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    Was What Women Want based on Chaucer?

    Janet Manley

    July 11, 2023, 7:55am

    You probably remember Mel Gibson shaving his legs with a pore strip on his nose and Meredith Brooks playing on the CD player. What Women Want came out in 2000, directed by Nancy Meyers, and offered a bizarro spin on the rom-com formula of dickhead guy (Matthew McConaughey in How To Lose A Guy in Ten Days, Richard Gere in Pretty Woman) reformed by a good woman.

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    In the film, Mel Gibson’s character, an “ad executive” and chauvinist who listens to Frank Sinatra and walks around smoking cigars, ogling and hitting on women, is electrocuted while testing a hair dryer for an ad campaign and gains the power to hear women’s internal monologue. At the time, his advertising job is threatened by a new female ad exec (Helen Hunt), who wants the company to devise marketing strategies aimed at women and, therefore, get into the mind of the female consumer.

    It doesn’t obviously have its roots in fourteenth century poetry, but I’d like to make the case.

    In Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale gives us the Wife of Bath essentially standing on the table in a pub delivering a bawdy preamble about the number of husbands she has had (eight, I think), by way of ginning up excitement for the story she will then tell:

    now wol I telle forth my tale.
    As evere moote I drynken wyn or ale,
    I shal seye sooth; tho housbondes that I hadde

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    The Wife is a real feminist and alpha, treating them mean to keep them keen (bacon seems a loaded term here):

    The bacon was nat fet for hem, I trowe,
    That som men han in Essex at Dunmowe.
    I governed hem so wel, after my lawe,
    That ech of hem ful blisful was and fawe
    To brynge me gaye thynges fro the fayre.
    They were ful glad whan I spak to hem faire,
    For, God it woot, I chidde hem spitously.

    Once she’s done rousing the crowd, she begins her story, in which a rapist is brought before the elf-queene and sentenced to murder. Struck by a jolt of inspiration, she gives him a shot at redemption if he can go out into the world and discover “what thyng is it that wommen moost desiren.”

    Here, I’d like to turn to a different adaptation of Chaucer, Zadie Smith’s 2023 The Wife of Willesden, in which the prologue and tale are transposed to London’s Kilburn High Road and Jamaica, respectively.

    Smith did a fun job of dropping us into a cockney (“North Weezian”) alt-world. Her libidinous Wife refers to her husband by their numbers, and tosses up gems like:

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    “if Five drops dead, boom, like that:
    I won’t wait for my hymen to grow back”

    And also “I’m playing four-dimensional chess, / Colin, and no husband can ever mess / With me. Especially not in a bed.”

    Moving on!

    Her Justice figure in the Tale, QUEEN NANNY, offers a deal to the offending lad to escape punishment for his crimes (in this story, he isn’t an outright rapist):

    I’m interested in Restorative justice.
    Understanding Who you hurt and
    why. So here is my deal: You’ll live—
    if you can tell me what we feel—I mean
    we women. What we most desire. You
    tell me that. I won’t set you on fire.

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    After tribulations out in the world, where the YOUNG MAROON is manipulated by an older lady (OLD WIFE) to serve her (don’t worry, in Chaucer once he submits to her she turns into a beautiful young woman), he concludes that what women want is fairly simple:

    They want their husbands to consent, freely;
    To submit to their wives’ wills—which should be
    Natural in love; for we submit to love.
    To keep power, and have no man above
    Them—all women want this. And you can kill
    Me, but I speak the truth. Do what you will.

    Men: it’s very simple. This is just a polite request for equality.

    To the film, then. It’s a bit of a long road for Mel Gibson’s character Nick to come back from behavior that wouldn’t have cleared the MeToo era (e.g., refusing to take no for an answer when he hits on Marissa Tomei for a date, being weird in the office), or the greatest offense: stealing Darcy’s (Helen Hunt) winning ad concept—What Women Want’s version of a knight pillaging a maiden.

    What is interesting about the What Women Want screenplay is the characterization of Darcy. “I”m a man-eating bitch Darth Vader of the ad world,” she tells him of her reputation as, simply, a smart, hardworking and successful woman. Where Chaucer goes hard on portraying the Wife of Bath as a ballbuster who can outweigh the male ego and entitlement of the fourteenth century, What Women Want goes extremely deep on making Nick the worst kind of person (and this was before Mel Gibson became kryptonite). Darcy, on the other hand, is most just capable. The F word isn’t used. She’s not calling for gender reparations, just a fair shot.

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    The film ends with Nick confessing that he stole her idea, resulting in her being fired, and offering to reinstate her job at the company with his newly won power. In return, she fires him.

    Nancy Meyers did not respond to my entreaties for a comment, nor did screenwriters Diane Drake or Cathy Yuspa (the phone lines are still open!), but for context, Nancy Meyers’ movies are often concerned with a late piece of justice for her heroines: a date with Keanu Reeves or, yes, an admirable kitchen. (Before accepting her role in Something’s Gotta Give, Diane Keaton told her “no one is going to watch a movie where a guy likes an older woman over a younger woman.”)

    The other piece of penance Nick offers is saving an ignored underling from suicide, after hearing her depressive internal monologue. He shows up at her apartment when she skips work and finds his telepathic gift is gone. He can’t hear what she’s thinking, and has to begin to feel his way through instead.

    For Chaucer, the knight can’t get his reward until he’s reached rock bottom, and total subservience: then, he gets more than he could have dreamed.

    Thanne have I gete of yow maistrie,” quod she,
    “Syn I may chese [choose] and governe as me lest?”
    “Ye, certes, wyf,” quod he, “I holde it best.”
    “Kys me,” quod she, “we be no lenger wrothe [angry]

    That’s when she turns into a stunner, and he’s in married bliss. (Derivative!)

    Don’t worry, though, it ends on a banger, threatening any men who won’t be governed by their wives:

    And eek I praye Jhesu shorte hir lyves
    That noght wol be governed by hir wyves

    Men, Mel Gibson: you’ve been warned!

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