Thursday, May 19, 2005

Scruples

It’s the 1970’s in my tv. Last week the Oxygen network broadcast a 1980 made-for-tv movie called Scruples. Does anyone remember this? It was a novel by Judith Krantz that was made a best-seller by women of my mother’s generation. The tv movie starred a brink-of-starvation Lindsey Wagner and a very blonde and lean Barry Bostwick (what else has he been in? Why can’t I remember? Anyone?). I used to love Lindsey Wagner. You couldn’t pull my sister and I away from the tv set when “The Bionic Woman” was on.

I did not watch Scruples when it first aired in 1980 (I was 13), but I’ve been devouring a bit every day since I Tivo-ed it a week ago. The fashion first hooked me. The first year of a new decade always looks exactly like the previous decade and by 1980 the U.S. had '70’s culture down. I can watch bad acting for hours if it’s accompanied by gold jumpsuits, ponytails/braids sticking out only one side of the head, belted sweaters that almost look decent only on stick figures and jeans with waistbands halfway up the torso. There were no exposed belly buttons while Reagan was president!

But the plotline finally grabbed me when I watched Wagner make moves on the Efrem Zimbalist Jr. character. She’s Billie, a filthy rich young sexy widow, and he’s Vito, a brilliant film director, and they’ve just met and had dinner together. He visibly pulls away from her increasingly ardent gaze and declares that it’s time he drove her home. She asks, “Can we have lunch tomorrow?”
Vito: “I’m sorry, but I’ll be busy all day."
Billie: “Well, the next day then."
Vito: “It depends.”
Billie: “Promise me.”
Vito: “I can’t.”
Billie: “Well, then I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying right here.” (I guess they’re dining at his house.)
There’s a pause while he sizes her up. He then says, “You’re very aggressive.”
This was obviously a compliment in 1980 because Billie doesn't back off at all.
Billie: “It’s your own fault you know. I think I”m falling in love with you.”
Vito: “And impulsive.”
Billie: “Oh, yes.”

Now in real life any normal guy would then recognize that this woman is getting way too attached way too fast and do what it takes to get away from her. But this 1980 movie wants us to believe that Billie’s declaration turns Vito on because in the next scene Billie is waking up and Vito is bringing her breakfast in bed. And as if that weren’t enough to make me talk loudly to my tv screen, guess what she does next? She asks him to marry her! Oh my god, it’s like a dating don’t-do-this instructional video.

The story just goes along from there and the movie never acknowledges the insanity of Billie and Vito’s foundationless relationship with its perversion of traditional romantic stereotypes. Of course I believe the old, traditional roles for women as passive wives/mothers and men as chauvanistic breadwinners were stifling and exploitative and I would never want to be Ozzie’s Harriet. But the backlash to all that Puritan repression was the free-for-all of the 1960’s and the “sexual revolution” of the 1970’s that went so far to break those stereotypes that it ended up parodying them. By the 1980’s, heterosexual relationships had become these unfulfilling embraces between sensitive men and empowered women whose hairstyles were even alike.

Why I’m going on and on about a 70’s made-for-tv movie that no one cared about in the first place? Because I hold such examples of popular culture PARTLY RESPONSIBLE for the hideous mess so many of us find ourselves in today. Even though I never watched Scruples as an impressionable 13-year-old (thank god), such models for romantic behavior were everywhere in the 1970’s and ‘80’s and they were screwed up. And they screwed me up. I swooned over tender, long-haired, sensitive men and idolized athletically cut, hard women. I knew the way to a guy’s heart was to kick his ass. None of that traditional romance for me. When I started dating, if anyone opened a door for me I balked like a constipated mule until HE went through first. And I was fifteen. Talk about social castration.

Another example from the movie: at the end of Scruples the Bostwick character finally tells the Marie France Pisier character that he loves her. Her response is 100% genuine, you-go-girl outrage. In the first true-to-life moment in the whole movie, she demands to know why he has never said it before. He says, “My mother never told me to before.” Arghhhhhh!! And this actually results in her joyfully bounding into his arms. Ack! ack!

How did we get so hugely messed up as a culture and how long will it take us to fully recover? I don’t want anymore overly sensitized men. I don’t want to castrate anyone else. I want to be the girl now. But, o my god, shows like Scruples show me how far off the path American men and women were for way too long. Such programs didn’t just showcase bad acting. They modelled toxic heterosexual dynamics that I am certain contributed -to some degree - to my 23 years of dating failure.

(p.s. I recommend indulging in watching Scruples, especially if you want to see a 1980 Kim Cattrall!)

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