February 23, 2011 3 Comments
After recently hearing an anecdote that men are more attracted to women who inherit their wealth compared to those who earn it, and upon just watching Daddy Long Legs (a movie with the biggest ballet sequence dedicated to Daddy issues, ever), I want to look at the rich woman/poor man romances we have in media to compare to the bounds (bounds!) of rich dude/poor lady love stories we are used to. By this, I mean that kind of story where the wealth swoops in and makes everything a bit more fantastic, operatic, and delicious.
When Elizabeth sees Pemberley for the first time, the audience becomes giddy. It’s not because Darcy is a knight in shining armor (he’s serious, we get it), as much as a communal swoon of oh-my-god-it’s-all-just-working-out-so-well. In a way, we become savvy Mrs. Bennets, titillated because of the wealth, our nerves overwhelmed by the idea that our heroine could be rewarded for her self-reliance with the immense luxury, the extravagance, of authentic love and all the satin pillows she could ever want. We want to see Elizabeth in that wealth, with all her dignity intact, which is why there is a spate of continuations (all on the bookshelf at Target, and their titles make me blush…In the Arms of Mr. Darcy, Mr. and Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy: Two Become One, Mr. Darcy’s Obsession…seriously, I’m blushing right now).
This luxury of true love with immense swag isn’t new. Prince Charming, etc. And since marriage, until recently, was usually a method of community and status building between families, it makes sense that love stories indicated that it was best to truly love the guy with all the goods. This made it easier for parents to convince their daughters to get in the mood for nuptials, and for the daughters and sons to stir up any kind of romance needed to get the business negotiations done, or at least play with the idea of love in a safe fantasy space that didn’t muck up the real life transaction.
And so we have our modern fairy tales, which win me over every time. I have to admit, I LOVE it when the guy turns out to be wonderfully rich and totally in touch with the desires of the girl he pursues. The dates he arranges are so awesome (the gliders in The Thomas Crown Affair), the vacations are great (don’t they go live in the Caribbean for months in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button?), and sometimes he buys you a store (Romy and Michelle’s Highschool Reunion). It all just feels so damn luxurious, where the viewer and the characters get to eat their cake and have it too. And this high comes from the fact that we feel like all the protagonists deserve their wealth, because they use it well, and that we are ensured of their very comfortable and therefore fantastic future (since money is the # 1 reason couples fight, according to the entire internet and Jane Austen). The audience, and the couple, are completely released from angst.
Unless the roles are reversed, and it’s a lady with all the cash. Those stories never offer the same high to the audience, and they usually have, at the best, a sober ending, and at the worst, everybody dies or wishes they were dead. Let’s do some breaking down, looking at a list that got started on Twitter last night, starting from the best case scenarios.
The Only Example of the Reverse Pretty Woman
Only one came up that really fit the bill, (though several movies were mentioned that I haven’t seen), and that is, well, how do I say this? It’s a fact of the modern world: all roads lead to Sex in the City. Yes, Samantha is our rich woman, and her taking on of Smith (as GPE noted, she even renames him). She makes his career, genuinely loves him, and they both enjoy the immense swag of their glitzy life. Like Gere, Samantha has to learn how to trust and open her heart and all that stuff, and she does. But unlike Gere, she can’t fully commit, and she never quite relaxes. She does have all the satin pillows she could ever want, but she wants more than one good man, so off she goes. Samantha’s ending is interesting, especially as a foil to Miranda’s class struggle with Steve, but ultimately, as fantasy her account is still open (we don’t get to relax in knowing that all will be fabulous forever and ever, as much as we get that Samantha at least believes this herself). And the overall lesson of both Samantha and Miranda is that if you have money, and you date, you have to atone for your wealth through self-introspection. That dating with money is not fanciful as much as it is fraught.
But Aren’t There Other Romantic Comedies Where the Gal is Rich?!
Yes, of course. But again, we have more sober, less champagne.
My Man Godfrey, for starters. Here, an obscenely rich Carole Lombard hires the “forgotten man” William Powell to be her family butler. And they do end up together, but, the entire movie is about laughing at the rich and their uselessness. The audience never revels in the glory of Lombard’s money, as much as laughs at the stupidity of it. And in the end, Powell saves the rich idiots with his own financial acumen. [The Thin Man series almost works here too, except that Myrna Loy’s money is always slightly inconsequential to Powell, but still great fun for the audience].
Baby Boom: This might be the happiest offering we have, because while Keaton gets removed from the corporate boardroom, and gets rewarded for her mastery of house and home (her conquering fortune comes from baby food), she does win. And like Samantha, she has to walk away from the expected social narrative and make her own way, which is her happy ending. Keaton does end up with the veterinarian here, but her money has little to do with their courtship.
Management: Okay, this one is quite happy, too, but man, they make you work for it. Aniston has money, and Steve Zahn is the dope who loves her. The romance is not giddy. It’s sometimes sweet, often embarrassing, and leans towards the idea that a sweet dope who treats you right (and stalks you) is better than a millionaire that treats you wrong. The love in it is the kind of love that might better be called authentic settling. And it works, but, still, ouch. Financial resources come together quite well here, but it is a mutual offering (Zahn gets to keep his family hotel, Anniston gets her dream by making it into a homeless shelter). But there is not much fun–the end fantasy involves a homeless shelter, for goddsakes. It is all so…responsible.
The Proposal: Here we have an example of women with power and money are also monsters. Monsters that need less powerful men to come along and melt their icy hearts. But, this trope works both ways with monstrous men becoming human because of less powerful women. Here Bullock’s power never actually helps Reynolds as much as controls him, but they do love each other in the end, both have grown and stuff. Interestingly, too, instead of the idea that his cares will all now be attended to (a la’ flowers and a limo like Pretty Woman, or all of Pemberley), we enjoy this couple’s fate because he has been defined as a good literary agent, and they will have commercial success together, as well as the romantic kind. He is elevated in validation and use, not just in goods.
Other considerations: Bedazzled (but, she’s the devil), Notting Hill (wealth as a trial?), Wimbledon (she has a killer apartment), Bones (tv series) (has immense fortune, helps out what’s- his-name as needed), The Princess Diaries (?), Lipstick Jungle (tv series), The Wind of the Night (thx Subabat!). And I hate to ask it, but does Hannah Montana ever have a love interest? [I can’t believe I forgot this, and am adding it late: Apatow’s Knocked Up!]
And Then You Die
And then there are the bounds of movies where it’s really bad to hang out with a woman with money. It’s clear that in traditional movies, men don’t relax into the cushiness of female wealth. It makes them itchy. It’s totally a tragedy. Sunset Boulevard, The Heiress, pretty much any noir film with a rich woman who wants to sleep with you (don’t do it!), Hollywoodland, Matchpoint, The Graduate…
Many of these women are older women, which brings up the question that, since it takes time to earn money, is another reason for the lack of Princess Charmings is that women with money make for older love interests, which are completely scarce anyways. And the other kind of classically unattractive rich female, she who dare be plain (old time novel code for ugly), suggests that women with money are kinda unfuckable. Men with money get to seduce, dazzle, woo. Here, women with money have to be taken down a notch, tricked, guarded against, brought back to earth, softened, or they just want to eat you, your balls, and your soul.
In the romantic comedy fantasy, women’s wealth is not the stuff of wonderful dates or grand opportunities. She doesn’t get to dazzle, (no glider dates!) because, apparently, dazzling your date with spoils is a dude’s job. And the fantasy that this kind of female wealth puts forward instead is one about independence, social responsibility, and mutual work (clear eyes, pure hearts, can’t lose!).
What’s the heteronormative male equivalent of a great guy with a huge fortune? The kind of fantasy that just feels good to imagine, the kind that makes heteronorm guys sigh out loud thinking “well, that worked out amazingly well!” From the same range of movies and tv shows, it seems like it must be a woman who is that other rare thing: beautiful and easygoing (code for never a hassle). The woman who loves sex, talks wittily about his interests, and never takes her guy to task about clipping his toenails in the living room. Penelope Cruz in Vanilla Sky.
What have I missed?