunches so his face disappears into Barbara’s genitals. As he bends over to towel off his hair, she does an impromptu backbend, once again visually connecting in a sexual way as Barbara cries, “Zip, no man has ever done this to me before!”
Down with Love is a shining example of what Fredric Jameson labels “the nostalgia film.” Jameson defines this type of film as an approach to a stereotypical past through stylistic connotation and the attributes of fashion; this approach colors the spectator’s view of both past and present. As he contends,
“This approach to the present by the way of the art language of the simulacrum, or of the pastiche of the stereotypical past, endows present reality and the openness of present history with the spell and distance of a glossy mirage” (21).
The word “mirage” is especially suited to Down with Love, because the film provides a view of the early sixties that is kitschy, vibrant, and attractive; yet, since it is based upon the Hollywood version of that time period, it represents an illusory past, a glittering surface. This representation is deliberate. As director Peyton Reed explains:
"What I like about [the film], and what I hope other people will like about it, is that there is no attempt to make the movie look realistic or to make it gritty…All the apartments and the wardrobes do not have that lived-in look. No wear-and-tear. No wrinkles. Our movie is the idea of New York City as seen through the lens of a 1960’s Hollywood movie camera" (Lyman).
Reed’s form of stylistic imitation approaches the past through “stylistic connotation, conveying ‘pastness’ by the glossy qualities of the image” and the film’s ‘1960s-ness’ “by the attributes of fashion” (Jameson 19). Indeed, Down with Love’s most pleasurable moments are nostalgic interludes of fashion and stylistic excess, in which the mise-en-scène of the film dazzles, whetting the appetite for vintage-inspired consumption. The film style makes the traditional “hat and gloves” femininity associated with the time period not only palatable, but positively desirable. For instance, when Barbara first encounters her Manhattan apartment, outfitted by her editor, Vicky, her gasp of awe is more than appropriate. The camera pulls back to reveal a living area of modernist beauty. The Eero Saarinen womb chairs, nestled in the sunken living room and flanking an open fire, are upholstered in a fabric that matches Barbara’s pink suit. A sheer pink curtain slowly opens to reveal a wall of windows framing the Manhattan skyline, leading to a balcony with white leather lounge chairs perfect for sunning and stargazing. Undoubtedly, this is a setting of fantasy, as the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building and the Statue of Liberty are visible outside (White). Likewise, the sheer size of her apartment is enough to make one gasp with pleasure.
One of the most memorable scenes in the film is when Barbara and Vicky arrive at the Mahogany Room to meet Catcher for an interview about Barbara’s book. Unbeknownst to the two women, Catcher, and a British flight attendant named Gwendolyn, have just strolled out for an afternoon rendezvous. Nevertheless, Barbara and Vicky’s arrival turns heads, as they stop at the entrance, pose, and then fling their yellow and hounds-tooth coats open to reveal contrasting linings and dresses to match. This moment is framed as spectacle: the music and the other characters pause as the two women display their clothing. They perform runway turns as they take off their coats and pose in their chic little dresses. Then, they walk to their table, rhythmically swaying their hips to an invisible lounge beat as they remove their matching gloves. In fact, whenever Barbara and Vicky are onscreen, their costumes are masterpieces of color and detail, from Vicky’s soft green suit and matching hat, to Barbara’s black lace merry-widow, flowing salmon dressing gown, and pale pink maribou-edged mules. Yet the film’s representation of period mise-en-scène and its battle-of-the-sexes narrative lack the critical edge necessary for the film to embody satirical pastiche or parody. The film’s mimicry reveals a blind revelry of style. Indeed, the visual pleasures of vintage costuming and set design are pleasures that
“merely affirm the dominant order and preempt even the possibility of resistance as the subject goes laughing into the shopping mall” (Robertson 16).
Unfortunately, Stephanie Zacharek is right about the film’s deceptiveness in her Salon.com review; the spectacular costuming and set designs of Down with Love are trying to cover-up something old and stale in their pleasurable excess — the knowing utilization of feminine signifiers in order to “catch” a man. For the great revelation, disclosed as Barbara and Zip/Catcher are about to finally consummate their relationship, is that Barbara is aware of Catcher’s masquerade as a naïve astronaut. In fact, she has schemed and plotted every detail of their interaction, writing a book in order to garner his respect and interest. Barbara’s real name is Nancy Brown, one of Catcher’s former secretaries, who fell madly in love with him the year before, and vowed to get him by any means possible. All of Down with Love’s ironic posing and winking knowingness cannot hide its links to the pre-feminist philosophies of Helen Gurley Brown or the post-feminist embracing of her ideals.
Helen Gurley Brown’s smash bestseller, 1962’s Sex and the Single Girl, provided strategies for the modern single career girl, eventually the Cosmo Girl, to rise above her circumstances through the tools of feminine transformation and sexual guile. Throughout the sixties and on through the next few decades, Brown celebrated an exaggerated femininity that hinged upon the power to remake oneself. As Laurie Ouellette outlines in her exploration of Brown’s letters, currently held at Smith College:
"Brown’s credo required an understanding of identity as something that could always be reworked, improved upon and even dramatically changed. Sex and the Single Girl promised every girl the chance to acquire a stylish and attractive aura by copying fashion models and wealthy women" (366).
Helen Gurley Brown’s strategies emphasized phoniness and trickery in order to create an “illusion of beauty.” This manipulation of one’s outward appearance is replicated perfectly in Down with Love. Barbara Novak’s bestselling treatise on female advancement in the workplace and in the bedroom, Down with Love is really just an elaborate ruse performed by Novak. In order to win Catch’s respect and admiration, she decides to become “like him,” ruthlessly tearing through men and having sex “a la carte.” She transforms herself into a financially successful, sexually aware, bestselling blonde novelist, not in a quest for social and economic equality, but in order to achieve marriage. Significantly, she is only able to garner Catcher’s interest once she becomes a stylish, sophisticated blonde.
Barbara’s tactics are in line with Gurley Brown’s tenets, for
“To ‘get into the position to sink a man’ it was not necessary that a woman be beautiful, but she had to know how to create ‘an illusion of beauty.’ Phoniness was often celebrated as a form of trickery — a way to create a prettier, sexier, and more desirable self beyond one’s allotted means” (Ouellette 366).
Down with Love celebrates the power of beauty (or its illusion) to capture male attention and help women climb the corporate ladder. Nevertheless, that climb becomes less steep when sex becomes a tool used to achieve goals. Like Gurley Brown, for Barbara, sexual activity is framed “in terms of work and achievement.” As Gurley Brown explained to an interviewer,
“Sex is a powerful weapon for a single woman in getting what she wants from life” (Ouellette 373).
Barbara’s entire philosophy hinges on the ubiquitous “self-help” makeover so much a part of women’s magazine culture. Her book never provides concrete political solutions for obtaining equality, and only substitutes an autonomy based largely on sexual empowerment.
Down with Love’s “Gurley” feminism is strikingly similar to the “Girlie” feminism discussed by numerous U.S. critics of post-feminism and outlined by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards in their book Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. When speaking of post-feminism, my definition aligns with what one participant in an online forum describes as “Retro-grade Post-feminism” (Postfeminism). Or as Ann Braithwaite points out in an article in Feminist Theory:
"‘postfeminist’ is…used to refer… [to] a renewed focus on seemingly traditional definitions of ‘femininity’ and their emphases on the individual lifestyle choices and personal pleasures provided by consumer culture and adopted predominantly by young women today" (338).
Post-feminism suggests that women have reached and surpassed feminism’s goals, no longer demanding the necessity of political struggle, and that activism and identity are now focused on more individualized, personal areas of feminine experience. This focus frequently hones in on sexual pleasure. To some degree, this concentration on sexuality is due to the contradictory and repressive forces that arose in 1980s conservative United States and the subsequent feminist backlash they entailed, as well as a turning away from media-constructed images of 70s feminism — man-hating, strident, unfashionable, and lesbian. Braithwaite elaborates,
“The emphasis in this self-identified ‘fun’ feminism is on exploring lifestyle choices and personal pleasures of women rather than on outlining agendas for more direct and recognizable kinds of social activism” (338).
Bust magazine editor Debbie Stoller gives voice to this movement:
“In the 90’s, the women of the New Girl Order are ready to go out and get what’s cumming to us. Our mission is to seek out pleasure wherever we can find it. In other words, if it feels good, screw it. Vibrators in hand, we’re ready to fight the good fight” (Henry 109-110).
Astrid Henry has described some of this turn away from previous feminist touchstones as a generational shift, for contemporary feminists tend to define themselves against their feminist foremothers of the 1st and 2nd waves (16-51). Merri Lisa Johnson illustrates this split between older and newer versions of feminist thought:
“Feminism — often addressed by young women as a strict teacher who just needs to get laid — is a name we want to reclaim for the intersection of smart and sexy within each of us” (4).
Johnson’s view of feminism reflects the series of contradictions that women are compelled to negotiate in a cultural landscape deeply intertwined with popular culture — this new feminism can be both smart and sexy. Lee Damsky evokes this world in her introduction to the third-wave anthology Sex and Single Girls:
"Women in my generation were born in the ‘60s and ‘70s with the sexual revolution and the feminist movement, but we grew up with a mix of socio-sexual contradictions: the conservative backlash and the AIDS epidemic…We got divorced parents and “family values,” homophobia and lesbian chic, 'Just Say No' and 'Ten Ways to Drive Him Wild'" (xii-xiii).
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).
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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