So you thought that When Harry Met Sally — the classic 80s rom-com which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary with a competition at Katz’s deli in New York to see who could do the best fake orgasm — was a triumph for its writer Nora Ephron, its star Meg Ryan, and the depiction of rounded, female characters generally?
Think again, sexist bigot!
In fact — so we learn from The Atlantic‘s resident kill-joy movie analyst Megan Garber — When Harry Met Sally set back the cause of feminism by years thanks to its crass invention of a term which has haunted womankind ever since: “High maintenance.”
The phrase comes from an observation Harry makes to Sally while they are watching Casablanca. Ingrid Bergman, he says, is ‘low maintenance.’
“There are two kinds of women,” Harry explains, anticipating her question: “high-maintenance and low-maintenance.”
“And Ingrid Bergman is low-maintenance?”
“An L-M, definitely,” Harry replies.
“Which one am I?”
Harry has anticipated this question, too — of course Sally would wonder. “You’re the worst kind,” he says, coolly. “You’re high-maintenance, but you think you’re low-maintenance.”
According to Garber, in her piece titled ‘The Quiet Cruelty of When Harry Met Sally‘, this phrase is a “reductive” term which acts as an “indictment of women who want.” It has made women insecure ever since as they ask themselves whether, like Sally, they are “the worst kind.”
It’s so casual. It’s so bluntly efficient. The man, inventing the categories, and the woman, slotted into them. The man exempt; the woman, implicated.
She doesn’t actually use the word “mansplaining” but that’s clearly what she is getting at here: the patriarchy invents these reductive categories to put down women — and then, lo, women (vulnerable, put-upon victims with absolutely no agency) fall helplessly into the trap that men have set for them.
In a later paragraph, Garber develops this theme by listing some of the other phrases movieland has invented subtly to demean women.
But high-maintenance is one of a particular subgroup of pop-cultured insults that are applied, most commonly, to women—a category that whiffs of feminist backlash. There’s MILF, popularized by American Pie; and cougar, popularized by the 2001 book Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men; and cool girl, introduced by Gone Girl; and gold digger, an insult of long standing recently revived by Kanye West. There’s butterface, derived over time from movies and music. There’s Monet (Cher in Clueless: “From far away it’s okay, but up close it’s a big ol’ mess”). There’s cankle—whose coinage added one more entry to the ever-expanding list of body parts women might feel insecure about—popularized by the allegedly romantic comedy Shallow Hal. (“She’s got no ankles,” Jason Alexander’s character, Mauricio, says. “It’s like the calf merged with the foot—cut out the middleman.”)The designations are often unfalsifiable, because they live in the eyes of their beholders. And they are often popularized in the context of comedy, which gives them another kind of impunity: Calm down, we’re just telling jokes.
Garber puts her case well: you can tell she’s had an education. But it seems to me that her entire argument is far too dependent on the kind of left-wing trope which may make total sense on campus but which in reality is just dishonest, paranoid and, yes, reductive.
Suppose for a moment than these “designations” Gerber complains of aren’t there to make women feel small, but rather they are a statement of what is, of human nature, of the relationship between the sexes as observed over many centuries?
When Garber invents this excuse “Calm down, we’re just telling jokes” she gets it completely wrong by misrepresenting her opponents position.
They’re not making up this stuff because it’s funny.
What writers like Nora Ephron are doing is saying stuff which is incredibly, observably, satisfyingly true — and which therefore affords the pleasing effect of “comedy of recognition.”
Or, as Homer Simpson put it, “It’s funny because it’s true.”
“Cankle,” for example, would not have entered the vocabulary if it did not describe a phenomenon which already existed — and was just waiting to be captured by an observant phrase-maker.
Same goes for MILF.
You’d think, wouldn’t you, that on the 30th anniversary of one of the funniest and most successful films ever written by a woman the Sisterhood would find a rare opportunity for celebrating female talent and ingenuity.
But no, that would be too easy.