Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: November 2011
I am not exactly recommending these two movies. Movie tastes are highly individual, and these two are certainly not the peak of film culture. But they may interest you because of how they present sensitive men and explore the question of how women relate to them. I think this is a major preoccupation of our culture–a cultural complex. I suspect there are hundreds of movies that portray some aspect of this issue, in subplots if not in the main story.
It seems to me that almost all men, at least in North American culture, fear being seen as sensitive, which in their minds means weak, overly emotional, or feminine. Yet all men have an emotionally vulnerable side to them, so of course they are preoccupied with what happens to those poor men who cannot or do not hide it. As for women, they want the best possible relationship, and sensitive men often provide the kindness and consideration, the “sensitivity,” that women most seek.
The problem is that a woman also wants a man who can protect her. That need is probably built in, but the perception of who can do the best job is not so clear, and there is the rub. Sensitive men are generally great in emergencies, and frequently heroic, in that when there is danger they do not just look out for Number One. Yet cultures vary in how strong or weak they see sensitive men, at their core. In fact, most of what determines inner strength and resilience probably is not inherited, but the result of upbringing and conscious work at personal growth in adulthood.
But I have just said that I see strength as something inner, and the anxious part of women may not. What about the very tangible ability to endure pain? To handle intense stress? To fight off an adversary, another tough and insensitive guy? Sensitive men are more sensitive to pain, do poorly in chronically stressful conditions, and generally prefer other strategies besides fighting. Women are not living in cavemen days, but when choosing the best mate they must overcome an instinct to seek someone who can best strangle a cave bear, even if the guy will strangle her next if she doesn’t cook his meat just right.
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The Switch. Directors: Josh Gordon and Will Speck. Screenplay: Allan Loeb from a short story (“Baster”) by Jeffrey Eugenides. Stars: Jennifer Aniston, Jason Bateman, and Patrick Wilson.
What I loved about this movie was the genetics! “HSP breeds true.” The silly plot is actually quite sweet and funny. The HSP, Wally, a successful financial something (nice touch) loves Kassie, who was at first a romantic partner but has evolved into “just a friend.” Her biological clock is ticking so, in true stereotype-of-Manhattan-professional-woman style, she’s going to be a single mother, using the semen of a non-HSP jock, and plans a big insemination party for all of her friends to help her celebrate the conception.
Wally still loves her, gets drunk at the party out of grief that she’s going through with this crazy scheme, and gets SO drunk that when he is in the bathroom he sees the other guy’s semen waiting to be used to fertilize Kassie and switches it with his own.
Wally has no memory of this the next day. Kassie gets pregnant, not knowing the true father, and moves out of New York to raise her child. She comes back when the boy is about six, and this kid is hilariously highly sensitive and smart, and so much like Wally. Wally and the boy understand each other immediately. But Wally still doesn’t remember what he did, and Kassie doesn’t know, but she thinks the boy needs a father so starts wooing the non-HSP hunk whose semen she thinks began it all.
If you can stand the plot thus far, you will enjoy the rest of the movie.
Curious about the source of this story, I listened to an interview with the author of the short story that was the basis of the movie, Jeffrey Eugenides, who was, just last month, on NPR’s “Fresh Air” because of his new novel, The Marriage Plot.
Interestingly, the new novel has a similar romantic triangle, in which an English major, Madeleine, must choose between two very different men. One is a flashy, dynamic guy who is bipolar, and the other, Mitchell, is a theology student and religious mystic.
During the interview, Eugenides confessed that he is more like Mitchell. At Mitchell’s age, fresh out of college, Eugenides did what Mitchell does in the story–went to Calcutta to volunteer in a home where the dying are nursed. Mitchell goes partly to get over Madeleine. Eugenides did it because, as he says in the interview, at that time he was trying to be a mystic. He was already meditating, “felt connected to the universe,” and it seemed essential to seek to know the truth about life. He also wanted to escape because of the difficulties of dating, something sensitive men can understand. But he and Mitchell both discovered that they were holding back from nursing the dying because that includes washing them and tending their sores, and they cannot help fearing that they will catch some dread disease. So like us, to put ourselves on the front lines, but not really be up for what that means.
Eugenides also admitted that he wept considerably at his own wedding (his wife did not at all) and in movies like Finding Nemo. He explained it something like this in the interview: “See, I can do that cold masculine thing, but then there’s this other thing… you know… a lot of men are like that.”
Well, I never announce someone is an HSP if I cannot verify it with the person, but Eugenides does seem to like to write about the problem of who gets the woman, the sensitive or not-so-sensitive man, and he especially feels for the woman who thinks she knows she prefers the “real man,” but when faced with the choice, eventually comes to prefer the sensitive guy who has been a gentle, loyal, sensitive friend.
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The Extra Man. Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. Screenplay based on a novel with the same name by Jonathan Ames.
Here’s the plot from the movie’s website:
Louis Ives (Paul Dano) heads to New York City following an embarrassing incident that forces him to leave his job. He rents a room in the apartment of Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline), a penniless, wildly eccentric playwright. Additionally, he accepts a position with an environmental magazine, where he encounters green-obsessed co-worker Mary (Katie Holmes). But it’s Louis’ new home life with Henry that really sparks his imagination. Developing a mentor/apprentice relationship, Henry exposes Louis to the duties of an “extra man,” a social escort for wealthy widows.
My own one-sentence summary of the plot would be that Louis, a sweet and gentle, very highly sensitive man, transforms the lives of those around him by just being himself. That said, this movie has a more troubled, shadowy vision of highly sensitive men than The Switch, just as Jonathan Ames is more shadowy than Jeffrey Eugenidies.
Ames is a comedian and writer of novels, TV shows, and whatever, but his humor is very personal, self-deprecating, and replete with discussions of his sexual oddities. As best as I can ascertain, he is not gay, although perhaps bisexual? Ames says that the movie, like all of his writing, is based on things he has done and felt in his own life. Is Ames highly sensitive? I know it can be a real asset in comedy writing and performing. Certainly all three of his main male characters in The Extra Man are highly sensitive, in different ways. And each is struggling with their relationship to women and to their own feminine side.
Louis, the main character, is obsessed with women’s lingerie, which gets him into all sorts of trouble. He also goes to a prostitute, but in that scene it becomes clear to him and to us that he really just wants some emotional intimacy with a woman. His female co-worker, who acts friendly and is thus highly interesting to Louis, is quickly turned off by his sensitivity, which often leads to anxious, awkward attempts to please. We as HSPs can empathize. Feeling under the immense pressure of wanting to impress her, Louis cannot help but be overstimulated and overaroused (not just sexually) around her. How is Louis going to become closer to women? Maybe through being an “extra man”?
The other main character, Henry Harrison, played by Kevin Kline, is just that, an extra man when one is needed at a party or late in the evening in a woman’s “boudoir.” Henry is an older fellow, very defensive, fastidious, and funny–sensitive in a very different way, in that you can see that he has used his sensitivity to know how to please wealthy, aging women and supports himself with the money he receives in return. He is not cynical about this. He observes them closely and truly cares about them in his way. At some point we learn Henry had a romance that ended tragically, and he has vowed that he will never love again, not in that way. Being an extra man has been his way of being with women.
The third man, played by James Reilley, lives downstairs from the two roommates and eventually becomes deep friends with both. He looks like the big, soft-hearted “zoology” teacher in the Harry Potter series, the one with the enormous bushy hair and beard. He rarely speaks, because his voice sounds like a woman’s. However, when he sings “Lara’s Theme” (“Somewhere my love…”) on the beach while the other two are dancing for a brief moment, his voice is richly masculine. For me, this scene made the entire movie worth watching. He seems to symbolize the sensitive man who is deeply embarrassed by his feminine side (all men, by the way, have a feminine side), which turns out to be in fact another form of rich masculinity.
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Wally in The Switch and the three men in this movie are not actual highly sensitive men. They are only stories, screen plays. Yet their portrayals may well be informed by their creators’ temperaments. Mainly they are perhaps a fresh measure of the current cultural stereotypes about sensitive men. As you would expect, given the cultural complex, these movies show sensitive men struggling more than most do in reality. But then, no problem, no plot.
The point is that the culture is clearly concerned about these guys, especially how they are hampered in relating to women because women do not see underneath to their true value. And it is true that sensitive men often report that women value them as best friends but do not always want to date them.
These movies are saying, “These guys are gems in the rough. Awkward only because they want to please you so much. Loyal, gentle, sweet, thoughtful. Also very funny. We all ought to love them more.”
Happily, they all find love in these two movies, although the solution in the second is unexpected. But still sweet. These movies seem to be working on healing the complex, and for that alone they might be worth watching.